St Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833)
This great ascetic and staretz (elder) is the most beloved and popular of the Orthodox Saints of Russia. His icon is found in every Russian Church and many homes. Devotion to his memory has extended beyond Russia to Greece, the Middle East and even many Roman Catholics know and love this great saint.
St. Seraphim was born with the name Prochorus Moshnin in the city of Kursk, Russia to pious parents. From an early age he loved to attend the divine services, to pray, to read the Holy Scriptures and Lives of the Saints. At the age of ten he became seriously ill but in a dream he saw the Mother of God who promised to visit and heal him. Shortly after, a procession with the miraculous Kursk Root Icon of the Theotokos (now located in New York), passed the Moshnin home. Little Prochorus went up to venerate the holy icon after which he quickly returned to health. At the age of seventeen he worked with an older brother who had a small shop in town. Since he was busy all day at the business, he rose up early in the morning in order to go to church and spent his evenings reading the Scriptures and Church Fathers. Desiring to give his entire life to the service of Christ, Prochurus entered the monastery of Sarov in 1778 where he was placed under the guidance of the Elder Joseph and assigned the obedience (work) in the monastery bakery and carpentry shop. He fasted completely from all food every Wednesday and Friday and never ceased praying the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” After two years, Prochorus fell seriously ill, an illness which continued for three years. One evening the Mother of God appeared to him accompanied by the Apostles Peter and John. Pointing to him, the Blessed Virgin said “He is one of ours!” touched him with her staff and immediately he was healed. After eight years as a novice, Procorus was tonsured a monk with the name Seraphim and was then ordained deacon and in 1793 a priest. He celebrated the Divine Liturgy daily, receiving strength from the presence of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. He said:
So great is the grace received through the Holy Mysteries, that it has power to purify and regenerate every man, no matter how great a sinner he may be.
Father Seraphim requested permission to withdraw to the forest three miles from the monastery. Here he lived alone in prayer, fasting and manual labor, only returning to the monastery on weekends for the Divine Liturgy. He lived alone with the birds and wild animals, often feeding bears, foxes and rabbits from his hand. Each night he climbed on a large rock praying with upraised hands for 1,000 days and nights. One day when he was working in his garden, robbers appeared and demanded money. Although he had an axe in his hand he did not fight back as the men beat him unconscious. He remembered the words of the Lord: “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword”. (Matt 26:52) Once again, the Holy Theotokos appeared to him, touched him and healed him but for the rest of his life was bent over from the assault and could only walk with the aid of cane.
In 1825 the Mother of God again appeared to him and commanded him to end his seclusion and devote himself to the service of others. These twenty years spent in seclusion were his purification and training in ministering to the people. Father Seraphim opened the doors of his seclusion and welcomed all who came to him calling them “My joy!”and greeting them with “Christ is risen!” despite the season of the year. His years of solitude, fasting and prayer did not make him depressed but bright and joyful. The sick were miraculously cured by his prayers and blessing. He could read the hearts and the thoughts of those who came to him, often giving answers before his visitor could ask their question. He gave special attention and guidance to a woman’s monastery at Diveyevo, saying that he was not giving his own advice to them but the instructions of the Queen of Heaven.
One of the people who came to him, Nicholas Motovilov, recorded one of his experiences with the saint:
"The Lord has revealed to me," said the great Elder, "that in your childhood you had a great desire to know the aim of our Christian life, and that you continually asked many great spiritual persons about it." I must say here that from the age of twelve this thought had constantly troubled me. I had, in fact, approached many clergy about it; but their answers had not satisfied me. This was not known to the Elder. "But no one," continued Father Seraphim, "has given you a precise answer. They have said to you: 'Go to Church, pray to God, do the commandments of God, do good—that is the aim of the Christian life.' Some were even indignant with you for being occupied with profane curiosity and said to you: 'Do not seek things that are beyond you.' But they did not speak as they should. And now poor Seraphim will explain to you in what this aim really consists. "Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.
As Father Seraphim spoke to him, he became brilliantly shining as his body filled with the transfiguration glory of the Lord:
After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!
Knowing that his end was approaching, Father Seraphim told his spiritual children:
When I am no longer with you, come to my grave often, and bring me all your sorrows and sufferings. Talk to me as though I were still living, for I shall always be with you.
Save your souls, do not be despondent, but watchful. Today crowns are being prepared for us.
In 1831, the Mother of God appeared to him once again and told him: “Soon, my friend, you will be with us”. Father Seraphim told others: “What joy awaits the soul when the angels come to seek it”. He died on January 2, 1833, his body being found in a kneeling position before the icon of the Mother of God in his room. His canonization in 1903 was attended by 200,000 people including Tsar Nicholas II and the Royal Family who had a special devotion to the saint. In 1920 the Communists confiscated the relics of St. Seraphim, planning on exhibiting them in a museum designed to mock religion. The exhibition never opened and his relics were lost until they were discovered in 1990 in a storage room of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. They were returned to the Diveyevo monastery in a triumphant procession where they are enshrined; a constant stream of pilgrims arrive daily to speak their sorrows and sufferings to the saint.
The life of St. Seraphim is a perfect illustration of the ministry of a staretz or elder (in Greek: geron). A staretz is a person who from years of prayer and ascetic effort is filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and can act as a guide and spiritual director. These startsy (plural) can be men or women and are not ordained to this ministry nor appointed by anyone but are guided to this ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit. With spiritual gifts such as prophecy, wisdom, discernment, the staretz can see God’s will and plan for the person who comes to him for guidance and healing of their soul. Hundreds flocked to the doorstep of St. Seraphim and many others like him throughout history, seeking guidance and help. These startsy are not people of the past but such holy fathers and mothers can be found till today scattered around the world.
KONDAK (Tone 2)
Having left the beauty of the world and what is corrupt in it,
you settled in Sarov Monastery.
And having lived there an angelic life,
you were for many the way to salvation.
Wherefore Christ has glorified you, O Father Seraphim,
and has enriched you with the gift of healing and miracles.
And so we cry to you: Rejoice, O Seraphim, our righteous Father.
Father Edward Pehanich