Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1 August 1754 (or 1759) – 14 January 1833), is one of the most renowned Russian monks and mystics in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is generally considered the greatest of the 19th century startsy (elders). Seraphim extended the monastic teachings of contemplation, theoria and self-denial to the layperson. He taught that the purpose of the Christian life was to acquire the Holy Spirit. Perhaps his most popular quotation amongst Orthodox believers is “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” Seraphim was glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. His biographer Nicholas Motovilov was one of his “spiritual children”. Pope John Paul II referred to him as a saint.
Seraphim was baptized with the name of Prochor, after Saint Prochorus, one of the first Seven Deacons of the Early Church and the disciple of John the Evangelist. His parents, Isidore and Agathia Moshnin, lived in Kursk, Russia. His father was a merchant, but business did not interest the devout boy. According to Orthodox Church tradition, a wonderworking icon of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), Our Lady of Kursk, healed the young boy. Seraphim later experienced a number of visions.
In 1775, at the age of 17, he visited Saint Dorothea in Kiev. In 1777, at the age of 19, he joined the Sarov monastery as a novice (poslushnik). In 1786 he was officially tonsured (took his monastic vows) and given the religious name of Seraphim (which means “fiery” or “burning” in Hebrew). Shortly afterwards, he was ordained a hierodeacon (monastic deacon). In 1793 he was ordained as a hieromonk (monastic priest) and became the spiritual leader of the Diveyevo convent, which has since come to be known as the Seraphim-Diveyevo Convent.
Soon after this, Seraphim retreated to a log cabin in the woods outside Sarov monastery and led a solitary lifestyle as a hermit for 25 years. During this time his feet became swollen to the point that he had trouble walking. One day, while chopping wood, Seraphim was attacked by a gang of thieves who beat him mercilessly with the handle of his own axe. He never resisted, and was left for dead. The robbers never found the money they sought, only an icon of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) in his hut. Seraphim had a hunched back for the rest of his life. However, at the thieves’ trial he pleaded to the judge for mercy on their behalf.
After this incident Seraphim spent 1,000 successive nights on a rock in continuous prayer with his arms raised to the sky, an almost super-human feat of asceticism, especially considering the pain from his injuries.
In 1815, in obedience to a reputed spiritual experience that he attributed to the Virgin Mary, Seraphim began admitting pilgrims to his hermitage as a confessor. He soon became immensely popular due to his reputation for healing powers and gift of prophecy. Hundreds of pilgrims per day visited him, drawn as well by his ability to answer his guests’ questions before they could ask.
As extraordinarily harsh as Seraphim often was to himself, he was kind and gentle toward others — always greeting his guests with a prostration, a kiss, and exclaiming “Christ is risen!”, and calling everyone “My joy.” He died while kneeling before an Umilenie icon of the Theotokos which he called “Joy of all Joys”. This icon is kept currently in the chapel of the residence of the Patriarch of Moscow.
“Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.
“He who truly loves God considers himself a wanderer and newcomer on earth, for in him is a striving towards God in soul and mind, which contemplates God alone.”
“Where there is God, there is no evil. Everything coming from God is peaceful, healthy and leads a person to the judgment of his own imperfections and humility.”
“When a person accepts anything Godly, then he rejoices in his heart, but when he has accepted anything devilish, then he becomes tormented.”
“It is necessary that the Holy Spirit enter our heart. Everything good that we do, that we do for Christ, is given to us by the Holy Spirit, but prayer most of all, which is always available to us.”
“A sign of spiritual life is the immersion of a person within himself and the hidden workings within his heart.”
“Excessive care about worldly matters is characteristic of an unbelieving and fainthearted person, and woe to us, if, in taking care of ourselves, we do not use as our foundation our faith in God, who cares for us! If we do not attribute visible blessings to Him, which we use in this life, then how can we expect those blessings from Him which are promised in the future? We will not be of such little faith. By the words of our Saviour, it is better first to seek the Kingdom of God, for the rest shall be added unto us (see Mt. 6:33).”
“True hope seeks the one Kingdom of God and is sure that everything necessary for this mortal life will surely be given. The heart cannot have peace until it acquires this hope. This hope pacifies it fully and brings joy to it. The most holy lips of the Saviour spoke about this very hope: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).”
“Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
“When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often the better. Whatever is in your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living and I shall be forever.”
“The reading of the word of God should be performed in solitude, in order that the whole mind of the reader might be plunged into the truths of the Holy Scripture, and that from this he might receive warmth, which in solitude produces tears; from these a man is wholly warmed and is filled with spiritual gifts, which rejoice the mind and heart more than any word.”
“We cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of one who gives and kindles joy in the heart of one who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other, not even those whom you catch committing an evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Keep away from the spilling of speech. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, outrage, and will shield your glowing hearts against the evil that creeps around.”
“God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. Hence, if we feel in our hearts the cold which comes from the devil—for the devil is cold—let us call on the Lord. He will come to warm our hearts with perfect love, not only for Him but also for our neighbor, and the cold of him who hates the good will flee before the heat of His countenance.”
“The body is a slave, the soul a sovereign, and therefore it is due to Divine mercy when the body is worn out by illness: for thereby the passions are weakened, and a man comes to himself; indeed, bodily illness itself is sometimes caused by the passions.”
“Without sorrows there is no salvation. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God awaits those who have patiently endured. And all the glory of the world is nothing in comparison.”
“Those who have truly decided to serve the Lord God should practice the remembrance of God and uninterrupted prayer to Jesus Christ, mentally saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
‘When despondency seizes us, let us not give in to it. Rather, fortified and protected by the light of faith, let us with great courage say to the spirit of evil: ‘What are you to us, you who are cut off from God, a fugitive for Heaven, and a slave of evil? You dare not do anything to us: Christ, the Son of God, has dominion over us and over all. Leave us, you thing of bane. We are made steadfast by the uprightness of His Cross. Serpent, we trample on your head.’”
“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, 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 [increasing] 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.”
“The people who, in spite of the bonds of sin which fetter them and hinder them (by constraint and by inciting them to new sins), come to Him, our Savior, with perfect repentance . . . who despise all the strength of the fetters of sin and force themselves to break their bonds – such people at last actually appear before the face of God made whiter than snow by His grace. ‘Come, says the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them whiter than snow’ (Isa. 1:18).”
“Every success in anything we should refer to the Lord and with the Prophet say: ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory’ (Ps. 113:9).”
“How”, I asked Father Seraphim, “can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit? I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself his true manifestation in me?”
Father Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, Your Godliness, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize his presence in us. So what do you want, my son?” I want to understand it well” I said. Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?” I replied: I cannot look, Batiushka, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, Your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself, otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.” Then bending his head toward me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for his unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord and said within myself. ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of thy Spirit which thou grantest to thy servants when thou art pleased to appear in the light of thy magnificent glory.’ And you see my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show his mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”
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 brilliance both the snow-blanket that covered the forest glade and the snowflakes which besprinkled me and the great elder. You can imagine the state I was in!
“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.
“Extraordinarily well;’ I said.
“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”
I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”
“This, Your Godliness,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to his disciples; ‘My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you’ (John I4:27). What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me. ‘An extraordinary sweetness” I replied.
And he continued: “This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: ‘They shall be drunken with the fatness of thy house, and of the torrent of thy delight shalt thou make them to drink’ (Psalm 36:8). And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts…. Mat else do you feel?” An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”
And Father Seraphim continued: ‘When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of his inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever he touches. You my son, have wept enough in your life on earth; yet see with what joy the Lord consoles you even in this life! What else do you feel, Your Godliness?”
I answered: ‘An extraordinary warmth.’
“How can you feel warmth, my son? Look, we are sitting in the forest. It is winter out-of-doors, and snow is underfoot. There is more than an inch of snow on us, and the snowflakes are still falling. What warmth can there be?”
I answered: “Such as there is in a bathhouse when the water is poured on the stone and the steam rises in clouds.’ ‘And the smell he asked me, “is it like the smell of a bathhouse?”
“No,” I replied. “There is nothing on earth like this fragrance. When in my dear mother’s lifetime I was fond of dancing and used to go to balls and parties, my mother would sprinkle me with the scent that she bought at the best shops in Kazan. But those scents did not exhale such fragrance.’
And Father Seraphim, smiling pleasantly, said: I know it myself lust as well as you do, my son, but I am asking you on purpose to see whether you feel it in the same way. It is absolutely true, Your Godliness! The sweetest earthly fragrance cannot be compared with the fragrance that we now feel, for we are now enveloped in the fragrance of the Holy Spirit of God.
Our present state is that of which the Apostle says, The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans I4:I7). Our faith consists not in the plausible words of earthly wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power (see I Corinthians 2A). That is just the state we are in now. Of this state the Lord said, There are some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power’ (Mark 9: I). See, my son, what unspeakable joy the Lord God has now granted us!”
“I don’t know Batiuslika,” I said, “whether the Lord will grant me to remember this mercy of God always as vividly and clearly as I feel it now. ‘I think,’ Father Seraphim answered me, ‘that the Lord will help you to retain it in your memory forever, or his goodness would never have instantly bowed in this way to my humble prayer and so quickly anticipated the request of poor Seraphim; all the more so, because it is not given to you alone to understand it, but through you it is for the whole world, in order that you yourself may be confirmed in God’s work and may be useful to others. The fact that I am a monk and you are a layman is utterly beside the point. What God requires is true faith in himself and his only-begotten Son. In return for that the grace of the Holy Spirit is granted abundantly from on high. The Lord seeks a heart filled to overflowing with love for God and our neighbor; this is the throne on which he loves to sit and on which he appears in the fullness of his heavenly glory. Son, give me thine heart (Proverbs 23:26; see Matthew 6:33), for in the human heart the Kingdom of God can be contained.”