Saint Seraphim is one of the most renowned Russian monks and mystics in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is generally considered the greatest of the nineteenth century Elders, and arguably the first. He is remembered for extending the monastic teachings of contemplation, theoria and self-denial to the layperson, and taught that the purpose of the Christian life was to acquire the Holy Spirit.
In 1793, St. Seraphim was ordained a hieromonk, after which he served every day and received Eucharist for a year. St. Seraphim then began to withdraw into his “farther hermitage”—the forest wilderness about five km from Sarov Monastery. He achieved great perfection at this time. Wild animals—bears, rabbits, wolves, foxes and others—came to the hut of the ascetic. The staritsa, i.e., eldress, of the Diveevo monastery, Matrona Plescheeva, witnessed how St. Seraphim fed a bear that had come to him out of his hand: “The face of the great starets was particularly miraculous. It was joyous and bright, as that of an angel,” she described. While living in this little hermitage of his, St. Seraphim once suffered greatly at the hands of robbers. Although he was physically very strong and was holding an axe at the time, St. Seraphim did not resist them. In answer to their threats and their demands for money, he lay his axe down on the ground, crossed his arms on his chest and obediently gave himself up to them. They began to beat him on the head with the handle of his own axe. Blood began to pour out of his mouth and ears, and he fell unconscious. After that they began to hit him with a log, trampled him under foot, and dragged him along the ground. They stopped beating him only when they had decided that he had died. The only treasure which the robbers found in his cell was the icon of the Mother of God of Deep Emotion, before which he always prayed. When, after some time, the robbers were caught and brought to justice, the holy monk interceded on their behalf before the judge. After the beating, St. Seraphim remained hunched over for the rest of his life.
Soon after this began the “pillar” period of the life of St. Seraphim, when he spent his days on a rock near his little hermitage, and nights in the thick of the forest. He prayed with his arms raised to heaven, almost without respite. This feat of his continued for a thousand days.
Because of a special vision of the Mother of God he was given toward the end of his life, St. Seraphim took upon himself the feat of becoming an elder. He began to admit everyone who came to him for advice and direction. Many thousands of people from all walks of life and conditions began to visit the elder now, who enriched them from his spiritual treasures, which he had acquired by many years of efforts. Everyone saw St. Seraphim as meek, joyful, pensively sincere. He greeted all with the words: “My joy!” To many he advised: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” No matter who came to him, the starets bowed to the ground before all, and, in blessing, kissed their hands. He did not need the visitors to tell about themselves, as he could see what each had on their soul. He also said, “Cheerfulness is not a sin. It drives away weariness, for from weariness there is sometimes dejection, and there is nothing worse than that.”
“Oh, if you only knew,” he once said to a monk, “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.” Seraphim was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903, and is commemorated on July 19 (August 1 on the modern Gregorian Calendar) and January 2 (January 15), which are the dates of his birth and death, respectively. The date of his death is his major feast day.
One of his spiritual children, Nicholas Motovilov, wrote most of what we know about him today.
Perhaps the Saint’s most popular quote amongst Orthodox believers is “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” This teaching will be the focus of the next entry.