The Monk Seraphim of Sarov
Commemorated on January 2
The Monk Seraphim
of Sarov, a great ascetic of the Russian Church, was born on 19 July 1754.
His parents, Isidor and Agathia Moshnin, were inhabitants of Kursk. Isidor was
a merchant involved in the construction of buildings, and towards the end of
his life he began construction of a cathedral in Kursk, but he died before the
completion of the work. His little son Prokhor – the future Seraphim, remained
in the care of his widowed mother, who raised her son in deep faith.
After the death of her husband, Agathia Moshnina continued with the construction of the cathedral, and one time when she took Prokhor along with her there, he stumbled and fell down from the belfry. But the Lord watched over the life of the future luminary of the Church: the terrified mother, running down, found her son unharmed.
Young Prokhor, endowed with an excellent memory, soon mastered his reading and writing. From the time of his childhood he loved to visit church-services and to read with his fellow students both the Holy Scripture and the Lives of the Saints, but most of all he loved to pray or to read the Holy Gospel in private.
At one point Prokhor fell grievously ill, and his life was in danger. In a dream the boy saw the Mother of God, promising to visit and heal him. Soon through the courtyard of the Moshnin home there came a church procession with the Znamenie (Sign) Icon of the Mother of God; his mother carried out Prokhor in her arms, and he kissed the holy icon, after which he speedily recovered.
While still in his youth Prokhor matured his plans to entirely devote his life to God and to go off to a monastery. His pious mother did not object to this and she blessed him on his monastic path with a cross, which the monk all his life wore on his chest. Prokhor set off on foot with pilgrims going from Kursk to Kiev to venerate the Pechersk Saints.
The starets-elder schema-monk Dosiphei, whom Prokhor visited, blessed him to go off to the Sarovsk wilderness-monastery and there seek his salvation. Returning briefly to his parental home, Prohkor bid a final farewell to his mother and kinsfolk. On 20 November 1778 he arrived at Sarov, where the monastery then was headed by a wise starets-elder, Father Pakhomii. He amiably accepted him and put him under the spiritual guidance of the starets-elder Joseph. And under his direction Prokhor passed through many obediences at the monastery: he was the cell-attendant of the elder, he toiled in the making of bread and prosphora and at carpentry, he did duty as a church-attendant, and he did everything with zeal and fervour, just as though serving the very Lord Himself. By constant work he hedged himself in against boredom – this being, as he later said, "the most dangerous temptation for newly-become monks, which is doctored by prayer, abstaining from idle chatter, exertive handwork, by reading of the Word of God and by patience, since that it is engendered by pettiness of soul, neglectfulness and idle talk".
Prokhor already in these years, on the example of the other monks that went off into the forest for prayer, besought the blessing of the elder for free time likewise to withdraw into the woods, where in complete isolation he made the Jesus Prayer. After two years as a novice, Prokhor fell ill with dropsy, his body became swollen, and he was beset with suffering. His instructor Father Joseph and the other startsi-elders were fond of Prokhor, and they provided him care. The illness dragged on for about three years, and not once did anyone hear from him a word of complaint. The elders, fearing for his very life, wanted to call a doctor for him, but Prokhor asked that this not be done, in saying to Father Pakhomii: "I have given myself over, holy father, to the True Physician of soul and body – our Lord Jesus Christ and His All-Pure Mother...", and he besought, that they might commune him with the Holy Mysteries. Prokhor then had a vision: in an inexpressible light there appeared the Mother of God accompanied by the holy Apostles Peter and John the Theologian. Pointing with Her hand towards he that was sick, the MostHoly Virgin said to Saint John: "This one – is of our lineage". Thereupon with Her staff She touched the side of the sick man, and immediately the fluid that had swelled up his body began to flow through a sort of opening made, and he quickly became well. Soon at the place of the appearance of the Mother of God there was built an infirmary-church for the sick, and one of the side-chapels was dedicated in the name of the Monks Zosima and Savvatii of Solovetsk. The altar-table for the chapel was fashioned by the Monk Seraphim with his own hands from cypress wood, and he always communed the Holy Mysteries in this church.
Being eight years an obedient (novice) at the Sarov monastery, Prokhor accepted monastic tonsure with the name Seraphim, a name so finely expressive of his fiery love for the Lord and the desire zealously to serve Him. After a year, Seraphim was ordained to the dignity of monk-deacon. Earnest in spirit, he daily served in temple, incessantly praying even after the service. The Lord vouchsafed the monk graced visions during the time of church-services: repeatedly he beheld holy Angels, concelebrating with the brethren. The monk was vouchsafed one particularly graced vision during the time of Divine Liturgy on Holy Great Thursday, which was celebrated by the monastery-head Father Pakhomii and by Father Joseph. When after the Little Entrance with the Gospel, the Monk-deacon Seraphim pronounced the words "O Lord, save the God-fearing, and hear us", and standing in the royal doorway, he lifted his orarion (deacon's stole) with the exclamation prayer "And unto ages of ages", suddenly a bright ray of light blinded him. [trans. note: this prayer "O Lord, save the God-fearing..." in Divine Liturgy falls between the priest's exclamation "For holy art Thou..." and the choir's beginning of the "Holy God, Holy Mighty...". To Orthodox believers in the West, this is likely unfamiliar (even though found in Hapgood): its use apparently ceased in Russia after the Revolution, and was restored only recently with the demise of the Soviet Union, with other liturgical changes, such as the adding of Saint Seraphim of Sarov to the commemoration of the 6th rank of saints in Proskomedia, a particle being taken from the third prosphora for the rank of the Monastics.] Looking upwards, the Monk Seraphim beheld the Lord Jesus Christ, coming through the air from the western doors of the temple, surrounded by the Heavenly Bodiless Hosts. Reaching the amvon, the Lord blessed all the praying and entered into His Image located there to the right of the royal doors. The Monk Seraphim, in spiritual rapture viewing this miraculous vision, was able to utter neither a word, nor to move from the spot. They led him by the hand into the altar, where he just stood for another three hours, his face having changed colour from the great grace that shone upon him. After the vision the saint intensified his efforts: by day he toiled at the monastery, and nights he spent at prayer in the forest wilderness cell.
In 1793, at age 39, the Monk Seraphim was ordained to the dignity of priestmonk and he continued at serving in the temple. After the death of the monastery head Father Pakhomii, the Monk Seraphim, – having before this received deathbed blessing for the new exploit of wilderness-dwelling, and having likewise received blessing of the new monastery-head Father Isaiah, – went off to a wilderness cell some several kilometers from the monastery, in the deep forest. Here he devoted himself to solitary prayer, arriving at the monastery only on Saturday before the all-night vigil, and returning to his cell after Liturgy, at which he communed the Divine Mysteries. The monk spent his time at severe efforts. His cell rule of prayer he made according to the ustav-rule of the ancient wilderness-monasteries; from the Holy Gospel he never parted, reading through the course of the week all the New Testament, and he read likewise the holy fathers and the Divine‑service books. The monk learned by heart many of the Church songs and sang them during his hours at work in the forest. Around his cell he cultivated a garden and set up a bee-hive. Having seen to his subsistence, the monk kept to a very strict fast, he ate only once during the entire day, and on Wednesdays and Fridays he completely abstained from food. On the first Sunday of the Holy Forty-Days (Lent)he did not partake of food at all until Saturday, when he communed the Holy Mysteries.
The holy elder in his solitude was sometimes so immersed in his inner prayer of the heart, that at length he remained without stirring, neither hearing nor seeing anything around him. The schema-monk Mark the Silent and the monk-deacon Aleksandr, also wilderness-dwellers, would visit him every now and then, and finding the saint immersed in suchlike prayer, in reverent quiet they would leave, so as not to disrupt his contemplation.
In the heat of Summer the monk gathered moss in a swamp as fertilizer for his garden; the gnats relentlessly bit at him, but he good-naturedly endured this vexation, saying: "Passions are destroyed by suffering and by sorrow, either arbitrarily or as sent by Providence". For about three years the monk ate only a certain vegetable, which grew about his cell. All the more frequently there began to come not only monks, but also laypeople, – for advice and blessing. This disrupted his solitude. Having besought the blessing of the monastery head, the monk at first barred the admittance of women to him, and then all the rest, having received a sign that the Lord approved of his intent for complete silence. Through the prayer of the monk, the pathway to his wilderness cell was blocked by huge branches blown down from ancient pine trees. Now only the birds, flocking to him in throngs, and the wild beasts, paid him visit. The monk fed a bear with bread from his hand, when they happened to bring him bread from the monastery.
Seeing the efforts of the Monk Seraphim, the enemy of the race of man roused up against him, and wanting to force the saint to foresake his silence, he decided to frighten him, but the monk shielded himself by prayer and by the power of the Life-Creating Cross. The devil conducted against the saint "mental warfare" – persistent and continous temptation. For repulsing the onslaughts of the enemy the Monk Seraphim intensified his toil, and took upon himself the exploit of pillar-dwelling. Each night he climbed up upon an immense rock in the forest and he prayed with up-raised hands, crying out: "God, be merciful to me a sinner". By day he prayed in his cell and likewise upon a stone, which he had brought from the forest, coming down from it only for brief rest and to refresh his body with a scant bit of food. The monk prayed thus for 1,000 days and nights. The devil, shamed by the monk, hatched a plan to kill the saint and sent out robbers. Coming upon him while working in his garden, the robbers began to demand money from him. The monk had in his hands at this time an axe, he was physically strong and could have put up a fight, but he did not want to do this, having called to mind the words of the Lord: "Those taking up the sword wilt perish by the sword" (Mt. 26: 52). The monk, dropping his axe to the ground, said: "Do what ye intend to". The robbers began to beat the monk, with the butt-end of the axe they bloodied his head, broke several of his ribs, and then having tied him, they wanted to throw him in the river, but first they searched the cell for money. Having trashed everything in the cell and finding nothing in it besides icons and a few potatoes, they were shamed in their wicked deed and left. The monk, gaining consciousness, got to his cell, and suffering terribly, he lay there all night. In the morning with great difficulty he reached the monastery. The brethren were horrified, seeing the ascetic all bruised with wounds. For eight whole days the monk just lay there, suffering from his wounds; doctors were called for him, who were amazed that after such a beating he even remained alive. But the monk did not receive his healing from the physicians: the Queen of Heaven appeared to him in a subtle dream vision together with the Apostles Peter and John. Touching the head of the monk, the MostHoly Virgin granted him healing. After this instance the Monk Seraphim had to spend about five months at the monastery, and then he again went off to his wilderness cell. Left in posture stooped over always henceforth, the monk walked, leaning upon his staff or small axe, and he indeed forgave his abusers and asked that they not be punished.
After the death of the monastery head, Father Isaiah, – a friend of the monk since his youth, – the Monk Seraphim took upon himself the deed of silence, being completely cut off from any worldly ponderings for a most purified being in the presence of God in unceasing prayer. If the saint encountered a man in the forest, he fell face downwards and did not rise up, until the passerby had moved on. In such a manner of silence the starets‑elder spent about three years, ceasing even to visit the monastery on Sundays. The fruit of silence for the Monk Seraphim was the acquisition of peace of soul and joy in the Holy Spirit. The great ascetic afterwards spoke thus to one of the monks of the monastery: "...my joy, I pray thee, acquire a spirit at peace, and then a thousand souls wilt be saved around thee".
The new monastery head, Father Nyphont, and the elder brethren of the monastery suggested to Father Seraphim that either as before he show up at the monastery on Sundays for participation in Divine-services and communing the Holy Mysteries at the monastery, or that he return to the monastery. The monk chose the latter course, since it had become difficult for him to walk from the wilderness to the monastery. In Spring of the year 1810 he returned to the monastery after 15 years of living in the wilderness. Not breaking off with his silence, he added onto it also that of hermit enclosure, neither coming out anywhere nor admitting anyone, he dwelt in unceasing prayer and meditation on God. In his hermitage the Monk Seraphim discovered an height of spiritual purity and was vouchsafed of God the special gifts of grace – perspicacity and wonderworking. Then the Lord sent His chosen one to serve people in an utmost monastic exploit – "Starchestvo" ("being an elder"). On 25 November 1825 the Mother of God accompanied by the two sainted-hierarchs celebrated this day (i.e. PriestMartyr Clement, Pope of Rome, and Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria), appeared to the elder in a dream-vision and bid him emerge from his hermitage, so as to receive infirm human souls, needful of instruction, consolation, guidance and healing. The monastery head gave blessing to this change in the manner of his life, and the monk opened the doors of his cell to everyone. The starets saw into the hearts of people, and as a spiritual physician, he healed the infirmities of soul and body with a prayer to God and by words of grace. Those coming to the Monk Seraphim sensed his great love and with tenderness they hearkened to his amiable words, with which he turned to people: "my joy, my precious". The starets began to visit his own wilderness cell and water-spring, called Bogoslovsk, around which they built him a small cell. Coming out from the cell, the starets always carried on his shoulders a knapsack with stones. To the question as to why he did this, the saint humbly answered: "I oppress that which oppresseth me".
In the final period of his earthly life the Monk Seraphim especially concerned himself about his spiritual children – the Diveevo women's monastery. While still in the dignity of monk-deacon he had accompanied the belated monastery head Father Pakhomii to the Diveevo community to its monastic leader, the nun Mother Alexandra – a great woman ascetic, and then Father Pakhomii blessed the Monk Seraphim to concern himself always for the "Diveevo orphans". He was a genuine father for the sisters, who turned to him with all their spiritual and material difficulties. His students and spiritual friends helped the saint to feed and nourish the Diveevo community: – Mikhail Vasil'evich Manturov, healed by the monk from grievous illness and on the advice of the elder having taken upon himself the exploit of voluntary poverty; Elena Vasil'evna Manturovna, one of the Diveevo sisters, voluntarily consenting to die out of obedience to the elder for her brother, who was still needed in this life; Nikolai Aleksandrovich Motovilov, who likewise was healed by the monk. N. A. Motovilov recorded in writing the remarkable teachings of the Monk Seraphim about the goals of Christian life. In the last year of the life of the Monk Seraphim, one of those healed by him saw him standing in the air during the time of prayer. The saint strictly forbade this to be told of before his death.
Everyone knew and esteemed the Monk Seraphim as a great ascetic and wonderworker. A year and ten months before his end, on the feast of the Annunciation, the Monk Seraphim was vouchsafed yet once more to have appear the Queen of Heaven in the company of the Baptist of the Lord John, the Apostle John the Theologian and twelve virgins, martyrs and monastics. The MostHoly Virgin conversed at length with the monk, entrusting the Diveevo sisters to him. Concluding the conversation, She said to him: "Soon, My dear one, thou shalt be with us". During this vision with the miraculous visit of the Mother of God, a certain Diveevo eldress was present, through the prayer of the monk for her.
During the final year of his life the Monk Seraphim became noticeably weaker and he spoke much about his approaching end. During this time they often saw him at his grave, set at the approaches to his cell, and which he had prepared for himself. The monk himself had pointed out the place, where finally they would bury him – near the altar of the Uspenie-Dormition cathedral. On 1 January 1833 the Monk Seraphim one last time came to the Zosimo-Savvatiev church for liturgy and he communed the Holy Mysteries, after which he blessed the brethren and bid farewell, saying: "Ye seeking salvation, be not discouraged, but take heart, the day of crowns is prepared for us". On 2 January, the cell‑attendant of the monk, Father Pavel, at six in the morning left his own cell heading for church, and he caught the smell of burning coming from the cell of the Monk Seraphim; in the cell of the monk candles always burned, and he had said: "While I yet live, there wilt be no fire, but when I die, my end shalt reveal itself with a fire". When they opened the doors, it appeared that the books and the other things had burned, but the monk himself remained upright on his knees before an icon of the Mother of God in a position of prayer, but was already lifeless. His pure soul at the time of prayer was taken by the Angels and had flown off to the Throne of the All-Mighty God, to Whom the Monk Seraphim had been a faithful servant all his life.
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.