Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whom we commemorate today, was born on July 19, 1754 with the given name Prochorus Moshnin, and on November 20, 1778 he arrived at the Sarov wilderness monastery as a new monk. Prochorus was inclined towards solitude and asceticism, and with the blessings of the head of the monastery, Father Pachomius, he would spend Wednesday’s and Friday’s in isolation in the forest, practicing the Jesus Prayer.
Prochorus spent eight years as a novice, and was then given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels of heaven, and referring to his fiery love for the Lord. After the death of Father Pachomius, Seraphim received the blessing of the new head of the monastery to live a solitary life in the forest a few miles away, returning only for Saturday evening Vigil and the Sunday Liturgy.
He was known for his strict ascetic practices including frequent fasting and long periods of prayer, practices meant to help destroy the passions within his heart, leaving room only for God. In the spring of 1810, he returned to the monastery after fifteen years living in the wilderness, although he continued to prefer the solitude of his cell for reading and prayer. After some time of this resting in solitude, Seraphim felt blessed by a great purity of heart reflected in his child-like demeanor, his inner peace and joy, and his desire to serve others in love and tenderness.
There are many stories of St. Seraphim’s holiness including one written by Nicolai Motovilov, and it’s an account of a conversation he had with Seraphim. Nicolai, with eyes cast toward the ground, asked how a person could be sure of being in the Spirit of God.
Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, your Godliness,” (Seraphim would often address people as “Your Godliness”), “that it is very simple, and I have already 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 truly want?”
Still without raising his gaze to look upon Seraphim, Nicolai said “I want to understand it well, like you.”
Then Seraphim took him very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are, both of us, in the Spirit of God right now. So, why don’t you look at me?”
Nicolai replied: “I cannot look, because your eyes are flashing like lightning, and your face has become brighter than the Sun.”
Then Seraphim said: “Please, don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Look, and see how you yourself are as bright as the Sun. You are truly in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”
I find that to be a wonderful story of Seraphim, especially in this season of Christ’s Light. It also reminds me of the story of the transfiguration, of which St. Gregory Palamas wrote: “The light of the Lord’s transfiguration had no beginning and no end; it remained uncircumscribed and imperceptible to the senses although it was contemplated with corporeal eyes. By a transmutation of their senses the disciples of the Lord passed from the flesh to the Spirit.” The disciples were a bit like Nicolai, who was contemplating with corporeal eyes the spiritual reality of Christ’s Light shining through Seraphim. From this point of view nothing about Jesus or Seraphim changed, it was the perception or awareness of those around them that changed. And as Nicolai was reminded at the end of the story, part of our journey is to cultivate the kind of awareness that helps us recognize ourselves as the place Christ is born.
Seraphim was blessed with the gift of seeing the world with God’s eyes, a clear perception of God’s Light and Truth, which is why he insisted on addressing all he met as “your Godliness.” He saw into the heart of things, and knew those around him as the image of God they were. Which is why he knew that when Nicolai proclaimed the Light of Christ in Seraphim, Nicolai was simply recognizing his own reflection. Not all of us are given the gift of seeing Christ’s Light quite as vividly as Seraphim did, or as Nicolai recognized in Seraphim, but that’s OK, because like all gifts of the Spirit it’s only meant to remind us all of God’s Truth as it manifests, eternally and forever, in more subtle ways.
We’re reminded by Saint Seraphim that even now, as we’re sharing this very moment together, we’re participating in the dance of the Trinity, becoming what we are: the Light of Christ blazing like the Sun in all our Godliness as an offering for the world. And sometimes, when we rest quietly in prayer, we can sense this Truth, this Beautiful Light unfolding from within the silence and emptiness; all on a very subtle level, not overly dramatic or even particularly special, but able to be discerned nonetheless.
Saint Seraphim once said “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.” Perhaps, by practicing silence and stillness, and fostering our awareness of Christ’s Light, we can welcome the grace of Christmas to each moment. And the Peace and Joy we find as both our source and our salvation will truly be the greatest gift of Love we can offer those around us.
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