Seeing Godliness – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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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  1. Elizabeth Clifford on May 29, 2021 at 23:18

    Thank you, Br. Nicholas for your gift of perception of the light of Christ, within and all around us. Grace and peace to you.

  2. Elizabeth Clifford on May 29, 2021 at 23:16

    Bless you for your ministry. May you be upheld in grace and health by our loving Lord whom you serve, and be enriched by the variety of nations and tribes among whom you live. Peace be with you.

  3. Tudy Hill on May 29, 2021 at 11:22

    Thank you, Br Nicholas, for reminding me to “sit in the silence AND the emptiness”…and wait.

  4. Kim A. on January 3, 2021 at 21:05

    What a beautiful reflection, especially for Christmas during this challenging year. I feel the Spirit of God in all of us who care to look or consider its presence, and I think the word “namaste” also fits very well here. We are all worthy, and we all have to ability to experience God’s love and to share it. Thank you, Br. Nicholas. Happy New Year to all.

  5. Pamela Post-Ferrante on January 3, 2021 at 11:26

    It was comforting to read your sermon. I started saying the Jesus many years ago. The day the Pandemic shutdown began in March, I began saying it for an hour each day.
    I love the added beauty of the light. I have had no sense of that – I will pay deep
    Attention for it. I often feel heat.
    Thank you.

  6. Elizabeth Hardy on January 3, 2021 at 11:11

    Br Nicholas: This gives me a new way in which to contemplate the Transfiguration. It was not Jesus who was transformed it was the eyes of his disciples opened to see in a new way. What a gift if we could see others in a new way and allow them to transform before our eyes. We would be able to be much more compassionate and generous if we saw the godliness in everyone. Thank you for this wonderful insight. Elizabeth Hardy+

  7. Caroline Loupe on January 3, 2021 at 10:21

    Thank you for the reminder that silence and stillness invite divine light into both my inner being and into outer expressions of loving union with nature, humans and the suffering of the world. It is a necessary practice for me to touch this daily.

  8. Steve Teague on January 3, 2021 at 07:52

    Reading this now — with the present state of our world, nation, and churches — what a profoundly timely word. I shall take the light of Christmas with me into this new year. Blessings and gratefulness for your words and spiritual insights.

  9. Alan Keartland on January 3, 2021 at 04:10

    Thank you, Br Nicholas, for a very inspirational address.
    As an old white man living in the southern part of Africa during in the time of the Coronavirus Pandemic, one has experienced great challenges to one’s perceptions of the people around one, particularly people who are different from oneself. At this time, I am particularly conscious of members of the white tribe of Afrikaners as well as the many black people, tribesmen and women of many tribes, with whom one interacts. (At this point I have to point out that I am an Anglican priest ministering to a small congregation of middle class black parishioners on the edge of Alexandra, a black township in Johannesburg. I am also the oldest member of a large, fairly close-knit family with connections to the Afrikaner tribe.)
    At this time our country, South Africa, is battling with the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic and one has become very much aware that, never mind the fact that we see ourselves as very different from one another, we are very dependent on one another to conform to the practices of social distancing whilst seeing in one another our creation in the image of God.
    My secular occupation before and after ordination was as a professional photographer and when I photographed people I often reminded my subject that my mission was to see them as Jesus sees them
    Over the past few days I have become more and more determined that I will spend the time left to me seeing others as St Seraphim suggests and encouraging others to do the same.

  10. Jeff McGuire on January 13, 2020 at 05:54

    Thank you for sharing your very informative article!

  11. James Rowland on January 12, 2020 at 09:10

    Thank you Br. Nicholas. In this time of great challenge as I go through unanticipated adjustments in my life your words bring much comfort. I am reminded to look for the light of Christ in others and also in myself.

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