The Hermit as Non-Conformist Monk

“In the 19th century, St. Seraphim of Sarov shines brightly, a true “seraph.” For him, the Spirit was warmth in a world grown cold. Looking back on him in historical context, despite the popular pictures of him feeding his black bear, hunchbacked, walking with an axe handle, and kneeling in prayer on the rock for a thousand days and nights, he refuses to be imprisoned by popular piety just as he refused to be captured by all the roles he filled in his life. He was a light in the midst of the forest, in a Church deeply in need of renewal, in a time of great cultural stirring, in a society of political questioning. Donald Nicholl recounts how a century after his death, around his feast day people would bring fir branches into the anti-religious museum set up in the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad. They sensed his relics were there. When the end of the Soviet era finally came, those relics were rediscovered and returned to Sarov.

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St. Seraphim seems to have embodied many traditional elements, not just of Church life and piety but of Russian culture. Yet Paul Evdokimov and other biographers observe that in his person, actions and words he steps out of the usual, expected forms, overturning stereotypes and myths that have accrued to “spirituality.” It is no surprise that he was so beloved to many of the leading Paris migrs. St. Seraphim surfaces in Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb as an example of the divine humanity at work in a person. He plays a major role in Evdokimov’s Ages of the Spiritual Life, a study of holiness in the Eastern Church. Seraphim stands out by his willingness to follow the Spirit through regular cenobitic life to a hermit’s vocation, to years as a virtual recluse, to an intensely active ministry of healing the distressed and organizing the Diveyevo women’s communities.

There was persistent criticism of his character and activities by local bishops, by his abbot Niphon, and by other members of the Sarov monastic community. Metropolitan Filaret’s editing of Seraphim’s words, very likely the smoothing out of details of his life, suggest the unease with which Seraphim was regarded. Despite an overwhelming popular cult, many icons, pilgrimages to his tomb, healings and prayers, it took the pressure of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, to push through the decision for Seraphim’s canonization in 1903.

Numerous events attest to his unusual personality and spiritual activity. His early invisibility in the Sarov community gave way to notoriety for his reclusive behavior, his unusual dress, his detailed instructions for the construction of churches, the mill and the Virgin’s walkway at Diveyevo, not to mention the healings of both Michael Manturov and Motovilov of clearly psychosomatic afflictions, and the subsequent relationship between him and these two associates. There is Seraphim’s warm – but to some, scandalous – relationship with the Diveyevo nuns, his direction of their physical and spiritual existence down to details of prayer, dress and work.

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The famous incident, recorded by Motovilov, richly illustrates both Seraphim’s personality and position. On a snowy winter afternoon, in a field outside his hermitage in the Sarov forest, Seraphim allowed Motovilov not only to see the luminous results of being in the presence of God, in communion with Him, he also enabled Motovilov to share in this experience himself. Motovilov described an almost blinding light, the warmth he experienced despite the winter cold, the beautiful fragrance, and, above all, the indescribable joy and peace – exactly what the New Testament indicates the real presence of the Spirit to be.

The most unusual nature of this “encounter” and the even more radical content of what Seraphim had to say is often overlooked. Seraphim stressed the absolutely universal character of holiness. Everyone can acquire the Holy Spirit. This is not the result of saying many prayers, lighting candles, keeping the fasts, attending numerous services. All this activity has but one purpose – allowing the Spirit to make his dwelling in us. God deeply desires the holiness of every person. Whether one is a monastic, ordained, a lay person, rich or poor, single or married – none of this matters.

Healed miraculously by the Mother of God in his childhood as well as in later life after a brutal attack by robbers, the recipient of numerous visits by her and other saints who constantly said, “He is one of us,” the seer of visions of Christ at the Liturgy, Seraphim’s biography appears to be hagiography. To be sure, many details conform to the classical models of a monastic saint. But there are important differences.

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Though a monk and priest, Seraphim chose to dress as the peasants of the surrounding area, in an unbleached smock, birch-bark sandals in summer, boots and coat in winter. To be sure, he would don the riassa, cowl, the stole and cuffs when going to communion at the Liturgy in the monastery church. He lit thousands of candles in his cell for those who came for healing, yet he also rubbed holy oil on their arms and legs, gave out bread, wine and water to everyone, an extension of the Eucharist, even an image of the feeding of the multitudes by Christ in the wilderness. He raised his own vegetables, cut wood, cleared the brush, just as local farmers and early monastics did. He kept a prayer rule, read the Hours, and almost literally lived in the pages of the Bible. Visitors – from small children to troubled young adults – were urged to read the Gospels along with him. Accounts tell of the monastic community’s resentment at the hundreds of visitors lined up daily to see him, crowding the corridor outside his cell. Memoirs report that all kinds of people came: not only Orthodox but Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers.

In the end, he does not conform neatly to the category of monastic saint. In St. Seraphim the categories of priest, monastic ascetic, even of staretz, are never rejected, yet he transcends them all. He flees even from routine monastic life to his hermitage, and both there and back in his monastery cell, the door is shut to all, even his confreres. But then the door is opened to all, and never closes again. After “fleeing the world,” he embraced the world. Through him, very reluctantly at first, the monastery too was opened to the world, a prefiguring of the wonderful openness of the elders of Optina, of St. Elizabeth and the Mary-Martha monastery, of St. Maria of Paris, and of Paul Evdokimov.

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St. Seraphim extends the possibility of life in the Spirit to every person, in every situation in society. Any prestige due to status, ordained or monastic, is obliterated. Gone too are any stereotypes of what holiness looks like, of what ascetic practices are necessary. He keeps all the monastic rules and churchly traditions, yet his life and his words make it clear that these are but means to an end and never an end in themselves. When one has recognized the Holy Spirit, prayers cease, for the Spirit takes over, praying in one’s life, making all of one’s life prayer. “Acquiring the Holy Spirit,” he said, “is the whole point of the Christian life.” Still better known is this related saying: “My joy, acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Each person was his “joy,” every person, no matter how desperate, was being illumined by the Spirit. No wonder his greeting all year round was “Christ is risen.””

From: Fr. Michael Plekon “Becoming the Jesus Prayer” Source: In Communion: Website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Full-text available at: http://www.pravmir.com/becoming-the-jesus-prayer/

See further on St Seraphim:

Valentine Zander St Seraphim of Sarov St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975

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“Orthodox spirituality has produced many holy and famous men, but none in recent centuries to compare with St Seraphim, starets of the monastery of Sarov, in Russia. After an initial period as a monk working within the community, he became a hermit, living deep in the forests in a world of solitude which was destroyed only when he was attacked by brigands, and returned to the community. In 1825, after fifteen years of living in silence, Seraphim began to receive visitors and to spend his energies for their spiritual direction. By means of his faith and asceticism he performed a number of miracles. His fame and humility brought to him for advice a steady stream of visitors, including religious and royalty. His humility and his concern for people made Sarov a center of pilgrimage until the events of the 1917 revolution.

Mme Zander has constructed his biography from the notebooks of people who knew him, the nuns whose spiritual director he became, the people whose lives he influenced, and the clergy who sought his advice. She adds to this information her own recollections of pilgrimages to Sarov before 1917. The life of the starets is told with a touching simplicity that allows his life and work to be their own witness.”

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