By Peter S. Lopukhin
Two hundred twenty-five years ago, on November 20th, 1778, Prokhor Moshnin, a tall, blue-eyed, light red-haired youth, the son of a Kursk builder-contractor, entered the Monastery of Sarov. He was leaving the worldly life because he wished to live constantly and wholly in God. He “loved Christ from his youth” and when yet a boy ten years of age was touched by the grace of the Lord: he was healed by the Mother of God, through her miraculous Icon of the Sign. This icon is now with us, in the Russian Diaspora.
Years passed. The youth Prokhor passed through all the monastic obediences, and eight years later was tonsured a monk with the name Seraphim; later, he was ordained to the rank of hierodeacon, and finally, when he had reached the age of 34, he was elevated to the rank of hieromonk, on the very day, the 20th of November, when he had entered the monastery. He withdrew to a cell in the forest wilderness and began the great, mystical life of a hermit, a man of silence, a stylite. But seventeen years after this, he returned to the monastery and began the new, even more difficult struggle of a recluse, which he bore for ten years. In 1820, he opened the door of his recluse’s cell, but lived for several more years in silence, after which, finally, he began his ultimate struggle of elder, teacher and comforter of the Russian people.
But on January 2nd, 1833, he left Sarov and the people entirely and departed to the Lord God. He serenely, blessedly, fell asleep during prayer, kneeling before the image of the Mother of God. Peacefully did “wretched Seraphim,” as that humble hieromonk of the Monastery of Sarov called himself, leave us, in bast sandals or leather stockings, in a sackcloth cassock, with a leather mantle on his shoulders, a brass cross on his breast, bent over, leaning on a hatchet. Seventy years after his repose, on July 19th, 1903, around his grave gathered, perhaps for the last time, Holy Russia, with its pious Tsar. It gathered there reverently to bow down and kiss the holy relics of “wretched Seraphim.” In ecstasy, Holy Russia chanted “Christ is risen!” and glorified the venerable Seraphim, the beloved chosen one of the Mother of God, who had acquired the love of Christ, the great ascetic and prophet, wonder-worker and theologian, comforter and healer, man of prayer who wept for the Russian people.
Many times did people come to him, and we would teach them attentively and carefully, like a mother, about the kingdom of God, life in God, the meaning of life on earth, and through those with whom he conversed with such love he now tells us that we should live in continual fellowship with God, the Holy Spirit. Faith in God is faith in what He is, and that He is love; and also that there exists an invisible, divine world, eternal and more real than the visible world, and in assuming its nature man prepares himself for life everlasting: “he will not come to judgment, but will pass from death to life.” Man must come to know this world, to become aware of it every time he is touched by it. This touching comes like a good gift, and the venerable Seraphim called this touch “grace.”
The meaning of life, in his words, consists of the acquisition of grace, so that, more and more frequently, and finally as an exalted attainment, we may be ever with God the Holy Spirit, abiding in Him always, becoming His child, a fellow heir with our Lord Jesus Christ. “But how can I know if the divine world has touched me? How can I learn to recognize the grace of the Holy Spirit?,” they would ask the venerable one; and he would point directly at the person he was conversing with and say: “We are in the midst of grace right now,” and he taught them and us that it is recognized by spiritual peace, because the heart is warmed by perfect love, by peaceful, humble, spiritual compunction. “They always said to you, reverend sir, that the meaning of life consists of doing good deeds, keeping the fasts, going to church; but this is not how they taught you,” said the venerable one; and he explained that “these works are only the means for living life in God; these works are merely the oil in the lamp which the flame burns, only the wares we trade in; to amass the capital of grace we must perfect those virtues from which the fire of love will burn more brightly.”
This is the meaning of life, and this is what guided the venerable one. The peace of God, the fire of divine love, the venerable one loved with all his soul, and to live in it and only in it the saint departed for the monastery, for the wilderness hut, for the recluse’s cell; and while he was thus making himself steadfast in spirit, he did not wish either to see or speak with men, avoiding all contact with them. We can conjecture that he so carefully and humbly approached his final struggle as elder, consoler and healer of the people because he had tested himself as to whether he could live with men and among men without breaking his fellowship with God.
When the venerable one ended his reclusion, the faithful, Holy Russia, began to descend upon him from all the ends of the land. He stood before it as a living witness to the peace of God, one who shared therein, a living bearer of the fire of grace and the light of divine love. He received the people with a kiss, blessing them and saying, “Christ is risen!,” and calling them “my joy, my treasure.” In the bright light of love, tender, burning love for the people, his image stands forth in our heart. But while rejoicing in this his love, we must remember that in this feeling there lurks the danger that we will oversimplify his image and liken it more closely to ourselves, to our shallow, short-sighted understanding. Do we not, in rejoicing in his love, begin to forget that this was the love of Christ?
Yes, the last years of his life he lived with us and among us; but let us not forget that for thirty years before this he was not only not with us, but with all his loving closeness to us did not want to speak or even to see us. He is not only “ours,” because he was not raised in our midst. He came to us not because he had any need of us: he came to us for the sake of Christ. In the vision he received during his illness, the Mother of God came to him and aid, “This man is one of us.”
We ought never to forget this. On the day when the doors of his cell were opened, there stood before us both a man and a denizen of heaven, because he lived in the divine world, and from thence he brought his own greetings, his own love and care for sick, weeping and loving hearts. His love, compassion and joy are in no way similar to the analogous moods of ordinary men who are good, yet of the soul, not the spirit. Such men easily fall into sentimentality. In the saint there was not the slightest trace of this feeling. He imposed upon people such struggles, the fulfillment of which, as for example the struggle of voluntary poverty on Manturov, for many long years elicited tears and sufferings from those close to him.
Yet the venerable one was not troubled by such tears. Hearing of the sufferings of the fool-for-Christ’s-sake Pelagia Ivanovna, how neither beatings, nor torments of which it is difficult to hear, were able to break her resolve to be a fool-for-Christ’s-sake, he rejoiced in her strength, but did not embitter her with afflictions. The venerable one not only did not approach life like an ordinary man. He lived as though the laws of natural life had lost their power over him. At a distance of seven miles, he saw how a girl was giving alms, and he prayed, falling prostrate on the ground. This is revealed to us by a witness to this miracle, and we are determined to believe that it was given by the Lord to teach us to glorify the saint in a fitting manner.
Yet this picture of the venerable one will not be complete if we do not consider his encounter with a young officer, traditionally held to be one of the Decembrists, when the saint angrily pushed his hands away: “You plotted such a thing, and now you come to me for a blessing? Get away from me!,” he said to him. This meeting is an encounter between revolution and Holy Russia more than a hundred years ago. And how wrathful Saint Seraphim was, seeing the beginning of that villainy! This was a collision of two world views. “One thing is needful: seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you,” says the icon of the venerable one. “Nay,” the face of the officer replies to him, “what is secondary to you is what is most important for us. What you must hold to, we fashion ourselves, in our own way. You submit yourself and your life to God; we do not submit ourselves to anything or anyone.”
This movement prevailed in Russia for a hundred years. The Tsar was slain; the Patriarch was tortured; the people enslaved. But why did this have to be so? Where was the Holy Russia which so loved the venerable one? Its history and life were pushed into the background by secular Russia. This was also Russia, but not profoundly so: a Russia of the soul, not the spirit; of the secular world, not the Church. The venerable Seraphim was a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev, and others. Studying their lives, one would never know that the venerable Seraphim lived at that time, and that Holy Russia, many millions strong, knew him and journeyed thousands of miles to meet him. The writers and poets did not know him as a living man; but seventy years passed, and all of Holy Russia came together with the pious Tsar to kiss his bones and chant in ecstasy, “Christ is risen!”
This secular, soulful Russia, is not alien to the Church. In the writings of Pushkin and Lermontov there are moments of religious inspiration; but all of these are lacking in depth. The Lord Jesus Christ said: “He who is not against you, is for you.” Who will say that this Russia was against? Nay, but on another occasion the Lord also said: “He who is not with you, is against you.” This means that if at the moment when the confession of the Faith is required, a man or society or nation does not have the strength to say, “Yes, I am with you, Lord!” They have apostasized from Him, they are against Him. Soulful, shallow Russia, spiritually indolent, lukewarm, and not fiery, was unable to say this “Yes.”
The venerable one foresaw the great storm and trials of Russia, and said that the Lord would save Russia. He said that, in the eyes of the Lord, there is no better national life than that which is governed by a pious, Orthodox king, that for such a Russia do all the martyrs, righteous ones and saints pray. Of such a Russia did the venerable one speak in spiritual ecstasy, leaping about and clapping his hands, as King David did before the Ark of the Covenant. Such a Russia does not now exist. Or have these men of prayer turned away from us? But what do they want from us? They want what the venerable Seraphim desired and taught. He expected faith from us; he wanted, first and foremost, that we seek the divine world, the kingdom of God and His righteousness, as Christ said in the Gospel (Mt. 6:33). He wants us to submit to this goal ourselves, our thoughts and desires, so that in our life we are not guided by our senses, by our passions and sympathies, but on the contrary, that we eradicate or recast them according to the voice of the righteousness of God. He expects struggle from us, expects commitment to God, expects that we will be fiery, and not lukewarm, spiritual, and not merely soulful. The Lord God has need of men! The righteous pray for us; the venerable Seraphim prays for Russia, and the Lord wishes to save it; but He has need of men, and all the more of Orthodox men, because without them Orthodox Holy Russia cannot be established.
The venerable one calls us to the straight path which is faithful and without compromise. Let us follow him. And when questioned, “Are you with the Church? Are you on the side of righteousness?,” let us answer steadfastly in the affirmative, “Yes!” This is the first and only thing needful, and everything else “will be added unto us,” says Christ.
The content, in brief, of a speech delivered in Belgrade at the solemn assembly of the Brotherhood of Saint Seraphim, on January 15th, 1933.