January 2, 2020

The Authenticity of the Conversation Between St. Seraphim of Sarov and Nicholas Motovilov

Though it is without doubt St. Seraphim of Sarov was a holy figure, a model of piety and is an intercessor in time of need, his canonization in July of 1903 was the result of strange circumstances. On July 18, 1903 about 300,000 people together with Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family attended the canonization at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Sarov. The climax of the event was the opening of the coffin, and the veneration of the relics which took all day and night. The crowd was so pressed that a woman gave birth at the emperor's feet, who promptly offered to be the child's godfather. The degree of access to the emperor's person remained impressive and novel.

Tsar Nicholas II had to twist the arm of the reluctant Church authorities to secure the decree of canonization for Seraphim of Sarov, which was difficult to get approved in light of the fact that in the two previous centuries there had only been five canonizations until Nicholas II took up the cause. Seraphim of Sarov was not very popular at the time outside the local area, so the tsar had to campaign, and eventually it was approved. However, there were setbacks. When the coffin was opened, the Saint's relics had been decomposed. Though incorruption is not necessary for canonization, the poor condition of the relics was exploited by the tsar's political opponents and the Old Believers. Popular enthusiasm was not dampened however.

The canonization of Seraphim of Sarov was accompanied by the publication of materials related to him. Among these was the appearance in the year of his canonization of an unknown conversation between St. Seraphim and his spiritual son Nicholas Motovilov (1809-79), with a theme of the goal of the Christian life. The conversation was said to have taken place before the death of St. Seraphim in November 1831 and written down at an unknown date by Motovilov. Sergei Nilus published this conversation the month of the canonization. It was popularly received, but there were hostile reviews based on controversial statements. In 1905, when Nilus republished the Conversation, he deleted a few pages that were criticized for being unorthodox.

Doubt of the authenticity of the text, however, has nothing to do with St. Seraphim, but it has everything to do with Sergei Nilus himself. Nilus claimed the widow of Motovilov gave him this text with other manuscripts in a horrible condition, mixed with business papers and covered in pigeon-feathers and bird-droppings. He also claimed to be able to read Motovilov's handwriting only after praying for the ability to do so. It seems that these stories were made up by Nilus to deter people from investigating the manuscripts themselves. Let us not forget that Nilus was also the publisher of the most notorious of all anti-Semitic forgeries, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he published together with the Conversation with Motovilov in 1905. With one forgery attached to the Conversation, it makes a strong case the Conversation is a forgery or myth as well.

Some scholars claim they can trace the Conversation to Motovilov himself. If so, how reliable was Motovilov. It was a word for word conversation in an outdoor snowy setting and most likely he did not write down every word of the Saint under such conditions. Motovilov was 22 years old at the time of the conversation and had no theological training. It is almost impossible to believe he could quote Scripture and the Church Fathers verbatim years after the conversation took place. At the time as well, Motovilov was suffering from mental illness and depression and recurrent paralysis in his legs. If St. Seraphim, an experienced spiritual director, did have this conversation with Motovilov, why would he choose such an unbalanced individual to transmit his teachings? It all seems too incredible to believe.

If Motovilov did write the text, he probably did so many years after the event, after having studied the spiritual literature of the Orthodox Church. One could read similar things in the Conferences of John Cassian, for example (see First Conference with Abba Moses). He probably based the Conversation on the stories he heard of St. Seraphim's face being illumined. In another of Motovilov's manuscripts, he claims to have seen St. Seraphim's face shine brightly many times, which again casts doubt on the climax described in the Conversation.

It is possible this Conversation reached the hands of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra before its publication. We know that their spiritual director before Rasputin was a Frenchman named Dr. Philippe, who was admired as a modest man able to cure illnesses. During a hysterical pregnancy and quasi-miscarriage of Alexandra, Dr. Philippe recommended in 1902 that she seek the intercessions of St. Seraphim by going to Sarov and bathing in his spring, so she can finally give birth to a male heir as she desired. And she did. This naturally led to the imperial endorsement of the canonization of St. Seraphim.

Furthermore, alleged prophecies of St. Seraphim began to circulate after his death in response to later needs. The publication of these prophecies were prohibited by the Church authorities and then by the KGB and were only printed in 1992. These prophecies speak of the future glory of Diveyevo Monastery, the transfer of Seraphim's relics to Diveyevo, that the tsar would visit the convent, and the coming of Antichrist in the time of Nicholas II. Though few if any prophecies may be authentic, it is pretty certain most have their source in Motovilov and Nilus. When Nilus first published the Conversation in 1903, he included a manuscript of Motovilov from 1844 of prophecies attributed to Seraphim which he sent to Emperor Nicholas I.

Another sensational prophecy Nilus found in the Motovilov archive which was titled the "Great Secret of Diveyevo" described the future physical resurrection of St. Seraphim before the end of the world. A longer text also in the archive was published called "The Antichrist and Russia" in which St. Seraphim describes the future suffering of Russia, the birth of Antichrist in Russia, which will lead to her eventual great glory. Both of these elaborate prophecies written by Motovilov are said to be "in the exact words of Fr. Seraphim."

Scholars understand all the manuscripts of Motovilov to be the result of panic and apocalyptic expectation that began to develop in the mid-19th century into the reign of Nicholas II. Nilus had enough access to the tsar to be able to relate all these stories to him. It was reported that Motovilov's widow presented to Nicholas II a letter written by her husband at the canonization which caused the emperor to burst into tears. The pious and mystical streak of Nicholas II probably inclined him to believe these prophecies were authentic, and even though they were meant to apply to Nicholas I he took them to apply to himself. This likely caused the tsar to make some radical policy decisions. Panic and apocalyptic expectations were in the air and many became its victims, including the tsar himself. Motovilov helped stir this in his writings, Nilus exploited it, and Russia became the victim.