St Seraphim of Sarov: A Flame Amidst the Snow

While reading a book recently, I was touched that the author, a Coptic Bishop (Bishop Isaac), should write a book about a Russian saint. Orthodoxy is universal and rich. What was interesting too was that the Russian saint saw the Egyptian desert fathers as his role model. The roots of the orthodox tree are truly intertwined.

st-seraphim-sarovskyThe Russian saint is St Seraphim of Sarov, born in 1759, yet his life mirrors the desert fathers of the fourth century. At 17, he shared a business with his brother. He spent most of the day talking to clients and keeping the books. He decided to get up early so that he could spend enough time praying and he kept the evenings for Bible readings. He invited his friends to Bible study evenings.

At 19 he went to Sarof monastery. As a novice he was given many jobs, for example: baking, carpentry and tree cutting in the local forest. In all these jobs he prayed the Jesus Prayer all the time, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. This prayer refreshed him and gave him joy.

Once he was made a priest, he prayed the Holy Liturgy every day. He said “there is great power for renewal in the Holy Communion, even for a great sinner.” He decided that he would try to make his environment as close as possible to that which Jesus lived while He was on earth. He called different parts of his close surroundings after Biblical areas. He had Nazareth, where he enjoyed singing the greetings of the angel to St Mary. He had his Bethlehem where he worshipped the baby in the manager. He chose a mountain top where he read the Sermon on the Mount. He had his Gethsemane and his Golgotha.

He was a great preacher with a sense of humour. He taught that the aim of the Christian life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit; when the flame of the spirit fills our hearts. If we cool down then this means that the devil is getting closer. We have to pray for the fire of the Holy Spirit to warm our hearts.

When he started his solitary life in the forest, the devil attacked him with doubts and fears. He prayed and fasted more than ever before. He prayed the Jesus Prayer for hours. He spent one thousand days and nights in a state of supplication to the Lord and in the end the power of evil was burnt down. Heavenly peace filled his heart.

A new Abbott of the monastery ordered him to come back to his monastery. Though this was unusual for a hermit who enjoyed the solitary life, he obeyed. However, he lived as a hermit in his cell in the monastery. For five years he had his daily routine; he read Matthew’s Gospel on Mondays, Mark’s on Tuesdays, Luke’s on Wednesdays, John’s on Thursdays, the crucifixion passages on Fridays, the Revelation on Saturdays and the resurrection readings and life of the saints on Sundays.

He went back to the solitary life afterwards. Many people came to seek his blessings, to hear him preach and to be healed. The Russian emperor visited him in disguise. Several other members of the Imperial palace visited him. Up to 2000 people visited him in one day.

As a father of confession he used to say ‘Christ is here though unseen, he hears your confession. I am only a witness’. As the person knelt to receive the absolution, he too knelt asking the Saviour to forgive the person’s sins.

He was the spiritual father of a convent in Divivio city, a mining city where many miners drank heavily. Prostitution was rife. Abba Seraphim described the convent as a mighty castle of prayers in the midst of a troubled world.

A year before his departure from this earth Abba Seraphim shared a conversation with one of his spiritual sons, Movilof, about the Parable of the Virgins in Matthew 25. He began: "The foolish virgins did not lack virtue. The oil they lacked was the Holy Spirit. The good deeds are not enough in themselves; they could even lead to pride. The oil the virgins needed was the fullness of the Holy Spirit."

Movilof asked: "What does it mean, acquiring the Holy Spirit?"

Abba Seraphim replied: "When you acquire something you own it, like owning money. The Holy Spirit is your heavenly capital. Let us pray to be filled with Holy Spirit and let us be silent in His presence in order to hear what he wants us to know."

Movilof asked again: "What other methods apart from prayer can fill us with the Holy Spirit?"

Abba Seraphim replied: "By using your gifts and in that way you make a profit for your eternity. The candle can light many other candles without losing its light. When you give to others you do not lose."

- "How can I be sure that the Holy Spirit is within me, after all the Spirit is unseen?"

The following amazing revelation happened as Abba Seraphim spoke: "Listen my friend. We are both in the presence of the Holy Spirit now, look at me."

- "Father, I can’t look at your face, it is brighter than the sun."

- "Do not fear, your face is very bright too. I prayed to God; please let him see the presence of your spirit. How do you feel now?"

- "I feel joy that I cannot describe."

- "This is the peace of Jesus that he promised. What else do you feel?"

- "Heat that is indescribable."

- "How come, we are in the forest in the winter and it is snowing. What sort of heat?"

- "The same heat of a hot summer day."

- "This is the warmth of the Holy Spirit. The Lord said 'some people will not see death till they see the power of the kingdom of God'. Don’t ask me again about the feeling of the Holy Spirit; I’m sure that this experience will remain in your memory for the rest of your life.

May we be filled with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Translated and edited by Nabil and Stephen Raphael

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