SERAPHIM — A RUSSIAN ASCETIC

Who is this fellow?

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

He is one of the most easily recognizable saints in icons and is also one associated in hagiography with the last Tsar and the downfall of the Romanov Dynasty — Seraphim of Sarov.

Seraphim’s image is further notable because he is one of the relatively small number of saints of whom a portrait was made during his lifetime. Most depictions of saints in icons, as mentioned previously, are imaginary and largely generic.

Here is a portrait of Seraphim said to have been painted from life:

He was born in Kursk, southwestern Russia, in 1759. His parents named him Prokhor. The family name was Moshnin. He lost his father, a builder, at age three, and when he was seven he was with his mother as she was supervising construction of the cathedral. The boy fell from the bell tower to the ground, but instead of being killed, his mother found him standing unharmed.

When nine, Seraphim learned to read and write Church Slavic (the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy), but fell very ill. But while asleep he had a vision of Mary, who told him he would soon be healed; and in fact on a rainy day the “Sign” icon of Mary in its Kursk-Korennaya version was being carried in procession through the town and was taken on a shortcut through the Moshnin’s yard. Seraphim was brought out to kiss the icon, and he was cured. Not surprisingly, the Kursk-Korennaya or “Kursk Root” icon is included among those considered wonderworking in Russian Orthodoxy.

He was a very pious boy, spending much time in church and in the reading of religious books.

At age 17, he decided to become a monk, and went on a pilgrimage to the famous Pecherskaya Lavra monastery in Kiev; there he met the hermit Dosifei, who told him that his real place was in the Sarov Monastery. Prokhor went there in 1778 and kept himself busy both with religious practices and with work at such things as baking and carpentry.

He practiced the “Jesus Prayer,” (Иисусова молитва —Iisusova molitva) — a form of constant audible or inward repetition of the words Господи Иисусе Христе Сыне Божий помилуй мя грешнаго — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste Suine Bozhiy pomilui mya greshnago — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or in its shorter form, Господи Иисусе Христе помилуй мя — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste pomilui mya “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” This is the prayer made famous by the little Russian classic commonly called The Way of a Pilgrim in English translation — a book purporting to be a biography but suspected of being a highly fictionalized religious work that nonetheless gives a good picture of the practice of this form of prayer and what was believed to result from it.

Practicing this method of prayer and longing for more isolation, Prokhor was permitted to go out into the forest to fast and pray.

In 1780 he became ill with a swelling of the body that lasted for three years. He took communion in his cell, and had another vision of Mary, this time with the apostles Peter and John. She touched his head, and liquid began to run out of his side and the swelling went down and he was healed.

In 1786, aged 27, Seraphim officially became a monk with the name Seraphim. He saw angels in the church during the liturgy, and once he saw Jesus appear surrounded by the “Heavenly Powers,’ the ranks of angels. Jesus floated through the air and into his icon at the right side of the “Tsar Doors” of the iconostasis.

After this, Seraphim divided his time between his duties in the church and prayer in a hut built for him in the forest quite some distance from the monastery.

A large bear used to come to Seraphim’s forest hut to be fed, and when Seraphim told him to come or to leave, he would obey.

This icon of Seraphim “with the life,” meaning with scenes from his life, shows Seraphim with the bear, among other images depicting major events in his story:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

People, hearing of his reputation for holiness and piety, began showing up in his forest for counseling, many of them women. Seraphim was troubled by the notion of women coming to him, so he blocked the path with logs.

In his retreat, he experienced the kinds of apparitions and noises recorded by rigorous ascetics as far back as the famous “temptations of St. Anthony” — he would hear howling beasts and mobs of people beating at his door, see attacking animals and evil spirits, and even a dead man coming out of a coffin, what today we would call hallucinations. Such apparitions are common to ascetics in several world religions.

Seraphim decided to spend the nights standing or kneeling in prayer on a huge granite boulder in the forest. He brought a smaller boulder into his hut, and he prayed kneeling on that during the day. He is said to have kept up this rigorous practice on a minimum of food for nearly three years, getting ulcerated varicose veins on his legs, an affliction that never left him. Such radical self-mortification is something we encounter frequently in stories of the lives of Eastern Orthodox saints. Suffering was considered a virtue and purifying, even if self-inflicted.

In 1804 Seraphim was out in the forest cutting wood with an axe. Three peasants came up and asked him for money. He told them he had none, but they did not believe it, and began beating him. Instead of defending himself, he took the severe beating, and one of the peasants even struck Seraphim’s head with the axe. He fell bleeding and silent, and the peasants, thinking he was dead, tied his hands and feet with rope and were going to toss him into the river to hide the body. But when they rifled his cell and found only an icon and some potatoes, they began to be afraid, thinking they had killed a saintly man, so they ran away and left him lying.

Seraphim regained consciousness, managed to untie himself, and crawled to his hut. The next day he dragged himself, all bloody and broken-toothed, to the monastery, and was kept there for some time, recovering from broken bones and many wounds.

Seraphim fell asleep and had another vision. This time Mary was there again with the apostles Peter and John. Mary spoke to the doctors who had come to treat Seraphim, asking them “Why do you trouble yourselves?” Of course no one but Seraphim could see or hear all of this.

As a consequence, Seraphim refused help from the doctors, yet his pain quickly went away and later that day he was able to stand and walk about a little. But he kept the effects of the severe beating all the rest of his life, and though he previously walked a bit bent over from an accident with a tree, he was even more bent and stooped now, a posture that is common in his icons.

Here is a typical icon of Seraphim, showing the stooped posture characteristic of him:

(courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

(courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The peasants who had beaten him were caught, but Seraphim said that they must be forgiven, otherwise he would leave Sarov. Not wanting to lose their local holy man, the serfs were forgiven, but their houses caught fire (unexplainedly) and were destroyed. Seeing this as divine punishment, the peasants begged and received forgiveness directly from Seraphim.

In 1806 Seraphim was offered and refused headship of the monastery.

After this, he went into a long period of silence, not talking to those who came to him. This period of silence extended some five years. He spent even more time in solitude and prayer, living a rigorously ascetic life, wearing a large iron cross under his garment and keeping a lamp burning before the icon of Mary in his cell that he called his “Joy of Joys,” an icon painted, incidentally, in the westernized manner of the State Church.

After these five years of silence and isolation, Seraphim began to talk again, allowing people to come to him for counseling, and he kept his door open to them from early morning into the evening. He is said to have told people where to find lost or stolen objects, and he also is said to have cured people by touching them with oil taken from his icon lamp. In short, he took on the role of the starets, the spiritual advisor.

In November of 1825 he had another vision in which he saw Mary with saints Peter of Alexandria and Clement of Rome (who happened to be celebrated in the church calendar on that day). After this vision he again began going into the forest for prayer. A hut was built for him near a spring some distance from the monastery, which he used as a hermitage during the day.

In most of the literature on him, it is emphasized that Seraphim was a strict adherent of the State Church. He supposedly, when asked by a “schismatic” visitor whether the State Church or the Old Believer view was better, told the fellow to stop his nonsense. And when an old lady, crippled and near paralyzed, came to him and told him she had left the State Church for the Old Belief of her husband, Seraphim told her to return to the State Church and to stop making the sign of the cross with fingers in the position used by Old Believers. He touched her hands and chest with oil from his icon lamp, and, the story goes, she was immediately cured. All of this opposition to the Old Believers, however, may be simply State Church propaganda, because there is evidence that Seraphim may actually have been sympathetic toward the Old Belief, and in many of his icons he is shown holding the lestovka (лeстовка), the “little ladder” — the distinctive leather prayer rope used by Old Believers. Often icons either omit this detail, or in some cases, replace it with a less controversial form, as seen in the first image on this page.

It is said that Seraphim made a number of predictions of events in the future of Russia — for example the Crimean War and a famine, and the number of healings attributed to him multiplied greatly. After his ordination as a priest monk in 1793 he also became spiritual advisor to the nuns of the Diveyevo Convent.

One day, when asked why he dressed in such tattered garments, Seraphim replied, “Ioasaph the king’s son considered the mantle given him by Vaarlam the Solitary more high and valuable than the royal purple” (for more on the surprising history of these two supposed saints, read the article on them in the blog archives).

Slightly less than two years before his death, Seraphim had another vision of Mary, this time accompanied by a bright light, two angels, and twelve virgins. This time it was said to have been seen not only by Seraphim but also by an elderly Diveyevo nun visiting him on that day. Mary told Seraphim he would soon be with them, a foretelling of his death.

On January 2, 1833, the smell of smoke alerted a monk, who went to Seraphim’s cell and found some cloth smouldering, apparently set aflame by a fallen candle. The monk could see little in the cell, and went to tell the other monks. They returned, looked about the cell, and found Seraphim still in kneeling position before his lectern and icon of Mary. He was dead.

In 1902 Tsar Nicholas II urged the “Holy Synod” governing the Russian Orthodox Church at that time to get on with procedures that had begun some time earlier in investigating Seraphim for sainthood. So on the 19th of July, 1903, Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, and the rest of the Imperial Family attended the glorification process that officially made Seraphim a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are stories that Seraphim had “clearly predicted” that Tsar Nicholas would be killed and Russia would be taken over by “lawless men” for a time, but like much that has to do with saints, it is often very difficult to know what in his life is historical fact and what is just pious hagiography. What is certain is that Seraphim, titled in his icons “Holy Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, Wonderworker,” is one of the most popular saints of the Russian Orthodox Church today.

It should be obvious that icons of Seraphim of Sarov will be relatively late. One often sees examples from the first quarter of the 20th century, and of course there are many modern examples as well.

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