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Unspeakable Joy!

The Story of St. Seraphim of Sarov

By: Louise Perrotta

Unspeakable Joy!: The Story of St. Seraphim of Sarov by Louise Perrotta

Pope St. John Paul II singled out five saints as exceptional models of prayer.

Four are well known to most Catholics: Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola. But the fifth? Seraphim of Sarov.

Who Is St. Seraphim of Sarov?

Our puzzlement might surprise Eastern Orthodox Christians, who count this monk among their greatest, most popular saints. In Russia, where Seraphim was born on July 19, 1759, his memory survived all efforts to obliterate it. The Communists destroyed the Sarov monastery and the nearby forest where he spent sixteen years as a hermit, and confiscated his relics. Nonetheless, says biographer Michael Plekon, people told “beautiful stories” about Seraphim’s continuing presence. “Soldiers were greeted by a smiling little man in a white smock; lost travelers were guided in howling blizzards by a little old man in white.” Peasants brought fresh pine branches into the anti-religion museum in the former Kazan cathedral, where the relics were thought to have been hidden away—“for the little father,” they would tell museum guards. “They remind him of home.”

St. Seraphim’s relics were indeed recovered there after the fall of Communism. Today they are publicly enshrined in the convent church in Diveyevo, in central Russia, where Seraphim used to provide spiritual guidance to a community of nuns. The women’s chronicles of his life, along with the preserved recollections of monks and pilgrims who knew St. Seraphim, introduce us to a man radiant with resurrection joy and peace—a spiritual father whose very self was a winning illustration of his teaching that “acquiring the Holy Spirit is the whole point of the Christian life.”

Becoming Like the Seraphim

Born Prokhor Moshnin, Fr. Seraphim was the youngest of three children born to a devout Orthodox couple in the city of Kursk. His father, Isidore, was a builder who died in a church construction accident a year after the boy’s birth. Prokhor himself came near death twice during boyhood. Once, he was miraculously preserved from injury after falling from a high scaffold. Another time, as he was recovering from a serious illness, he saw the Virgin Mary by his bedside, just as her icon was carried past his home in a street procession.

Drawn to the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers, Prokhor decided to become a monk and was received into the monastery at Sarov in 1778. His mother, Agatha, sent him off with her blessing and a gift of a bronze pectoral cross, which was found with his relics in 1988.

Given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels surrounding God’s throne (Isaiah 6:2), the young man was known for his burning prayer, love of the liturgy, and devotion to the Mother of God. When he fell gravely ill again, the Virgin appeared to Seraphim in another healing vision. “He is one of ours,” she told Saints Peter and Paul, who accompanied her. Some years later, while serving as deacon at the Holy Thursday liturgy, Seraphim was overcome by a glorious vision of the Lord processing into the church with a host of angels to bless the people.

A year after his ordination to the priesthood in 1793, Seraphim received permission to live as a hermit in the woods surrounding the monastery. Like the desert fathers whose lives he had admired, he devoted himself to prayer, penance, and spiritual combat. Icons of St. Seraphim often recall this period and depict him standing or kneeling on a large rock, where he is said to have spent a thousand continuous days and nights in prayer. This “St. Francis of the East,” as he is sometimes called, drew so close to God that even the forest animals came trustingly to his hut. One woman visitor watched as a large black bear ate from the monk’s hand but declared herself even more impressed by Seraphim’s face—“joyous and bright, as that of an angel.”

Unharmed by wild animals, the hermit was beaten nearly to death by three robbers looking for valuables. He recovered after yet another visitation from the Mother of God but remained permanently stooped and scarred. Seraphim harbored no bitterness. When we refuse to forgive, “it is as if a rock settles on the heart,” he said. “Judge a poor deed, but do not judge the doer. One must hate only the devil, who tempted him.”

The Fruit of the Spirit

Recalled to the monastery in 1810, Seraphim shut himself up within his cell and continued his solitary life of prayer before his favorite icon. Known as “Our Lady, Joy of All Joys,” it represents Mary about to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. Her head bowed, her hands folded, she is saying “yes” to God.

Seraphim died on January 2, 1833, while praying before this icon. But during the last eight years of his life, the fruit of his own repeated “yes” was displayed for all to see. At the Spirit’s prompting, Seraphim threw open his cell door. Suddenly, says Michael Plekon, his life was transformed into “a nonstop ministry of counseling, prayer, and healing” for thousands who flocked to Sarov from all over Russia. The monk affectionately called each one “my joy” and gave the paschal greeting—“Christ is risen!”—no matter what the liturgical season.

Like Padre Pio and John Vianney, Seraphim was a spiritual counselor with the gift of reading hearts. Even before people said a word, he knew their sins and difficulties and how to lead them back to God. Sometimes he foretold the future. In prophesies that spoke of many martyrs and of golden domes falling from the church tops, he foresaw the Russian Revolution and the execution of the tsar. When Seraphim anointed the sick with oil from the lamp that burned before his icon, there were many physical healings. A blind boy named Korsakov received his sight—along with a prophetic word about the identity of his future bride! A landowner named Nicholas Motovilov stood on his paralyzed legs and walked at Seraphim’s command.

Seraphim’s warmth and insight stand out in Motovilov’s careful record of a remarkable outdoor conversation that took place one snowy Thursday in November 1831. The monk had discerned his friend’s unspoken desire to know “the true aim of the Christian life.” He explained that it consists in “acquiring the Holy Spirit” through prayer, as well as penance and good works “done for Christ’s sake.” God calls everyone to this life of communion with the Trinity, said Seraphim.

And he prayed that Motovilov might experience the Spirit’s indwelling presence for himself. Motovilov wrote: “I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards. . . . You can imagine the state I was in!”

“See, my son, what unspeakable joy the Lord has now granted us!” Seraphim exclaimed, as Motovilov was swept by waves of light, warmth, heavenly fragrance, and most of all, indescribable joy and peace. “This is what it means to be in the fullness of the Holy Spirit,” said the monk. All that God requires is “true faith in himself and his only-begotten Son. In return, the grace of the Holy Spirit is granted abundantly from on high.”

Seraphim liked to point out that any outpouring of the Spirit on one person was certain to have a major ripple effect. “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands will be saved around you,” he used to say. His life invites us to make this discovery of God’s loving generosity for ourselves.

Louise Perrotta is the former Features Editor for The Word Among Us magazine.