I greet you, dear friends, on the day of St. Seraphim of Sarov, wonderworker of all Russia and luminary of Russian history, the Russian land, and the Russian Church!
Allow me to ask you a question: What is the main difference between our contemporaries and the venerable Sarov ascetic? What is most characteristic of the soul and personality of the twenty-first century man living in Russia? Generalizations are always lame, it’s true; but in observing myself and those around me, I would say that our contemporaries are always or at least most of the time in a state of anxiety, inner disturbance, whirling thoughts and feelings, which unruly swirling draws us in and throws us off the constructive path, according to the old saying, “a foolish head gives the feet no rest.”
Fickle morals, absolutely contradictory emotional states: now wild joy, now deep depression, and mainly—the wretched ability, of course well acquired—of losing peace, equilibrium of emotional and physical strength, getting irritated at trifles, falling into a state that is amusing but in fact repulsive to angels, of offensiveness and defensiveness. This is the diagnosis that each of us can, with even minimal self-criticism and self-observation, apply to ourselves.
From the above it would follow, dear friends, that the memory of St. Seraphim of Sarov, his life experience and spiritual lessons that he shares with us by simply looking at us from old and modern icons with his characteristic angelic, half-sad, half-joyful smile, which are as precious as the air we breathe, that regardless of the well-known commandment has St. Seraphim left to us, his compatriots and spiritual children: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands will be saved around you,” a brief survey of those I speak with and of myself shows that only 5% out of a hundred have ever taken this commandment seriously as a guide to action. That is why today we stretch our hands trembling from anxiety, stress, and cardiac arrests to St. Seraphim and ask him to intercede for us before the Throne of the All-Sovereign Lord and before the Heavenly Queen, whose servant he, St. Seraphim, humbly called himself; so that the warm azure of Divine grace might descend upon us also, instructing every Christian in piety, righteous and chaste living, as the apostle Paul said in one of his epistles. It is grace alone, flowing in streams of living water from the Risen Christ through the Church’s sacraments, that can help us if we truly desire it; if we understand how to go to God, if we make use of every means offered to us by St. Seraphim.
It is God’s grace that can change us and recreate us—from anxious, nervous, ill-wishing, irritable, mean, vindictive, resentful, vengeful, querulous and therefore, simply stupid and dense, that we would become at least a little humble, a little meek, peace-loving, joyful, bright, amiable, benevolent, nice, tactful, kind, and therefore smart; that is, knowing how to make intelligent use of those grace-filled sparks, which, fanning into the heavenly fire of faith, hope, love, and ceaseless prayer and brotherly service of people, makes us Christians not only in name but in life.
Thus, venerable Fr. Seraphim, enlighten us and instruct us unworthy, sinful and blind kittens. Teach us who live in the midst of the clamorous world to walk the path of peacemakers, which you commanded us to walk and which you yourself walked right up to the open gates of Christ’s eternal Kingdom of peace and love.
I recall in connection with this instruction the saint’s unobtrusive witness. If only we would heed ourselves, if we would reproach our own consciences, then we would have no time to judge and watch our neighbors. This is the first but not the most important instruction, which is oh so hard but not impossible to fulfill, for all is possible for those who believe in Christ and desire to save their souls in this rapidly changing world. Self-reproach, my friends, presupposes constant mental attention to the regions and space of our own hearts. Only the person who is accustomed to not looking left and right, who avoids superficial, frivolous pulp reading, and not only reading but also colorful, glamorous pictures, which are rotten food for the majority of today’s gapers, poisoning with visual toxins our immortal human soul… only he will be able to peer into the closet of his own soul, to gaze upon the ancient passions innate to fallen man—I mean pride, lust, and anger. To enter into verbal combat, to oppose the suggestions coming from evil thoughts that attack the heart from within—this is a sign of a soul true to Christ, a soul that is truly well-ordered, sensible, and wise; the soul about whom is written in Holy Scripture: Saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word (Is. 66:2). And the Savior Himself continually says in the Gospels to us, “Heed yourselves.”
Heed yourself as did the youth Prokhor, later a novice at Sarov Monastery, and then monk Seraphim, who blossomed amidst the Russian winter with wondrous gifts of the Holy Spirit. And one of these was his abiding within, his self-reproach, combined with ceaseless converse, prayer, directed to the Heavenly Father.
Gazing upon us from his beautiful distance, St. Seraphim unobtrusively reminds us: “Your godliness, remember that praying to the Mother of God with the archangel’s greeting, ‘O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice,’ read ten, or fifty, or 150 times a day, is an activity proven by two thousand years, and is the inner need of the immortal human soul.” And truly, not only in the fifth, or the eighteenth, but even in the twentieth centuries certain earthly angels with the same monastic name as St. Seraphim, one of them Holy Hierarch Seraphim of Dimitrov (last name Zvezdinsky, murdered by Red bandits in 1937 in Siberia), had the practice of reading 150 times every day with attention and love the prayer: “Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice. Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.” Holy Hierarch Seraphim did not simply pray, but placed himself before the face of the Heavenly Queen. He wrote from exile to his spiritual children in the city of Dimitrov, “My close ones, can you believe that I have never felt during my years as bishop of Dimitrov such joyful days as those spent here in faraway Siberian exile. It is frightening to say, but the Heavenly Queen fulfills my slightest wishes. I only have to think about a piece of bread, or of rest, or of receiving the possibility to rest in conversation with a kind, like-minded person and I receive everything beyond all expectation. Perhaps it is because I try never to miss a day of fulfilling the Theotokos prayer rule.” Whoever disbelieves, let him try it.
Whether you are sitting or standing in a traffic jam or travelling from one end to the other of our golden-domed capital in the subway, it is all the more convenient to arm yourself with small prayer ropes, striving with every bead or knot to pronounce the wondrous prayer that Mikhail Lermontov knew by heart, “in difficult moments of life,” calling upon the Mother of God, as his grandmother taught him.
But we also know St. Seraphim for another commandment. He loved to repeat the thought of St. Gregory of Thessalonika, a great fourteenth century ascetic on Mt. Athos, that the prayer of Jesus is given not only to monks but also to laypeople. He called the Jesus prayer a golden thread, which if the Christian holds in his hand he well never stray from the path and will not fall into the devilish labyrinth of everyday vanity. The Christian who calls upon the name of God with attention is raised up, even if he is not very well versed in patristic teaching, to the very height of spiritual life—if the Jesus prayer is done with humility and angerlessness, and is strengthened by frequent confession and Communion of the Holy Life-giving Mysteries of Christ. We must speak more particularly about the latter.
We must also mention that in receiving the Holy Mysteries we should preserve the grace we have received as St. Seraphim did. He strove never to be scattered, never to fall into idle talk—never mind judging. He was very restrained with respect to earthly food, and loved much more after Communion of the Holy Mysteries, if it was not during his months and years of reclusion and total solitude, to pour grace through his joyful, peaceful, and Paschal words: “My joy, Christ is Risen!” And thus, smiling with his lips and with his soul, he poured out grateful light of consolation into cold, shivering, hardened souls drawn by God’s Providence to Sarov Monastery for the healing of their hearts.
Let us also, dear friends, emulate St. Seraphim’s smile; for looking at one another askance, like bogeymen, or like mice squinting at the grain, is the unenviable lot of those who follow conceptual art. But let us, Orthodox, cultured people, who have passed the threshold of 2000 years of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, having learned “a thing or two and how to do this or that,” embody our many centuries of learnedness—if such is the case—in the ability to greet one another with a smile and to part in such a way that our souls would feel bright and warm and wanting to meet again.
We could talk about St. Seraphim from morning till night. Nevertheless, he, whom the whole world knows, hints also to us that it is high time to go from words to deeds. And parting with you now, my dear friends, I do not part with St. Seraphim, whose prayers, I am convinced, will bring joy to our souls until we go to sleep.
Holy father Seraphim, pray to God for us and make us bright suns for the consolations of our neighbors. Amen.