THE INFLUENCE OF ST SERAPHIM OF SAROV
Many saints, as pure sacrifices of faith and love, brought mankind up to the Divine Throne, many flowers of faith, asceticism and love blossomed in the barren wilderness of this world, within it yet also outside of it, for they did not live on the waters of this world but by the grace of God, in feats of faith and love which they wisely gathered and made their own.
All these saints, flowers of faith, fed upon one source of Bread, and each of them gave an individual, personal, unique and in everything the aroma of the grace of God.
The name of St Seraphim of Sarov is surrounded by the aroma of holiness and grace, cultivated and harvested in the Russian land… The air of the Russian fields, forests, rivers and lakes gave him a certain tender coloration. The Russian joy for spring, joy for the Sun and for life is there. His name evokes something incomparably and inexplicably endearing and joyous, the joy of kindness, happiness and the blessedness of good.
St Seraphim and his words are a great historic phenomenon in the life of the Russian people. His name is connected to a great historical shift in the spiritual and religious development of Russia. This shift occurred and continues to occur in our time, before our very eyes, and there could not be a single conscious believing Orthodox Christian who does not mentally bow down before St Seraphim, who does not experience a sense of gratitude to him, that some were directly brought to Orthodoxy, to the Church of Christ, by him, and he taught them to know God.
The renowned teachings of St Seraphim about the meaning of life, expressed in his interview with Motovilov, begins with the words that mark the historic nature of his teachings. “You have been taught improperly, o theophile,” he said to Motovilov. In other words, in the mind of the great elder, during his time, the main question of mankind was being answered incorrectly, inaccurately—what is the meaning of life? In other words, false teachings reigned in the Russian religious society of the time, people lived with un-Orthodox theological guidance and world-view.
Wherein lies this un-Orthodoxy?
St Seraphim explains to Motovilov:
“You were taught that the meaning of life is to do good works.”
He goes on to explain that the meaning does not lie in the works themselves, that good deeds are not the goal, but only a means towards “acquiring the Holy Spirit,” and that such acquisition is the real meaning, challenge and goal for mankind. The person must experience the recognition of God, communion with God, and strive to always be with Him.
In this condemnation of the widely-popular, stagnant and encrusted un-Orthodox ideas, and his contrasting them with Orthodox teaching, we can easily see the outlines of a great historic process, the battle of two trends, of two world-views.
That which was condemned by St Seraphim, was common and widely-disseminated in the society of the time, and even afterwards, and it had originated in Russian history through a long process of an un-Orthodox world view.
Under what conditions, on what basis, why could good deeds alone be the meaning of life?
Only under the condition that God gave mankind the challenge to create something on earth based on the works of men. That by Divine Providence, man must create something on earth, establish some sort of perfect life, to “build” the Kingdom of God on earth. If the goal and meaning of the life of mankind is to create Heaven on earth under existing circumstances, if this “heaven on earth” is the meaning of life, then, indeed all deeds performed by man acquire absolute meaning, and represents the meaning of life.
This harmonious and dynamic goal, forming the meaning and purpose of cultural creativity is given absolute religious significance to the works of men, developing belief in progress, the meaning and purpose of civilization, but a false one, random and counterfeit, distorting everything, distorting perspective in life. Orthodox Christianity does not accept this, for it is rooted out by the words of the Savior, that “His Kingdom is not of this world.” Facing His disciples was not an optimistic future, but “in the world ye shall have tribulation,” there was not to be rosy progress in the earthly dimension, for “ when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” The Lord came to the world not to establish social life, to judge men in their earthly pursuits and distribute wealth among them, setting up social and civil life. No, that is not the meaning of life, for “there is one thing needful,” which must first of all be sought, to commune with the Kingdom of Heaven which is within, not external, and that no “symbolic” forms of this Kingdom can exist, for it is “within you all.” In the words of Apostle Peter, “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” Eternal alone is the Kingdom of Christ, over which “the gates of Hell shall not prevail,” eternal life is only in God.
There is no “heaven on earth” and there never will be. There is no basis for the passionate human desire for progress and an absolute meaning in human endeavors. The meaning of life is not contained in works, but in the creative and dynamic striving towards God, life in faith and love for God, this is where His Kingdom lies, and it is not external to man, but internal, in the heart, in love, in the search for God, for life in God. The meaning of life is communion with God, in acquiring the Holy Spirit.
St Seraphim called upon us not only to believe in God, he taught us to know God, to recognize the grace of the Holy Spirit every time it touches the heart of a person, he called upon us to always exist in the grace of God. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit, constant life with and in Him, is the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life, with which man comes into contact with here on earth.
Quietly and lovingly coaxing Motovilov away from the attitudes, concepts, world-view, philosophies which are limited to three dimensions and bounded by the horizon, St Seraphim in simple words calls upon Motovilov to be so bold as to do what could not have imagined (for he was a son of his nation and of Russian society of the time. In quiet and meek words, holy and loving, St Seraphim spoke of acquiring the Holy Spirit, of knowing God and becoming “related” to Him, this is what all of Orthodox Christianity breathes, and under the joyous rays of light of the humble yet bold faith of St Seraphim, the Russian soul comes to life.
Russian life, Russian society, Russian religious thought suffered under years of un-Russian and un-Orthodox influence. The alien notions and world-view left a mark on many. True Orthodox religious and ecclesiastical experience always existed in the Russian Church, but there was no complete symphony between experience and thought.
True Church experience and genuine Church thought were preserved mainly in the theology of divine services, in the rich dogmatic and moral-theological concepts contained in the stichera, troparia, canons, etc. which are often abridged explanations of the teachings or tracts of the Holy Fathers on dogmatic and moral topics. All of the theology of liturgics is without exception strictly Orthodox, and the theological teachings of St Seraphim on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit are in absolute accord with them, they are infused with their Spirit.
But the theology taught in the schools of the time, completely different ideas were offered, mostly in complete contradiction to the patristic theology of divine services.
It is from this mostly un-Orthodox theology that the Elder Paisy Velichkovsky fled in the 18th century, St Tikhon Velichkovsky countered this theology, which could not have arisen within the teachings of the Holy Fathers.
Moreover, as our church historians teach, especially Fr Georgy Florovsky, the finest priests of the 18th century, educated in the somewhat un-Orthodox spirit of the schools of the day, in order to become genuine good pastors had to re-learn the elemental force of the Church in the midst of the believers among the people, immersing themselves in truly Orthodox liturgical theology, and of course in this process the influence of St Seraphim of Sarov was the most spiritually-authoritative and real, for he taught not simply theory, having tested his words through his experience and the influence of That Spirit, the acquisition of he knew was the main and sole challenge in the life of man.
Throughout the course of the entire 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, the two theological tendencies made battle within the Russian Church.
In the 1930’s, we see the germination and blossoming of the process of Russian Orthodox rebirth. Its path is marked by such names as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, Khomyakov, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, Fr John of Kronstadt and Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). This process led the Russian Church to the Moscow Council of 1918, to the fervent glory of the Russian martyrs and the persecution of the Russian Church.
But at the very beginning of this great but yet poorly-understood historical process of the rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia, the emancipation of the Russian soul from foreign influence, the renascence of Orthodox unity of thought and experience, stands the meek and humble “Poor Seraphim” and all those who thirst to acquire the Holy Spirit, and even now, as he did during his earthly life, greets us with the words “My joy, Christ is Risen!”
Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov, +1986).