Seraphim of Sarov


This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some.

The title of this series is an allusion to two statements of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” And “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” Saint Seraphim, an early nineteenth century Russian hermit has come to be seen as a true spirit-bearer whose life and teaching are reminiscent of the early desert Fathers and sum up much of the Orthodox understanding of Christian life. (This teaching can be found in his On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit).

To begin, it may help to clarify two things about what I mean by an Orthodox understanding of the Christian life.

Firstly, the Orthodox Church, for those who are unfamiliar with her, understands herself as being the one Church of Christ which has continued the faith of the Apostles and of the early Fathers. Battered somewhat by the vicissitudes of history, she has sought to preserve the truth of the faith and has resisted attempts to change this. In one sense, for us, to speak of Orthodox Christianity is simply to speak of Christianity, and hopefully other Christians will recognize something of our common origins in what I present.

Secondly, I am deliberately using the words “Christian life” in an attempt to avoid speaking about “spirituality” or the “spiritual life” – something that I’m not always successful at doing. This is partly because I have a life rather than a spiritual life, and it is the whole of that life that needs to be transformed by the Gospel. And it is partly because the vocabulary of spirituality is part of a later western development – a consequence of the divorce between theology and spirituality in the later Middle Ages – that is foreign to the ethos of the Orthodox Church. We cannot separate life from dogma, or prayer from theology. In the oft-quoted words of Evagrius of Pontus: “The one who prays is a theologian and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Prayer is fundamental to this life. Vasilii Rozanov writes: “There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. The soul of Orthodoxy consists in the gift of prayer.” Prayer is not an add-on extra, but is rather a gift that we are called to integrate with all of life’s struggles. Yet there are many misconceptions about prayer in our world and while we may agree that it is important, we have often been wounded by modernity’s emphasis on the cerebral, which makes it difficult for us to really appreciate the importance of prayer.

Moreover, for Orthodox Christians, prayer is part of an all-embracing vision of reality. Taking bits and pieces from different religious traditions that appeal to us has become common in our society, but it is also dangerous and can distort them, as well as leading to more dislocation and uprootedness. This is something that Orthodox Christians are often confronted with today. People often want to use things from our tradition – icons, the Jesus prayer, bits of the Liturgy and music – in a way that distorts them, emptying them of their integrity and making them into something that they are not.

Therefore, in introducing an Orthodox understanding of Christian life, I begin with the “big picture” or the backdrop against which all of our practices occur and in which they are integrated. This is the big picture of Christian revelation, of our understanding of salvation which is coming to share in the Divine Life. (2 Pet 1:4) It is ultimately the Mystery of the relationship between God and human beings.

To be continued…