by Reader Timothy Wakefield
In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, in his now-famous interview with N.A. Motovilov, revealed a ‘lost’ teaching of the Orthodox Church. In reality it was not lost of course, and never had been, but the encroachment of materialism had brought the people of the time to two extremes, neither of which was in accord with the true aim of our Christian life. The first extreme is the side of disbelief, of atheism, paganism and agnosticism – the turning away from the True God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and towards worldly pleasures, as if this life is all there is. The second is an over-weaning obsession with the outward signs of piety in the Christian life – the appearance of holiness. Both of these paths exacerbate the other, with the hypocrisy of the latter influencing many to adopt the former, and disgust with the former pushing many to strive for the latter. Both are, in essence, worldly viewpoints, and neither is the real aim of our Christian life.
A measure of the wisdom of St Seraphim’s teaching is that it is perennial, and even though our times must surely be stranger, and in many ways darker, than most in pre-revolutionary Russia could ever imagine, the teaching itself shines brighter than ever. The 121 years since the manuscript containing this teaching of the great saint was found witnessed the greatest shedding of the blood of martyrs since the Church was founded. The Church militant is now perhaps comparable to the size it must have been in perhaps the first few centuries after the Incarnation of Our Lord, having been, at the time of the revealing of this teaching and the uncovering of the relics of St Seraphim in 1903, perhaps at its absolute dizzying height. God alone knows what the future holds, but there is no doubt that this time is as vital in the history of God’s Church and in the history of the world as any that have gone before.
Of course, it is not St Seraphim’s teaching, specifically, that is perennial, it is the teaching of the Church, the True Church. The Church is the body of Christ on earth, that is to say, the true vine (John 15:1). The sweet fruits of the teachings of the Church are refreshment for the faithful of all ages. It should come as no surprise, then, that St Macarius the Great is as clear as St Seraphim on the challenges of the Christian life, and our aim in this life.
“The world that you see round you, from the king to the beggar, are all in confusion and disorder and battle, and none of them knows the reason, or that it is the manifestation of the evil with crept in through Adam’s disobedience, ‘the sting of death’. (Corinthians 15:56)
For the sin which crept in being a kind of invisible power of Satan, and a reality implanted all evils. Without being detected it works upon the inner man and upon the mind, and contends with the thoughts, but men are not aware that they are doing these things at the instigation of an alien force. They think it all to be natural, and that they do these things of their own determination, while those who have the peace of Christ in their minds and His enlightenment, know very well the source of these movements.” St Macarius the Great’s Homily XV Section 49
St Macarius is clear that it is only the Holy Spirit that can vanquish and banish this invisible evil of Satan. St Seraphim is also clear – the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is the sole aim of the Christian life.
Both saints point repeatedly to the aim. Perhaps the most famous episode from the life of Saint Seraphim, in which his companion sees him transfigured in the uncreated light, is a part of his elucidation of this teaching for his friend. In the works of these saints, we find complementary advice on how we can achieve this aim. St Seraphim is to the point – all works must be undertaken for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Good works not done for Christ’s sake, even for the baptised Christian, will not bring down the grace of the Holy Spirit and make Him to dwell in us. It is not the same for everyone, there is no one method for all, although prayer is the one thing that is most effective and most available to all – we must be vigilant and constantly ask “Are we in the Spirit of God?”.
“Acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit also by practicing all other virtues for Christ’s sake. Trade spiritually with them; trade with those which give you the greatest profit. Accumulate capital from the superabundance of God’s grace, deposit it in God’s eternal bank which will bring you immaterial interest, not four or six percent, but one hundred percent for one spiritual ruble, and even infinitely more than that. For example, if prayer and watching give you more of God’s grace, watch and pray; if fasting gives you much of the Spirit of God, fast; if almsgiving gives you more, give alms. Weigh every virtue done for Christ’s sake in this manner.” – St Seraphim of Sarov in A Spiritual Biography Chapter VIII pp178 by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore
When we are in the Spirit, or the Spirit is in us, peace reigns in our souls. We, the True Orthodox, have all experienced this at one time or another, Glory to God! But who among us has made the retention of this the sole focus of his or her existence? Have we been fooled by ‘scientific’ explanations of human existence, and considered that there is a materialistic cause of this peace – monetary stability, a ‘good diet’, ‘job satisfaction’? In short, have we begun to attribute to our own fallen will and ideas that which has come from God?
Who has not allowed the woes, cares or pleasures of the world to disturb our peace, or distract us from what should be our constant striving? St Macarius exhorts us to constantly appeal to the good Lord to send His Spirit to us.
“Souls who seek the sanctification of the Spirit, which is outside of nature, fasten all their affection upon the Lord, and there they walk, and there they pray, and there they employ their thoughts, turning away from all else; for which cause they are privileged to receive the oil of heavenly grace, and succeed in coming through unfallen, giving perfect satisfaction to the spiritual Bridegroom” St Macarius the Great Homily IV Section 6
Both saints speak of the parable of the ten virgins at length. By what means did the wise virgins obtain the oil for their lamps? By what means must we do the same? St Seraphim maintains that good deeds are not enough and outward virtue alone is not sufficient. The ‘oil of gladness’ is obtained through works done in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ alone, for the acquisition of the Spirit who can redeem our souls and make them radiant with the light of grace. There are no half-measures. There is no middle road. As St Macarius warns:
“.. . souls that are content with what belongs to their own nature creep in thought upon earth; they employ their thoughts upon earth; their mind has its whole existence upon earth. In their own estimation they appear to belong to the Bridegroom, and to be adorned with the ordinances of the flesh; but they have not been born of the Spirit from above, and have not received the oil of gladness.” – Homily IV Section 6
It is the consistency of the teaching of the Church that is Her wondrous heavenly hallmark. Both saints, like the services of the Church themselves, by turns exhort, encourage and warn. Just as our lives are not static, nor are our thoughts, so the teachings of the Church are many and various, subtly different in content and type from one Feast to the next from each week to the next, and yet somehow, crucially, they are unanimous in Spirit. Glory to God!
As St Cyprian of Carthage writes:
“For the Lord, when He would urge unanimity and peace upon Hisdisciples, said, ‘I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth touching anything that you shall ask, it shall be given you by my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them’ showing that most is given, not to the multitude, but to the unanimity of those that pray. ‘If,’ He says, ‘two of you shall agree on earth:’ He placed agreement first; He has made the concord of peace a prerequisite; He taught that we should agree firmly and faithfully.”
– St Cyprian of Carthage Treatise I On the Unity of the Church Section 12 (emphasis added)
The True Orthodox of today should find a twofold comfort here. One, that they are the sole few remaining inheritors of the vast and unfathomable wisdom of the Fathers, which itself is but a tiny glimpse of the treasures of the Heavenly kingdom. Two, that, although we may be precious few, we agree.
St Seraphim of Sarov and St Macarius the Great, separated by a vast amount of time and space, language and earthly heritage, and yet they are of one accord in this the most precious teaching of the Church – the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that inspired and guided the Holy Fathers at the Ecumenical Councils, and the Holy Spirit that, like the Lord Christ, is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Although St Seraphim was a monk and great ascetic, as was St Macarius, this is no hindrance to us – these exhortations are for all the Faithful. In the words of St Seraphim once more:
“The fact that I am a monk and you are a layman is utterly beside the point. What God requires is true faith in Himself and His Only-begotten Son. In return for that the grace of the Holy Spirit is granted abundantly from on high. The Lord seeks a heart filled to overflowing with love for God and our neighbour, this is the throne on which He loves to sit and on which He appears in the fullness of His heavenly flory. ‘Son, give Me thy heart,’ He says, ‘and all the rest I Myself will add to thee,’ [Poverbs 23:26; Matthew 6:33], for in the human heart the Kingdom of God can be contained.” – St Seraphim of Sarov in A Spiritual Biography Chapter VIII, by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore
I can only give a little taste here of the great wisdom passed on by these spiritual giants, emboldened by their words to make my own supplications with renewed vigour. There is much more that could be said, and many more wonderful passages to quote. I urge all reading to find St Macarius’ homilies, and if you can the book St Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore.
Both saints urge us to be like merchants, not for the riches of the world, rather for the riches of the heavenly kingdom. For the sake of rounding things off, I will add one last passage from the lips of our beloved Father Macarius, who, in case you had not realised, is the self-same St Macarius whose prayers are to this day recited daily, morning and evening by the faithful.
“Christians are of another world, sons of the heavenly Adam, a new race, children of the Holy Spirit, shining brethren of Christ, like their Father, the heavenly shining Adam. Of that city, of that kindred, of that power, they are not of this world, but of another world. He Himself says, ‘Ye are not of this world, even as I am not of this world’ [John 17:16]. But as a merchant on a voyage of many stages, in the multiplication of his merchandise, sends to his friends to procure him houses, gardens, clothes that he requires, and when he sets out for home, brings with him great wealth, and his friends and kinsfolk welcome him with great rejoicing, so in spiritual things, if any are making the heavenly wealth their merchandise, their fellow citizens, the spirits of saints and angels, are aware of it, and say with admiration, ‘Our brethren on the earth have come into great wealth.’ So they, having the Lord with them at their departure, come with mighty rejoicing to those above, and those who belong to the Lord receive them, having prepared there houses, and gardens, and clothes all bright and costly.” – St Macarius the Great Homily XVI Section 8
The Sunday of the Prodigal Son and the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, Jan 30th/Feb 12th 2023