Serafim of Sarov

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SERAFIM OF SAROV (17591833) was a Russian Orthodox priest, monk, mystic, and renowned spiritual elder (starets); born July 19, 1759 in Kursk, central European Russia, and died January 2, 1833 at the Monastery of Sarov in the forests to the north. Serafim is regarded as the preeminent example of Eastern Orthodox spirituality in modern times. In a troubling time of westernization in Russia, he lived during and was himself part of a remarkable flowering of spirituality in Russian Orthodoxy centered around monastic communities such as Sarov and Optina, a spirituality that had deep roots in the Bible, the writings of the Greek fathers, the celebrated Philokalia (a collection of ascetic and mystical writings of the fourth to the fifteenth century), and the sacramental life of the Orthodox church. Serafim's impact on his contemporaries and his immense popularity with later generations won him canonization as a saint in 1903.

There is ample information about Serafim's life (including testimonies by eyewitnesses, fellow monks of Sarov, nuns of Diveevo Convent of which he was spiritual patron, and confidants such as N. Motovilov), but no critical edition of the primary sources has been published. Born Prokhor Moshnin, Serafim was attracted to the highly spiritual life of monasticism by virtue of a miraculous healing and other religious experiences in his youth. During a pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Caves at Kiev, he was advised by a starets to enter the Monastery of Sarov, at which he subsequently became a novice (1778), was later tonsured as monk Serafim (1786), and ordained a deacon in the same year. After his ordination to the priesthood (1793), he embraced the life of a hermit in absolute simplicity and spent most of his remaining forty years in various degrees of seclusion both without and within the Monastery of Sarov. However, during the period from 1815 to 1825, he was led by what he regarded as divine revelation to welcome visitors and to give counsel to numerous people, whom he often greeted with the words "My joy!" and "Christ is risen!," and thus himself became an influential starets.

A man of profound prayer and rare spiritual gifts of discernment, healing, and prophecy, Serafim's presence was marked by radiant joy, peace, and love that does not seek its own. He was a child of traditional monasticism and yet "transcended monasticism" (Paul Evdokimoff). His spirituality was thoroughly biblical, trinitarian, and Christocentric, based on the Jesus Prayer and the reading of the Gospels. Although he adopted austere monastic disciplines, he counseled others to practice ascetic labors according to their strength and to make the flesh a friend in performing virtues. He valued devotional practices and good works, but he taught that the essence of the Christian life, which he insisted was one and the same for all, was the experience of the grace of the Holy Spirit enkindling the heart with divine fire.

His brief work, Instructions, consisting of notes set down by the monks of Sarov, reflects the traditional teachings of the Eastern church fathers on such subjects as prayer, guarding the heart from evil, solitude, silence, and the active and contemplative life. His most sublime expression of Orthodox spirituality, as the remarkable Conversation with N. Motovilov shows, was his own personal testimony to the radiant presence of the Holy Spirit.


Bolshakoff, Sergius. Russian Mystics. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1977. Includes an insightful chapter on Serafim's life, work, and teaching based on unavailable Russian sources.

Evdokimoff, Paul. "Saint Seraphim of Sarov: An Icon of Orthodox Spirituality." Ecumenical Review 15 (April 1963): 264278.

Fedotov, G. P. A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (1950). Belmont, Mass., 1975. Includes an interpretive prologue and extensive excerpts from hagiographical accounts of Serafim's life and work, including Conversation with N. Motovilov.

Little Russian Philokalia, vol. 1, St. Seraphim of Sarov. Platina, Calif., 1980. The most extensive translation of Serafim's teaching available in English.

Zander, Valentine. St. Seraphim of Sarov. Crestwood, N. Y., 1975.

Theodore Stylianopoulos (1987)