The Spiritual precepts of St Seraphim of Sarov17 min read

St Seraphim of Sarov, the greatest modem saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, was bom in 1759 and died at the Sarov Monastery in 1833. His life spanned six reigns, those of the Empress Elizabeth, Peter III, Catherine II, Paul, Alexander I and Nicholas I. In it fell such momentous events as the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but St Seraphim was so absorbed in the spiritual life that he seems hardly to have been aware of them.

St Seraphim was born Prokhor Moshnin, the son of Isidor Moshnin, a builder of the town of Kursk in central Russia, and his wife, Agathia. His spiritual interests showed themselves early, and he entered the Monastery of Sarov in 1779. Till 1794 he lived within the monastery, serving his noviciate and being ordained successively deacon and priest. In that year his old superior, Pachomius, also a native of Kursk, died, and Seraphim asked for permission to retire into the ‘wilderness’, the virgin forest which surrounded the monastery, to pursue his spiritual life in solitude. Here he continued in prayer and asceticism till an appalling accident befell him. Three thieves attacked him and beat him mercilessly. Seraphim made no resistance. This assault left him shocked and permanently bent in body. For five months he lay recuperating in the monastery. When he had recovered from his injuries, he went back to the forest and entered upon the discipline of the stylite. From 1804-7, for a thousand days and nights, he prayed upon a large stone in the woods. His prayer was the prayer of the publican in the Gospels. In 1807 when the superior of the monastery died, Seraphim was offered the succession, but he refused it. He now entered a period of complete silence. In 1810 the increasing weakness of his legs compelled him to return to the monastery, where he shut himself up in a cell in silence. In the cell a single lamp burned before a single icon, that of the Blessed Virgin without the Child, known by the name of Tenderness. This period ended with a vision which crowned a lifetime’s spiritual discipline. Seraphim came to full spiritual maturity in 1825 at the age of 66. For his last seven years he received with joy all who came to him, freely bestowing his gifts of comfort and instruction.

The Spiritual Precepts of Father Seraphim were never printed exactly as they were written, and the original manuscript has apparently not survived. They appeared a number of times more or less heavily edited in the 19th century. Consequently the best that can be done is to abstract those parts whose spirit and flavour, as we know them from other records of St Seraphim, in particular his conversation with N. A. Motovilov, indicate his authorship. There are forty precepts in all. The following are excerpts from them:

  1. Of God

God is a fire which warms and inflames the heart and the vitals. So if we feel in our hearts the cold which is of the Devil, for the Devil is cold, let us invoke the Lord, and He will come and warm our hearts with His perfect love, not only for Him, but also for our neighbour. The cold of the hater of the good will be driven out from the face of warmth.

  1. Of Hope

All who have a firm hope in God will be reborn to Him and will be illumined with the shining of the eternal light. If a man is not overmuch concerned with himself out of his love for God and for works of virtue, such a hope is true and wise. But if a man lays all his hopes on his own works and turns to God in prayer only when unforeseen misfortunes overtake him, and he, not seeing how to avert them by his own strength, begins to hope for help from God, such a hope is vain and false. True hope seeks only the Kingdom of God and is convinced that all that is of the earth which is necessary for the temporal life will undoubtedly be given…. The heart cannot have peace so long as it has not acquired this hope. It will pacify it and pour joy into it…. Of this hope the most holy lips of the Saviour said: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew XI.28), i.e. do thou hope on Me, and thou wilt be relieved from toil and fear.

  1. Of Love for God

He who has acquired perfect love exists in this life as though he did not exist. For he considers himself alien to that which is visible, awaiting with impatience the invisible. He has entirely changed into love for God and has forgotten every other love.

8. About the Guarding of Truths which have been known

One should not open one’s heart without need. Among a thousand people one can find only one who would keep one’s secret. If we ourselves do not keep it within ourselves, how can we hope that it will be kept by others ? With an intellectual man one should speak of human things, but with a man of spiritual understanding one should speak of heavenly things…. Should one happen to be amidst people in the world, one should not speak of spiritual things, particularly when they show no desire to listen…. For this reason by every means one should conceal in oneself the treasury of gifts. Otherwise thou wilt lose and wilt not find. But if need should demand, or the matter come to it, then one must act openly, to the glory of God, with speech; for the way has already been opened.

9 . Of Much Talking

Much talking with those whose ways are opposed to ours is enough to destroy the interior life of an attentive man. But most pitiful of all is that by it the flame which our Lord Jesus Christ came to cast upon the ground of the heart can be quenched, for nothing so cools the flame inspired by the Holy Spirit into the heart of the monk for the sanctification of his soul as association and much talking and conversation, apart from that with spiritual children about the divine mysteries, or that which tends to the restoration of the understanding and its bringing closer to God.

  1. Of Prayer

He who has truly decided to serve our Lord God must exercise himself in the remembrance of God and in unceasing prayer to Jesus Christ, saying with his mind: “O Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” … By such an exercise, and by preserving oneself from distraction and keeping peace of conscience, one can draw near to God and be united with Him…. One should always try not to abandon oneself to distraction of thoughts, for in this way the soul deviates from the remembrance of God and His love to the action of the Devil, for St Macarius says: “The whole attempt of our enemy is to detach our thoughts from the memory of God and from fear and love of Him.” But when our mind and heart are united in prayer and the thoughts of the soul are not distracted, then the heart is warmed with spiritual warmth, in which the light of Christ will shine forth, filling the whole interior man with peace and joy.

  1. Of Sorrow

The soul, full of sorrow and becoming mad and frenzied, cannot receive good advice calmly or answer meekly the questions put to it…. Sorrow is the worm of the heart which gnaws at the mother which is bringing it to birth…. He who has conquered his passions has also conquered sorrow. But he who is conquered by his passions will not avoid the fetters of sorrow. As a sick man can be recognised by the colour of his face, so one possessed by passion is given away by sorrow. He who loves the world cannot fail to be sorrowful, but he who has despised the world is always cheerful. As fire purifies gold, so does sorrow for God cleanse a sinful heart.

  1. Of Boredom and Depression

This disease is healed by prayer, abstention from idle speaking, working with one’s hands according to one’s capacity, reading of the Word of God and patience; because it is born of pusillanimity and idleness and idle speaking, in the writings of the Holy Fathers depression is sometimes called idleness, laziness and indulgence.

  1. Of Despair

Just as our Lord is concerned for our salvation, so the Devil, the murderer of men, tries to bring men to despair…. Judas the traitor was pusillanimous and not skilful in battle, and therefore the enemy, seeing his despair, fell upon him and compelled him to strangle himself; but Peter, a firm rock, when he fell into great sin, being skilful in combat, did not despair and did not lose courage, but wept bitter tears from a burning heart, and the enemy, seeing them, as though his eyes were scorched with their fire, ran far away from him with a fretful wailing.

  1. Of Illness

The body is the slave, and the soul is the queen; and therefore it is the mercy of the Lord when the body is exhausted with illness, for from this the passions weaken, and a man comes to himself; indeed the very bodily illness is sometimes born of the passions. Remove the sin, and the illness will leave you

God made the body and not the illness; He made the soul but not the sin. What is most of all useful and necessary ? Union with God, and association with Him through love. If we lose this love, we fall away from Him, and falling away from Him we are subjected to various and manifold illnesses. He who endures illness with patience and the giving of thanks, to him illness is reckoned as a spiritual feat and even more.

  1. Of one’s Duties and Love for one’s Neighbour

With one’s neighbour one must behave affectionately, not giving even the appearance of scorn. One should try to cheer up the spirit of a troubled or despondent man with a loving word.

20. Of not Condemning one’s Neighbour

One should judge no one, even if one should see somebody sinning with one’s own eyes or becoming inveterate in the transgression of God’s commandments. God bequeathed us enmity only against the snake, i.e. against him who from the beginning seduced man and drove him out of paradise, against the Devil, the murderer of men. We are ordered to war also against the Midianites, i.e. against the unclean spirits of impurity and lust, which sow unclean and filthy thoughts in the heart.

  1. Of Care for the Soul

We should make every effort on the soul’s behalf; we should strengthen the body only so that it should facilitate the strengthening of the soul. If we voluntarily exhaust the body to the point that the spirit is also exhausted, such a lowering will be unwise, although it be done for the winning of virtue.

  1. With what one should supply the Soul

The soul should be supplied with the Word of God, for the Word of God, as Gregory the Divine says, is the angelic food, with which souls hungry for God are fed. Most of all one should exercise oneself in the reading of the New Testament and the Psalter. From this comes enlightenment into the mind, which is transformed by a divine transformation. One must train oneself so that the mind, as it were, swims in the law of the Lord, under the guidance of which one’s fife should be governed…. The reading of the Word of God should be done in solitude, so that the whole mind of the reader should be plunged into the truths of the Holy Writ and take from it into itself the warmth which in solitude is produced by tears; from these tears the whole man is warmed and is filled with spiritual gifts, which sweeten his mind and heart more than any word.

  1. Of Spiritual Peace

The sign of a wise soul is when a man sinks his mind within himself and has business in his own heart. Then God’s grace overshadows him, and he attains a peaceful state, and through this state he attains also an exceeding peaceful state: a peaceful state, i.e. he has a good conscience; an exceeding peaceful state, for his mind contemplates in itself the grace of the Holy Spirit according to the Word of God: “His dwelling is in peace.” Can one fail to rejoice when one sees the sun with one’s sensual eyes ? But how much more joyful it is when the mind sees with the inner eye the sun of truth, Christ! Then truly it rejoices with the angelic joy. When anyone goes about in a peaceful state, he ladles out spiritual gifts as it were with a spoon. The Holy Fathers, being in the state of peace and being overshadowed by divine grace, lived long. When a man attains a peaceful mood, then he can give forth from himself upon others also the light of the illumination of his mind. But above all a man should repeat these words of the Prophetess Hannah: “Let not arrogancy come out of your mouth” (I Samuel II.3), and the words of our Lord: “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matthew VII.5).

  1. Of the Preservation of Spiritual Peace

By every means one should try to preserve spiritual peace and not be disturbed by the insults of others. To this end one must in every way try to restrain anger and, by being attentive, guard the mind and heart from unseemly movements…. For the preservation of spiritual peace one should also in every way avoid condemning others. By non-condemnation and by silence spiritual peace is preserved. When a man is in such a state, he receives divine revelations. To escape from condemning, one should pay attention to oneself, receive no extraneous thoughts from anyone, and be dead to everything.

  1. Of the Guarding of the Heart

We must unremittingly guard our hearts from unseemly thoughts and impressions…. From the perpetual guarding of the heart, purity is born in it, and in this purity the Lord is seen according to the assertion of the eternal Truth: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew Y.8). We should not pour forth without need whatsoever precious things have flowed into the heart; for only when protected in the interior of the heart can that which has been gathered be safe from visible and invisible foes. Inflamed by the Divine fire, the heart seethes only when there is live water within it; but should this live water be poured forth, the heart grows cold and the man begins to freeze.

  1. Of the Discernment of the Actions of the Heart

When a man receives something divine, he rejoices in his heart, but when he receives something devilish, he becomes disturbed. The heart of a Christian, having received something divine, does not need external persuasion that this is from the Lord, but by that very action is convinced that its apprehension is heavenly, for it feels within itself the spiritual fruits: “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and temperance” (Galatians V.22-23). But if it be from the Devil, although the Devil be transformed into an Angel of Light, or present the most fair-seeming thoughts, the heart will still feel a certain lack of clarity, an agitation of thought and a confusion of feelings.

  1. Of the Light of Christ

To receive and see in the heart the light of Christ one must as far as possible abstract oneself from visible objects. Having previously cleansed the soul by repentance and good works and with faith in the crucified, and having shut the bodily eyes, sink the mind within the heart, and there, by the invoking of His name, call on our Lord Jesus Christ. Then according to the measure of his zeal and the burning of his spirit for his beloved, a man finds in the name he is invoking a sweetness which arouses in him a desire to seek a higher enlightenment. When through such an exercise the mind becomes motionless in the heart, then the light of Christ will shine forth, illumining the temple of his soul with its divine shining…. This light is also life according to the Word of the Gospel: “In that was life and life was the light of man” (John 1.4). When a man contemplates inwardly the eternal light, then his mind is pure and has no sensual imaginings in it, and, being wholly plunged in the contemplation of the uncreated goodness, it forgets all that is sensual and does not wish to see even itself, but wishes rather to be concealed in the heart of the earth than to be deprived of this true good—God.

  1. Of Attention to oneself

The mind of an attentive man is like a sentry at his post, or a sleepless guardian of the inner Jerusalem. Standing on the height of the inner Jerusalem, he gazes with the eye of purity upon the hostile forces that go round his soul and rage against it. One must take care not to pay attention to the works of others, nor to think or speak of them, according to the Psalmist: “My Ups do not speak of the works of men” (Psalms XVI.4).

  1. Of Spiritual Feats

One must be lenient with one’s soul in its illnesses and imperfections, and endure its shortcomings as one endures those of others; but one must not become lazy and must urge oneself to do better.

  1. Of Fasting

One should take sufficient food for each day so that the body, being strengthened, should be the friend and helper of the soul in the practice of virtue; otherwise it can happen that with an enfeebled body the soul also becomes weak.

  1. Of Silence

Most of all one should adorn oneself with silence, for Ambrose of Milan says: “I have seen many winning salvation by silence, but by much speaking not a single one.” Moreover one of the Fathers says that silence is the sacrament of the world to come, but words are the weapons of this world. Do thou only sit in thy cell in attention and silence and by every means try to bring thyself near to the Lord, for the Lord is ready to make of thee an angel instead of a man…. If it is not possible always to remain in solitude and silence, because thou livest in a monastery and art busy with the tasks laid upon thee by the superior, then one should devote to solitude and silence even the little while that remains after these tasks, and in return for this little while the Lord God will not fail to send down His gracious favour.

  1. Of the Active and the Contemplative Life

The path of the active life comprises fasts, abstinence, vigils, prostrations, prayers and other bodily feats, forming a narrow and grievous path, which according to the Word of God leads to eternal life (Matthew VII. 14). The contemplative path consists in the raising of the mind to the Lord, in the attention of the heart, mental prayer and the contemplation of spiritual things through such exercises…. A man should not abandon the active life even when he has been successful in it and has already arrived at the contemplative life, for it aids the contemplative life and elevates it.

  1. Precept to a Novice Monk

At thy handiwork or being somewhere at thy set task, repeat continually the prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, be merciful to me, a sinner!” As thou prayest, be attentive to thyself i.e. gather together thy mind and unite it with thy soul. At first for a day or two or more repeat this prayer with the mind alone, separately attending to each individual word. Then when the Lord warms thy heart with the warmth of His grace and unites the prayer in thee into one breath, then it will start to flow in thee ceaselessly and will always be with thee, delighting thee and nourishing thee. This is that which was spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah: “The dew which comes from Thee is their healing” (Isaiah XXVI.19).