Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Seraphim of SarovOne of the greatest  Saints of the Eastern church, arguably the greatest Saint of the Russian church, is Seraphim of Sarov (born Prokhor Moshnin), often referred to as the St. Francis of the East. Seraphim lived in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries in the town of Sarov, southeast of Moscow in the Novgorod province.

Seraphim was devoted to the Theotokos (Mother of God) from his youth, when he recovered from a deadly illness from which the doctors said he would not recover. During the illness a procession carrying the Icon of the Theotokos, his mother brought him out to touch the icon as it passed their house, he began recovering almost immediately, and within a few days was back to full health. From then on his devotion to the Theotokos was unending, carrying an icon of her wherever he went.

Seraphim became a monk, taking up the life of a hermit, living in the forest around Sarov. The eldress of the the Diveevo monastery would come to visit him in his hut. During one such visit she saw the animals of the forest coming out of his hut, including bears, foxes, wolves, and rabbits, all of which he fed from his meager stores. It was at this time that she noticed that his face was glowing a brilliant white, the light emanating from Seraphim himself. Many visitors to Seraphim, clergy and lay alike, remarked of this divine light, that lit up his surroundings even in the daylight.

One such visitor, who became a fast friend, was Nikolay Motovilov, a landowner and son of a wealth noble family. Motovilov would later write down all of their conversations, and Seraphim’s teachings. Chief among these teachings was Seraphim’s treatise on the Acquisition of the Holy Sprit, which he said was the goal of every Christian. This acquisition was explained to Motovilov, and I present it here, unaltered, for your edification:

 

“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. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this life. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: “He who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23). Not that a good deed can be called anything but gathering, even though a deed is not done for Christ’s sake, it is still considered good. The Scriptures say: “In every nation he who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35).

“As we see from another sacred narrative, the man who does what is right is pleasing to God. We see the Angel of the Lord appeared at the hour of prayer to Cornelius, the God-fearing and righteous centurion, and said: “Send to Joppa to Simon the Tanner; there you will find Peter and he will tell you the words of eternal life, whereby you will be saved and all your house.” Thus the Lord uses all His divine means to give such a man, in return for his good works, the opportunity not to lose his reward in the future life. But to this end, we must begin with a right faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who came into the world to save sinners and Who, through our acquiring for ourselves the grace of the Holy Spirit, brings into our hearts the Kingdom of God and opens the way for us to win the blessings of the future life. But the acceptability to God of good deeds not done for Christ’s sake is limited to this: the Creator gives the means to make them living (cf. Hebrews. 6:1). It rests with man to make them living or not. That is why the Lord said to the Jews: “If you had been blind, you would have had no sin. But now you say ‘We see,’ so your sin remains” (John 9:41). If a man like Cornelius enjoys the favor of God for his deeds, though not done for Christ’s sake, and then believes in His Son, such deeds will be imputed to him as done for Christ’s sake. But in the opposite event a man has no right to complain, when the good he has done is useless. It never is, when it is done for Christ’s sake, since good done for Him not only merits a crown of righteousness in the world to come, but also in this present life fills us with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is said: “God does not give the Spirit by measure” (John 3:34-35).

“That is it, your Godliness. Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.”

“What do you mean by acquiring?” I asked St. Seraphim. “Somehow I don’t understand that.”

“Acquiring is the same as obtaining,” he replied. “Do you understand, what acquiring money means? Acquiring the Spirit of God is exactly the same. You know very well enough what it means to acquire in a worldly sense, your Godliness. The aim of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money; and for the nobility, it is in addition to receive honors, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government. The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.

“God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with the market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading. He says to us all: “Trade till I come” (Lk. 19:13), “buying up every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). In other words, make the most of your time getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake that confer the grace of the All-Holy Spirit, on us.”

The entire conversation between Motovilov and Seraphim can be read in the book On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit

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