Self-isolation – lessons from St Seraphim of Sarov

Self-isolation – lessons from St Seraphim of Sarov

Hilary Pearson writes:

For this lesson on self-isolation we turn to one of the great Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov (1754 – 1833).  When he was nineteen, he joined the Russian Orthodox monastery at Sarov.  He was later ordained as a priest and acted as the spiritual adviser to a nearby convent of nuns.  Shortly afterwards he left the monastery to live as a hermit in a hut in the nearby woods, where he lived a life of almost continuous prayer and extreme asceticism.  He was completely solitary for about 25 years, then started meeting the many pilgrims who came to his hut seeking spiritual advice and healing.  A few years after his death he was canonised as a saint by the Russian Orthodox church, and his remains placed in a new coffin donated by the Tsar.

After the Russian revolution, the monastery was closed.  During World War II it was turned into a factory making rockets. In 2006 it again became a monastery. The Bolsheviks removed Seraphim’s coffin: in 1991 it was discovered in the stores of a Soviet anti-religious museum and taken back to Sarov.

Seraphim in his later years was recognised as a spiritual guide, a staretz, a role similar to a Desert Fathers’ Abba. Like them, many of his sayings have been preserved.  For example: 

‘The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God’.

‘Maintain a spirit of peace and you will save a thousand souls.’

‘Those who have truly decided to serve the Lord God should practice the remembrance of God and uninterrupted prayer to Jesus Christ, mentally saying: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Seraphim encountered many hardships in his solitary life, including being severely beaten by robbers.  So this advice comes from experience:

‘Bear sorrows for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom. Without sorrows there is no salvation. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God awaits those who have patiently endured. And all the glory of the world is nothing in comparison. My joy! I implore you to acquire a peaceful spirit.’ (He habitually addressed those who came to speak with him as ‘My joy’)

Despite his strictness with himself, he was gentle and forgiving with others:

‘The Lord sometimes allows people who are devoted to Him to fall into such dreadful vices; and this is in order to prevent them from falling into a still greater sin – pride. Your temptation will pass and you will spend the remaining days of your life in humility. Only do not forget your sin.’

Finally, to encourage us in this long period when we are unable to get together for services and Bible study:

‘The reading of the word of God should be performed in solitude, in order that the whole mind of the reader might be plunged into the truths of the Holy Scripture, and that from this he might receive warmth, which in solitude produces tears; from these a man is wholly warmed and is filled with spiritual gifts, which rejoice the mind and heart more than any word.’