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Reflectors of God’s glory

26 January 2018

James Harpur is inspired by St Seraphim of Sarov’s teachings on the Spirit

Viktor Onyshchenko/Alamy

Seraphim of Sarov in a painting on the wall of Florivsky Convent, Kiev

Seraphim of Sarov in a painting on the wall of Florivsky Convent, Kiev

WITH its wind, rain, sleet, snow, and frost, January is nature’s via negativa, cleansing us psychically and em-tionally for a new year “full of things that have never been”, as Rilke put it. The idea of ritually exorcising the old year and making resolutions for the new one is symbolic of our desire for a new life.

For Christians, this is nothing less than entry into the Kingdom of heaven: a personal state, as I imagine it, of complete inner and outer harmony, in which kindness, love, gentlessness, sensitivity and the like, issue forth effortlessly and grace­fully from the spiritual tissue of the soul.

But the Kingdom of heaven is elusive, or we would all be living in an earthly paradise rather than dropping bombs, trafficking people, and cutting down rainforests. The problem, as Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, is that it is one thing being baptised by water, and quite another being baptised by the Holy Spirit; without the latter, the King-dom of heaven remains a mirage, a wistful goal. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the king­dom of God” (John 3.5).

How are we to be born of the Spirit? The Russian St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), spoke eloquently about receiving the Holy Spirit in the course of a profound conver­­sation with a young Russian noble­man and spirit­ual seeker, Nicholas Motovilov. Their meeting took place near Seraphim’s hermit­age, in a glade of a snowy forest, itself a spiritually charged locus of light.

Seraphim explained to Motovilov the absolute primacy of the Holy Spirit: all virtuous acts lead to it, and all virtue flows from it. His words were persuasive enough, but he sub­stantiated them by appearing to Motovilov as a figure of glorious light in what is one of the most remarkable instances of “light mysticism” ever recorded.


BAPTISED as Prokhor Moshnin, Seraphim was one of Russia’s most significant mystics and starets (spirtual elders) of modern times. He was raised in a merchant family in Kursk in southern Russia and, at the age of 19, committed himself to a religious vocation in the monastery of Sarov, about 250 miles east of Moscow. This was the start of a long life of prayer, manual work, study, and devotion to the Virgin Mary, of whom he was said to receive visions.

At the age of 35, Seraphim decided to deepen his spirituality by leaving the community of Sarov and living as a recluse in a local forest. There he cut trees, built a wooden hut, grew his own vegetables, and concentrated on prayer and reading the Bible. On Sundays, he would walk back to Sarov and rejoin his Brothers for mass. Like St Francis, he had a reputation for communing with wild animals, including wolves, foxes, and bears.

For ten years, Seraphim pursued this solitary life, deepening his spirituality. But, in 1804, he was set upon by a group of robbers, who beat him almost to death. Seraphim managed to drag himself to Sarov, where he recuperated for five months. Shaken, and left with a permanent stoop, he returned to his hermitage in the forest and remained there for a further five years.

In 1810, increasingly frail and still suffering from injuries received from his attackers, he rejoined his old monastery, living as a strict recluse in a cell. After several years of total solitude, he was persuaded by a vision of the Virgin Mary to give up his seclusion and receive visitors. Such was his reputation for spiritual insight and counsel that it is said that the visitors arrived in their thou­sands.

IN 1825, the call of seclusion per­suaded him to return to his forest hermitage to devote himself to the simplicity of hesychastic prayer (hesychasm is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer). But he still received visits from followers.

In November 1831, two years before his death, he received the visit from Motovilov, who recorded their conversation. We have to picture Motovilov, sitting on a tree-stump in a glade, thick flakes of snow falling across the valley; Seraphim is squat­ting down opposite him, and begins speaking fluently and almost without interruption about the one true aim of the Christian.

This can be summed up as acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Practices such as fasting, holding vigils, and so on, are all very well, but they are only a means to an end: namely, the reception of the Holy Spirit, which brings life to every soul it enters.

Perhaps the most important element of preparation for the
ingress of the Spirit is prayer. And prayer, no matter how profound or simple, must eventually give way to silence: when the individual is aware of the pres­ence of the Spirit, he or she must be silent, to hear the words of eternal life.


HOW is it possible to describe the Spirit — the ineffable — in words? Seraphim evokes it in terms of light. Quoting Psalm 118.105, he likens the Spirit to the word of God: “A lamp to my feet, and a light to my path”. He also recalls the dazzling light with which Moses shone after his en­­counter with God on Mount Sinai, and the glorious form of Jesus after his transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

Seraphim goes on to say that, when blessed with the Spirit, a person must distribute its gifts of grace — like a candle that lights other candles without its own light being dim­inished.

Up to this point, Motolivov is listening to Seraphim’s words. But the encounter then takes an un­­expectedly mystical turn when Motovilov becomes aware that he cannot look Seraphim in the face, because his face is brighter than the sun. Furthermore, Seraphim tells him that he, Motovilov, is also emitting a divine radiance.

It is an unforgettable image: two men, facing each other like mutually reflecting mirrors of light, while the snow falls, adding its own natural light to the scene.

It is as if the Holy Spirit had manifested itself not only within each man, but also, at that moment, within the whole of nature, blanking out the variousness of the world with a vast white silence; as if the distinc­tion between the inner and outer worlds had collapsed, and the resultant state of harmonious being was what might be called the Kingdom of heaven.


James Harpur is the author of The Gospel of Joseph Arimathea (Wild Goose), a prose-poetry meditation on the Gospels. His forthcoming book of poetry, The White Silhouette, will be published by Carcanet in June.


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