Seven Lessons for the New Year from St. Seraphim of Sarov
“Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will be saved.” These words come from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one of the greatest Russian ascetics and mystics of the 19th century. This simple man profoundly impacted Russian society despite the fact that he lived far away from the world for most of his life. From a young age he felt attracted to the monastic life and his mother encouraged him in his spiritual pursuit. He entered the monastery in the wilderness of Sarov at age 24. He lived in the monastery praying, working and seeking out God in the communal life of the monastery for numerous years until he felt God’s call to go deeper into the forest wilderness miles away from the monastery to continue his pursuit for God. During this time, he even imitated the holy stylite ascetics and climbed on rocks of various heights and spent 1000 days praying, night and day, winter and summer, from the rock. At 70 years old, he finally opened his cell to receive visitors for counsel and prayer, inspiring people from all walks of society through his holiness, wise counsel, and miracles.
As we remember and celebrate Saint Seraphim today, I want to offer seven lessons from his teachings for us to carry into the New Year.
- “Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will be saved.” This may be his most famous saying. He explains how there “is nothing better than peace in Christ, for such peace brings victory over all the evil spirits. When peace dwells in a person’s heart it enables them to contemplate the grace of the Holy Spirit from within. He who dwells in peace collects spiritual gifts as it were with a scoop, and he sheds the light of knowledge on others. All our thoughts, all our desires, all our efforts, and all our actions should make us say constantly with the Church: “O Lord, give us peace!” When a man lives in peace, God reveals mysteries to him.” As we begin the New Year, can we take the time daily to open our hearts to receive the “peace that passes all understanding,” as the Apostle Paul described it.
- Of course, the peace of God is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and Saint Seraphim reminds us that the ultimate goal in our life is acquisition of the Holy Spirit. All the spiritual disciples we practice through our prayers, fasting, almsgiving, and other good deeds are simply ways to open our hearts to receive the Holy Spirit. We want God living in us and His Spirit inspiring, directing and empowering us. “Everything good that we do is given to us by the Holy Spirit.” This is why our Lord Jesus, after His Resurrection from the dead, promised His followers that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will become my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the world.” Thus, we begin every day with a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in us – “O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who are present everywhere and fill all things, Treasurer of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and save our souls O Good One.”
- Keep your eyes on Paradise. Saint Seraphim explains “If you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in heaven, you would decide in this mortal life to bear whatever sorrows, struggles, persecutions and slander with gratitude.” Our life on earth is but a brief journey, and it may be filled with challenges and difficulties. We must always remember Saint Paul’s words that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that we only live for the future. Christ said “The kingdom of heaven is within” and we begin tasting the delight of God’s Presence here and now. What is important, though, is to remember how transitory and brief this life on earth is. Keep your eyes on Paradise.
- Nourish your soul with the Word of God. Saint Seraphim would read the entire New Testament every week. EVERY WEEK! He emphasized nourishing one’s mind and heart daily on the New Testament and the Psalms. “The reading of the Word of God should be performed in solitude so that the whole mind of the reader might be plunged into the truths of Holy Scripture. The Word of God is angelic bread which nourishes our soul. From this he will receive the warmth of the Spirit which will produce in each person tears of repentance.”
- As we keep our eyes on paradise, seek to acquire the Holy Spirit, allow God’s peace to dwell in our hearts, and read the Word of God, we will face whatever life brings with courage, never giving in to despair. “Where God is, there is no evil. Everything coming from God is peaceful and healthy, and leads a person to see clearly see his own imperfections with humility… the devil strives to lead a person into despair. A lofty and sound soul never gives in to despair over misfortunes, no matter what sort they may be. Our life is as it were a house of temptations and trials; but during our temptations we never turn away from the Lord for we know these temptations are teaching us patience and helping us overcome our passions! Judas the betrayer was fainthearted and unskilled in spiritual battle, and so the enemy, seeing his despair, attacked him and forced him to hang himself. The Apostle Peter, a firm rock, did not despair or lose heart when he fell into great sin, but repented and turned back to God.”
- These spiritual disciplines will help us stay vigilant against unclean and unholy thoughts. “The devil is like a lion, hiding in ambush (Psalm 10:19; I Pet 5:8). He secretly sets out nets of unclean and unholy thoughts. We must stop these as soon as we notice them, and the best means to do this is through prayer and pious reflection. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Repeat these words again and again. Don’t give in to despondency but with great courage say “Get behind me Satan! Who are you who have been cut off from God, a fugitive of heaven. You have no power over me because we have been made steadfast by the Holy Cross… Remember, the Lord sometimes allows people who are devoted to Him to fall into 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, treat others with kindness and not with judgement. “You can never be too gentle or too kind with others. Never treat others in a harsh manner. Allow radiant joy to shine forth from you, and as you radiate joy you will kindle joy in the other. All condemnation is from the devil. Don’t even condemn those whom you catch committing an evil deed. We condemn others only because we don’t know ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we mistakenly make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, pray for them and strive to maintain inner peace. Keep silent and refrain from any judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of evil that the devil shoots at you.”
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