Saint Seraphim of Sarov was one of the greatest Russian ascetics and wonderworkers, with profound spiritual discernment. He was distinguished by a great humility. When being praised by all the world, he referred to himself as "the poor wretch Seraphim."
Saint Seraphim (Prochoros Moshnin in the world) was born to a merchant family living in Kursk. At the age of 10 he fell seriously ill. In a dream during his illness he saw the Mother of God, who promised to heal him. Several days later a procession with the miracle-working Kursk icon of Theotokos changed its usual route due to bad weather and was passing by the house of the Moshnins. After Seraphim's mother took him to kiss the icon, he started to get better very quickly. While young, Seraphim had to help his parents in their store, but he was not interested in trade. Young Seraphim liked to read the Lives of Saints, to go to church and to pray in seclusion.
At the age of 18 Seraphim decided resolutely to become a monk. His mother blessed him with a big copper cross, which he wore over his clothes for the rest of his life. He was accepted as a novice to the Sarov monastery.
From the very first day of his life at the monastery Seraphim was noted for his abstention from food and sleep. He ate very little only once a day. He abstained from food completely on Wednesdays and Fridays. Having asked for a blessing from his elder instructor, he started going to the forest for prayers and meditation in seclusion. Soon he fell ill again and had to stay in bed from time to time. Again he was healed by the Mother of God, who appeared in his dream accompanied by several saints. Pointing at the Venerable Seraphim, She said to Apostle John the Theologian, "This one is of our kinship." Then She touched his side with Her staff and healed him. He took monastic vows in 1786 (at the age of 27).
He was given the name Seraphim which means "fiery" or "burning" in Hebrew. Soon he was ordained a deacon. He proved to be as good as his name by his ardent praying. He spent all of his time in the temple, resting very rarely. Amongst such prayers, services and work in the name of God, Seraphim was blessed by the vision of angels participating in sermons and singing. During the Liturgy on Great Thursday he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ incarnate in human flesh as He was entering the temple together with Angelic Hosts and blessing those in prayer. Venerable Seraphim was so impressed by the vision that he could not speak for a long time.
In 1793 Venerable Seraphim was elevated to hieromonk, after which he daily served and partook of the Holy Mysteries for a year. Then Saint Seraphim began to go to a "far wilderness," which was a desolate place in a forest 5 miles away from the Sarov monastery. He reached great perfection during that time. Bears, hares, wolves, foxes and other wild animals would come to the hut of the ascetic. Matrona Pleshcheyeva, an elderly nun from the Diveyev monastery, saw Saint Seraphim feeding a wild bear from his hands, relating that "especially remarkable was the face of the great elder. It was as cheerful and bright as an angel's countenance."
While living in the wilderness Venerable Seraphim once was attacked and almost killed by a band of robbers. He was physically very strong and had an axe in his hands at the moment, but he did not defend himself. In response to their demanding money and threatening him, he put the axe to the ground, crossed his arms on his chest and gave himself up to the bandits. They started beating him with the head of his own axe. Blood came streaming from his mouth and ears, and he lost consciousness. Then they beat him with a billet, stamped and kicked him, and dragged him on the ground. They stopped torturing him only when they thought he was dead.
The only treasure the robbers could find in his hermitage was the Icon of the Mother of God (Pertinence), in front of which he always prayed. When after some time the robbers were caught and indicted, the venerable Seraphim spoke in their defense. After this assault he remained hunched over for the rest of his life.
Soon after this the Venerable Seraphim began to live the life like a pillar of faith. He spent days on a stone close to his "wilderness" and at night he would go deep into the forest. He would pray almost all the time with his hands lifted up to the sky. This ascetic feat continued for a thousand days.
After a particular vision of the Mother of God closer to the end of his life, the Venerable Seraphim assumed the task of being an elder. He accepted everyone who came seeking his counsel and guidance. Many thousands of people from various walks of life came to see the venerable old man, who enriched them by sharing his spiritual treasures acquired during the many years of serving God. Seraphim met the visitors with humbleness, joy and thoughtful caring. He greeted them saying, "You are my joy!" His advice to many was, "Pray to assume a peaceful spirit, and saved will be many around you." The elder bowed to the ground, blessed and kissed the hands of every one who came to him. There was no need for the visitors to tell him about themselves, as he already knew what they had in their souls.
He would also say, "Cheerfulness is not a sin. Joy drives away fatigue, and fatigue brings despondency, and there is nothing worse than despondency." Once he said to a monk, "Oh, if you only could know what joy and what sweetness is granted to the souls of the righteous in heaven, you should agree to bear all misfortunes, persecution and slander with gratitude. If this very cell would be full of maggots eating our flesh during all the days of our life here on earth, we should agree to it gladly with the only purpose of deserving the heavenly joy that our God has prepared for those who love Him."
One of Seraphim's close devotees and disciples, Motovilov, described a wonderful event of transfiguration of the great saint. It happened on a cloudy winter evening. Motovilov was sitting on a stump in the forest. Saint Seraphim was squatting in front of his disciple explaining to him the meaning of a Christian life and the aim of us, Christians, living on earth.
Seraphim was saying, "We must let the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Everything good that we are doing for Christ's sake renders us the Holy Spirit, but most of all it is achieved through a prayer, which is always in our hands."
"Father," - Motovilov asked - "how can I witness the grace of the Holy Spirit? How can I know if the Holy Spirit is with me or not?" Saint Seraphim provided examples from lives of Saints and Apostles, but Motovilov still could not grasp the idea. Then the venerable old man took him firmly by the shoulder and said, "We are both in the Holy Spirit now."
Motovilov felt as if his eyes were opened and he saw that the face of the old man was brighter than the sun. His heart was filled with joy and peace, and his body felt warm like summer; there was a sweet scent in the air around them too.
Motovilov was overwhelmed by this sudden change and particularly by the glowing that was coming from the elder's face. But Saint Seraphim said to him, "Have no fear, father. You could not have seen me, unless you yourself were now possessed by the Holy Spirit completely. Be grateful to the Lord for His mercy to us." Then Motovilov understood what it meant when the Holy Spirit descends upon a person and transforms him.