My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m still enough of an evangelical that hagiography strikes me as foreign. I don’t know what to make of it, this idea that holiness can come out from the introspective realm of spiritual instruction to impinge on historical figures and alleged historical events. Which is perhaps why this first volume of the Little Russian Philokalia, the writings of St. Seraphim, seemed progressively stranger as I read through it.
St. Seraphim lived from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, during which time he became one of the best-known mystics of the Russian Orthodox Church. He lived as a monk and ascetic in the Sarov Monastery in eastern Russia (a city known today as being the center of the Russian nuclear industry). This volume collects the saint’s “Spiritual Instructions” and “Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” as well as an account of the rediscovery and return of his relics.
I found the first portion of the book, the “Spiritual Instructions,” the most accessible. They provided, as I had hoped, some challenging and focusing readings for Lent. Similar to The Practice of the Presence of God, The Imitation of Christ, or other classic works of Christian instruction, these are the sorts of words it seems necessary to always have on tap as a Christian reader. The concise, clear, sharp challenges that, if maybe I let them wash against me constantly like a stream against stone, might actually do some good. How to be silent. How to be generous. How to cultivate a true love of God and others. St. Seraphim’s instructions were also useful because they could provide an avenue into the writings of other Orthodox fathers, as he intersperses them with the words of older saints as well as scripture.
In the second portion of the book I was on less familiar ground, taking the first steps into the thick, alien forest of Russian hagiography. This portion, the “Acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” is a conversation purported to have taken place between the saint and one of his disciples, recorded and only found years later in the days leading up to St. Seraphim’s canonization. Here my cynicism begins to raise its head a bit as the author of the spiritual instructions becomes move into the historical narrative. Because historical figures are always notoriously human, and when they’re not, when they’re portrayed as somehow otherworldly beings, I don’t quite know what to make of it. Several hundred years ago is one thing; the 1830s is something else.
Finally, the volume concludes with (again, to my post-evangelical, Western sensibilities) the strangest and yet most compelling portion of the story. Strange in the sense that here we’re fully in the realm of hagiography, with a dash of apocalyptic prophecy thrown in for good measure. Compelling in the glimpse it provides into the sudden and tragic destruction of the religious heritage of Orthodox Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and its slow and fitful rebirth in the closing decades of the twentieth century. St. Seraphim’s relics are recovered and returned to Sarov, where a church is rebuilt to receive him. Pilgrims flock to the procession. Miracles ensue. What to make of it all?
The paradox is that sanctity, the idea that holiness can truly intrude into the world in very real and tangible circumstances, remains for me one of the most viable arguments for the pursuit of the Christian life. And the first portion of this book illustrates to me the appeal: that a life pursued in humility, love, and devotion is possible. Yet if there are people who truly embody this, as St. Seraphim was reported to, why is it so hard to accept that the results that follow might be the sort of miracles and happenings outlined in the third part? We want our saints at a safe distance, their words coming down to us through the filter of the centuries. It’s harder to deal with them otherwise.