What St. Seraphim Meant

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“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is perhaps the most famous quote of the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov. Many of his icons have this saying on them. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. On the other hand, I think there are many who do not understand it. And understanding what he meant can take you to the very heart of Orthodoxy.

“To acquire the Spirit of Peace,” has a wonderful ring to it – and most of us assume that it is the fruit of the great saint’s long years of strict monastic practice. Doubtless many of the gifts of St. Seraphim were manifested in such a powerful fashion on account of his years of silence and prayer.

But his statement on acquiring the Spirit of Peace is not nearly as complicated or mysterious as some might think.

In many ways it is simply an expansion of the Gospel parable of the talents:

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matthew 25:14-30).

This very familiar parable is quite odd. Christ is alluding to something in the imagery of the “talents” of silver (or gold). Whatever it is, it has been given freely to the stewards – but the stewards are expected to do something with the gift. It is to be given back, with a profit.

First, the parable is not about talents: piano-playing and the like. Nor is it about public-speaking, or even being a good teacher of children. It is not about talents. It is about a sum of money – but is not a “stewardship” parable in the sense that Christ is not trying to tell us to be sure and make money.

It is a parable about grace, about the Holy Spirit.

St. Seraphim, in his own teaching, would be almost crass. He told his disciples to “acquire the Holy Spirit,” and used the gross comparisons of a businessman investing his money in order to make more. His own father was a merchant. He knew what he was talking about – but the imagery was carried over to the spiritual life – and its goal was supremely described as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

The larger question then (and it applies to the parable as well): How do we acquire grace – or the Holy Spirit?

Please note that I am not speaking about earning more grace and performing works in order to gain the Holy Spirit.

Grace is nothing other than the Life of God. In proper theological terms (of the Eastern Church) grace is the uncreated Divine energies. But that phrase, unless correctly understood can be all to confusing. I prefer to speak either of grace or of God’s own Life, freely given to us.

First, grace is a gift. You don’t have to go anywhere to get what you already have been given. What we need to do is allow the grace of God to work in us what God intends.

St. Paul would urge: “We entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain! (2 Corinthians 6:1)

Each of us (certainly in our Baptism and Chrismation) have been given the grace of God for our salvation – that is to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit and to conform us to the image of God in Christ. The question is what do we do with it?

This is a question particularly about the small things of the day. Do we pray? Do we begin the day by crossing ourselves before our feet ever hit the floor? When tempted to grumble do we refrain and give thanks instead? Do we condemn others, even when we could have been silent? Do we forgive when we could have nursed a grudge?

There is grace for each of these things and thousands more. We are able, because God has made us able. Grace that is put to use in our lives produces dividends of grace. St. Seraphim did not become what he was through a momentary gift, but through a lifetime of ascesis and “reinvesting” the grace given him.

Some words from the great saint for the little things of the day:

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.

All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.

Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

This is what St. Seraphim meant.

15 Responses to “What St. Seraphim Meant”

  1. mrh Says:

    I admit I do have a problem with the saint’s teaching about “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is a person – this is foundational, bedrock trinitarian theology. It seems very odd to speak of a person as either a thing to be acquired or as a sort of fluid that one could possess more or less of. Twice in this post you equate “grace” with “the Holy Spirit”. Yet you also write “In proper theological terms grace is the uncreated Divine energies.” If I take you literally, you seem to be saying that
    The Uncreated Divine Energies = The Third Person of the Trinity

    I don’t think that can be right – can you clarify? Thanks.

  2. Fatherstephen Says:

    mrh,

    A good question. It is frequently the case in speaking of the so-called “economic Trinity,” that is, God as we encounter Him, the language is far less precise than we use otherwise. Nothing about God, not even grace, is an impersonal force. The uncreated Divine energies, are the Life of God as manifested and shared with the world, compared to the uncreated Divine essence, which is not known by us or shared. But it is not uncommon to speak and say Spirit, when more precisely we mean the Divine Energies, etc.

    I don’t know that the right mechanism (poor word) is that we actually “acquire” more of something that can hardly be described in “amounts.” But it’s the language of the parable and of the saint. It’s a metaphor for our use.

    But acts of kindness, of not condemning, of joy, refraining from judgment, are not the sorts of acts that reduce God to some sort of substance that we can collect more of. It is rather quite personal – and these are personal acts. When the grace of God has been given to you for kindness, and you instead choose to be grumpy and willful, we “grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” as St. Paul would say.

    All of the above post is another way of saying that we should cooperate with the grace of God for our salvation and not treat it like magic. If you want your heart to change and become like the heart of God, then you should use every opportunity He gives us to strive towards that conformity. Not that we can do it of ourselves – but Grace has been given to make it possible.

    Hope that helps.

  3. stephen Says:

    Thank you Father,
    It is so difficult for us when we hold on to this world with a clenched fist while trying to “grab” God with the other hand.

  4. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Is this what St. Paul means when he urges us to work out our salvation? Indeed it is hard work, well exemplified by the hard-working merchant. If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know how hard the work is! It involves long hours, difficult customers, competition, losses from shop-lifting and damage to goods, sore feet, headaches, worries about profit margins, late deliveries, conflicts between personnel, etc. Enduring all this with “a spirit of peace” is clearly possible only by God’s grace.

  5. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    Perhaps my comment from “The Little Things” would have been better here? I read this second… At any rate, we have the free-will to choose what to do with what we have been given, and it is a struggle to do the loving thing with regards to our family, friends and sometimes garrulous strangers.
    Yet… from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt.11:12). It is that daily struggle to take the Kingdom, storm the gates, by saying our prayers, crossing ourselves each morning before our feet hit the floor and loving our neighbor and our enemies. Nobody said it was going to be easy…
    Thank you Father for another great post.
    Christ is in our midst!
    Mary-Leah

  6. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    BTW, no I don’t mean we can work our way in or make war on the Kingdom of Heaven, as Father pointed out, our words are often insufficient but they are all we have…

  7. Richard Collins Says:

    Father,

    Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking a bit about that quote from St. Seraphim and blogged on a similar topic about Spiritual ascesis. It’s good to know you read that quote in the same way!

    All the best,

    Richard

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Richard,

    Yes, it is in encouraging for me as well.

  9. fulfilling the law of Christ « Arms Open Wide Says:

    […] And if St. Seraphim of Sarov’s words seem puzzling to you, access Fr. Stephen Freeman’s explanation here: What St. Seraphim Meant « Glory to God for All Things […]

  10. Lou Koenig Says:

    I think it fits well with the quote of St. John of the Cross.

    5. When the spiritual person cannot meditate, let him learn to be still in God, fixing his loving attention upon Him, in the calm of his understanding, although he may think himself to be doing nothing. For thus, little by little and very quickly, Divine calm and peace will be infused into his soul, together with a wondrous and sublime knowledge of God, enfolded in Divine love. And let him not meddle with forms, meditations and imaginings, or with any kind of reasoning, lest his soul be disturbed, and brought out of its contentment and peace, which can only result in its experiencing distaste and repugnance. And if, as we have said, such a person has scruples that he is doing nothing, let him note that he is doing no small thing by pacifying the soul and bringing it into calm and peace, unaccompanied by any act or desire, for it is this that Our Lord asks of us, through David, saying: Vacate, et videte quoniam ego sum Deus. [319] As though he had said: Learn to be empty of all things (that is to say, inwardly and outwardly) and you will see that I am God.
    St. John of the Cross Ascent of Mt. Carmel BKII C15#5

  11. Lou Koenig Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Are you a Hesychast?
    Thanks,
    Lou

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Lou,

    I am an Orthodox parish priest. I teach and subscribe to the Church’s teaching on Hesychastic prayer, but I cannot claim the dignity of being a “Hesychast.” I might add that it is Orthodox practice not to discuss one’s inner spiritual life except with a confessor or spiritual father. In teaching, some reference may need to be made to one’s own experience, but to discuss if further can lead to problems. I know many monks – some of them of great holiness – but I doubt that you’d ever get any to describe themselves as Hesychasts. The question would likely be met with silence 🙂

  13. Lou Koenig Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Thanks,
    I am a sinner.
    Lou

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Me too.

    Fr. Stephen

  15. asceticism and hospitality « Arms Open Wide Says:

    […] And if St. Seraphim of Sarov’s words seem puzzling to you, access Fr. Stephen Freeman’s explanation here: What St. Seraphim Meant « Glory to God for All Things […]

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