St. Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) is arguably the most popular of modern Orthodox Christian saints. The allure of his holiness drew pilgrims from all over Russia to his small hermitage. There, as from an inexhaustible spring, he poured out spiritual consolation on the multitudes in the form of physical and spiritual healings.
While his healing ministry toward people was marvelous, it comprised only one facet of his daily life; a large portion of it he gave to prayer, ascetic labor, and reading. This article takes a closer look at his approach to spiritual reading.
His Daily Regime
St. Seraphim’s daily reading schedule was nothing less than Herculean. Granted, he slept about four hours each night and so had extra time, but it was heroic all the same. I tried to emulate him for a few days and simply couldn’t keep up.
He explains why he read so much: “In order to give our spirit freedom and enable it to rise from the earth and be strengthened by sweet converse with the Lord, we must humble ourselves with constant vigils, prayer, and the remembrance of God. And I, poor Seraphim, for this reason, go through the Gospel daily.”
“On Monday I read St. Matthew, from the beginning to the end; on Tuesday, St. Mark; on Wednesday, St. Luke; on Thursday, St. John; the other days I divide between the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the Apostles.”
Besides his study of Scripture, he read the Epistle and Gospel of the liturgy as well as the Lives of the Saints for each day. His counsels to visitors also revealed a wide knowledge of the Church Fathers and their writings. While reading, he would sometimes comment aloud on the sacred texts. As he could be heard through his hermitage door, the monks and pilgrims would gather about and eagerly drink in his expositions.
The Purpose of Spiritual Reading
In short, he read to keep God in remembrance; “Through this (reading), not only my soul but even my body rejoices and is vivified, because I converse with the Lord. I hold in my mind His life and sufferings and day and night I glorify and give thanks to my Redeemer for all His mercies that are shed upon mankind and upon me, the unworthy one.”
He describes reading in terms of soul sustenance: “’The soul must nourish itself with the word of God, because the word of God is, as St. Gregory the Theologian says, the bread of angels which feeds the soul that hungers for God. Most of all we must read the New Testament and the Psalms, which one should do standing up. From this comes the illumination of the mind which is changed by a Divine change.”
He also uses the metaphor of swimming; “One should habituate oneself in this way so that the mind might, as it were, swim in the law of the Lord. It is under the guidance of this law that one should direct one’s life.”
We likewise gain discernment through studying Scripture; “When a person nourishes his soul with the word of God, there is gained an understanding of what is good and evil.”
This is especially important for someone in authority such as an abbot of a monastery; “An abbot should be well-versed in the Holy Scripture; he should be studying day and night in the law of the Lord. Through this activity, he may acquire for himself the gift of discerning good and evil.”
Reading may also alleviate various temptations; “This affliction (acedia) is cured by prayer, abstinence from idle talk, manual labor according to one’s strength, reading of the word of God, and patience.”
In addition, meditating on sacred texts sanctifies the soul; “Remaining in one’s cell in silence, work, prayer, and instruction day and night in God’s law makes a person devout.”
We can also evaluate ourselves through the study of Scripture and the lives of the Saints; “He who is traveling the path of heedfulness should not trust merely his own heart, but should verify the workings of his heart and life with the Law of God and the active life of ascetics of piety who have passed through such endeavor.”
Finally, if a person has no spiritual guide, sacred writings may stand in its stead; “If we cannot find an instructor able to direct one into the contemplative life, in this case, one must be directed by the Holy Scripture. Likewise, one must endeavor to read the writings of the Fathers and strive as much as possible, according to one’s strength, to fulfill what they teach, and in this way, ascend little by little from the active life to the perfection of the contemplative.”
Where to Read
“It is very profitable to occupy oneself with the word of God in solitude,” he says, “and to read the whole Bible intelligently. For this occupation alone, apart from good deeds, the Lord will not leave a person without His mercy, but will fill him with the gift of understanding.”
Why seek solitude? As noise and commotion often impede concentration, solitude creates the necessary conditions to allow the sacred texts to penetrate the heart.
“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 the Holy Scripture, and apart from this he might receive warmth, which in solitude produces tears; from these, a man is wholly warmed and is filled with spiritual gifts which rejoice the mind and heart more than any word.”
How to Read
Besides seeking solitude to read and meditate, he advised others to stand before the icons when reading. Why stand? Standing is an ancient biblical posture denoting humble respect; standing also reinforces the knowledge of God’s presence and is thus an act of faith. For example, we think of the Prophet Elijah who stood at the cave’s entrance when speaking to God, (1 Kings 19:13), or Moses at the burning bush, (Ex. 3:5). It is also a posture of worship, as when Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chron 6). However, standing to read is only a recommendation and may not be feasible for all.
He advised monastic novices to practice a form of lectio divina, whereby the text is read several times; “If you are in your cell without any work for the hands, be diligent in all kinds of reading, but above all in the reading of the Psalter; strive to read each section many times to keep it all in mind.”
A Monk for All Seasons
This short sketch of St. Seraphim’s approach to spiritual reading gives only a glance at his personality. To have a more comprehensive view of the marvels of this saint, one must read a first-rate biography of him (see below). In truth, he is a monk for all seasons – his advice is timeless and applicable to persons of every age and condition.
All quotes from: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol.1 – St. Seraphim, published by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, 1996
Recommended biography: St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Spiritual Biography by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore