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Archimandrite Seraphim

Archimandrite Seraphim
Archimandrite Seraphim
Father Seraphim for me was one of the most mysterious people in the Pskov Caves Monastery. He was descended from a long lineage of East Prussian barons. In the 1930s he had come to the monastery and given himself in obedience to the great elder and monk Father Simeon.

Father Seraphim had little contact with people. He lived in a dwelling carved out of a cave that was both damp and dark. He would stand through the services totally engrossed in prayer, with his head bent down every once in a while, with light grace and reverence making the sign of the cross. Father Seraphim would also walk across the monastery completely focused on his own thoughts. To us novices, it seemed a crime to distract him. Of course, now and then he himself would briefly deign to speak to us. For example, returning to his cell from services, he would always give leftover Communion bread called prosphora to the monk on duty in the main square of the monastery. Once there was one novice whose name was Sasha Shvetsov who was seriously thinking about leaving the monastery but hadn’t said anything. Father Seraphim suddenly walked up to him and, stamping his feet, shouted to everyone’s amazement: “The road out of this monastery is closed to you!”

He himself had lived in the monastery for sixty years and had never once left its precincts. And he used to say: “I never once left this community, not even in my thoughts!” Well, actually there was one time—it was 1945, and Red Army soldiers were leading him as an ethnic German out to be shot by a firing squad. But then they changed their minds for some reason and didn’t shoot him.

Yet in general, despite his reserve and severe demeanor, Father Sera­phim was a remarkably kind, loving man. Everyone in the monastery respected and loved him, although we novices were also afraid of him— or rather, we were in awe of him, seeing as he was a man who lived on this earth entirely with God, just like a living saint.

I remember my impression of those years. At the time I was a subdeacon[i] serving under the monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Father Gabriel. I noticed that whenever Father Seraphim would walk into the altar area, the monastery’s abbot would quickly climb up towards him from his place as Father Superior and would greet him with particular respect. There was no one else to whom the abbot was so particularly deferent.

Winter, summer, spring, and fall, at exactly four o’clock in the morn­ing, Father Seraphim would leave his cave in which he kept his cell and would quickly inspect the monastery to make sure that everything was in order. Only after this task was completed did he return to his cave and heat the stove, which as a result of the dank and damp conditions of the cave needed to be heated virtually all year round. It seems to me that Father Seraphim considered himself a particular guardian of the Pskov Caves community. And perhaps that was indeed his assignment. In any case, the singular voice of that former German baron, now a great ascetic monk and one of our sagacious leaders, was always definitive in deciding the most complicated questions faced by the brotherhood of our monastery.

Father Seraphim rarely had any particular words to say to those who approached him. In the entrance to his severe monastic cave dwelling he hung up pages with quotations from the works of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. And anyone who would come to visit him would often have to be satisfied with these quotations, or else with a blunt phrase from Father Seraphim: “Read St. Tikhon of Zadonsk as often as possible.”

Through all his years of monastery life, Father Seraphim made do with the very least—and not only with food or clothing, but even in his interactions with people. For example, he would never wash himself in the shower but instead would make do with two or three small buckets of water. Asked by the novices why he didn’t bother to use the water, since there was more than enough water in the shower to wash oneself thoroughly, he would scoff that to take a shower was just as bad as to eat chocolate.

Once in 1983, I had the good fortune to be in Diveyevo Monastery in Nizhny Novgorod Province. That was much harder to do back then—a classified military factory was located nearby. The old nuns gave me a piece of a rock on which St. Seraphim of Sarov himself had prayed. When I got back to Pechory, I decided to go see Father Seraphim and give him the gift of this holy relic connected to his spiritual protector. Having received this unexpected gift, Father Seraphim stood silently for a long time and then asked: “What can I do for you in return?” I was rather shocked by this. “Nothing, thanks . . .”

But then I let slip my dearest desire: “Please pray that I will become a monk!” I remember how intently Father Seraphim stared at me then.

“For that the main thing you need,” he said softly, “is just your own free will.”

Later, under different circum­stances, he talked to me again about the will for monasticism. At that time I was already serving in Mos­

cow as a novice under Archbishop Pitirim. But Father Seraphim was living out his very last year of life on this earth and was already almost unable to get up. When I got back to Pechory Monastery, I went to see the ailing elder in his cave. And suddenly he himself began the conversation about the monastery and about the state of monasticism in our days. This was very unusual for him and made the moment all the more valuable. I remember a few key ideas from that conversation.

First of all, Father Seraphim spoke about the monastery with immense inexpressible love, as of the greatest treasure there was: “You cannot even conceive of how precious a treasure the monastery is! It is a pearl, it is uniquely valuable in our world! Only later will you really understand and value it.”

Then he addressed himself to the main problem of those who wish to become monks nowadays. “The misfortune of monasteries nowadays is that people come here with weak wills.”

More and more nowadays I understand how profound this remark by Father Seraphim was. The self-sacrificing renunciation and decisiveness needed for true monastic asceticism is ever more lacking among us. It was about this more than anything that the heart of Father Seraphim grieved as he observed the young inhabitants of our monastery.

Finally he pronounced an extremely important concept for me. “The time of the big monasteries has passed. More fruit now must be harvested from modest communities in which a Father Superior will more easily be able to take care of the spiritual life of each monk. Remember this. If ever you will be the abbot of a monastery, do not accept many brothers.”

That was our last conversation, in 1989. At the time I was just a simple novice. I wasn’t even a monk.

The clairvoyance of Father Seraphim was never doubted either by me or by my friends in the monastery. Father Seraphim himself was rather calm and even slightly skeptical when it came to conversations about miracles and clairvoyance. I remember once he said: “Everyone likes to say that Father Simeon was a miracle worker and could predict the future. But for all the years that I lived in his company I never noticed anything of the kind. He was just a good monk.”

But I myself several times experienced the full force of the gifts of Father Seraphim.

Once during the summer of 1986 I was passing by the elder’s cave cell, and I noticed that he was about to change the bulb in the light on his front porch. I brought him a small footstool and helped him. Father Seraphim thanked me and said: “A bishop took a novice to Moscow for further tasks. Everyone thought it would not be for long, but he ended up staying there.”

“And?” I asked.

“And that was it!” Father Seraphim said. Then he turned around and went back to his cave. Not understanding, I went back on my own way. What novice? What bishop?

Three days later I was summoned by Archimandrite Gabriel, Father Superior of the monastery. He told me that Archbishop Pitirim of Volokolamsk, chairman of the publishing department of the Moscow Patriarchate, had just called him from the capital. Archbishop Pitirim had learned that in the Monastery of the Pskov Caves there was a novice with an advanced degree in cinematic studies, and therefore asked the abbot of our monastery to please send this novice to him in Moscow. It seems they were in urgent need of specialists to prepare a film and television program devoted to the anniversary of the millennium of Russia’s adoption of Christianity. The commemorations would be within two years, and much needed to be done.

The novice of whom they were speaking was me. I don’t remember a more frightful day in my entire life. I begged Father Gabriel not to send me to Moscow, but he had already made his decision.

“I’m not going to get into an argument with Archbishop Pitirim because of you,” was all he said in answer to my pleas.

Only later I found out that my return to Moscow had also been a longtime request of my mother, who was very much hoping to talk me out of becoming a monk. Father Gabriel sympathized with her and had been waiting to find some excuse to send me back to my inconsolable parent. Besides, such curt and even gruff commands were very much in his style.

Of course I immediately remembered my last conversation with Father Seraphim about the novice, and the bishop, and about Moscow, and I ran to see him and his cave.

“It is God’s will! Do not grieve! All this is for the best. You will see this for yourself, and one day you will understand,” the elder said to me ten­derly.

How difficult it was, especially in the beginning, for me to be living once more in Moscow! It was particularly difficult because, as I would wake in the middle of the night, I would realize that this amazing world of the monastery, so incomparable with anything else, blessed with its Fathers Seraphim, John, Nathaniel, Theophan, Alexander . . . all these dear men were now many hundreds of kilometers away. And here I was, far off in Moscow, where there was nobody and nothing who could compare with them.

[i] *A subdeacon is an assistant to the clergy serving in the altar.

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