Way of the Orthodox
Defender of Orthodoxy, Archbishop Seraphim Sobolev
From my mother's womb Thou art my Protector (Ps. 70:6).
The age-old enemy of our salvation, as if sensing in advance what a powerful and implacable adversary he would have in the person of Vladika Seraphim, tried to destroy him while still in his mother's womb. She had an extremely difficult and painful labor, and the doctors determined it would be necessary to operate-to extract the infant piece by piece in order to save the mother's life. At this moment she regained consciousness and, on learning of the doctor's decision, with an oath forbade her husband to permit the murder of her child. The next morning, at the first stroke of the church bell on December 1, 1881, she successfully gave birth without any outside help. When she saw the baby, she exclaimed, "Oh, what a serious mukhtar!" The infant was named Nicholas in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, but his family sometimes called him "mukhtar," an apparently senseless word which he disliked terribly. Years later, Bishop Nestor of Manchuria visited Vladika Seraphim in Sofia. He presented him with a book of his memoirs, in which, in the chapter about his visit to Jerusalem, it said that the word mukhtar means "bishop" in Arabic. And so, not realizing it herself, his mother had foretold the destiny of her newborn child.
Nicholas was an excellent student and, after attending the local parish school, he entered the seminary. There, in the second to the last year, he decided to devote his life to God. With tears he began to pray fervently and made this vow to the Saviour, "My Saviour! Help me to write my compositions well, and I promise to be a monk and belong to Thee with every fibre of my being." From that time on, his compositions were always the best in the class.
When he finished seminary, his mother, considering his health too weak to study at the Academy, tried to arrange for him to become a priest. To this end it was necessary to find a fiance. Loving his mother and never opposing her in anything, Nicholas submitted entirely to her will and even was silent about his vow to become a monk. Suspecting nothing, his mother began arranging a marriage for her son, and in one summer they visited several towns and villages in search of a suitable bride. But such was not God's will, and every time the matchmaking fell through, often in a completely incomprehensible way. Finally, in the middle of August, 1904, she said, "All our efforts concerning your marriage and setting you up as a priest have come to nothing. Now you arrange your own future."
"In that case," said Nicholas, "let's go to the cathedral, to our Mother, the Queen of Heaven, to her wonderworking Bogoliubsk Icon and ask the Mother of God to show me herself my life's path."
His mother readily agreed. It turned out that the wonderworking Icon had been taken back to the village Zimarova, where it was usually kept. However, on the way to the cathedral, they met a friend of Nicholas', Misha Smirnov, and Nicholas confided to him his predicament. "You were such a good student; surely it was not to become just a church reader. You should enroll in the Academy," said Misha. When Nicholas protested that it was already too late and that he was completely unprepared for the competitive examinations, Misha pointed out that because of renovations the entrance exams at the Petersburg Theological Academy had been postponed until the end of August. "You are a person of deep faith," said Misha emphatically. "Put your hope in God! The Saviour Himself will help you. Go without any preparation."
These unexpected words from the first person they met Nicholas took as the answer from the Most Pure Mother of God to his prayer, clearly and definitely pointing out to him his path in life. Meanwhile, he felt in his heart an unusual joy and, when he confided this to his mother, she said she also felt great joy and added, "It's obvious that this is God's will. It's obvious that this is your path." Nicholas then went to the seminary library and gathered a whole stack of books. In the ten days he had to prepare, he had time only to look at the chapter headings and flip through thousands of pages of hefty theological textbooks. From this, all that formed in his head was chaos.
His mother gave him her last money for the trip together with her blessing, and Nicholas set out for the Academy.
The written examinations began. The most difficult was the first written examination in logic, on the topic, "From a logical point of view, how does one explain that in philosophical arguments, to the very same question the argumentations of both sides can be diametrically opposed to one another." This difficult topic was given first with the purpose of immediately selecting the very best seminarians coming from all over Russia. Sighs were heard among the students. First one, then another, began rising from his seat, and gathering together his documents in order to return home. Nicholas began to pray fervently, "O Lord, give me understanding of what to write on such a difficult subject." In answer he heard an inner voice, "Do not write from a logical, but rather from a psychological point of view." He immediately began writing that from a logical point of view this was impossible to explain because the laws of logic are identical. And he developed his theme from a psychological approach, based on the words of the Saviour, "Out of the heart proceed your thoughts." That is why from the proud heart of Leo Tolstoy came false teaching, but the grace-filled heart of Fr. John of Kronstadt poured out truth. Nicholas was worried that he had taken liberties in changing the topic, but, to his great amazement and joy, he received for this composition a 4.5, which was the highest grade and stood out from among the multitude of twos and threes and even ones received by other students.
After this began the oral examinations. The first was on dogmatic theology. Only two days were given for preparation. Nicholas spent them in the attic of the Academy, leafing through the pages of thick textbooks. At midnight on the eve of the exam, he sat on the stairs leading to the attic and wept. During these two days, all he had managed to do was to convince himself that of the 150 question cards he knew only one: "The history of the dogma of the Holy Trinity," because he had answered it on an examination in seminary. With tears Nicholas prayed, "O Lord, my Saviour, Thou Who art merciful and all-powerful, make it so that tomorrow the question card, 'The history of the dogma of the Holy Trinity' will fall to me. Otherwise I will fail and go home with great sorrow and grieve my mother."
Before going to the examination the next morning, he went to the Academy church, where he made a prostration before the icon of the Saviour and repeated his request. Each student was tested for half an hour and more, and many of them answered very well because they had been preparing all summer. Nicholas was worried, and he prayed fervently to the Saviour. Finally, about three o'clock, came his turn. Trembling, he turned over his question card and read: "The history of the dogma of the Holy Trinity." The Lord had answered his prayer! Sobolev gave an excellent answer and received a grade of 4.75. His joy was boundless from the realization of the Saviour's divine help.
The next exam was in church history. There was twice as much textbook material on this subject as for dogmatics and there were 250 question cards. Looking through the questions, Nicholas was dismayed to see that he knew only one question well: "The history of the Arian heresy after the Nicaean Council." Just as he had done when preparing for dogmatics, on the eve of the examination in church history, he sat at the attic door and wept. And again he began to pray fervently that the Saviour once again grant him His divine help. "My Saviour, my Joy!" he said. "Thou Who art merciful, all-powerful, what is it to Thee to fulfill once more my request. Thou knowest that I know only one question and do not know the others. Please, let fall to me the question card, 'The history of the Arian heresy after the Nicaean Council.' Otherwise I will fail, return home and grieve my mother." Back in his room, Nicholas fell asleep in tears.
The next morning at the examination, suffering terribly from anxiety and the uncertainty of his fate, he could repeat only, "O Lord, help me. My Joy, my Provider, help me." When Nicholas was called to the examination table, hardly able to stand on his feet, he drew out and turned over his question card. What joy he felt when he read on it, "The history of the Arian heresy after the Nicean Council." He could barely contain his feeling of thankfulness toward the Saviour, Who had so miraculously revealed to him His protection a second time.
Sobolev answered so well that the professors decided to send a letter of thanks to the Riazan seminary for the brilliant student. And when he returned to his seat, the other students whispered, "At-a-boy, Riazaner!" For the rest of the examinations, Nicholas no longer dared to ask the Saviour's favor, but they also went well. And so, with the help of the Saviour, Vladika entered the Theological Academy without any preparation. When Nicholas was in the fourth year at the Academy, the inspector, Archimandrite Theophan, asked him point-blank if he intended to become a monk. Nicholas, in his humility considering himself unworthy of the monastic podvig, was tormented by this question, not knowing God's will regarding him. To solve his perplexity, he wrote a letter to Fr. John of Kronstadt, but he received no reply. He also asked Elder Anatole (Potapov) of Optina, but the Elder wrote that he could not answer his question without seeing Nicholas in person. When Nicholas received the letter from Fr. Anatole, he began to grieve even more; nowhere could he get a direct answer indicating God's will for him.
At this time he was reading the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov-the book lay open on his table. Weighed down by his quandary, Nicholas began pacing the room, when suddenly it dawned on him, "What little faith I have! Why, St. Seraphim of Sarov is alive right now. He is at the throne of the Holy Trinity. Right now he can resolve all problems and questions, if with faith we turn to him in our prayers. I will go this very moment to the table where St. Seraphim's biography is lying. I will turn to him as to a living person, I will fall on my knees and beg him to resolve my dilemma: Should I marry and become a priest, or should I become a monk?"
And Nicholas did just this. Making a prostration, with a prayer he opened the book and read: "A certain novice from the Glinsk Hermitage, wavering exceedingly concerning his vocation, came purposely to Sarov to ask the advice of Fr. Seraphim. Falling at the feet of the saint, he entreated him to resolve his tormenting life's question: Is it God's will for him and his brother, Nicholas to enter a monastery? The holy elder answered the novice, 'Save yourself and save your brother.' " Nicholas took these words of St. Seraphim as a divine revelation from God that he should become a monk, which was, in fact, his heart's desire. From this time he regarded monasticism not only as his life's path, commanded him by God, but also as the path of his brother Misha (who subsequently became the Archimandrite Sergius.)
When the time drew near for his tonsure, Nicholas was asked what name he would like to receive. He said that, inasmuch as a monk should renounce his own will from the very onset, he was willing to accept whatever name he was given. "Well, take care," said inspector Archimandrite Theophan, "that you not are not upset if you receive an ugly name." It later came out that they had decided to give Nicholas the name Dositheus. But it turned out otherwise. On the eve of the tonsure, the rector of the Academy, Bishop Sergius, who was supposed to tonsure him, went to have dinner with the merchant Rubakhin. Rubakhin's two young daughters began asking the rector what name he was going to give the new monk. On hearing that it was to be Dosi-theus, they pleaded that it be changed not only to another but to the very nicest name.
Returning home in the carriage, Bishop Sergius suddenly remembered that when he was present at the opening of St. Seraphim's relics, he had made a vow to this God-pleaser that if he became rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, the first student he tonsured he would name Seraphim. And he decided to call Nicholas by this name, in honor of the great Sarov God-pleaser. During the tonsure, when Nicholas heard, "Our brother Seraphim tonsures the hair of his head," he gave a start from amazement and was filled with great love and thankfulness to St. Seraphim, thinking, "He not only revealed to me God's will to become a monk, but he was pleased to take me under his grace-filled guidance."
Accepting monasticism, the newly-tonsured Seraphim gave himself over to strict fasting and unceasing prayer. Thus, from the day of his tonsure to his very death, Vladika did not eat meat. For many years he ate food only once a day.
Graduating near the top of his class, Fr. Seraphim taught for a year at a priest's college before being appointed assistant supervisor of the diocesan school in Kaluga. The pupils there loved Fr. Seraphim very much, especially the little ones in the first classes, who had to leave their parents for the first time and cried at being separated from their mothers. With his loving heart, Fr Seraphim immediately guessed the cause of the children's sorrow and comforted them. Every day, during free hours and particularly on holidays, he came to the younger classes and engaged them with soul-saving discussions, mainly from the lives of the saints. The children became very attached to the good and affectionate director who understood their hearts so well. He was their first friend and arbitrator, and also a tender mother. When, during free hours, Fr. Seraphim went through the corridors, students from different classes ran out, each trying to call him into his classroom. "Come to us, Batiushka, come to us!" they cried, vying for his attention. Fr. Seraphim tried to visit them all and uplift them with his talks. When, after two and a half years, Hieromonk Seraphim was transferred to Kostroma, the children's grief was indescribable. They wept scalding tears. On the day of his departure, some of them refused to eat, and they went again and again to him to bid farewell, at which time Fr. Seraphim gave as a keepsake and consolation little icons, crosses and whatever else was at hand.
While he was still in Kaluga, Vladika often went to the Optina Hermitage, where he visited the elders Anatole, Barsanuphy and Joseph. Fr. Anatole treated him with special love and was his father confessor.
In 1910, during Christmas vacation, Fr. Seraphim decided to go to his mother in the town of Permyshl. His mother was overjoyed by this but worried how she would feed her favorite son. She worried about his weak health and wanted very much to fatten him up, but he did not eat meat and it was impossible to find fish in town in winter. After praying fervently before an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, she put on a sheepskin jacket and went out into the street. Soon a man came walking on the other side and she called to him, "Are you a fisherman?" "That I am. What of it?" "Well, in a few days my son, a monk, is coming to visit. He doesn't eat meat, only fish. So, go to the river and catch some fish for him, and I'll pay you as much as you want." "You think you can catch fish now, my dear woman? Why it's minus 25o C. The fish have all gone to the bottom." But Vladika's mother persisted. "My son will pray for you." The man finally consented. He went to the Oka River, where he spent about an hour breaking through the meter-thick ice. Then, crossing himself and praying as the woman had instructed him, he let down the net into the hole, saying, "O Lord, for the sake of Thy servant Fr. Seraphim, send a fish." No sooner had the net been lowered than something got caught in it, and the man pulled out an enormous silver bream which he took at once to Vladika's mother. Overjoyed, his mother offered him money, but he was adament in his refusal. "Come, come, my dear woman. I don't need anything. Why, this was a miraculous catch. Tell your son to pray for the servant of God, Peter." And he left.
In 1912, Hieromonk Seraphim was appointed rector of the seminary in Voronezh. At the time this seminary was in very shaky condition concerning discipline. Soon after his arrival, he had a talk with all the seminarians, and he noticed that the undisciplined pupils jeered at him without fear of reprisal. In the evening, the inspector brought to the rector a list of the troublemakers and offered to expel them immediately. Fr. Seraphim took the list and said he would handle the guilty ones himself. During his free time he began calling them one by one to his office; he talked with them affectionately, asked them questions and used persuasion. As a result, he elicited from them sincere tears of repentance and a promise to reform. Within a year Vladika had so transformed the seminary that it was judged by the Synod inspector to be the best in the country.
On October 1, 1920, on the holy day of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, in the cathedral of Simferopol, Archimandrite Seraphim was consecrated a bishop. It was a great comfort for him that on that occasion, by God's inscrutable ways, the great Russian sacred treasure, the wonderworking Kursk-root Icon of the Mother of God "Of the Sign," was present in the cathedral.
Soon after this, to his sorrow, Vladika had to leave his native land. He was a short time in Constantinople before moving to Bulgaria where, in August 1921, he was appointed Director of Russian Orthodox monastic communities there.
Living in ceaseless ascetic endeavor, from abstinence and difficult living conditions, Vladika contracted tuberculosis. Despite his serious illness, he cared for his flock with true pastoral fervor. He served frequently and gave sermons three times a week, calling his flock to repentance, to grace-filled reformation and to the most basic virtue-Christian humility. Especially noteworthy were Vladika's sermons on Forgiveness Sunday, when, after his appeal, many people who had quarrelled with each other for years tearfully begged forgiveness of one another.
As an archpastor, Vladika Seraphim made the rounds of Russian parishes in the provinces, and visited the Russian schools. His talks and his warm, loving personality left a lasting, grace-filled impression everywhere. In difficult material conditions, Vladika cared also for poor and sick Russian people. For some he arranged free hospital treatment, others he placed in homes for invalids, for some he obtained pensions, some he fed at his place, and some he settled in his monastery. Nor did Vladika overlook the destitute Russian monks on Mt. Athos. He formed a committee for collecting help for them and in his sermons appealed to parishioners to donate to this holy work.
In 1934 Vladika was raised to the position of Archbishop. Spiritually gifted from his early years and constantly engaged in a fiery struggle with the passions, Vladika, while still a relatively young bishop, attained great spiritual heights. Several of his spiritual children have recorded cases of his clairvoyance, which manifested itself even at a long distances. For his angelic purity, Vladika received from the Lord the gift to perceive the most subtle deviations from Orthodox Christian truth. He watched over Orthodox Christian life and was its conscience, as it were. Where he observed irregularity, he uncompromisingly exposed it, not fearing to suffer for the truth. As a result, he produced some priceless theological works.
Vladika's major work was the refutation of the heresy of the Parisian theologian Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, for which, in 1937, Vladika received a Master's Degree in theology. He was rushing to complete this work by a certain deadline when he became ill with a fever. He implored the Mother of God, to whose prayerful intercession he had resorted all his life, begging her to heal him. And what happened? Vladika's temperature immediately dropped and he was able to finish his work within the allotted time.
Vladika poured out all his love for the Saviour in his theological works, fervently defending the truths of Orthodoxy. "My books are my blood," he declared. And truly, he lay down his life for Christ in the struggle with heretics, sparing neither his strength nor broken health. Vladika constantly worked at night. This upset his brother, Archimandrite Sergius, as it did me, in view of his weak health. Knowing this, Vladika wrote secretly. In the evening he would lie down and, when everyone else had fallen asleep, he would get up and continue writing, taking advantage of the nighttime quiet, considering it his pastoral duty to defend the truth. It is not by chance that the Lord called Vladika to the next world on the day when the holy Church celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy and its defenders.
In conclusion, I will say that before his very death, Vladika said to his spiritual children, "If I find boldness before the Lord, I will not leave you." And in fact, the night after the burial Vladika appeared in a dream to one of his spiritual sons, a monk, and said, "Why are you weeping? I have not died, I am alive!"
And we believe that in the abodes of paradise, "where all the righteous repose," he prays for us and we can turn to him with our sorrows as to a living person and he will always hear us and help us. Again, I will allow myself to remind you of the words, poured out from the loving heart of our Vladika, who lay down his life for his flock, entrusted to him by God, "I am not only your father, but also your own mother."
Let us forever preserve in our hearts these comforting words of our unforgettable archpastor. Amen.
Archimandrite Panteleimon (Staritsky) From "A Word in Remembrance," delivered on the first anniversary of Archbishop Seraphim's repose, 13/26 Feb. 1951.
Some Miracles Worked through the Prayers of Archbishop Seraphim after his Repose
From the day of Archbishop Seraphim's repose (February 13/26, 1950), his sepulchre [in the crypt of the Russian Church of St. Nicholas in Sofia] has been an uninterrupted source of miracles. Just as during his life, so after his death, Vladika Seraphim mercifully continues to help people who resort to his prayerful intercession, not only from all over Bulgaria but also from abroad.
One unfortunate mother unexpectedly received help from Archbishop Seraphim before she even knew of him, when she was still an unbeliever. She was a teacher in a high school and lived with her only son in Silivna. In 1952, her son P. was serving in the army on the southern border of Bulgaria. The winter that year was very severe, snowy and cold. One day, when the young man was at his post, tired and frozen through, he fell into the snow and into a deep sleep. Just then there was a raid by a group of saboteurs who were trying to cross the border. Fortunately, the soldiers of P's detachment were able to beat them off and disarm them. But when they started looking for the sentry, they found him asleep at his post, arrested him and sent him to the military court in Sofia. Because of unfavorable political conditions at the time, the court, in order to give an example to other soldiers, passed the harshest sentence-execution! To petition for mercy was out of the question. The distraught mother could only ask that they give her the body of her son, that they not deprive her of the comfort of visiting his grave. She came to Sofia and every morning with dread phoned the prison to find out if the sentence had been carried out. In such hopeless waiting one night she dozed. Suddenly, there appeared to her a resplendent elder who said to her, "Suffering mother, come to me to the Russian church and I will help you!" Not waiting till dawn, while it was still dark, she ran to the church, thinking she must have seen the image of some saint whose miracle-working icon was in the church. When she went around to all the holy icons in the church and did not find such an image, she returned home in disappointment, deciding that it had all been a hallucination. But the following night this same elder again appeared to her and said, "You were in the Russian church, but did not come down to me. Come to me downstairs and I will help you." The astonished woman then understood that this was not a hallucination. Once more she went to the Russian church and asked if any miracle-working icons were kept in the church basement. Going downstairs, her eyes suddenly fell on the portrait of Archbishop Seraphim. She recognized in him the same handsome elder of her dream, who had promised to help her, and she began fervently to pray to him. After praying for a long time, all in tears, she came out of the sepulchre. Leaving the church, she unexpectedly met an old acquaintance whom she had not seen for a long time, a dear friend and fellow-student of her deceased husband. This man had become a prominent lawyer in Sofia. On learning of her misfortune, he immediately went with her to the Ministry of Defense to the chief military procurator. The procurator straightway got in touch by telephone with the current Ministry chairman, V. Chervenkovy, who agreed to repeal the death sentence, commuting it to life imprisonment. After a few months, with the very first amnesty, the young man was released!
His mother, up till that time an atheist, came to fervently believe in God. In gratitude to the Lord, she arranged in the courtyard of the Russian church a sumptuous meal and personally told everyone of the miraculous help she had received from Vladika Seraphim.
It is well known that students and school children in particular visit Vladika Seraphim's grave. They pray to him for successful exams and receive divine help which is manifested not only on the exams but also is reflected favorably in their souls.
One student, a second-year medical student, often visited Vladika Seraphim's sepulchre and prayed to him about his exams. The student was from an atheist family and was not even baptized. One day he again was praying there. When he had finished praying on his knees, he kissed the marble sepulchre and arose. And . . . suddenly he saw Archbishop Seraphim before him, as if alive. Vladika blessed him and said, "Be baptized and keep the fast!" Then he disappeared. The student was shaken to the depths of his soul by what had happened. He straightway summoned from the provinces his aunt, who was a believer, and asked her to be his godmother. He was baptized in the church of the Great Martyr Panteleimon in the old age home in Knjazhevo. After this remarkable experience, the student told everyone that even death could not shake his belief in the existence of life beyond the grave.
This is what a chorister from the Russian church, I.I., had to say: "One day I was praying in the sepulchre of Archbishop Seraphim. An elderly lady came in, apparently of the intelligentsia. She told me how, in 1988, a tumor had appeared in her mouth, which started to grow quickly. Soon she began speaking with difficulty and could not eat because it caused her such great pain. She turned for help to various doctors, one of whom, an oncologist, was a personal acquaintance. After an examination, he told her frankly that she had rapidly progressing cancer of the tongue, and that medicine was powerless to help her; the cancer had already spread to almost the whole inside of the mouth.
The unfortunate woman, while still in her native city of Plovdiv, had heard of the extraordinary cases of healing at the grave of Vladika Seraphim, and she began going every day to the Russian church and praying for a long time at his grave. On the sixth day she stood alone in the sepulchre. Suddenly she heard a voice, "Dip the candle you are holding into the vigil lamp above me and anoint the affected area." Overwhelmed with amazement and joy from this wonderful answer to her prayer, the sick woman did as she was told. To her great surprise, the intolerable pain stopped immediately. In the days that followed, she continued to anoint the sick place; the tumor gradually began to shrink and, after a week, disappeared completely! The sick woman went to her oncologist-acquaintance. After examining her, the astounded doctor asked her to tell him with what she had been treated and who had healed her. The woman recounted to him in detail all that had happened, whereupon the doctor declared that she had found the most effective means of treatment and joyfully exclaimed, "Glory to God and to holy Vladika Seraphim!"
The widow of a certain priest suffered very much because her daughter could not get married. She was told about Vladika Seraphim and she went with her daughter to his grave where they prayed fervently. When they came out, they met a young man, an acquaintance whom they had not seen for a long time. He was overjoyed at the meeting and, very soon after this, he married the daughter.
Life and miracles from Kratkoye Zhizneopisaniye Arkhiepiskopa Serafima (Soboleva), (A Brief Life of Archbishop Seraphim Sobolev), published as "A Gift of Orthodox Christians of Greece to their brothers in Christ of Russia"; Thessalonika 1991; translated by Mary Crockwell, and slightly abridged.
Article from Orthodox America