In the Russian Orthodox church, Startsi are elders from whom younger monks take advice and orders. St. Seraphim of Sarov was the original and most famous Staret. Staret means literally "spiritual teacher." Born on this day July 19, 1759, at Kursk, Russia, he entered the monastery of Sarov when he was nineteen years of age. For 45 years he led the life of a contemplative, first in the monastery and then in an isolated hut. Eight years before his death he opened his cell to visitors so that they might seek his advice.
It was said he could supply answers before visitors had time to ask their questions. He counseled tough cases of conscience and reportedly worked miracles, healing the sick. Gentle but firm with others, he was very severe with himself. He spent many nights in continual prayer.
St. Seraphim emphasized our need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Once while discussing the topic with his disciple Motovilov, he became so shining that Motovilov could not at first look at him. His eyes were flashing like lightning, and his face shone like the sun. When finally able to lift his eyes to gaze upon his master, Motovilov was filled with peace and joy. This peace and joy, said Seraphim, was the peace and joy Christ promised the disciples at the last supper when he said, "My peace I give unto you," and "your sorrow will be turned to joy."
For St. Seraphim the whole purpose of life was to be filled with the Spirit in this way. Doing good in Christ's name was but a means to this end. He saw contemplation, self-denial and meditation as means of bringing oneself to ecstatic prayer. Depth in spiritual prayer was open, he said, to all Christians. Through his teaching and his life, he revived monasticism as a helpful force for common believers in the Russian Orthodox church.
Tsar Nicholas wanted to appoint Seraphim as the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg. This was not to the austere monk's taste. He remained a private meditative counselor until his death. The church proclaimed him a saint in 1903.
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Last updated April, 2007.