Friday, April 3, 2009

St Seraphim of Vyritsa

Today we celebrate the memory of St Seraphim of Vyritsa, a modern saint greatly venerated in the Orthodox world, especially in his native Russia and in Greece.

He was born Vasilii Nikolaiovich Murav'ev on March 31, 1866, in the village of Vakhromeevo (Arefino district, Rybinska uyezd, Yaroslav province). His father died when Vasilii was ten, and soon after his sister Olga also reposed. Not long after their deaths he moved to Petersburg. He later chose as his spirtual father Hieromonk Varnava (Merkulov) of the Gethseman Skete of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra (since glorified as a saint). He married in 1894 and became a very successful merchant. In 1920 he and his wife both decided to enter the monastic life. He entered the St Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Petrograd as a novice in 1920, and was shortly thereafter tonsured with the name Varnava and ordained a hierodeacon. On September 11, 1921, he was ordained a hieromonk by the Hieromartyr Veniamin (Kazanskii) of Petrograd and Gdovsk, and from 1926 to 1929 served as the spiritual father of the Lavra. Somewhere around 1929 he was tonsuerd to the Great Schema with the name Seraphim. In 1930, for reasons of health, he moved to the dacha of Archpriest Leonid Bogoiavlenskii in Popovk. In 1933 he was exiled to Vyritsa (Leningrad district), where he served as spiritual father for many. He reposed on this day in 1949. He was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in 2000.

It is somewhat ironic that St Seraphim is today best known as the author of a work that he did not in fact write, a prayerful reflection entitled “This Was From Me.” The entry on St Seraphim in OrthodoxWiki, for instance, begins with these words:
Our venerable and God-bearing Father Seraphim of Viritsa or of Virits (1866-1949) is a monastic known especially for his gifts of prophecy and miracle-working. He is also known for a letter that he sent to his spiritual child, a bishop who was in a Soviet prison at that time; this homily "This was from me" is written as a consolation and counsel to the bishop to let him know that God the Creator addresses to the soul of man.
The first sentence is perfectly accurate, but the second sentence is not. Anton Zhogolev has argued quite convincingly, to my mind at least, that the author of “This Was From Me” was in fact Metropolitan Manuil (Lemeshevksii) of Kuibyshev and Syzran (1884-1968). That said, it is quite possible that this work does in fact reflect the spiritual counsel of St Seraphim, given that the Metropolitan and the Elder were acquainted, meeting several times in Leningrad in 1927 and 1928. It could well be that ten years later, in 1937, Metropolitan Manuil put the Elder’s words into literary form. (The style of this piece is very similar to others known to have been written by the Metropolitan.) So it is possible, as Zhogolev argues, to speak of co-authorship in a certain loose sense.

The earliest printed version of the text that I’ve come across appeared in Pravoslavnaia Rus’ (Orthodox Russia) in 1965. There no authorship is indicated. Instead the text has this note at the end: “A manuscript coming from the Catacomb Church from Russia in 1942.” (If only they had known that the author was a “Sergianist” bishop!”) It appears to have been printed in Russia for the first time in 1992, in Blagovest (#2, 1992). There the following note appeared: “From the teaching of Hieroschemamonk Seraphim to Metropolitan Manuil (Lemeshevksii) in September 1937.” (Zhogolev mistakenly, but quite understandably, writes that this was the first publication of “This Was From Me.” He seems unaware that it had been printed with some frequency in the Russian diaspora many times previously.) According to Zhogolov, a samizdat version of the life of Metropolitan Manuil that circulated in the late 1980s made mention of “This Was From Me” as having been written by the Metropolitan in 1937. The work appeared in the two volume Praktika Khristianskogo Blagochestiia (The Practice of Christian Piety) a few years later without indication of the author. In 2000 the Moscow publisher "Blagovest" published 20,000 copies of this work as a brochure with the name of Hieroschemamonk Seraphim of Vyritsa as the author. (A work published a year earlier by A. Timofeev on the life of St Seraphim also named the saint as the author.) The Moscow edition’s postscript reads: “This text… is addressed by Fr Seraphim to one of his spiritual children, a bishop who was under arrest… This is the spiritual testimony of the Elder, addressed to each one of us.” Oddly enough, in the preface to the same edition the publishers admit that the authorship is uncertain, that it had not previously been attributed to St Seraphim, and that the style reflected very closely the work of Metropolitan Manuil. All the same, the publication had St Seraphim’s name on the cover as author.

It is the version printed in the postscript, however mistaken, that has become standard in popular piety. The Greek versions, so far as I know, unanimously reproduce the same story. It has also become standard in English-language versions, since most of what one finds both online and in print about St Seraphim is in fact English translations of the Greek translation of the Russian. This is certainly the case of The New Saint of the Russian Church, Seraphim of Viritsa, translated by Fr Nicholas Palis. (This, however, is by no means to detract from the quality of the book.)

None of this, however, is intended to question the spiritual value of “This Was From Me,” nor to deny its possible connection to St Seraphim of Vyritsa. It’s beyond doubt, however, that the person who put it to paper was Metropolitan Manuil (pictured).

It is also rather disappointing to note that the life of St Seraphim given on the OCA website is wildly inaccurate. This should really be corrected. It would also be a great service to St Seraphim if someone could supplement and correct the more accurate, but brief, OrthodoxWiki article with material from the Russian-lanugage Wikipedia article (from which I have drawn the very brief biographical sketch above) into English. Another excellent source of detailed information is this site (in Russian), dedicated entirely to St Seraphim's memory, and containing a wealth of material.

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