Elder Hiero-schemamonk Serafim of Vyritsa
Not far from St. Petersburg, lies the village of Vyritsa, whose church is dedicated to the Holy Virgin of Kazan and which was built on the occasion of the 300th jubilee of the Romanov dynasty. In the small cemetery there is a small chapel in which lie the remains of a husband and wife. One of the graves inside the chapel is marked with a wooden cross, bearing the inscription “Hiero-schemamonk Serafim, spiritual director of the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Born 1865, reposed in God on 3rd April 1949’’.
The other grave has the inscription “Schema-Nun Serafima”. An icon lamp burns perpetually in this chapel. Vyritsa is considered to be one of the holy places of Russia. Since the repose of Elder Serafim it has become a place of pilgrimage, where the faithful come with their hopes, misfortunes and requests to the grave of Christ’s servant, Father Serafim.
Who was this elder? What were his struggles?
Elder Serafim was one of the many holy ascetics who kept alive the spirit of Holy Russia, that is, the spirit of true Orthodoxy, in a land besieged by revolution, internal repression, heresy and at a time when world opinion was set against the Slavic peoples and in particular Holy Orthodoxy. Eighty years later it would seem that despite the demise of communism, this world opinion has changed very little towards a nation that has produced so many martyrs and saints and which at grass roots level has preserved its spiritual heritage, often hidden from the casual observer.
To understand Russian Orthodoxy, we need to look beneath the cultural, political and nominal-religious layers of modern day Russia and examine her spiritual heritage which is Holy Orthodoxy and which despite many tribulations is kept alive in the hearts of her ascetics and pious believers.
Elder Serafim was one such person, who during his lifetime, spanning the rule of the monarchy and the Communist regime, preserved the flame of Holy Russia, truly living in Christ and living for his neighbor. During his life time the elder told his spiritual children to come to his grave as if he were still living and tell him their needs and he would help them.
Almost 40 years later people come to the elder’s grave, praying, serving countless memorial services (Panikhidas), weeping and repenting of their sins. For here in Vyritsa, is a place of holiness, piety and indescribable grace. Just like at Blessed Xenia’s grave in St. Petersburg, people come to Vyritsa leaving their requests on pieces of paper, describing their needs, misfortunes and requests, often naively but nevertheless full of faith in the elder’s help.
During the Second World War, in imitation of the great Sarov ascetic, the elder prayed on a stone for a thousand nights, pleading for the salvation of Russia.
The future Elder Serafim was born Vasilij Nikolaevich Muravyev in 1865 in the village of Cheremushki near Yaroslavl. His parents, Nikolai and Chionia were peasants. At the age of ten, Vasilij’s father died, leaving behind his sick mother and a younger sister Olga. The latter died at the age of two.
A kindly neighbor took pity on the family and later took the young Vasilij with him to St. Petersburg, where together they found work in a brick factory. However the soul of the youth yearned for one thing – to enter a monastery.
To his great joy, one day Vasilij received permission from the factory supervisor to make an early morning visit to the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Lavra), where he hoped to meet with the abbot. On arriving at the gates of the monastery, the young Vasilij was invited into the cell of one of the schema monks. Kneeling before this elder, the young boy begged him to take him into the monastery, added that he would take on any kind of labor.
The schema monk who had the gift of prophecy told Vasilij that he would stay in the world, raise a family and then later both he and his spouse, would become monastics. Vasilij accepted this answer from the schema monk as being a blessing direct from God. With great humility and faith he carried this out, totally trusting that God’s providence would direct his life. Working diligently as a clerk in the brick factory, he soon became the chief clerk and eventually deputy supervisor. The money he earned at this time, he sent to his mother back home in the village.
Vasilij‘s future spouse, Olga Ivanovna Naidenova (born 1872) came from the same village. She too from her early years dreamt of becoming a nun, hoping to enter the local Iveron Convent. However on a visit to this convent the young Olga had a conversation with the eldress schema-nun Pelagia who blessed her to live in the world, get married and only after many years of family life and with the mutual agreement of her spouse, to accept the monastic tonsure.
Olga readily accepted this prophetic blessing with complete trust and at the age of seventeen she married the twenty-four-year old Vasilij. As a wedding gift his employer gave Vasilij a large sum of money to start his own business. Vasilij opened his business in 1892.
Vasilij also visited the famous Sergei Lavra, near Moscow. This monastery was considered to be the spiritual center of Russia. Here lived a renowned elder called Barnabas (Merkulov). The elder did not live in the St Sergei Monastery itself, but in the small skete (hermitage) of Gethsemane. Vasilij on hearing of the elder went to the Gethsemane Skete to ask about his future and to receive a blessing. After this visit, the young Vasilij became a spiritual son of the elder.
Vasilij’s business prospered and he was successful not only in Russia, but also in France, Germany and England. He soon became a millionaire but never forgot the blessing of the elder in the monastery and tried to use his financial fortune for acts of mercy and for the glory of God. He used his wealth to support monasteries, churches and the needy.
Olga gave birth to a son Nikolai and later a daughter Olga who died after a year. This death of their daughter was the beginning of their ascetic life. Receiving a blessing from Elder Barnabas, the Muravyevs began to live as brother and sister.
The Monastic Life
In 1920, Vasilij entered the St Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St Petersburg where he became the monk, Barnabas. Olga entered a women’s convent and was tonsured a nun with the name Christina. For the next 40 years, the Muravyevs would support each through prayer. In 1927 he was tonsured into the Great Schema and given the name Serafim after the great ascetic, Saint Serafim of Sarov.
Encounters with the supernatural
“Our conflict is not against flesh and blood…” (Eph 6: 12)
In the same year Elder Serafim became the spiritual director of the St Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St Petersburg. This monastery was famous at the time for its high spiritual caliber and its number of prophetic elders. These elders played the role of the Old Testament prophets, announcing the will of God to those who came to seek spiritual counsel.
The gift of foresight however, should not be confused with fortune telling or psychic premonitions. According to the lives illustrated in this book, true foresight is a gift from God, given to those who lead a pure life. According to the words of Elder Sampson, the cell-attendant of Elder Serafim at that time, the monastery was a precious school of spirituality. Many of the fathers of the Lavra were gifted with spiritual perception and were able to do battle with the invisible world of evil spirits.
The Elder of Vyritsa
In 1933 the elder was exiled to the village of Vyritsa. His traveling days were over and from now on he would spend the time praying at home and occasionally visiting the Church of the Kazan Icon in the village. He called Vyritsa the Holy Land and the Northern Jerusalem. Many of his spiritual children who had been released from the camps came to him once more and some even settled in the area too.
Elder Serafim wearing the Great Schema
The repentant Chekist
There was an occasion when a member of the Cheka paid a “visit”. This usually meant interrogation to determine whether Soviet law had been breached. It was often used to obtain false evidence against Christians, resulting in conviction and imprisonment.
The elder was lying sick in bed. As the visitor approached the bed, the elder took the Chekist by the hand and gently stroked it. Then laying his other hand on his head, he said: “The sins of the servant of God N- are forgiven”. Suddenly touched by the grace of God, the Chekist fell to his knees before the elder. Love had conquered hatred.
From this moment the Chekist no longer looked on the elder with anger and contempt but knelt and wept before him. He talked for a long time with the elder, later becoming a friend and devoted disciple. The Chekist, a former persecutor of Christ, said that if there were as many elders in Russia like Father Serafim, everyone would be a believer.
At the outbreak of Second World War, the elder became bedridden. However he continued to receive thousands of people from all over Russia. When news of the war reached Vyritsa, the people of the town asked the elder whether they should stay or join the evacuation. The elder reassured them that not one person would be hurt or any home damaged by the advancing Germans. And it turned out to be a fact, for in September 1941 when the Germans entered the town, their occupation was indeed without incident.
During this time Elder Serafim especially prayed for the salvation of the souls of the people and for the preservation of their property and churches. During the occupation the Church of the Kazan Mother of God was reopened. It had been closed by the Bolsheviks in 1938 and had miraculously escaped being demolished just before the Germans entered the town. Romanian soldiers who were part of the German Army regularly attended services. Their commander was a German. Out of curiosity the Germans hearing of the elder’s gift of foresight, asked him who would win the war. The elder openly declared that Hitler would not be victorious in Russia.
Referring to the spiritual power of Russia (not the Communist secular authority) he said:
“You will never take St Petersburg. We are an Orthodox power. At this moment our faith is undergoing persecution but after a short time it will be reborn again”.
To the German commander, the elder said that he would meet his end in Poland. He would not return home. This was later confirmed after the war. The German commander died on the outskirts of Warsaw.
A strict ascetic
During the war the elder undertook a special podvig for the salvation of Russia from her enemies and for the people who were the victims not only of the alien invasion but also of the Communist repression. For one thousand nights he knelt on a rock in his garden at the dead of night, before an icon of St Serafim of Sarov. With uplifted arms he prayed as did his heavenly protector during the invasion by Napoleon in the previous century.
In both joy and in grief, the sick elder monk,
He prays to God for the world and all the people
And to the Elder he bows down on behalf of his Fatherland.
Pray to the Blessed Queen, O Great Serafim!
She who stands on the right hand of Christ, the Helper of the sick,
The Defender of the pious, she who clothes the naked,
Who in the midst of great tribulations saves Her servants.
While we perish in our sins, are separated from God,
Him we continuously offend in our deeds.
– by a spiritual daughter
Elder Serafim wore a white dressing gown over his monastic clothes as a disguise. He did not want his neighbors to see that he was praying in the snow at night. Only God knows how the sick elder, whose legs were crippled with rheumatism, managed to keep vigil in this manner. By day he fasted vigorously, eating one prosfora per day and a little grated carrot and some holy water. By night he prayed in the cold winter air. His physical appearance, in the words of an observer, was transparent.
Although the inhabitants of Vyritsa were not affected unduly by the German occupation, a concentration camp was set up for Russian children who were transported from other parts of the Leningrad area. This camp was set up on the outskirts of the town opposite the Church of the Kazan Mother of God. The camp was separated from the Church by a river that flowed through Vyritsa. In 1985, the local authority erected a memorial to the memory of these children who suffered under the occupation by the Germans. Their epitaph reads:
“To the children of the Leningrad district, who perished at the hands of the German Fascists invaders, during the years of the Great Patriotic War (Second World War), 1941 – 1945”
This cruel war did not spare children. Only two thousand years ago a similar incident occurred during the days of Herod the King who: “was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children…” (Matt 2: 16).
In 1942, the Germans turned a convalescence home into a hard labor camp for children. Of the 300 child prisoners, 200 died. Their bones were discovered later in the 1960s when the construction of a hydro-dam raised the water level and washed away part of the bank that bordered the former camp. Eyewitness accounts from the book “The bitter pages of memory”, by Archpriest V. Ermakov and S. Dmitrieva (Agat, 2000, St Petersburg) reveal:
“We, children worked in the forest and the fields. Bruno, the camp supervisor carried a whip which he used to cruelly punished disobedience” (V. Dedova).
During their imprisonment, a tuberculosis epidemic occurred. Fifty children died from this pestilence. The Germans warned the children that if the epidemic did not subside, then the camp would be burnt down with everyone in it. After a few weeks, the epidemic suddenly subsided and the children were spared. Many of the children who survived remembered the prayers of Elder Serafim and to this day, bear witness to the prayerful support of the Starets.
“He was an extraordinary person. During the war, he was for the most part bedridden and for the last 6 months of his life he rarely got up. How much good he did for everyone. He comforted the mothers and helped the children. ‘The victory will be ours’ he told us. For each person he found consoling words but of bad things he tried not to talk, so as not to upset the people who came to him”. (N. Zelenina, former child prisoner).
“He lay on a couch in his small cell. Our grandmother who studied at the diocesan college and sang in the church choir, set to music the verses of the elder, “A menace shall pass over our land”. We sang these to him. He smiled; evidently our singing pleased him. It seemed that he never felt so joyful as when he lay bedridden and prayed.
He lived simply, ate little and fasted all the time. In times of hunger he gave what he had to the children and other people. We were at his house several times. He told us about his life, about his trips abroad and encounters with people in foreign lands. He opened up to us new worlds of which we knew nothing at all. Batushka tried to take our minds off the evil that surrounded us.
He tried to lighten our suffering, to help us. Not all the children could visit him or attend church. However his prayers helped to save many”.
Remembering Elder Serafim, the former prisoner Viktor Semenov called him: “A holy man, who did not eat, but just prayed”.
The Elder was able to calm and to raise the hopes of children, who were not even raised in the Church. Various people came to the Elder with their everyday concerns. Batushka said little, but simply: “Return, wait, don’t cry”.
After the war, a hospital assistant, not receiving any news of her husband at the front, was told by Elder Serafim that she would be with him again. And after a week her husband returned home, unharmed.
The sanctity of food
Physical objects are very often vehicles of the spiritual realm. “And God worked special miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19: 11,12). Encounters with the spiritual are often accompanied by physical phenomena. God works through created things. For God who created this physical universe, matter matters. The physical world is not necessarily at odds with the spiritual as Plato taught, but rather acts as its agent. The Incarnation of Christ bears witness to this.
The elder taught that food is holy and that prayer sanctifies the Christian table. He taught that matter was a vehicle of the Holy Spirit and therefore he placed great emphasis on eating blessed bread, prosfora and the drinking of holy water. He sometimes recommended drinking a little holy oil. Other elders even gave their spiritual children earth from the grave of a saint to eat. On Spruce Island in Alaska, it is customary to taste a little of the earth from the grave of St Herman and to drink the water from his spring.
The spiritual world is not a world of the abstract or of speculation but is very much down to earth and tangible, although it remains incomprehensible at a purely physical level. Many were cured by the prayers of Elder Serafim from all kinds of life threatening illnesses. When somebody became seriously ill, the elder would recommend taking a tablespoon of holy water every hour. He said that there was no stronger medicine than holy water and holy oil. After serving a molieben the elder would set the table and break some bread and give it to each person present. He often gave sick people prosfora and they were healed.
He placed great importance on praying before meals, telling his spiritual children that many sicknesses were caused by omitting to pray and thank God for their food. In earlier times, people always accompanied their actions with prayer. They prayed when they ploughed the soil, when they sowed seed and when gathering the harvest. Now we do not understand how important it is to pray at the table. Instead we argue, fight and curse each other. Therefore we need to bless our table with holy water. It will sanctify the meal.
Everything we eat is an expression of God’s love for us. By means of food the whole of nature and the angelic world serves mankind. Therefore before a meal it is necessary to pray fervently.
He gave his spiritual children the following rule: Before eating say Our Father, Virgin Theotokos Rejoice!, Chief Captains of the heavenly hosts (Troparion to the Angels) and the troparion to St Nicholas. It is not in vain that we say the angels serve at the table and where the heavenly hosts are, there the saints are too.
“The dumb speak and blind receive their sight…”
Once a woman came with her daughter who was dumb. She pleaded with the elder to cure her daughter. This woman’s mother too was unable to walk and went about on crutches. The elder told her that the prayers of a mother have great weight with God and that she should pray before the icons in his cell and leave the rest to God. This the woman did. After many prayers the elder told her to get up from her knees for God had heard her prayer. The elder called the daughter who answered clearly as if she had never been dumb.
In gratitude for this miracle, the old grandmother came with great difficulty on her crutches to thank the elder. On leaving the saint’s cell, she no longer needed her crutches but walked unimpeded back to her house in the village.
St Serafim reposed on 3rd April 1949. On that day a little girl, blind from birth suddenly received her sight after kissing the hand of the deceased elder as he lay in his coffin in the Church.
Wisdom not of this world
The fallen state of man according to St Symeon the New Theologian, affects all his faculties. Everything he holds dear has become corrupted; his intuitive reason, discursive reason, opinion, imagination and even his sensations. Man thinks but his thinking is not sound. He desires but his desires are foolish. Only through purification of soul, through prayer and asceticism, can Man regain his godlike status. Through the divine gift of wisdom, the elder was able to discern the knowledge presented to him by the scientific and scholarly luminaries of that time in Russia.
When eminent scientists and scholars came to Vyritsa, the elder was able to hold lengthy and meaningful discussions with them, despite his lack of worldly learning. One such regular visitor was Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist.
In 1890 Pavlov was invited to organize and direct the Department of Physiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine. Under his direction, which continued over a period of 45 years to the end of his life, this Institute became one of the most important centres of physiological research. A Nobel Prize winner and gold medallist, Pavlov was also a very devout Orthodox Christian. In his role as an eminent scientist on the world scene, he was able to practice his religion unhampered by the Communists and more importantly was able to prevent the destruction of two churches that he personally supported with his wealth and influence. Regarded as a national treasure by the Soviet Authorities he openly opposed communism, while devoting his studies to science in his native Russia.
In the 1930s the Soviets sent out a decree that prohibited the ringing of church bells throughout the Soviet Union. Despite this law, the bells in Pavlov’s village of Koltysh continued to peal. Once, at the order of a local inspector, permission was denied to ring the village church bells. When Pavlov heard of this he went immediately to the authorities in Moscow and had this order rescinded. It was not until after Pavlov’s repose in 1936 that the bells were once more silenced by the Communists.
Other eminent visitors were the astronomer and chairman of the Academy of Soviet Science, Sergei Glazenap and Mikhail Gramenitsky who was a professor of pharmacology. The famous physicist, Vladimir Fok, renowned for his work in quantum mechanics and an algebraic system called the Fok space, also visited the elder in Vyritsa. Others were the biologist Leon Orbeli, famous for his study of the nervous system (antifatigue effect) and senior church leaders such as Metropolitan Nikolai (Yavruvevich) who later died in mysterious circumstances during the purge in 1961. Another visitor was Bishop Serafim (Chichagov) who received a martyr’s crown in 1937.
Prophecies and Teaching
In 1927 Archbishop Alexei (Simanovsky) visited the elder privately to discuss the bishop’s future under the Communists. While they talked, the bishop asked the elder whether he should flee the Soviet Union and take up residence abroad. The bishop had news of a new wave of persecution against the Russian Church. The elder told him emphatically to remain and not to fear the godless authorities. Alexei needed to stay in order to steer the ship of the Church during the coming storm. He would be elected Patriarch of All Russia.
The elder also prophesied the Second World War and said how the Russian troops would defeat the German invaders after much bloodshed. He further foretold the repose of the priest who communed him, Father Alexei Kibardin, saying that Father Alexei would die 15 years after the repose of the elder. He said that there would be a spiritual reawakening.
Churches and monasteries would be reopened and new buildings would be erected all over Russia. The Sergei Lavra Monastery would once more be filled with monks, as too the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg. The convent at Divyevo would also be reopened. A monastery would be founded in Vyritsa.
Leningrad would be changed back to St Petersburg. Radio stations would broadcast religion programs and church services. (At the time of writing of this book, most of these prophecies have been fulfilled).
St Serafim predicted that a time would come when instead of persecution, money and worldly attractions would turn the people from God and that more souls would perish than in the time of open persecution. On one hand they will build churches and guild the domes, while on the other hand falsehood and evil will reign. The true Church will always be persecuted. We will be saved only through tribulation and sickness. Persecution will take on a subtle and indefinable character.
Restoration of Holy Russia
The elder predicted that Russia would become the bastion of Orthodoxy, but only if the people continued to repent. They should strive to resist the invasion of western ideals and materialism, which would tempt many from the Christian struggle.
Importance of the Jesus Prayer
The elder recommended constant practice of the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me – especially in the most difficult of times. Each should strive according to his measure to do this. “If you do this you will be saved”, he often said to his spiritual children. According to the Holy Church Fathers, the Jesus Prayer does not only fence off a person from the temptations of the world, but it can, through constant practice, establish the heart as a temple of God. Wherever one is or in whatever circumstance, the prayer can be said in the solitude of one’s inner being.
We sow the seeds of the future life here on earth. Heavenly joy grows from those seeds we have sown here. And these seeds are prayer and tears. There is no greater happiness on this earth than to know God and to cling to Him with one’s whole soul.
The Secret Police, NKVD arrived early morning with a detachment of Red Army soldiers. The nuns were herded out of the convent and lined up in front of the gates. An official read an ultimatum. “Renounce your faith. Remove your baptismal cross and you can go free! If you refuse we will arrest you and send you to prison”. A young 18 year old nun was one of the sisters who refused to denounce her faith in Christ. She was duly arrested, tried and sentenced on the spot. For refusing to denounce her faith she was given a 7 years sentence. When she refused to remove her cross, she was given 20 years and shipped off in a truck to the local railway station to await deportation to the north.
This young nun was Sister Efrosinia, the future Schema-Nun Nila of Voskresensk. She was barely 18 years old when she was arrested. She had lived in the convent since she was 12 where her aunt was the abbess. Now, still in her youth, she was to become a living confessor for her faith.
Hear how this young nun miraculously survived the death camp at Solovets, how blind Pelageya healed and comforted the people during the fierce persecutions by the Soviet Authorities. To be found with a bible was a criminal offence, subject to exile or hard labor in a concentration camp. Learn how ordinary men, women and children putting their trust in the Lord, strived to lead ordinary lives amidst the Bolshevik terror. Discover the faith that raised the dead, healed the sick and foretold the future of a land rent with strife and starvation.
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