The Orthodox Church is going through deep changes in these last days of 2018. Ukraine is establishing an independent church leading to a serious controversy within the Orthodox world that has prompted a schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and Constantinople patriarchate.
In this series of articles, elements of the history of Orthodoxy in Russia will be (re-) explored to feed the debate covered in most media around religion, power and politics.
The story of Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), one of the most revered Orthodox saints, is a symbolic journey through the various milestones in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) over the past two hundred years till nowadays.
After decades of seclusion, the pious hermit began to receive visits from pilgrims as word of his ability to heal body and soul spread among the faithful. Some accounts relate Seraphim’s prophesies about the fate of the last tsar Nicholas II who was killed during the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Seraphim would also have foreseen the future of Russia under the Soviets. According to these narratives, he anticipated the repression against the church during the twentieth century. Other accounts raise the affinity that Seraphim might have had with the Old Believers, the Orthodox Christians who refused Nikon’s reforms of the mid seventeenth century to preserve traditional ways of worship. Seraphim’s teachings of internal unity and spiritual purity thus transcended the canonical differences between the ROC and the Old Believers, a schism that still exist today.
It is known that he was canonized in 1903, but Soviet authorities confiscated his relics when they closed the Sarov Monastery in 1923, at the beginning of the repressions against the Orthodox Church. Like many other objects of veneration, his relics were kept in a storage room in the Museum of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad. The city of Sarov where Seraphim engaged in ascetic struggle, became the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear program. Sarov was a closed city with limited access to keep the research secret. During the buildup of the nuclear center, many churches were destroyed or repurposed in a failed, yet violent attempt to eradicate religion and all its manifestations.
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Saint Seraphim’s relics were uncovered and displayed in a Moscow convent. In the wave of spiritual revivalism and enthusiasm for Russian saints, Russian believers were now able to pay tribute to the holy man. In 2003, the Patriarch Alexey II and President Putin paid a visit to Sarov to celebrate Seraphim’s hundredth anniversary of canonization and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2016, a tiny piece of these relics orbited around the earth on board the spaceship Soyuz MS-02. Russian cosmonauts now regularly take religious objects with them into space, such as icons, the Gospels, and stones from Mount Tabor (the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus), symbolically spreading their faith around the world. This practice has become a tradition for space missions since 2008, when relics of Saint Sergius of Radonezh accompanied cosmonauts into space. Ironically, space conquest was formerly heralded as a great achievement of the antireligious Soviet authorities. A popular Soviet propaganda poster even depicted Yury Gagarin in space with the caption: “There is no God!”
Another chapter in the story of Seraphim’s relics was the meeting in Cuba in February 2016, where Patriarch Kirill offered some fragments of the saint’s remains to Pope Francis as a token of the rapprochement between the two churches. For memory, Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church are at odds since the great schism of 1054. This historic encounter in Cuba held a highly symbolic value as no head of the ROC had met with the head of the Catholic Church. During this encounter, both pontiffs agreed that “the past method of ‘Uniatism’ is not the way to reestablish unity”. The Joint Declaration further cast“ hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms,and that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony.” It was almost three years ago.
Recently, in December 2018, archeologists from the Russian Academy of Science have made interesting discoveries during their excavation in Sarov monastery. They found a marble plaque commemorating the canonization of Seraphim and testifying the attendance of the Tsar Nicholas II with his family. This artifact resurfaces as a thread connecting the past and the present.
Saint Seraphim’s unique journey during his life has continued after his death with each milestone epitomizing a key moment in the unfolding history of Russian Orthodoxy.