Uncovering Joy in Following the Rules

July 19/August 1, 2012, Uncovering of the Relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov

36759-bWe travel to our friends’ house today in the afternoon and evening to celebrate the Baptism of their son and my new godson. That’s right. I became a godfather of a child in Russia! Another reason to keep coming back: heavenly family added to my earthly family here.

I was talking with our friend at the Baptism on Sunday, and she pressed me for the answer to the question I posed earlier in the blog about why Russians love St. Seraphim so much. I confessed to her that I had been working on the answer and had come to some conclusions, but I was pretty sure they were not correct or merely one-sided. Then I asked her what she thought.

Let me pause for a second on this point. I remember a time in my life in the not-to-distant past when it never occurred to me that another person might not want to be burdened with my ill-informed opinion. Filling the available space and time with my hot air, I also did not realize that the other person might have something more informed to say and wouldn’t say it unless I asked. I was glad that I asked my friend about St. Seraphim.

After reading his life, I was left with the impression that the Russian people loved him so much because he was easy on them. In a land that seems overly pre-occupied with following the rules, I thought this saint is like a breath of fresh air with his teaching on the freedom we can know in acquiring the Holy Spirit and saving thousands around us. This is true in fulfillment of the Gospel promise, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your soul. For my load is easy, and my burden is light.” It is true, but it is only one part of the saint’s teaching, the side we comfort and fun-loving Americans like to hear.

“The kingdom of heaven is taken with violence and the violent take it by force.” St. Seraphim may have been “easy” on others, but he was absolutely hard on himself and on those who wanted to take up the cross of the ascetic path alongside of him. In his time of the nineteenth century, Russian people were indeed pre-occupied with following the rules with external religious rigor, but like the Pharisees, they had ignored the weightier matters of the law. To become a monastic, you had to have some influence and money to buy into the system, and the monastic calling subsequently had become very worldly. St. Seraphim, like his contemporary St. Herman of Alaska, demonstrated by his life that the extreme calling of the desert ascetic was still possible not only in appearance but in actual fact.

As I deal with my own reactions to rule following in Russia, I am reminded of the spiritual teaching that I have heard more than once about growth in our life in Christ. More times than not, it is the things which make us uncomfortable that cause the greatest growth, so we should always be cautious of our first impressions and judgments. May our Lord Jesus Christ, who by his voluntary passion in our human flesh opened the path for our own voluntary suffering, show us how to suffer for Him that we may also partake in his glory and the joy that St. Seraphim knew and communicated to everyone he met. Amen.

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