It is perhaps easy to get trapped in books and concepts when trying to understand a transcendent reality such as the Holy Spirit. Knowledge can deepen, however, by learning of the lives of the saints, Christian believers who have come to a profound, abiding relationship with God.
St. Seraphim of Sarov was a Russian monk and hermit of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who maintained that acquiring the fullness of the presence of the Holy Spirit is the goal of the Christian life. Seraphim's assertion was not the result of some optional devotional practice; it is a belief well founded in the New Testament.
Seraphim himself lived in the Spirit to a high degree. While his later life was filled with prophecies and miracles, his religious practice bore little resemblance to that of modern Pentecostals or charismatics.
During a severe illness as a child, Prokhor Moshnin – Seraphim later became his religious name – was healed after receiving a vision of the Mother of God. At the age of 19, he entered a monastery. A few years later, he again fell seriously ill and was again miraculously healed.
At age 35, Seraphim went to live in the forest as a hermit, living only on grasses and vegetables. There, he was attacked and brutally beaten by some passing thugs, offering no resistance to the beating. Because of the attack, he was a hunchback for the rest of his life.
He began to live a life of even greater asceticism and prayer. He is said to have prayed the Jesus Prayer – "Lord Jesus, be merciful to me, a sinner" – non-stop for 1,000 days while kneeling on a stone.
After 25 years as a hermit, Seraphim had a vision that called him to end his silence and begin preaching to others. He wrote nothing and all we know of his subsequent teaching comes from conversations that others recorded.
For Seraphim, all that we acquire of any value comes through prayer. Consciously, reflectively repeating the Jesus Prayer brings peace to the soul, purity of heart and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
"Every good deed done for Christ's sake gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer gives us this grace most of all," he said. "Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful."
These are simple assertions, but how few of us follow them! The spirit of constant prayer is the greatest gift we can offer to a broken world.
The world, Seraphim said, has departed from the simplicity of the early Christian ways. We are inattentive to the work of our salvation. "Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved," Seraphim said in one of his conversations.
Always attentive to the ways of the Spirit, Seraphim maintained that each Christian receives in Baptism the same gift of the Holy Spirit that the disciples received at Pentecost. Even those who fall away from the practice of the faith retain that gift throughout life.
In the Eastern Church, the hesychast tradition – the life of silence combined with the inner repetition of the Jesus Prayer – is seen as the most rewarding personal spiritual path.
Through the dedicated practice of the Jesus Prayer over many years the whole person is transformed just as Christ was at the Transfiguration. As Seraphim asserted, the transfiguration of one soul can lead to the salvation of thousands more.
St. Seraphim lived in a time of Russian history, not of spiritual renewal, but of spiritual decadence. The faith had been compromised because of Czar Peter the Great's efforts to uproot traditional Russian ways.
Here we see a sign that the seemingly unstoppable march of militant secularism spurs a reaction in the human spirit. In the midst of godlessness some will turn to God with an unparalleled fervour. Their quiet counter-witness to the spirit of the times starts the gentle flow of the Spirit back into society. That gentle flow is a force more irresistible than the strongest armies. It is the power of the Holy Spirit.