Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Seraphim of Sarov Led Me Back to St. Therese

A few years ago, as I struggled through conversion and RCIA, my priest told me to read Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux.  I could only slog through the pages the first time around, and could barely relate to anything she was saying.  Everything was so humble and little to the point where I just wanted to throw the book at the wall.  Maybe that alone says a lot.

Years later, I picked up the Little Russian Philokalia of  Seraphim of Sarov.  In those pages, I discovered that same humility and littleness that St. Therese had espoused, albeit in an Eastern context.  Seraphim was a simple hermit living in the woods and loving God with all his heart - he left barely any writings, but what survives is edifying.  What struck me most was that Seraphim always referred to others as "my joy", and treated them as though they were ambassadors from Christ Himself.

These aspects of his life led me to reconsider the littleness of St. Therese and her writings.  Much like St. Seraphim, she is so humble and lowly that it is almost painful - one wants to just embrace them both and tell them they are such wonderful and good human beings.

When I came back to Story of a Soul after having spent time in the deep Russian forests with Seraphim, every word of St. Therese's work began to almost launch itself off the page at me.  Suddenly, what I had previously thought was nothing more than a sentimental biography was so rich with wisdom and the love of God that I can now barely put it down.  She sits alongside Seraphim of Sarov, that beloved Russian Orthodox saint, on my special bookshelf reserved for the works I quote from and read the most.

I know some will disagree, but to me, it says so much about the complementary nature of the Christian East and West.  I have read that there are many Catholics who privately venerate Seraphim, and conversely, I have read that St. Therese is privately venerated by some Orthodox as well. 

Of course, with this writing, I am not pretending that they are alike in many particulars - Seraphim was influenced by St. Isaac the Syrian and the Cappadocians; St. Therese by St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and The Imitation of Christ.  In St. Therese, the Passion is much more emphasized in her spirituality, whereas with Seraphim, it is the Transfiguration.  Both St. Therese and Seraphim, in my opinion, truly lived out the Passion and the Transfiguration in their own ways, respectively.

But in St. Therese and in Seraphim, I find a simple spirituality that is endearing - for me, it took Seraphim to help me come back to St. Therese and give her another chance.

To be honest with you, I am not sure if St. Therese listens to my prayers - I ignored her for so long, that I only expect her to do the same to me.  I suppose that shows how much I know about the saints.  Regardless, it is due to her, and to that wonderful Orthodox saint, Seraphim of Sarov, that I am slowly but surely learning humility.  


  1. Humility is a hard virtue for most of us, something we must truly "learn".

  2. Great thoughts about two great saints! A lot of people have trouble with Therese the first time around. Be totally assured that Therese does listen to your prayers. There is no offense taken and no grudges held in heaven.

  3. Please refer to Eastern Saints by their honorific of "St.".

    Bl. John Paul did so.

    1. Jack makes a good point. The process of canonizing saints in the Eastern traditions is not the same way that Rome recognizes saints. It would be good thing to recognize the sanctity that so many others venerate.

  4. I know this is an older post, but as an Orthodox Christian, I think using "St." should not be simply thrown around. I for one don't like it when Orthodox authors refer to post schism RC saints as "St. So-and-So" not because I'm judging their holiness, but because this transgresses the limits of our ecclesiology. Private veneration is one thing, but to call someone "Saint" is to say that the Church holds this one out as having attained unto the highest states of deification, and is offering their life as an example of the Gospel, and is confident of their heavenly intercessions. Such cannot be done by Orthodox, or I dare say, Roman Catholics, who take their own ecclesiology seriously.

    That having been said, I do want to qualify that. It's not as if the Orthodox Church looks askance at the erring Western Christians as unmitigated darkness. Sure-- you can find polemical writings especially when Orthodox are in danger of leaving the fold. But in better times, for instance, even St. Dimitry of Rostov, considered Catherine of Sienna "worthy of blessedness." If the Optina Elders could say that even a pagan could be saved if he followed the little light he had been given, how much more could we say that about Western Christians?

    1. Isaac,
      I tend to agree with you on this point, though with a heavy heart. I have hardly ever seen an Orthodox Christian refer to a Catholic saint as "St. so-and-so", so I am not certain why it is considered odd if I do not refer to Orthodox saints as saints when I am a Catholic. Bl. Pope John Paul II, I think, referred to "St. Seraphim of Sarov" in "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" as such out of respect and in the context in which he was speaking.

      God bless you.