I was reading a conversation that reportedly took place between a pilgrim and the famous St. Seraphim of Sarov, an iconic Russian Orthodox saint. I was struck by the comparisons he used for the spiritual life in this dialogue, which are based on trading metaphors. If you were ever looking to amass your wealth in heaven, I think St. Seraphim is the saint for you:
“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: He who gathers not with Me scatters (Luke 11:23). Not that a good deed can be called anything but gathering, since even though it is not done for Christ’s sake, yet it is good. Scripture says: In every nation he who fears God and works righteousness is acceptable to Him (Acts 10:35).
“What do you mean by acquiring?” I asked Father Seraphim. “Somehow I don’t understand that.”
“Acquiring is the same as obtaining,” he replied. “You understand, of course, what acquiring money means? Acquiring the Spirit of God is exactly the same. You know well enough what it means in a worldly sense, your Godliness, to acquire. The aim in life of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money, and for the nobility it is in addition to receive honours, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government. The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.
“God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with a market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading, and says to us all: Trade till I come (Lk. 19:13), redeeming the time, because the days are evil (Eph. 5:16). That is to say, make the most of your time for getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake and conferring on us the grace of the All-Holy Spirit.
“The soul speaks and converses during prayer, but at the descent of the Holy Spirit we must remain in complete silence, in order to hear clearly and intelligibly all the words of eternal life which He will then deign to communicate. Complete soberness of both soul and spirit, and chaste purity of body is required at the same time. The same demands were made at Mount Horeb, when the Israelites were told not even to touch their wives for three days before the appearance of God on Mount Sinai. For our God is a fire which consumes everything unclean, and no one who is defiled in body or spirit can enter into communion with Him.”
“Yes, Father, but what about other good deeds done for Christ’s sake in order to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit? You have only been speaking of prayer!”
“Acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit also by practicing all the other virtues for Christ’s sake. Trade spiritually with them; trade with those which give you the greatest profit. Accumulate capital from the superabundance of God’s grace, deposit it in God’s eternal bank which will bring you immaterial interest, not four or six percent, but one hundred percent for one spiritual ruble, and even infinitely more than that. For example, if prayer and watching give you more of God’s grace, watch and pray; if fasting gives you much of the Spirit of God, fast; if almsgiving gives you more, give alms. Weigh every virtue done for Christ’s sake in this manner.
“Now I will tell you about myself, poor Seraphim. I come of a merchant family in Kursk. So when I was not yet in the Monastery we used to trade with the goods which brought us the greatest profit. Act like that, my son. And just as in business the main point is not merely to trade, but to get as much profit as possible, so in the business of the Christian life the main point is not merely to pray or to do some other good deed. Though the Apostle says: Pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17), yet, as you remember, he adds: I would rather speak five words with my understanding than ten thousand words with the tongue (I Cor. 14:13). And the Lord says: Not everyone that says unto Me: Lord, Lord, shall be saved, but he who does the will of My Father, that is he who does the work of God and, moreover, does it with reverence, for cursed is he who does the work of God negligently (Jer. 48:10). And the work of God is: Believe in God and in Him Whom He has sent, Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:1;6:29). If we understand the commandments of Christ and of the Apostles aright, our business as Christians consists not in increasing the number of our good deeds which are only the means of furthering the purpose of our Christian life, but in deriving from them the utmost profit, that is in acquiring the most abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit.
“How I wish, your Godliness, that you yourself may acquire this inexhaustible source of divine grace, and may always ask yourself: Am I in the Spirit of God or not? And if you are in the Spirit, blessed be God!—there is nothing to grieve about. You are ready to appear before the awful judgement of Christ immediately. For ‘In whatsoever I find you, in that I will judge you.’ But if we are not in the Spirit, we must discover why and for what reason our Lord God the Holy Spirit has willed to abandon us; and we must seek Him again, and must go on searching until our Lord God the Holy Spirit has been found and is with us again through His goodness. And we must attack the enemies that drive us away from Him until even their dust is no more, as has been said by the Prophet David: I shall pursue my enemies and overtake them; and I shall not turn back till they are destroyed. I shall harass them, and they will not be able to stand; they will fall under my feet. (Ps. 17:37-38).
“That’s it, my son. That is how you must spiritually trade in virtue. Distribute the Holy Spirit’s gifts of grace to those in need of them, just as a lighted candle burning with earthly fire shines itself and lights other candles for the illumining of all in other places, without diminishing its own light. And if it is so with regard to earthly fire, what shall we say about the fire of the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God? For earthly riches decrease with distribution, but the more the heavenly riches of God’s grace are distributed, the more they increase in him who distributes them. Thus the Lord Himself was pleased to say to the Samaritan woman: Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again. But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; but the water that I shall give him will be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life (Jn. 4:13-14).
Heavenly scarcity is not managed by the same mode of distribution as earthy economic scarcity. Instead of looking to apportion what scarce resources of grace we have well, we are suppose to invest it in our good works, prayer and fasting. Because, unlike the NYSE, there is always a return on every investment made with grace. Insider trading is not frowned upon, but encouraged! The Holy Spirit is within us, teaching us to pray as we ought! Making a profit on the investment creates more opportunity to reinvest; it causes grace to flourish in the lives of others when we exemplify the gifts of the Spirit. The Holy and Thrice-Blessed Trinity is truly the pearl of great price.
May we all become good Christian spiritual capitalists, looking to make the most profit in trading to acquire the gift of that same Trinity dwelling in our hearts.
Troparion of St. Seraphim, Tone 4
Thou didst love Christ from thy youth, O blessed one,/ and longing to work for Him alone thou didst struggle in the wilderness with constant prayer and labor./ With penitent heart and great love for Christ thou wast favored by the Mother of God./ Wherefore we cry to thee:/ Save us by thy prayers, O Seraphim our righteous Father.
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP