St. Seraphim of Sarov is one of the most well-loved figures in the Russian Orthodox church. He lived from 1759 to 1833, and he spent 25 of those years living as a hermit in a hut in a Russian forest. One of the most famous stories about him goes a little something like this:
Once a nun, Matrona, came from a nearby convent to visit Seraphim. As she stepped into the clearing where he lived, she screamed in terror. A huge bear stood there, getting right up in Seraphim’s face. The hermit noticed Martrona (obviously, with the blood-curdling scream and all), then simply patted the bear and ushered it away.
The nun slowly gathered back her breath as she felt sure that the bear was really gone. Then she settled in near Seraphim, and they began to talk about prayer and communion with God. After a time she heard the shuffling, grunting sound of the bear coming back. She started backing away, but Seraphim remained still. The bear came close to him, and, with a clumsy thud, nestled against the hermit’s legs. Seraphim gently stroked the bear’s back, then broke off some of his own bread and fed it to the giant creature.
Matrona stared at Seraphim. Peace seemed to radiate from his face like a holy light. Seraphim broke off another piece of bread and held it out to the nun. “You don’t need to be afraid of him,” he said. Matrona hesitated, noticing the claws and imagining the muscles underneath all that heavy fur. Still, she was drawn by the light of Seraphim’s face. She took the bread, then, with her arm stretched out as long as it could go, she held the bread to the bear’s terrible mouth. The bear opened its massive jaws and gently took the treat from her trembling fingers.
A rush of love and joy swept over Matrona. All her fear was gone.
At this point our park ranger friends will jump in: “But don’t feed the bears!”
Don’t worry, friends; that’s not the point this story is making. Christians have told this story again and again to teach a lesson about fear and faith. The many paintings of this story are meant to remind us that when Christ is the center of our lives, fear no longer rules us. The “faith, hope, and love,” the groundedness which Christ gives us — these fruits of the Spirit keep fear in its rightful place.
One thing I really like about the story of St. Seraphim and the Bear is that it doesn’t focus on how someone conquered their fears through some otherworldly experience — even if it is the story of a nun and a saint petting a bear. The details are spectacular, but at its heart this story is about Matrona seeing the peace, joy, and love that radiated from Seraphim, and of her being drawn into his faith until she was given her own. It’s a very down-to-earth story in that sense, because, as scripture tells us:
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:12, 16b).
Maybe you, too, have been blessed to know someone who radiates love and assurance that is rooted in God’s love. Or maybe you have found such a person to learn about, whose faith radiates off the pages of a book or through the glow of the movie screen. Someone whose faith draws you deeper into your own faith.
Maybe you are such a person for someone else — or you will be.
St. Seraphim said: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”
This week, I invite you to do one intentional act to help center yourself in Christ. Maybe that’s calling up that person who models faith for you. Maybe it’s going for a long walk or making use of the prayer labyrinth outside the Chapel of the Resurrection. Maybe it’s meditating on a scripture passage or listening to music that lifts you to a place of prayer. Maybe it’s finding a way to serve others. If you’re totally stumped, you could try taking this short “Spiritual Types Test” to see if your results provide you some new ideas for how to connect with the holy.
The peace of the Lord is among us right now, so open yourselves to receive it.
The peace of the Lord kept within cannot live, so open yourselves now to share it.
(“The Peace of the Lord,” ELW 646)
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). Amen.
March 10, 2021
Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor James A. Wetzstein.
Image: Andrew Madekin. Tapestry “Seraphim of Sarov and bear” 130 x 200 cm, 1995