St Serafim of Sarov (1754–1833), though not widely known among western Christians, is one of the most popular saints in Russia and among Russians abroad. A discussion of his canonization in 1903 cannot avoid mention of some less than savoury aspects and conjuncts of his cult, but let it be said at the outset that nothing which follows changes the fact that he is both a hugely venerable and very attractive figure. Though a monk in a large monastery, he lived for years as a hermit in a neighbouring forest, loving to be unknown; but in the last years of his life, back in his monastery, he welcomed visitors, who queued in their hundreds outside his cell, day after day. A favourite greeting of his to address his visitors was moia radost (my joy). In the words of the synodal decree approving his canonization, ‘Spiritual joy had penetrated the starets so much that he was never seen to be sad or depressed, and this joyful mood of the soul he endeavoured to communicate to others.’ Equally impressive are such episodes in his life as the occasion when robbers beat him up, leaving him half-dead and with a permanent spinal injury: he not only forgave them but insisted they were not prosecuted, threatening that, if they were, he would leave the Sarov region for ever. Nothing I shall say can besmirch Serafim himself or the devotion to his memory of those who see him as a model of piety and an intercessor in time of need. But this does not alter the strange circumstances of his canonization, and it is these, not his sanctity, that are the subject of this paper.
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