In our rushed everyday lives we have hardly left any space for the Miracle. Miracles do not exist in our lives.
Yet, in the very heart of the city of Sofia, though, on the “yellow brick road”,1 for fifty years and more, there has been an unceasing flow of people, who stop at the crypt of the Russian church and leave their prayer letters to the “old Vladika”, as they affectionately call the Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev), who is resting there.
Some call these letters “just wishes”. All the same, our “old Vladika” has brought many people into the Church. I am saying this as one of them.
In the Orthodox tradition, the writing of prayer letters exists as a specific kind of prayer towards some saints. This practice has been known in Russia in relation to the newly canonised venerable Father Seraphim of Viritsa, as well as with the saint Matrona of Moscow. In Bulgaria it is mostly related to St John of Rila.
The letter is a symbol of our hope that the message would reach its addressee. The prayer letters show our hope that God would hear the prayer of the righteous one and would perform a miracle!
Before his death, Vladika Seraphim ordered his parish members to write him letters, which he would answer, if he found boldness before the Lord (“If I find boldness before the Lord, I will not leave you”, were his words). Those answers are the miracles of God, which do not seize to happen today, very often even to people who are not church followers, or even to non-believers.
For many years the miracles, which happened because of “old Vladika’s” praying intercession, have been recorded. Here are only two of them, published in the book Life, Miracles and Testaments of the Archbishop Seraphim.
Healing from cancer
The wife of Dr C.Y. from Stara Zagora, R., gets ill with cancer (of the stomach). As a doctor, her husband made sure that all necessary tests were done, and after cancer was diagnosed, he sent his wife to have an operation in the capital city. When she arrived in Sofia, R. first went to visit the grave of Vladika Seraphim, whom she greatly honoured. After that she was taken into hospital. Before the operation, she had another number of tests done. This time all the analyses showed she had no cancer!
One woman, a taxi-driver, could not have children for many years. One night she had a dream. In her dream there was a baby lying on the back seat of her car, crying. She was very confused and she asked, still in her dream, where the baby came from. Then she heard a voice, and the voice said: “From Ruski Boulevard number 3”!
The next morning she went to check what is on this address and found out with a surprise that this was the address for the Russian church. The woman entered the church and told the priests about her dream. They advised her to visit the grave of Vladika Seraphim and to pray to him.
Very soon she became pregnant and gave birth to a child; and she glorified God and his servant Vladika Seraphim.
Nikolay Sobolev was born in 1881 in the town of Ryazan in Russia. He was baptised with the name Nikolay, after St Nicholas the Wonderworker. He particularly honoured St Seraphim of Sarov, who was glorified in 1903 and with whom is related Nikolay’s wish to become a monk. At his tonsure for a monk he was given the name Seraphim (see below How Vladika Seraphim was given his monastic name). In the seminary he met Fr. John of Kronstadt, who gave him a special blessing in the altar. Vladika Seraphim, as well as Fr John of Kronstadt, had the particular protection of St John of Rila (Fr John of Kronstadt was named after St John of Rila). Archbishop Seraphim created an Akatist for St John of Rila. Today, St John of Rila’s image is on the wall in the crypt of the Russian church, where Vladika’s grave is.
After he was ordained as a bishop in the city of Simpheropolis in 1920, Seraphim was divided in thought by the dillema whether he should choose to stay in his country, which was gradually taken by the Red Army, or whether he should take the path of the «bloodless martyrdom» – serving God in exile. He sought advice from the foretelling Elder («Starets») hieromonk Aaron, who foretold Vladika’s coming to Bulgaria, which he called «a good, beautiful small country».
After a short stay in Constantinople and on the island of Halki, Vladika Seraphim arrived in Bulgaria, where in May 1921 he was appointed as the «priest in charge» of the church St. Nicholay the Wonderworker of the Russian embassy, as well as of the Russian monastery in Yambol «St. Alexander Nevski». Not too long after, he became the head of the Russian parishes in Bulgaria, where he spent 29 years of his life and which became his second homeland.
His cares did not only remain in the Russian diaspora; Vladika also worked for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which was at the time under the schism of the Eucumenical patriarch (since 1872) and remained isolated from the rest of the Orthodox world. Vladika Seraphim wrote numerous letters and reports and in this way contributed to the fall of the schism in 1945.
He lived in privation, but secretly looked after the poor. Until the end of his life he lived a very humble life, living in a modest flat. He looked after his sick brother archimandrite Sergius. Despite the many obstacles, slanders and persecution during the years of aggressive communist atheism, Vladika Seraphim founded the Monastery «The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God» in Knyazhevo (an area in Sofia).
Above all Vladika remains in the memories of his contemporaries (some of them still living today) with his huge great love towards the people. He called his «children» «my joy, my treasure, my dear ones, my dearest children». Love flowed from him abundantly, and people received from him, and still receive, real comfort and loving kindness. He was always strict to himself and generous and forgiving to others, as he used to say: «In our neighbour we should see an angel, and we should see their sin as an illness.» He liked to use the words of St John Cassian the Roman: «There is a whole abyss between rigtheousness and holiness».
The person who prayed for his enemies during every liturgy, was given the very special gift of foreseeing, which he humbly used to hide. Even the time of his own death was revealed to him. Days before his death, when he was seriously ill, he was whispering to those who were close to him: «Five more days left», «Four more days left»…
Vladika Seraphim presented himself in front of the Lord on the Day of the Orthodoxy, on the 26th of February 1950. The church could not hold all the people, who came to say a last goodbye to Vladika. Many were crying on this day, despite the promise he gave when he was alive that «if he had the boldness before God, he would not leave us». One monk, who grieved a lot, saw in his dream the Vladika, who came and told him: «Why are you grieving? I am not dead!»
Up until his death Archbishop Seraphim remained part of the Moscow patriarchy. This is why his canonization is a privilege to the Moscow patriarchy. Still his memory is honoured in Russia, as he is in the number of the locally honoured (Ryazanskie, i.e. from Ryazan) saints. But the canonization involves long and slow procedures of gathering and studying proofs and “proving” the sanctity of a person (which is rather typical for the Catholic Church). From the ancient times the act of canonization has followed, in the life of the Church, the Church conscience, and not the other way round. In the wholeness of the conscience of the Church, the honouring of the saints by the People of God is an expression of the infallible sense for the sanctity of the Church, in which the Holy Spirit is present. The most varying grace from God only glorifies in one undisputable way. «We celbrate the memory of the righteous one with praises» (a chant from St. John Chrysostom). This is why the honour, which Vladika Seraphim receives in the conscience of the Church and the believers, is the only «criteria» for his sanctity.
There are many witnesses for the miracles performed through the prayers of Vladika Seraphim. The most undisputable witness still is the unseasing flow of people who come to visit his grave. I shall say again that the Church has a sense for sanctity. That is because She (the Church) looks for the meaning of miracles and not for the effect of them; She brings sense to human lives and does not offer cheap tricks. Here are some of the miracles which were performed after the prayers of Vladika Seraphim: healing from serious illnesses – cancer, fast developing cancer, skin cancer; rescue from death; children given to mothers who were believed by the doctors to not be able to have any; help in life difficulties; rescue from false accusations; help with exams; and too many others to be listed here.
Our Lord Christ says: «Ask, and you will be given» (Matt. 7:7). This is why one enters the Church in faith – in order to be accepted, to become part of it (or Her) (I am only using the word «Church» in the gender which it has in Bulgarian and Russian languages, since I find this gender depicts very well the Church as the bride of Christ – the way the Holy Scripture describes the Church. I first heard it used in English on the Ancient Faith Radio.) On Vladika Seraphim’s grave, as well as in the Church, each will be heard! However, «accordingly to the measure of their faith»! Because we participate in the grace of the miracle through our faith.