Abba Serapion The Bishop
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Serapion?
Abba Serapion was a well known bishop, was known as a scholar, presided over biblical schools of learning, and defended orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. His education on the spiritual life started out in the desert of Egypt as a disciple of Anthony the Great.
Early in his life, Serapion was noted for his education and was made the head of a biblical school in Alexandria. He was respected for his knowledge and insight, as such, he was entrusted with the training of new converts to Christianity. Eventually he left his post to retire as a monk in the desert of Egypt and to train and learn under Anthony the Great.
Serapion became friends with Athanasius, another notable theologian in early Christianity. He worked alongside Athanasius to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against the Macedonian heresy, an early heretical understanding of theology that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius and Separion were known to have written back and forth in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Most of what Serapion penned has been lost to time. His work written for bishops laid out prayers, sacraments, and instruction for the office of the bishop and was very influential in his day. It is his only remaining work preserved today.
He was known as a kind and loving man who was concerned about the salvation of men and women. Once, when travelling through Egypt, he came across a prostitute and hired her for the evening. Refusing to be concerned about his reputation, he went with her. Upon entering her dwelling, he said to the prostitute…
“Wait a bit, for we have a rule of prayer and I must fulfil that first.”
Taking a copy of the book of Psalms, he read from the beginning, pausing to say a prayer for the prostitute in between each Psalm. The woman sat with Serapion and began praying with him, trembling with fear.
When the book was finished she fell to the ground, knowing that Serapion was not interested in committing sin with her, but was concerned about her soul. The woman said to the abba, “Abba, do me this kindness and take we where I can please God.” Serapion took her and to a mother of the desert and entrusted her care to a monastery of women. He charged the mother of the monastery,
“Take this sister and do not put any yoke or commandment on her as on the other sisters, but if she wants something, give it her and allow her to walk as she wishes.”
It was eventually said that the life of the former prostitute had so radically changed that she became a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
Another time, a young man visited Abba Serapion. Abba Serapion invited him to pray together, but the man claimed he was unworthy. Serapion attempted to wash the feet of the man, but was rebuffed again. Serapion, sensing the false humility of the young man, admonished him saying,
“My son, if you want to make progress stay in your cell and pay attention to yourself and your manual work; going out is not so profitable for you as remaining at home.”
The young man was instantly offended. Abba Serapion once again brought correction,
“Up to now you have called yourself a sinner and accused yourself of being unworthy to live. but when I admonished you lovingly, you were extremely put out. If you want to be humble, learn to bear generously what others unfairly inflict upon you and do not harbour empty words in your heart.”
The young man saw his fault and thanked the father.
The Spiritual Life
Abba Serapion the Bishop taught based upon an axiom that attributed to him.
“The mind is purified by spiritual knowledge (or by holy meditation and prayer), the spiritual passions of the soul by charity, and the irregular appetites by abstinence and penance."
As with many of the desert fathers and mothers, purity of heart was the goal of the spiritual life. This is generally based upon the passage in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God.” The vision of God in the heart was an end goal of the monastic, and as such, purity of heart should be strived after.
To Serapion, the mind is purified by what you put into it. Mental prayer and meditating on scripture were foundation blocks to purifying the mind. Serapion taught prayer as adopting the will of God.
“'When you pray say, 'Lord, teach me to do Thy will.’”
Generosity towards others was the means by which anger, lust, greed, etc…could be tamed. Once, when asked by a monk for some advice, Serapion, upon noting the books on his shelf (an expensive commodity), he said,
“What shall I say to you? You have taken the living of the widows and orphans and put it on your shelves.”
To Serapion, taking care of the widows and the orphans were of greater importance than great learning. Charity towards others turns the gaze from our own needs towards the plight of another.
Gazing at Christ and self-interested living could not coincide, Abba Serapion said,
“When the soldiers of the emperor are standing at attention, they cannot look to the right or left; it is the same for the man who stands before God and looks towards him in fear at all times; he cannot then fear anything from the enemy.”
When the individual has the heart of God as his only destination, his concern is only towards what would bring pleasure to the heart of God.
Fasting and abstinence were necessary components to quelling the temptations latent within the heart of man. Fasting serves to highlight the desires of the heart. As soon as a thing is deprived that thing is desired.
Abba Serapion taught that, while God was ultimately unknowable in his essence, Christ had come to make God know to mankind. This simple, yet profound truth is evident in two verses from a prayer penned by him.
“We praise thee, Ο un-created God, who art unsearchable, ineffable, and incomprehensible by any created substance. We praise thee who art known of thy Son, the only-begotten, who through him are spoken of and interpreted and made known to created nature.”
Though God is unknowable by “created substance,” Christ has interpreted God and made him known to human nature.
To Serapion, the coming of the Holy Spirit is integral to that process.
“Give us a spirit of light, that ‘we may know you, the true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ’ (John 17:3). Give us the Holy Spirit, that we may be able to speak and to declare your unspeakable mysteries.”
Prayer, charity and abstinence create within the heart a welcoming environment for the Holy Spirit to reveal the heart of the father to the individual.
Though what has been preserved of Abba Serapion is small in comparison to others, his mark on Christianity in his day was profound. His was taught by the greatest of the desert fathers, he walked with the most influential theologians, and he undergirded fellow leaders in his day. Abba Serapion passed away around 365 AD.