Precious mettle

Seraphim_of_Sarov_coinWhen I saw today’s item, I immediately wanted, quite intensely, to get it in my hot little paws. I want to make it twinkle and glitter and shine in the sun. It is affordable in itself, although for a half-ounce of silver it is quite expensive. The price is in the art, which is exquisite. I want to see it in person.

But at a deeper level, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In Christianity, there have been various ways of dealing with Exodus 20:4-5, when in the course of handing down the Ten Commandments, God says,

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…”

The question has been whether this passage is referring to any depiction of anything, or a depiction of people and events of religious significance, or specifically idols that are worshipped as gods — or somewhere in the middle. There have been tremendous conflicts over this topic during the Iconoclast Controversy and the Protestant Reformation, and people have died for their beliefs on the topic.

In line with current consensus allowing objects stimulating reverence for religious entities (with variation on how explicit those objects can be), there is a genre of silver bullion with religious themes, ranging from the Ten Commandments to the crucifix to the Lord’s Prayer to “Footprints.” Some people are willing to pay a high premium for bullion with religious themes. A few are even offended by the American Eagle with the goddess Liberty depicted on it, PAMP’s bullion with the goddess Fortuna on it, and the like. I suspect there may be some dynamic here about Judas, who was paid in silver to betray Jesus, and spiritually decontaminating silver bullion.

However, it was only recently that a series of bullion came out with my religion’s themes, even though using silver to honor a saint by decorating a scene or portrait is perfectly ordinary in my church’s tradition. A saint (I forget which one) expressed our perspective most clearly when he said something to the effect of (and I am paraphrasing here), “Bind two pieces of wood into a cross and I will kiss the cross; take them apart, and I will throw the wood into the fire.”

Use silver to decorate a picture of a saint or a religious theme, and it honors its subject; melt that silver (from need, without hostility), and although its absence may leave the picture sadly bereft of its prior magnificence, the silver is just scrap.

So a silver depiction of a saint is in no way strange. And I want this half-ounce bejeweled piece of silver depicting St. Seraphim of Sarov. I really admire St. Seraphim; I like the look of silver bullion; I think this item is very, very well executed; and I don’t for one second want to worship it. It’s just one heck of a nice creation that makes me contemplate the holiness of this saint.

However, I also find this item profoundly disturbing.

Seraphim print iconSt. Seraphim of Sarov, of all people! He was a hermit of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries known for his asceticism, his mysticism, and the peaceable way he attracted wild animals of the forest, ranging from rabbits to wolves.

He was so brave that he once famously allowed himself, without resisting or trying to escape, to be beaten almost to death by frustrated robbers who found nothing of value in his hut besides a picture of the Virgin Mary. When they were captured, he asked for leniency for them. He was exceptionally not a materialist, even among saints. Possibly only St. Mary of Egypt, who lived alone in the desert naked, could be called less materialistic, and she had the advantage of a warm climate!

St. Seraphim knew about the world, but he lived as far out of it as possible. He is recorded as having said, in a long discourse,

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 … 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.

That is, mere good deeds are necessary but aren’t enough; it is their spiritual effects on us that matter more. I think many (if not all) religious believers would agree with that, but still, it is a pretty high standard.

Seraphim wooden IconA decorated piece of precious metal with St. Seraphim’s image on it calls to mind the wonder of his spiritual excellence, and it reflects the glory of Paradise that he abides in to this day.

It is also a massive betrayal of the very asceticism, mysticism, unworldliness, and humility of his entire way of life.

So as reluctant as I am — and I am very reluctant, because this is a beautiful piece — I will turn away from this little silver icon. If you, like me, have a devotion to St. Seraphim, or are even just intrigued by him, I highly recommend buying this wooden icon (and its inexpensive matching wooden veneer greeting card) or this printed icon depicting him feeding his bear friend, as being more in keeping with his spirit.


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