Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Life of Father Seraphim Rose

WHY is the truth, it would seem, revealed to some and not to others? Is there a special organ for receiving revelation from God?

Yes, though usually we close it and do not let it open up: God’s revelation is given to something called a loving heart.


SERAPHIM Rose (1934-1982) was an American convert to the Orthodox Church, who became both priest and monk, and today is widely regarded as a saint.

Seraphim triumphed over serious personal trials to become a man of profound spiritual convictions and sincere prayer of the heart, and a steady critic of religious, political, and social ‘liberalism’ at a time when their disastrous effects were not as apparent as they are today.


Intellectually precocious, the young Eugene was baptized in the Methodist Church when he was fourteen, and later became an atheist, finding an outlet for his religious instincts in Buddhism, and an expression of his worldview in beatnik culture. Emotionally intense, in his college days he entered into a homosexual relationship with a Finnish-born Russian Orthodox.  But even as his friend was moving away from Orthodoxy, so Seraphim became first acquainted with it, and then immersed in it.

He was eventually able to break his bonds, and was received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1962. As he himself would later write in God’s Revelation to the Human Heart (published in 1988). 

WHEN conversion takes place, the process of revelation occurs in a very simple way — a person is in need, he suffers, and then somehow the other world opens up.

The more you are in suffering and difficulties and are ‘desperate’ for God, the more He is going to come to your aid, reveal Who He is and show you the way out.

It was shortly after this that he wrote an extraordinary letter to the well-known Roman Catholic monk and social activist Thomas Merton, in which Eugene took him to task for his political idealism.

I DO not, of course, deny that there is such a thing as a Christian “social action”; what I question is its nature.

When I feed my hungry brother, this is a Christian act and a preaching of the Kingdom that needs no words; it is done for the personal reason that my brother—he who stands before me at this moment—is hungry, and it is a Christian act because my brother is, in some sense, Christ.

But if I generalize from this case and embark on a political crusade to abolish the “evil of hunger,” that is something entirely different; though individuals who participate in such a crusade may act in a perfectly Christian way, the whole project—and precisely because it is a “project,” a thing of human planning—has become wrapped in a kind of cloak of “idealism.”

It was Seraphim’s conviction that Christian social action is inherently private and personal, and cannot be yoked to the secular quest for ‘world peace’ or the ‘eradication of poverty’. Such grandiose ideals will inevitably, Eugene believed, swallow up the Christian faith. The transcendent will be brought down to the merely human, and – crucially – the merely human will fail in its goal.
St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood

Eugene did not wait long before bringing his energy and intellectual gifts to bear upon his new fellowship.

Together with Gleb Podmoshensky, Eugene was founder of a community of Orthodox booksellers and publishers called the St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, with the blessing of St John Maximovitch, at that time the Archbishop of San Francisco in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

The community eventually decided to flee urban modernity into the wilderness of northern California to become monks in 1966.


The St Herman of Alaska Monastery


At his tonsure in 1970, Eugene took the name “Seraphim” after St Seraphim of Sarov.

Following his ordination as hieromonk, Fr Seraphim began writing several books, including Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, and The Soul After Death.

One of his best known books, God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, was originally given as a lecture to a religious studies class at UC-Santa Cruz in 1981, and published in book form after his repose. He also founded the magazine The Orthodox Word, still published today by the Brotherhood.

The collective body of work that Fr Seraphim published quickly proliferated throughout America upon Fr Seraphim’s death and later in Russia and Eastern Europe upon the fall of atheist Communism in those countries, though typewritten copies of some of his books had been distributed underground for many years prior.

Orthodoxy of the heart
Fr Seraphim Rose (1934-1982)

Throughout his new life as an Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim stressed an “Orthodoxy of the heart,” which he felt was absent in much of the ecclesiastical life in America.

Although he gave himself no latitude in doctrine or moral virtues, and was instantly sensitive to every nuance of culture and art, he was particularly suspicious of those whose Orthodoxy was painstakingly correct without being compassionate.

DO we perhaps boast that we keep the fasts and the Church calendar, have ‘good icons’ and ‘congregational singing,’ that we give to the poor and perhaps tithe to the Church?

Do we delight in exalted Patristic teachings and theological discussions without having in our hearts the simplicity of Christ and true compassion for the suffering?

—then ours is a ‘spirituality with comfort,’ and we will not have the spiritual fruits that will be exhibited by those without all these ‘comforts’ who deeply suffer and struggle for Christ.

So it was, that those who visited him and sought his counsel found neither an intense intellectual nor a dogmatist, but a man whose simplicity of heart opened for them – however imperfect or vulnerable they were – a door to another life.

A YOUNG monk who joined the hermitage from another monastery remembers well his first meeting with Fr. Seraphim.

Unlike the pilgrims in the above accounts, this monk did not regard himself as an intellectual. He felt somewhat intimidated about meeting Fr. Seraphim, whom he already knew to be a profound and “intense” Orthodox writer.

When told by Fr. Herman to go talk to Fr. Seraphim in his cell, the monk did so nervously. Fr. Seraphim invited him in and he sat down, wondering what in the world a “simpleton” like himself was going to say to this wise and deep man with a long gray beard and penetrating eyes.

Suddenly Fr. Seraphim asked him: “Do you know anything about picking mushrooms?”

“No …” the new brother answered.

A veteran mushroom picker, Fr. Seraphim was able to tell, with openhearted enthusiasm, about all the edible mushrooms found in the area. The brother felt instantly more at ease. It was just what he needed: to hear about the simple joys of monastic life.

Simplicity – Chapter 87 from “Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works”.
Opposing the ‘Revolution’

But Seraphim had by no means shuffled off his intellectual gifts. He remained as sharply analytical as ever.

He had come to believe, however, that Orthodoxy was fundamentally about a Kingdom that is “not of this world”, a transcendent Kingdom discovered through prayer, humility, and personal relationships. It should never be reduced to being a mere approximation to the various Utopian political ideals swirling around in the 20th century, to which ‘intellectual’ Christians of all kinds too often reduced it.

THE Revolution, like the disbelief which has always accompanied it, cannot be stopped halfway; it is a force that, once awakened, will not rest until it ends in a totalitarian Kingdom of this world. The history of the last two centuries has proved nothing if not this.

To appease the Revolution and offer it concessions, as Liberals have always done, thereby showing that they have no truth with which to oppose it, is perhaps to postpone, but not to prevent, the attainment of its end.

And to oppose the radical Revolution with a Revolution of one’s own, whether it be “conservative,” ” non-violent,” or “spiritual,” is not merely to reveal ignorance of the full scope and nature of the Revolution of our time, but to concede as well the first principle of that Revolution: that the old truth is no longer true, and a new truth must take its place.

Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age
Fr Seraphim Rose (1934-1982)

Fr Seraphim admired rather those who practiced their faith in the private sphere with warmth and sincerity – be they Orthodox or, in the case of a nearby group he much admired, Protestant.

Even so, he remained convinced that Christianity offers more than practical charity, however sincere.

THEIR leaders give very practical teachings based on the Gospel, but after a while the teachings are exhausted and they repeat themselves.

Coming to Orthodoxy, these converts find a wealth of teaching that is inexhaustible and leads them into a depth of Christian experience that is totally beyond even the best of non-Orthodox Christians.

We who are already Orthodox have this treasure and this depth right in front of us, and we must use it more fully than we usually do.

Sadly though, what Fr Seraphim saw around him was a world in which politicians and intellectuals had conspired to create a society ideally shaped for their own benefit, and to create people who expectations had been deliberately shorn of this transcendent hope.

WHAT, more realistically, is this “mutation,” the “new man”?

He is the rootless man, discontinuous with a past that Nihilism has destroyed, the raw material of every demagogue’s dream; the “free-thinker” and skeptic, closed only to the truth but “open” to each new intellectual fashion because he himself has no intellectual foundation; the “seeker” after some “new revelation,” ready to believe anything new because true faith has been annihilated in him; the planner and experimenter, worshipping “fact” because he has abandoned truth, seeing the world as a vast laboratory in which he is free to determine what is “possible”; the autonomous man, pretending to the humility of only asking his “rights,” yet full of the pride that expects everything to be given him in a world where nothing is authoritatively forbidden; the man of the moment, without conscience or values and thus at the mercy of the strongest “stimulus”; the “rebel,” hating all restraint and authority because he himself is his own and only god; the “mass man,” this new barbarian, thoroughly “reduced and “simplified” and capable of only the most elementary ideas, yet scornful of anyone who presumes to point out the higher things or the real complexity of life.

For all such “new men”, the creation of powerful forces beyond their understanding, Fr Seraphim had pity, he had counsel, and above all he had time. They came to him, some hoping to learn from him, others hoping to impress him. He received them all alike.

Repose of Father Seraphim

He had not reached even his 50th year, when Fr Seraphim suddenly fell ill while working in his cell in 1982. Surgeons were unable to prevent him slipping into a coma, and on September 2 he fell asleep in the Lord. His body lay for several days in a pauper’s coffin at his monastery in the wilderness of California, yet it was said that it remained supple, and gave off (appropriately enough) the scent of roses.

Through his life, his example, his counsels, and his prayers, that “Orthodoxy of the heart” for which he yearned has become the cherished goal of many thousands across the whole world.

EVERYTHING in this life passes away — only God remains, only He is worth struggling towards.

We have a choice: to follow the way of this world, of the society that surrounds us, and thereby find ourselves outside of God; or to choose the way of life, to choose God Who calls us and for Whom our heart is searching.

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