24 September 2014
About Fr. Seraphim by nun Theadelphi
This is the Introduction written by a nun for the book Letters by Fr. Seraphim. She sees Fr. Seraphim from the perspective of a fellow-monastic – she sees him first as a monk. She understands the inner life and struggle of monasticism, and recognizes Fr. Seraphim as one who truly took the yoke on his shoulders.
related post: Book Review of Letters by Fr. Seraphim
With the publication of this volume of letters written from 1970 to 1982 by the late Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) to Fr. Alexey Young, the reader is given a partial glimpse into a relationship between a spiritual father and son, as well as a record of the growth of a working partnership between two men actively involved in English-language missionary work in the Orthodox Church.
There would be no point in publishing these letters were they no more than a remembrance of times past, no more than the memento of a relationship that, however significant to those involved, has little to say to a reader who has never met either of these men. In fact, these letters may help us discern and apply a number of important principles of the Orthodox Christian way of life. They also show us that Orthodox missionary work is the fruit, not of abstract theorizing, but of practical, applied spiritual struggle. Ranging across more than a decade, covering a wide variety of topics, these letters provide a record of Fr. Seraphim’s carefully thought-out approach to helping a new convert to Orthodoxy move from the first “baby steps” of his new life in Christ, through the development of a growing faith and maturity, toward greater stability of soul and a desire to share the treasures of the Faith with others.
There is a timely relevance to these letters, almost as though they had been written today. Although Fr. Seraphim addresses specific issues and events occurring in Church life twenty and more years ago, he does so in a way that provides the reader with a serene and mature viewpoint — a truly Christian way of evaluating people and events from the objective standpoint of history and spiritual principles rather than the gossipy and passionate approach so often found in Church circles. This invaluable quality makes his letters as instructive today as they were when they were written.
Born Eugene Rose in 1934 and raised in a Protestant family, Fr. Seraphim was from his youth intellectually gifted and philosophically inclined. By the time he reached college, the young Eugene Rose had rejected the Christianity he had seen in his childhood, turning instead to science and philosophy. During his student years, like many young people, he continued to search for the meaning of life — a search pursued with passion and even torment of soul. His longing to know why we are born led him along many paths, including several painful dead ends: scientific rationalism, Chinese classicism, Zen Buddhism, nihilism, atheism, aestheticism, hedonism.
After finishing his undergraduate degree, he enrolled as a graduate student in the department of Oriental Languages at the University of California/Berkeley, where he submitted his master’s thesis in 1961.
During the early 1960s, he began attending Russian Orthodox church services and soon realized he was finally within reach of the spiritual harbor he had almost despaired of ever finding. His conversion to Christ and to Orthodoxy was complete and unstinting. The sincerity of his repentance was matched only by the strength of his determination to submit his whole being to the will of God and the mind of the Church.
Thus began a remarkable living demonstration of the power of divine grace in human life. The intellectual pride and intolerance, the anger and impatience, the emotional and psychological complicatedness that so often go hand-in-hand with such gifts as the young Eugene Rose displayed, were gradually corrected, healed, eased. The Mother of God, to whom he developed a great devotion, helped strengthen his repentant spirit and encouraged his struggle. When ill shortly after his conversion, he prayed ardently to her to grant him time to serve God. No one who looks upon the remarkable body of work he left behind at his death can doubt that she heard his prayer.
While still a new convert, Eugene enrolled in the theological classes offered in San Francisco by Saint John Maximovitch. As a reader at the cathedral, his piety was formed and developed by the cycle of Divine services into which he plunged his heart, mind, and soul, and he had ample opportunity to learn from the example and presence of Saint John himself, before the latter’s repose in 1966. By 1966, Eugene was selling Orthodox books and icons from a small shop near the cathedral. He and Gleb Podmoshensky (later named Fr. Herman in monastic tonsure), who were the first members of the Brotherhood of St. Herman, had begun an English-language missionary magazine, The Orthodox Word, making available lives of saints, patristic texts, and commentary on contemporary matters. Their desire to move out of San Francisco to live a quiet “desert” life of prayer and labor was being realized as the correspondence published in this volume begins.
Once settled in the remote forests of northern California, near the small hamlet of Platina, Fr. Seraphim lived an intense life of prayer that nourished his work of translating and writing — work carried out amid much other labor. Living with no electricity, running water, or telephones, even the simplest tasks required much time and effort, yet the very roughness of such a life lent a down-to-earth immediacy to all of his daily experiences.
Although the brothers had moved out of the city in search of quiet and solitude, over time they found themselves in the public eye to a degree they had neither anticipated not desired. After Fr. Herman and Fr. Seraphim were ordained to the priesthood, they naturally became more visible than ever. More people came to visit, more demands were made on their time, and Fr. Seraphim found himself increasingly involved in Church life and events outside his longed-for desert stillness. From then until his death in 1982, his writing and translating work was conducted amid growing duties within the monastery and the English-language missions that sprang up around it, and under increasing pressure from some unhealthy factions within Church life in America.
Fr. Seraphim was not, by any stretch of imagination, a renegade who thought himself above the ties, realities, and obligations of church life. He was from his conversion to his death a faithful son of the Russian Church Abroad. While he was always receptive to all Orthodox Christians of good will and sincere heart, he was never a fanatic of any sort, and he found fanaticism in others sad and wearisome. His own path was firmly linked to that of his first preceptors in the Faith, among them Saint John Maximovitch, Schema-Abbess Ariadna (of the Vladimir Mother of God Convent in San Francisco), and others. Like Saint John, Fr. Seraphim was truly Orthodox and truly catholic, loving all that was best in each national Church, without making up some hodgepodge to suit his own taste.
Obedient to lawful Church authority in the persons of his teachers in the Faith and his archpastors (including not least of all his immediate diocesan hierarch, the late Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco), Fr. Seraphim was always opposed to the creation of any factional or party spirit in church life. He was keenly aware of the myriad dangers from the right and the left that surround the Christian struggler in our present age of spiritual enfeeblement and confusion, and constantly reminded others to keep to a middle or “royal” path in all things, trying always to keep solely to the line marked out by older, wiser guides, emphasizing the need for patience, balance, sobriety, humility, steadfastness, and deference to the counsel of trusted advisors.
During the first years of his Orthodox life, Fr. Seraphim had ample opportunity to see what it means wholly to subject oneself to Christ. In Saint John Maximovitch he saw someone of whom it could truly be said that he no longer lived, but Christ lived in him. In Abbess Ariadna, Archbishop Averky (of Holy Trinity Monastery), Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, and others, he saw men and women who had truly become so imbued with a living spiritual tradition that it affected all they did and were. He saw clearly that one who desires to walk the path of Christ cannot do so in company with rebellion, self-will, self-opinion, factionalism, condemnation of others, or any other impassioned notion to which the soul clings more tenaciously than to Christ. His yardstick in such matters was a simple one: any impulse or action which feeds a spirit of calculation and cold-heartedness, and one‘s desire to be right, while weakening the feeling of self-reproach and repentance, is wrong, no matter how right it may appear logically.
Indeed, during the last years of Fr. Seraphim’s life, temptations from the right abounded in church life, so that he began to speak of the “correctness disease,” which attacked many people, making them [imagine themselves to be] instant experts in theology, ecclesiology, canon law, and other exalted matters.
Long before others, Fr. Seraphim identified a profoundly dangerous problem, which he called “the great conflict of our times—the Orthodoxy of the head vs. the Orthodoxy of the heart.” He never denied the existence of serious issues in contemporary church life, but he felt, with growing alarm, that something was wrong in many “answers” to these problems, as we see in these Letters.
At the same time, “zeal without knowledge" was not the only pitfall facing Orthodoxy in America. Orthodox Christianity was then, as it remains now, a numerically small presence in American life, surrounded by other faiths and philosophies often either indifferent or actively hostile to traditional Orthodoxy. The Orthodox immigrants who came to America in the first half of the twentieth century were mostly poor villagers from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Greece, eager to fit as quickly as possible into their new home. Few of them were capable of explaining their faith to their American neighbors; fewer still realized that their desire to fit in to American culture could pose grave spiritual dangers. The sense of Orthodox tradition was eroding.
During Fr. Seraphim’s lifetime, this loss of the “savor of Orthodoxy” inevitably affected much of church life here, and he rightly warned of this dangerous watering — down of the priceless inheritance of Orthodox faith. In church architecture, pews, organs, and choir-robes replaced the traditional atmosphere of Orthodox worship with a hybrid of Catholic and Protestant fashions. In seminary studies, fashionable “higher criticism” and liturgical innovation replaced the “outmoded” methods of traditional Orthodox seminary training, as professors and students caught up to trends already becoming passe in heterodox theology. Clerical attire common in the Old World was deemed unsuitable for the American scene, and was replaced by almost-beardless priests wearing Roman collars. Among many of the hierarchs and clergy, there existed an overtly anti-monastic spirit. The list could go on. These temptations from the left — from the spirit of the world and the Prince of this world — proliferated along with those from the right — of false zeal and correctness.
All of these factors together produced an often-unstable church life, which was prone to easy infection by passing fashions of heterodox spirituality, theology and sociology, and not readily inclined to find its remedy in the monastic, ascetic, patristic ethos that had for generations anchored Orthodox life in the Old World.
Therefore, in these letters, as in his other writings, Fr. Seraphim not only warns against “zeal without knowledge.” He also speaks, sometimes quite sharply, against the false liberalism that is equally dangerous to the struggle for salvation.
One cannot deny that the years since Fr. Seraphim’s death have seen these tendencies toward polarization, fragmentation, and factionalism get worse, not better, both here and abroad. When reading these letters we are sobered and warned.
Throughout these letters, Fr. Seraphim emphasizes several themes he thought essential for anyone learning to live in Christ and that are certainly preliminary to bearing any fruit for Christ. These are also the indispensable hallmarks of the “royal path” of moderation between all extremes—spiritual, personal, or historical.
He often speaks of the need for “more heart and less head.” Life in Christ is not an intellectual pursuit, but a deep, often painful process of repentance and renewal. Fr. Seraphim was himself a good example of a complicated intellectual who had found in Orthodoxy the key to unlocking an ardent but often tormented heart, and uniting the powers of mind and heart to fruitful spiritual work, first on himself and then also on others.
Orthodox Christianity must be a way of life. It is not a Sunday morning religion that we can toss into a corner as we walk out the church doors at the end of the service. It must encompass our whole way of looking at ourselves, our brother, our world, radically affecting our daily life.
Life in Christ may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. Humble self-reproach, attention to one’s own sins, not judging one’s neighbor, faithful participation in Divine services, regular prayer, frequent Confession and reception of Holy Communion, reading the Scriptures and spiritual books — all these small, steady labors, all part of a traditional Orthodox life, will gradually effect deep changes of heart and mind.
There are no shortcuts. “There is no ‘instant theosis’,” he writes. “We must have resolve.”
Life in Christ is a process of growth and change, nourished by Divine grace and based on repentance. We must grow into the measure of Christ and become responsible children of the Church, not only receiving but capable and willing to give.
Fr. Seraphim saw clearly the problems of contemporary man. Even more clearly he saw that the answers to those problems lie in God and that no obstacle is too great to be overcome by the mercy and grace of our loving Father in Heaven.
Prayer, ascetic labors, and experience gave Fr. Seraphim a solid faith in the Providence of God, and he never became too bogged down in passing matters. He constantly reminded everyone that life passes quickly, that nothing worldly abides after death, and that we must always keep our chief goal in life — the Kingdom of Heaven — squarely in view. His own life on earth was short — a mere forty-eight years — but once he gave his heart to God, he lived only for Him and worked tirelessly that others might find the same Truth Whom he had come to love.
Fr. Seraphim’s hope and prayer for all who read this book may be expressed in the words he once wrote to a tiny, unknown mission in Northern California, where a handful of people gathered daily in a homemade chapel to read the Divine services together:
May the joy of our Risen Saviour be abundantly with you on these bright and radiant days of Pascha, and may you ever preserve the grace which you have received as a free gift from Him! Let no temptation overcome you, no darkness cloud your path, and no trial come upon you, in which you do not immediately turn to Christ our All-Merciful God, Who has trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil. Remain in Christ’s grace and He will guide you all to salvation. Remember the end of your life, the never-setting Day of Christ’s Kingdom, and you will know why you are alive, and what you are striving for.
Christ is Risen!
H.M. of Apostle Paul