31 October 2016
(checked against the original)
The Desert Paradise
a chapter from Not of this World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose
by Monk Damascene Christensen (ch. 59, p. 444-454)
The silent man is a son of wisdom, always acquiring much knowledge.
~ St. John Climacus
Not every quiet man is humber, but every humble man is quiet...
The humble man is always at rest, because there is nothing which can agitate or shake his mind...
I should say that the humble man is not of this world.
~ St. Isaac the Syrian
With the little flame that burned in their hearts since their tonsure, the fathers were able to follow Fr. Spyridon deeper and deeper into the monastic mystery. Now they truly began to reap the spiritual fruits of the desert.
“Our attention,” Fr. Herman writes, “gradually began to take in the life that directly surrounded us. We began to see reality as it is and not to depend on human opinion. The sound of the wind, the changes of the weather, its influence on one’s mood, the life of the forest animals and birds – it was as if even the breathing of the plants and trees now had significance. Peaceful ideas were sown. The eyes began to accustom themselves to seeing not just what was external and jumped out at them, but th essence of the matter. Although friends came with love and tried to help, they were actually more of a burden and right from the beginning made errors of simple judgment, worrying about the external aspect that passes and not seeing the essence. And with what joy was the heart filled when silence reigned again and much-speaking stillness.”
Elder Zosima of Siberia, whose Life and writings were among the seminal texts which drew the fathers to the wilderness in the first place, once wrote about the desert: “How is it possible to describe accurately all the inner spiritual feelings which are so sweet that not even a successful reign over a kingdom can give the same joy and peace as does the desert life! For when you neither see, nor hear, nor associate with the world which has gone astray, you find peace, and your whole mind naturally aspires to God alone. There is nothing in the desert life that would hinder or distract one from serving God, reading the Holy Scripture, and nourishing one’s soul with deep contemplation of God. On the contrary, every event and every object inspire one to strive towards God. The dense forest surrounds one and hides him from the whole world. The path to heaven is clear and pure, and it attracts one’s gaze and inspires one’s desire to be vouchsafed to be translated into that blessedness. And if one’s gaze does turn towards the earth, to behold all the creatures and the whole of nature, one’s heart is no less exalted with sweet love towards the Creator of all, with awe at His wisdom, with gratitude for His merciful kindness; even the pleasant singing of birds inspires one to prayerful praise and song. All creation leads our immortal spirit to unite with its Creator!”
“I believe,” wrote Elder Zosima elsewhere, “that if one departs for the inner desert overcome and persuaded by a divine love for Christ, he will truly live as if in Pardise.”
This became Fr. Seraphim’s own experience. Fr. Herman recalls how once he awakened from a terrible nightmare and ran to tell Fr. Seraphim his fears. “What are we doing out here in this place?” he demanded. “This is crazy!”
Fr. Seraphim rubbed his eyes from sleep. “Why, we’re in Paradise!” he said.
From an earthly point of view, such a statement was incredible. Primitive shacks, bats, rattlesnakes, scorpions, no water: hardly a paradise according to 20th-century concepts. As Fr. Seraphim’s words later led Fr. Herman to reflect, however: “It makes a lot of sense if you know what Byzantine Orthodoxy is. We’re here in order to recreate Paradise in our hearts. But if we see it with earthly eyes, we’re wasting our time.”
In Fr. Seraphim, as in Fr. Spyridon, Fr. Herman was to catch glimpses of another life, another existence. In the morning, before church services, Fr. Seraphim had a practice of circling the entire monastery grounds. As the golden glow of the morning light filtered through the broad canopy of oak leaves, Fr. Seraphim could be seen blessing and even kissing the trees.
“What’s this?” Fr. Herman asked him. “Kissing trees!”
Fr. Seraphim looked up, smiling radiantly, and continued walking.
Fr. Seraphim knew better than anyone that this old earth, weighed down by the fallenness of man, had not long to live, that it would be “obliterated in the twinkling of an eye,” transfigured into a new earth. And yet, as Fr. Herman realized while he watched him make his rounds, Fr. Seraphim was already living as if in the future age. “He wanted to die,” Fr Herman says, “to melt into the earth, which will be transformed…. The very idea of the tree he kissed was otherworldly, for trees were originally created incorruptible in Paradise, according to the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai.”
In order to know this transfigured realm which was man’s inheritance from the beginning, Fr. Seraphim was first of all being transfigured himself. The whole aim of monastic life is the transfiguration of the old man into an unearthly being, which is why the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord on Tabor has traditionally held such great significance for monastics.
As Fr. Seraphim knew, however, such transfiguration does not happen of itself. He did not wait for the virtues to come naturally, but, seeing, their lack in himself, he consciously labored to acquire them, hoping on Christ to strengthen him. Each day entailed constant unseen warfare, watching and fighting against the interior movements of the fallen man. He lived according to the following words of St. Macarius the Great, which he translated and copied in his spiritual journal: “In coming to the Lord, a man must force himself to that which is good, even against the inclination of his heart, continually expecting His mercy with undoubting faith, and force himself to love when he has no love, force himself to meekness when he has no meekness, force himself to pity and to have a merciful heart, force himself to be looked down upon, and when he is looked down upon to bear it patiently… force himself to prayer when he has not spiritual prayer. And thus God, beholding him thus striving and compelling himself by force, in spite of an unwilling heart, gives him the true prayer of the spirit, gives him true love, meekness, ‘bowels of mercy’ (Col. 3:12), true kindness, and in short fills him with spiritual fruit.”
A primary means of spiritual transformation is repentance: the awareness of sin in oneself, even the most subtle, and the heart-wrenching desire to turn from it and change. This lies at the heart of the monastic life. “Sin,” wrote Fr. Seraphim, “is not a category of specific acts such that, if we refrain from them, we become ‘sinless’ – but rather a kind of web which ensnares us and from which we can never really get free in this life. The more deeply one lives Orthodoxy, the more sinful he finds himself to be – because he sees more clearly this web with which his life is intertwined; the person, thus, who commits fewer sins feels himself to be more sinful then one who commits more!”
Every year during Great Lent, Fr. Seraphim tried to reread the whole of Blessed Augustine’s Confessions, and every year he would weep at Augustine’s profound repentance. From the portions he underlined in the book, it is clear that Fr. Seraphim saw his own life in the story of Blessed Augustine’s conversion from rebellion to faith. In many passages the similarities are striking, as if it were Fr. Seraphim and not Augustine who was writing about his past.
By humbling himself down through unseen warfare and repentance, Fr. Seraphim was better able to give glory to God and the grandeur of His creation. For Fr. Seraphim, the apocalyptic transfiguration of the fallen world began right now, within himself. Through a process of gradual purification, in contrition, prayer, and spiritual vigilance, Paradise began to blossom in his heart. The Kingdom of God was indeed within him.
When Fr. Herman would watch his partner walking through the woods absorbed in thought, he would think: Now here’s one who belongs here. Instead of shriveling away in solitude, he soars in it. He has a world of his own, and being here only unfetters it.
Fr. Herman also noticed that Fr. Seraphim was always cheerful: not overly happy – just cheerful. “The saints,” Fr. Seraphim once explained, “are in a state of deep happiness, because they are constantly looking above and keeping in mind, with determination and constancy, to get to a certain place, which is heaven; and thus they see all the details in the world in that light. If what they see has to do with evil, with the nets of demons, with worldliness, with boredom, with discouragement, or just with ordinary details of living, all that is secondary and is never allowed to be first.”
As Fr. Herman has said, “Fr. Seraphim had no interest in the mundane; he never forgot that there was another world. He could immediately determine what was worthwhile and what was not, and would totally ignore and dismiss low, cheap things. This was not even deliberate on his part; it had become automatic. He had the strength of character to concentrate only on what was needed. From this I could see that he had been practicing unseen warfare long before I met him.”
What most amazed Fr. Herman was that his partner never spoke an unnecessary word. “An intelligent man,” stated St. Anthony the Great, “is one who conforms to God and mostly keeps silent; when he speaks he says vey little, and only what is necessary and acceptable to God.”
Fr. Herman was wont to talk on and on about particular subjects related to their life and work; and Fr. Seraphim, valuing the transmission from holy teachers that his partner represented, would patiently absorb it all in silence. Fr. Herman would think this was the end of it; but time and again he would be surprised when Fr. Seraphim would later come up with a gem of a statement that would crystallize the very essence of what he had been trying to say with so many words.
“I could see,” Fr. Herman recalls, “that not only was his mind working but his heart was involved, and his heart caught those things you just can’t get, as a rational being, from books. He was on a different level of thinking. He thought much and prayed much, and somehow the Mother of God was involved in this process. Things were open to him, but he couldn’t tell of them because others wouldn’t understand. That’s why he said so few words, even when I urged him to reveal the fruits of his contemplation.”
Fr. Herman remembers a mysterious incident from his early association with Fr. Serpahim, before the foundation of the Brotherhood, when they spent the night on the beach by a bonfire. The starts were out, and they could see the buoys flickering on the horizon. Fr. Seraphim sat for hours looking out to sea, not saying a word. Then he turned and looked at Fr. Herman out of the corner of his eye. His face was very serious. “I know you,” he said. “I knew you before. I knew you were coming.”
Fr. Herman knew these words had nothing to do with “reincarnation,” for in his conversations with Fr. Seraphim on that subject he found his views thoroughly Orthodox. Rather, his words revealed that he was seeing reality on a higher level, as it was in relation to eternity. Once Fr. Herman asked Fr. Seraphim how people could prophesy the future, and the latter told hold him precisely this, that it had to do with seeing from a higher perspective.
“When you are up in the sky,” Fr. Herman explains, “you can see a man coming, hours before he reaches his destination. When on that night Fr. Seraphim said he had known me before, it was because he had seen my entering into his life from another perspective, twenty miles up in the sky. And it made sense to him.
He was not at home in the world, he had no lust for life like I did; and that’s why he could go so high – into super-consciousness.”
Fr. Seraphim spoke very often about “the Truth,” and every time it seemed to Fr. Herman that he was not talking about a mere principle or concept, but about a living Person. Once Fr. Herman found Fr. Seraphim praying alone in the church, fervently imploring God on his knees. When he asked Fr. Seraphim what he was praying about, the latter said that the world was turning away from the Truth, and the Truth was diminishing in the hearts of men. Fr. Herman marveled that his partner should be thinking in such terms, that he should be actually praying about Truth.
Observing Fr. Seraphim’s silent contemplation, Fr. Herman would tell him half-jokingly, “You’re a hesychast!” – meaning a “silent one” engaged in direct contemplation of Divinity. Fr. Seraphim, however, did not like this term applied to himself. He even became indignant, saying, “I don’t know what that means.” Of course he knew intellectually, but he did not want to pretend to understand it from experience. He detested posing and fakery of any kind. For him, spiritual life had to be first of all down to earth, filled with humility and a sober awareness of one’s low spiritual state. In his younger days he had written: “He who thinks himself self-sufficient is in the snare of the devil; such a man who thinks further that he is ‘spiritual,’ has become almost an active accomplice of the devil, whether he realizes it or not.”
In his love of Truth, Fr. Seraphim clung above all to sobriety (nipsis), seeing reality s it is in truth. Fr. Seraphim himself explained this as the state of Adam in Paradise. “Adam,” he said, “was in a state of sobriety. He looked at things and saw them the way they were. There was no ‘double thought’ like we have in our fallen state: looking at things and imagining something else.”
The saints and ascetics have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to regain this state of pre-Fall Adam; and thus it was that they managed to live in forlorn and forbidden deserts as if in Eden. Fr. Seraphim approached this state in simplicity of Heart. There was no “double thought” of looking at himself imagining himself to be “spiritual.” The closer he drew to incorruptible Paradise, the more he felt he did not deserve it.
Father Seraphim cherished every day he was given to spend in the forest. He felt like his favorite Russian desert-dweller, St. Cyril of White Lake, who, having found the wilderness spot which the Mother of God had given him for the salvation of his soul, had declared, “here is my rest unto the ages, here will I dwell” (Psalm 131). Even if only for a day, Fr. Seraphim hated to leave his place of salvation. When he would have to drive to town he would get it over with as quickly as possible, driving fast on the mountain roads, doing the specific errands without lingering for moment, and returning home immediately. He especially dislike going to San Francisco. After having made the mistake of going there on Christmas in order to fulfill what they thought was their obligation to the Archbishop, the fathers decided never to do this again. According to the desert tradition of St. Sergius of Radonezh and others, they henceforth celebrated the Feasts of Christmas and Pascha alone in their skete, going to a priest for Holy Communion either shortly before or afterwards. Fr. Spyridon tried to assist then in this by coming to them during the “Bright Week” following Pascha. In general, they went to San Francisco but once a year, for the Liturgy in Archbishop John’s Sepulchre on the day of his repose.
In The Orthodox Word Fr. Seraphim wrote: “Christianity in practice, and monasticism above all, is a matter of staying in one place and struggling with all one’s heart for the Kingdom of Heaven. One may be called to do the work of God elsewhere, or may be moved about by unavoidable circumstances; but without the basic and profound desire to endure everything for God in one place without running away, one will scarcely be able to put down roots required in order to bring forth spiritual fruits. Unfortunately, with the ease of modern communications one may even sit in one spot and still concern oneself with everything but the one thing needful – with everyone else’s business, with all the church gossip, and not with the concentrated labor needed to save one’s soul in this evil world.
“In a famous passage of the Institutes, St. Cassian warns monks of his time to ‘flee women and bishops….’ Women, of course tempt by means of the flesh, and bishops ordain to the priesthood and in general by the vainglory of acquaintance with those in high positions. Today this warning remains timely, but for monks of the 20th century one can add a further warning: Flee from telephones, travelling and gossip – these forms of communication which most of all bind one to the world – for they will cool your ardor and make you, even in your monastic cell, the plaything of worldly desires and influences!”
As Lao Tzu, the favorite philosopher of Fr. Serphim’s early days, had put it, “The more one travels, the less one knows.”
Once Fr. Herman asked his partner if there was anywhere in the world he wanted to go.
“No,” replied Fr. Seraphim.
“Why not? Don’t you even want to go to Mount Athos?”
“We should strive, according to Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov’s advice, to have Mount Athos in our heart. Actually, we are working to have our own Mount Athos in America. The only problem is there’s not much time left.”
Some people, coming from bustling cities, were amazed that such a place as the Platina hermitage could exist in modern America. One young visitor had an expression of absolute awe as he walked through the monastery gate. He saw the two monks, in worn black robes, with long hair and beards, and behind them the silent woods and a few small buildings. As the fathers talked with him, he continued looking around at the forest, hidden from the world, where the prayers of the monks in ancient tradition were still rising to God. He asked the fathers if he could take a walk around the hermitage. As Fr. Seraphim watched the visitor walk down the trail in a state of obvious rapture, he turned to Fr. Herman and said, “That’s our kind of man!”
About such people, the fathers were wont to say that they “got the point.” But this “point” which the fathers termed the ”desert ideal,” was not so east to propagate. Fr. Herman had made an attempt by publishing an account of his pilgrimage to the wilderness sketes of Canada. One young Russian man had been so taken by these articles that he had decided to visit the sketes himself. A few months later, however, when he came to the St. Herman Hermitage for the first time, he told the fathers of his disappointment. “You made Canadian sketes sound so wonderful,” he said while hiking with the fathers to the top of Noble Ridge. “Your descriptions were so poetic. But when I went there, there was nothing – just a few crude shacks and a few old Russian monks and nuns. In a short time they will all be dead and there will be nothing left. Why did you build this up into such a big thing? It isn’t true!”
“Well, I admit that,” Fr. Herman responded. In writing about all the holy places in America, he explained, he had wanted to present the readers with the potential of Orthodox sanctity in their land, to inspire young people to labor to reach that potential. “The seeds of desert monasticism have already been planted in America and they are being nurtured, in a small way, by the old men and women whom you saw in those dilapidated sketes. If their tradition dies out, it will not be their fault, for they have done their part, struggling and praying alone in the wilderness. Instead, it will be the fault of the new generation of Orthodox Christians who have not valued the legacy handed down to them.”
In the evening, after the young man left, the fathers were sitting by themselves in the refectory. Needing reassurance, Fr. Herman began one of his lamentations. “What’s the use of all our work towards the desert ideal?” he asked. “It’s so hard for people to accept or understand. It’s as if there’s some secret to it that people can’t pick up just by reading about it. Maybe it really is beyond the capacity of contemporary American youth. We give them all these lofty messages to inspire them, but when they see the reality, that it means a life of struggle and deprivation without all the modern comforts and conveniences, their resolve weakens and they give up. So, in the end, is there really any point to what we’re doing here?”
“You certainly expressed the answer to that eloquently at the top of Noble Ridge today,” replied Fr. Seraphim. “We have to answer for ourselves. The last generation has done its part. Let’s do ours.”
The most difficult thing for many visitors to accept was the lack of a telephone at the hermitage. Valentina Harvey, who would come to the hermitage’s church services from her home in Redding, was particularly concerned about this. Once, in speaking of it to Bishop Nektary, she said, “Here are these two monks living in the woods, cold and in need. I work for the telephone company, and I’ve been trying to get it to install telephone at the monastery free of charge. But when I told Fr. Herman about it, he said, ‘Over our dead bodies!’ Why, in heaven’s name?”
Bishop Nektary smiled, and responded by telling a story. “Next to Optina Monastery,” he said, “there was a river separating it from the nearby town. The only contact with the monastery was through a raft. This caused much inconvenience, both because of the changing seasons and because the monastery was growing fast, with a great inflow of visitors. The monks and abbots, however, would not build a bridge. Finally, the townspeople got together and offered to build a bridge for free. The monks flatly refused, explaining that they had left the world and did not want to have easy ties with it. This tie with the world is represented both by the bridge in Optina and by the telephone in Platina. When the Soviets took over Russia, they immediately built a bridge and closed the Optina Monastery.”
It was not only lay people who could not understand the wish of the fathers to avoid easy contact with the world. Fr. Tarasios, whose monastery was an impressive mansion in a New England suburb, also expressed some disapproval. On one of his visits to the Platina hermitage he told the fathers, “You have a wonderful monastery here, but it will not be able to exist the way it is because American boys just can’t live under such austere conditions.”
“How can we make it easier?” asked Fr. Herman, thinking that Fr. Tarasios would suggest plumbing, central heating, electricity, or some other convenience.
“You must get a telephone, dear father,” answered Fr. Tarasios.
“But why a telephone?”
“So that you can contact me.”
"How will that make life less austere?"
“Because then I can tell you what you need.”
Standing in the background, Fr. Seraphim looked at Fr. Herman with surprise. “Why must we have a telephone to be in contact with him?” he asked after Fr. Tarasios had left the room.
“Answer that yourself!” replied Fr. Herman.
“Let’s forget about it,” Fr. Seraphim concluded.
At Fr. Tarasios’ departure, the fathers rang the monastery bells and went outside the gate to say farewell. Walking back to the hermitage after the car had passed from sight, Fr. Seraphim did not look pleased.
“What in the world is wrong?” inquired Fr. Herman. “Fr. Tarasios is one of the leading Orthodox monastic figures in America, and he came all this way to visit us poor idiots in the middle of nowhere.”
“If it’s not our kind of monasticism, “ Fr. Seraphim said emphatically, “I don’t want it!”
Father Seraphim was opposed to monasticism according to the way the world thinks it should be: monks walking around acting spiritual, providing for admiring visitors a comfortable, convenient and reasonably devised “retreat center.” At the Platina hermitage, the fathers did not even finish their buildings. They built just enough to keep the wind and rain out – and even in this they were not always successful. As we have seen, their intention had never been to build an established place, but only a site of Christian struggle during their all-too-brief pilgrimage in this world. Even their church, which was built through the godly labor of Deacon Nicholas at his own insistence, was never entirely finished. It’s dark wood interior gave it a warm, homey feeling – but it was impossible to heat during the winter. “There is a certain opinion in the air,” Fr. Seraphim related, “that of course, when you come to church you must be warm, because you cannot think about church services and prepare yourself for Communion when you have to think about cold feet. People tell us this. ‘It’s a very great drawback,’ they say. ‘You cannot go and have cold feet and expect any spirituality to come out.’ This happens to be an opinion, and it’s totally off. The Holy Fathers have been living throughout the centuries in all kinds of conditions; and, though there is no deliberate plot of torturing oneself with cold feet – still, this is something which helps to make one a little more sober about the spiritual life, perhaps helps one to appreciate what one has, and not just take for granted that one is going to be comfortable and cozy and that’s it.”
Fr. Herman recalls how, when he once complained about the cold church, Fr. Seraphim told him he was convinced that the more he suffered in the cold church, the closer he came to the lives of the very ascetics he was singing about. As that happened, he said, he felt the cold less and less.
Whereas the modern concept of a “retreat” often entails the expectation of spiritual enjoyment, rest and relaxation, the Orthodox concept of pilgrimage is something quite different. Orthodox Christians have traditionally made pilgrimages to holy places as a podvig of cleansing repentance, taking on voluntary hardships to the point of travelling for several hundred miles on foot. Those who benefitted most from visits to Platina wanted not a vacation, but rather the chance to embrace a little hardship, casting aside the constant self-pampering of the American life-style.
It was very burdensome for Fr. Seraphim to have to deal with casual visitors who came from the world “just to look around.” He felt obliged to be polite and receive them in the name of Christ; but, as his partner noticed, such obligations “made him turn green.” Fr. Herman would have to “rescue” him by taking these people off his hands. Tremendously relieved, Fr. Seraphim would cross himself and return to his monastic cell to work feverishly on some article.
One woman who came to the hermitage was positively scandalized by it. Accompanied by a reluctant Fr. Seraphim, she sauntered around the monastery grounds in a flaming red dress. “How boring your life must be here!” she exclaimed. “No television, no radio, not even a telephone! How can you stand it?!”
“We’re very busy here,” Fr. Seraphim replied. “We don’t have time to be bored.”
Later when this woman had left for her home in the city, Fr. Seraphim made this observation to Fr. Herman: “The city is for those who are empty, and it pushes away those who are filled. The desert keeps those who are filled and allows them to thrive.”
• St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Archimandrite Laxarus Moore (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), step 4:78, p. 88
• St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian (Boston Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984, hom. 71, p. 349
• Abbess Vera Verkhovsky, Elder Zosima, Hesychast of Siberia (Platina, California: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 107, 127-128.
• “Spiritul Homilies of Saint Macarius the Great,” in Saints Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Towards Spiritual Life, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 162-163.
• The Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 334.
•See, “A Note on Reincarnation,” in Fr. Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death (Platina, California: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1980), p. 129.
• [Fr. Seraphim Rose], “The Desert Dwellers of Jura,” The Orthodox Word, no. 74 (1977), pp. 114-115. Later published in St. Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum (Platina, California: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1988), pp. 123-124.
• [Gleb Podmoshensky], “Pilgrimage to Holy Places in America: Canadian Sketes,” The Orthodox Word, nos. 16-19 (1967, 1968).
• Fr. Seraphim Rose, “In Step with Saints Patrick and Gregory of Tours,” pp. 287-288.