Fr. David Moser lays out rather succinctly some of the issues behind the
controversy concerning Fr. Seraphim and the toll-houses:
"Fr Seraphim is definitely NOT a gnostic. Fr Michael [Azkoul's] book was
> initially prompted more by the dispute between Holy Transfiguration
> Monastery in Boston and Fr. Seraphim in Platina CA. HTM wanted to be THE
> leader of the convert contingent in ROCOR but Fr Seraphim refused to submit
> to their claim. HTM then entered into conflict with Fr Seraphim at every
> turn and whenever they found anyone who had any kind of credibility (or not
> even) who was willing to speak out against Fr. Seraphim , they were
> sponsered by HTM's large bankroll. Fr Michael Azkoul was firmly in the HTM
> camp and he was convinced to write this book to try and counteract
> FrSeraphim 's influence among many converts."
Fr. Raphael Vereshack also shares a little background on the state of
Orthodox in Fr. Seraphim's day, which is pertinent to the understanding of
the controversy surrounding his presentation of the toll-houses:
"...I can only speak of my own my own sense from having read Fr Seraphim for
many years. I don't think there are any real theological problems with Fr
Seraphim. Mostly those critical of him on this score refer to his so called
teaching on the toll houses. Many people, especially during his life time,
were also deeply critical of his ascetic other-worldly sense. Much of this
fit into the context of the time when Orthodoxy in the west was involved in
a fierce debate about the role of asceticism and the writings of the
Fathers. At the time there was a grave danger that Orthodoxy was going to
fall into two opposed camps each defined by their take on these issues.
Thankfully for the most part this time has passed. But FrSeraphim fit into
this time along with his message. And most of his readers understood him
according to how they were also struggling with similar issues.
This indeed is what gives some of Fr Seraphim's writings- especially his
earlier ones- the polemical edge they do. Personally though I don't find
anything really wrong with them on the theological level. No matter what
anyone may say, things such as toll houses and radical asceticism, are
clearly referred to in the Patristic testimony of the Church. If this means
FrSeraphim is a gnostic- well he's in pretty saintly company.
When it comes to balance however I think it's very important to keep in mind
what he stresses and why. As already said, much found in his writings was
shaped by the debate and discussion occurring in his day about the proper
way to be Orthodox.
He clearly chose the ascetic route. He was aware of the Byzantine ascetic
tradition, especially in its Russian 'northern Thebaid' form. But he rarely
seemed to express the more mystical or neptic tradition. Whether this was
from his personal hesitation to express what was related to his personal
spirituality is difficult to say. Certainly he was a person of deep prayer
as those who knew him continually testify. But it is also undoubtedly true
that in the polemical atmosphere in which he found himself he consciously
promoted a late 19th Russian spirituality of a certain kind. At times this
gave a certain colour to his ascetic message.
Fr Seraphim's main message was the importance and preservation of Tradition.
The question however is not only what in the past was a valid expression of
Tradition. Rather the critical question is what from this past should be
kept andhow if it is kept can it be shaped for the present. I'm not sure
that Fr Seraphim in his writings got to the point of clearly distinguishing
between these two. Although the way in which his life was moving leads one
to suspect a fuller understanding of Tradition. The later books which
Platina published- especially the Optina Elders series- certainly implies
this direction. And the present day Orthodox Word which they publish tends
to confirm it."
It should also be noted that the "polemical edge" of Fr. Seraphim's earlier
works were something that he moved away from more and more as time went by,
and as he saw what that sort of thing was resulting in on the HTM side of
'convert zealotry' in ROCOR - they have since broke off from communing with
any other Orthodox jurisdiction (either mainstream or Old Calendarist/True
Orthodox) after their founder was caught up in a coverd-up/denied sex
Abp. Lazar was also caught up in these issues, was defrocked by ROCOR, spent
time as a vagante bishop before being accepted into the OCA as a canonical
haven. He is a retired bishop only insofar as his orders were recognized as
valid by the OCA. but he does not sit on the Holy Synod; he is 'retired' to
his monastery in Canada. This isn't to say he isn't a good man, a holy man
and more knowledgeable than I am on matters Orthodox. It is simply to point
out that he and Fr. Michael Azkoul are more - or at least as - controversial
as Fr. Seraphim is in various circles. Fr. Seraphim is preferred, in my
mind, as he never split from the Church as did both Abp Lazar and Fr.
Michael, and he is widely venerated as a saint both here in the US, in
Russia and on the Holy Mountain. That doesn't mean he is 'right', of
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