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REPOSE OF BLESSED HIEROMONK SERAPHIM OF PLATINA

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  • Stephen/Στέφανος
    The Life of Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina (Rose)     Father Seraphim s life is presented to us in great detail in three books. Two are biographies
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2 1:38 PM

      The Life of Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina (Rose)
          Father Seraphim's life is presented to us in great detail in three books. Two are biographies published by the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood: `Not of this World: The life and teaching of Father Seraphim Rose, pathfinder to the heart of ancient Christianity', and a recent major revision of that book, `Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works'. The other is a biography written by Father Seraphim's niece and published by Regina Orthodox Press: `Seraphim Rose: The true story and private letters'. In addition, there is a lot of information in a volume of Father Seraphim's letters to Father Alexey Young, one of his spiritual children: `Letters from Father Seraphim: The twelve-year correspondence between Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) and Father Alexey Young'.
          Eugene Rose, as Father Seraphim was known before his tonsure as a monk, was born in 1934 on the US West Coast. His upbringing was in a protestant family, and he had an active faith as a teenager. He abandoned this while attending Pomona College, a prestigious tertiary institution in Southern California, from 1952-1956, aged 18-22. He studied philosophy, literature, and languages, including Chinese. He was influenced for a time by Alan Watts, a controversial Anglican priest who later left both the priesthood and the church, becoming in time the Dean of the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Attending graduate courses at the Academy, Eugene fell in with the whole movement and spirit of the age, of which San Francisco was the heart. Without focusing on the details, we can say that he was drawn into and experienced first-hand all of the deceptions and temptations of those times and of that particular place.
          At this point I should note in passing that a common problem experienced when looking at the lives of contemporary righteous ones is that those close to them often reinterpret their lives in light of what they later became, to see sanctity present from youth up. This is, in my view, the key fault of the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood biographies. It is often profitable and encouraging to gain an understanding of what the righteous ones once were; how they struggled with sin, how their faith changed them, and how God worked in their lives. We should not be surprised if they struggle at times, or make mistakes. We will certainly find mistakes if we look deeply at Father Seraphim's life before his conversion; indeed, at any life, before conversion. Really, it is that that really explains conversion. We need, when looking at such lives, to keep God's grace in focus, if we are to learn something for ourselves. Eugene Rose first attended a Russian Orthodox service in 1956, aged 22. It was three years before he became a Christian, two years more before he met the young man, Gleb Podmoshensky, the future Father Herman, with whom he would undertake his life's great labours, and another year again before he was received into the Orthodox Church, in 1962. Over these years he mastered the Russian language.
          In San Francisco, so much the centre of the age, the future Father Seraphim was also able to come into contact with some truly great Church figures, of which Archbishop Tikhon (Troitsky), the former cell-attendant of the now-glorified Elder Gabriel of Pskov & Kazan, is perhaps the best example. Many other great figures from Europe and China were there. He was able to converse in Chinese with Father Elias Wen and other Chinese Orthodox Christians in San Francisco. Most significantly, he later came into contact with the Holy Archbishop John (Maximovitch), who was to tonsure him a reader in 1965. Through Gleb, Eugene would also come into contact with Jordanville's Holy Trinity Monastery, the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, and some of the great figures connected with it: Archbishop Averky, Father Michael Pomazansky, Professor Ivan Andreyev, and others. Gleb also linked him to Father Adrian Rymarenko, the future Archbishop Andrew, then living in New Diveyevo on the East Coast. My point here is that by various paths he came into contact with some of the best elements of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia.
          From early in his Orthodox Christian life, he began to participate in the services, reading and singing at the kliros. Later, lamenting the impoverishment of church life in these times, he would write of the spiritual life, "Let us therefore make maximum use of the limited opportunities we do have" (BPV p 20). He himself made the best possible use of the circumstances in which he found himself, mixing with and learning from those formed in a true Orthodox Christian spirit. In 1963, Eugene and Gleb formed a Brotherhood dedicated to the righteous Father Herman of Alaska, a saint then still uncanonised. A year later they opened a missionary bookstore, and immediately began to set a tone of traditional Orthodox Christianity for Russian and English-speakers alike. Eugene attended theological courses organised by Archbishop John and began to write articles for the diocesan journal. He and Gleb began to print their own journal, `The Orthodox Word', with the specific intention of providing English-speaking people with the sources of Orthodoxy. It was, as described in one of the SHB Lives, "carefully presented relevant material in a traditional context which was at the same time accessible to contemporary readers… a blending of ancient and modern materials" (L&W p294). Researching, reading, selecting material, and translating, he immersed himself in the writings of the Holy Fathers and Orthodox spiritual teachers, filling and forming his own heart and mind whilst at the same time assisting others.
          The production of the journal showed the brothers something of great importance. The young men's desire was very much that Archbishop John would constantly read over things and approve them before publication. But Archbishop John declined to do so, asking, "Weren't you taught that…each Christian is himself responsible for the fullness of Christianity? (L&W p296). In this, Archbishop John showed himself to be a wise guide indeed, one that was prepared to stand back and allow those under his guidance to develop and mature, themselves growing in wisdom and independence. Thus taught, Father Seraphim would make this the healthy basis of all his pastoral relationships. We ourselves, clergy and laity alike, must learn from this, resisting the temptation to have others do our thinking, or to restrict the growth of those around us.
          Eugene was greatly blessed to become close to Archbishop John, working with him on many church projects, including the serving of English-language liturgies at the San Francisco Cathedral. Saint John had asked him to become a priest-monk at the cathedral but Eugene declined, indicating that he wished to be a monk away from the world. When Saint John died, Eugene recorded in his chronicle the importance of following their mentor's devotion to the saints by knowing their lives, reading them for spiritual nourishment, speaking of them and writing about them and - most importantly - praying to them (L&W p324). He was to assist others immensely in this regard, preparing beautiful books of the lives of saints and righteous ones, translating services, and even composing them (L&W p1097). He also reflected on Saint John's trust in God and the way he lived entirely by such trust, identifying this as perhaps the key lesson to learn.
          There is some evidence that Eugene was encouraged to attend the Jordanville Seminary and prepare for ordination, perhaps even to the episcopate, but that he resisted this (L&W p332).
          By 1967, their bookstore had become a significant missionary presence. But this same year the brothers purchased land for a skete, a great distance from San Francisco. Also in this year, he began to fulfil the entire liturgical cycle every day without failure, continuing to do so until the end of his life. We see in this that he not only filled and formed his mind with the formal theological writings of the Holy Fathers, but that he also filled and formed his heart with the beautiful cycle of Divine Services composed by them, and with reading from the Holy Scriptures.
          The brothers moved to their skete in 1969. At the skete they lived a life of prayer, simplicity, poverty and struggle. They set the tone by the Divine services, connecting themselves to the tradition of the desert-dwellers. It is interesting to note how the decision the move to the wilderness forced them to confront themselves spiritually, the absence of the hustle and bustle of a big city parish no longer a distraction. In a way it was a strategic spiritual move, allowing them to keep their own Orthodox Christian lives clearly in focus, truly laying aside all earthly cares.
          In 1970 they were tonsured. At this point Eugene took the monastic name Seraphim and Gleb, the name Herman. They laboured steadfastly at the skete, praying, writing, translating and printing. Both editions of the SHB biographies have a beautiful chapter entitled `An Orthodox Corner of America', and I recommend it to you. It describes what Fathers Seraphim and Herman built there in the wilderness, and is truly inspiring.
          First of all, they tried to have it so that everything around them turned their thoughts to the life in Christ. Buildings, places, natural formations were all named for places in Holy Russia, or the Holy Land, or in the other Orthodox lands. They had sketes and open- air chapels dedicated to various saints, and to which they made processions on the day of that particular commemoration, singing the services there. Their lives were organized around the Divine Services, even in the days before ordination when Liturgy was served only rarely. They had various festive traditions, some from Russia and some of their own. They had a good habit of prayer, fulfilling a rule each day.
          In 1976 Father Seraphim was ordained deacon, and in 1977, priest. He then began the labour of pastoral and liturgical service that he carried out until his untimely death in 1982, at the age of only 48: serving, preaching, baptizing, teaching, and giving guidance.
           The lessons for us: All of this, then, is a broad summary of Father Seraphims' life as an Orthodox Christian. We've drawn out some lessons along the way. But what other lessons are there for us in this, and how is it that he is a guide for us? A guide needs good preparation, and this above all is evident in Father Seraphim's life. All of the necessary preparations for his journey were made. What guide would set out without first taking advice, learning the route, obtaining maps and provisions? Poor preparation increases the risks in any journey. Let us look at his preparation, and the way in which risk was minimized.
           A Christian foundation: In becoming a Christian, Father Seraphim had come to understand and accept that Christ Himself was Life and Truth, and that it was only through Christ that he could be saved. This is important. He had this basic Christian foundation. All of us, however it is that we find ourselves within the Church - whether by birth or marriage or conscious conversion - must establish the same foundation in our own lives.
          He once said to Father Alexey Young, "If you do not find Christ in this life, you will not find him in the next" (L&W p820). He understood and lived in the light of this understanding that the Christian life is a personal relationship with Christ or it is nothing. No amount of external observance would help if that was missing. He said something very sobering in this regard, and we would all do well to heed his words: "The keeping and confession of Orthodox dogmas is always to be found in true faith in Christ, but the true faith of Christ is not always to be found in the confession of Orthodoxy… The knowledge of correct dogmas is in the mind and it is often fruitless, arrogant and proud… The true faith in Christ is in the heart, and it is fruitful, humble, patient, loving, merciful, compassionate, hungering and thirsting for righteousness; it withdraws from worldly lusts and clings to God alone, strives and seeks always for what is heavenly and eternal, struggles against every sin, and constantly seeks and begs help from God in this" (L&W p826).
          Father Seraphim hungered and thirsted after righteousness. He withdrew far from the worldly lusts of his youth. He clung to God and trusted in God, striving for eternal and heavenly things. He had a relationship with Christ, and he was transformed by it. It is in this context that we can understand Father Seraphim's insistence on a "Catacomb Christianity". By this he did not mean some kind of independent, do-what-you-like, underground Orthodoxy, the kind of Orthodoxy that found a foothold in the SHB and those who followed it after Father Seraphim's death. He was looking not for independence, but for a "Catacomb mentality", faithfulness to the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith: the struggle for repentance, and living the life in Christ. He understood with crystal clarity how it was that the external glory of Orthodoxy, a treasure though it is, and all part of the inheritance that should fill and form us, could nevertheless become an obstacle to the Christian life, if allowed to become an end in itself. This is the clear answer to those protestants and sectarians who criticise the externals of our Christian life: these things help us, but without them, the path is the same. By keeping our eyes on the heart, we will not be cast off course if and when we lose the outer things. We will stay firm because we have built on the rock, and not on sand.
          Something most instructive is Father Seraphim's advice to Father Alexey Young when the latter, then still a layman, had contact with a group of Old Believers, and was most impressed by them. He says two things of extraordinary importance. Firstly, he says that "For an Old Believer to become Orthodox there must be an awareness that the externals they preserve are not of the essence of Orthodoxy" (FAY p 136). And secondly, that the battle of the Old Believers "to keep their traditions is not the same battle as we have to keep alive the spirit of Orthodoxy… the preservation of old customs isn't going to help when the spirit is gone" (FAY p151). These may seem like hard words. But the point is not to dismiss those who follow the Old Rite; he broaches a risk that exists as much for us as for them: the risk that we mistake the outward forms for the heart.
          Father Seraphim had an immense love for the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia precisely because they maintained the heart of their faith in the most trying of circumstances, even the complete absence of the outward forms of Orthodoxy. He presents them so lovingly, with such regard for their honesty and faithfulness. But he also shows how they had put down solid Christian foundations in their lives. He shows how groups of priests and bishops, in prison, shorn of hair and beards and deprived of outward finery and church vessels and items, could still gather together with joy, quietly singing to themselves from memory - from memory! - the festive services. He shows how they had taken up the Orthodox inheritance, the saving tradition that is the experience of the Orthodox throughout the ages, and given it expression in their lives. They gave expression to an Orthodoxy that was not just of the mind, but also of the heart. This brings us to the next aspect of Father Seraphim's preparation: the nourishment of his Christian life at the sources.
           Nourished at the sources: It is in the introduction to a book on Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky that Father Seraphim best expressed this. He considered Blessed Paisius a saint of utmost importance for twentieth century Christians because "he redirected the attention of Orthodox Christians to the sources of Holy Orthodoxy which are the only foundation of true Orthodox life and thought". "It is these same sources", he wrote, "the Divine Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers - which are the foundation of all genuine Orthodoxy in our own times" (BPV p13). He went on to say that "We must…read Orthodox spiritual texts, without which we will spiritually wither and die" (BPV p19). Father Seraphim had, as a child, attended protestant Sunday school, and the SHB Lives record that he "often surprised his parents with his knowledge of the Scriptures, which he quoted to them from memory" (L&W p11). This foundation, laid in childhood, was later built on, as he studied the Scriptures at the theological courses organized by Saint John. He was even then surprised at how little those around him knew the Scriptures (L&W p277). Reading them in the services each day, reading the commentaries of the Holy Fathers, he grew steadily in familiarity with the Scriptures. Saint Ignatius Brianchininov, himself a modern Holy Father greatly loved by Father Seraphim, wrote of the practice of the monks of old to have the Holy Scriptures "constantly before the eyes of the mind and… printed on the soul". Citing Saint Seraphim of Sarov, he says, "we should so train ourselves that the mind as it were swims in the Law of the Lord by which we must guide and rule our life" (`The Arena', p7). We see in the life of Father Seraphim evidence of this, and of a true love for the Holy Scriptures, committed to memory, and opened to him by the Holy Fathers.
          To Father Alexey he wrote, "Do you have a notebook for taking down quotes from the Holy Fathers in your reading? Do you always have a book of the Holy Fathers that you are reading, and can turn to in a moment of gloom? Start now - this is essential" (FAY p143). We have already observed that Father Seraphim was a man with a great love for the divine services of the Holy Orthodox Church. Writing to Father Alexey he said, "How moving are the services - a treasure which now seems to be disappearing from the face of the earth" (FAY p165). He emphasised to Father Alexey the singing of certain hymns at certain times, pointing out the way that the services shape and set the "tone" for Christian life (p105). He never missed the daily cycle, and one can read in the SHB Lives of he and Father Herman and their various novices and guests singing the services as they drove in their truck, or stopping in a mountain field to sing part of the service.
          Of the services and the remembrance of saints Father Seraphim wrote, "What relevance do the treasures of Orthodoxy have for this frightful world today? And the answer is always the same: This is the ark of salvation for us, and every struggle to preserve this for oneself helps others too" (FAY pp134-35).
          Father Seraphim had, as a layman, mastered Church Slavonic, had been tonsured a reader by Saint John of Shanghai & San Francisco, and had obtained a position as a paid reader in the cathedral. He read and sang in church every day, laying down the foundations of his liturgical knowledge. As a layman and later as a monk, he had the opportunity to immerse himself in the liturgical life of the church, to be totally filled and formed by it. We might say that he had the circumstances of life that enabled that. But we nevertheless need to put ourselves in a position to benefit from the services in the way that he did. These days, one need not learn Church Slavonic, although it still helps. The great work of translating the Orthodox service- books into English has been largely accomplished, and it is possible to buy books and cassettes that make mastery of the service structures and melodies possible without a long apprenticeship in church. We must all reach deep into this treasury ourselves, putting it to work in our own lives. The services should not be left simply to specialists, choir singers and readers and clergy, but all of us must strive to learn troparia, kontakia, and other verses. What if we trust the preservation of these treasures to others, and they fail? Another source of Christian life for Father Seraphim was the Lives of saints. In this he faithfully followed Saint John. He wrote that, "Every Orthodox Christian [emphasis in original] should know the lives of the Fathers of the desert, which together with the Lives of the martyrs give us the model for our own life of Christian struggle…[of those] living the orthodox spiritual life to which every Orthodox Christian is called, according to his strength and the conditions of his life. Every Orthodox Christian should be inspired by their life of struggle far from the ways of the world" (NT p xi). As we have noted, he presented many Lives of Saints to his readers. The Brotherhood prepared the first English-language calendar, incorporating many lesser-known saints of the universal Church. These things remain available to help us, together with volumes of saints' lives for reading each day, like the Prologue and the 12- volume `Lives of the Saints' of Saint Dimitry of Rostov. He saw all of tradition as having been preserved for us (BPV p 17). He asks the crucial question, the question each one of us should ask: "How can we make use of this holy inheritance in our own lives today?" The answer: "To keep alive the fragrance of the desert in our hearts: to dwell in mind and heart with these angel-like men and women and have them as our truest friends, conversing with them in prayer; to be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life… to be first of all a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high to which all our Christian labours are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes". "He who has once sensed this fragrance of the desert", he went on to say, "with its exhilarating freedom in Christ and its sober constancy in struggle, will never be satisfied with anything in this world" (NT pp 282-286)
           Embracing living tradition: Father Seraphim learned with gratitude and joy from his beloved Russian Church outside Russia. In all things he strove to be a faithful son and pupil of the Church. Foreign to him was any idea of "shopping around" for traditions, taking something from one church and something from another, pasting together various customs and observances in a way completely removed from the living tradition of the church. Loving the Divine Services simply as he had received them, he avoided what we can term "liturgical archaeology", unearthing remnants long since set aside by the living Church. In his humility, he learned from those who had carried on the saving tradition, the experience of Orthodox Christians.
           Intellectually committed, not superficial: It is worth noting that Father Seraphim clearly saw himself as a guide, in that he struggled to set a tone, to point people in the right direction. In his early days he was very much a zealot for Orthodoxy, lining up with the Greek Old Calendarists, including those that had entered the Russian church, to resist the "Paris school", ecumenism, the "charismatic revival", and modernism. He came to see, however, that taking a right position in relation to these things was not everything. He eventually saw that what he called "reformed Orthodoxy" was an Orthodoxy outside the living Orthodox tradition, a product of human logic (FAY p168). In this regard, one can see strict traditionalism and modernism as opposite sides of the same coin. Father Seraphim came to counter pose to this a right "tone", a "true tradition", a "fragrance" discernible in true Orthodoxy. Over and over again we hear Father Seraphim saying things like "Ours must be the orthodoxy of the heart, not just of the mind" (FAY p213). We shall not, he says, be judged for our ignorance of theology, but for not struggling on the path of salvation (FAY p?). In one of his letters to Father Alexey, Father Seraphim says that certain of the Greek Old Calendarists were "college boys playing at Orthodoxy" (FAY p297). They were more interested in playing games, in showing their cleverness, and in scoring points than in making a serious effort to be Christians. They may be Orthodox, the SHB Lives quip, but were they Christian? This is a good question, and yet another that we need to ask of ourselves. Are we Orthodox and Christian? We must be both if we hope to be saved. I've said that Father Seraphim saw himself as a guide. But we need to consider what sort of a guide he tried to be, given that there are all sorts of false guides around, "traditionalist" as well as "modernist". He wanted people to "live a true and inspired Orthodox life" (FAY p297), one, like his, nourished at the sources. He constantly emphasised the importance of thinking for oneself, and not leaving it to others (FAY p171). He stands against those elders who wish to be indispensable, striving to pass on what he himself had inherited, helping Orthodox Christians to be connected to a living tradition, yet strong and independent.
           "He believed and taught that spiritual work on oneself - the path to salvation - is hard work… spiritual struggle is neither easy nor quick, but requires a lifetime of daily commitment and concentration" (FAY p245).
           Guide to authentic Orthodoxy: The whole point I'm trying to make here is that Father Seraphim committed himself, mind, body and soul, to Orthodoxy. He invested in it totally; he put in, as we say, the "hard yards". He didn't learn a few lines or become Orthodox on a superficial level. On the contrary, there is nothing superficial about Father Seraphim. And it is on this level that we see his authenticity; he is not a guide to some sort of abstract "authentic" Orthodoxy, but a guide to being authentic, to being unsuperficial about being an Orthodox Christian. His Orthodoxy was something that he engaged with and that changed him. We have to understand this, or we will get things completely wrong, and Father Seraphim becomes just another "guru" whose quotes we learn and recite, thinking ourselves thereby "truly Orthodox". Guide to local orthodoxy
          We can see in Father Seraphim the beginning of a true "American Orthodoxy", one that grew naturally, not a contrived one. There was no attempt on his part to adapt Orthodoxy or reform it to fit American conditions, but rather the fullest possible expression of what he had received in the circumstances in which he found himself. This is something important. Amongst converts, especially, one can hear talk of "Australian Orthodoxy" or "American Orthodoxy". From Father Seraphim we learn the importance of simply and humbly learning from those who have preserved the faith for us. In doing so, and in striving to live our lives in an Orthodox Christian manner, filled and formed by faithful teaching and fitting worship, we will naturally develop an authentic local orthodoxy. We have to remember, however, that this is not an end in itself, but only one aspect of the path to salvation.
           Conclusion: You may recall that at the beginning of my lecture I said that Father Seraphim, from the time of his conversion, lived a life filled and formed by faithful teaching and fitting worship, and that the knowledge and experience he gained, together with his example, can help us. We have examined his Orthodox Christian life, drawing lessons from it. It may seem surprising that I've not mentioned his major works, books like `Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future' and `The Soul after Death', but my view is that his works are simply an expression of the life that he lived, and far from the most important aspect of his legacy. His life, to me, speaks volumes more than his published works. Father Seraphim wrote of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky that his life "is of special value to us because it is the life of a holy father of modern times, one who lived like the ancients almost in our own day. All those deadly anti-spiritual currents which threaten now to enslave man completely… either existed already or were born in his lifetime. The spiritual climate of his times was very similar to our own; a number of our most pressing questions he answered for us. This virtual contemporary of ours struggled and was gloriously crowned, and God, seeing his labours, gave to him a hundredfold of spiritual fruits which are nourishing Orthodox Christians even to this day, and revealed in him the fount in modern times of the pure tradition of Russian Orthodoxy" (BPV pp17-18). These words, it seems to me, could equally be applied to Father Seraphim himself, a man whose Orthodoxy was intellectually rigorous, lived out, and above all, Christ- centred. Blessed Paisius said that "solely by Orthodoxy of faith, without the diligent keeping of all Christ's commandments, it is not at all possible to be saved" (BPV p17). Father Seraphim understood this deeply, and wrote and spoke continuously of the need to "lead a true and inspired Orthodox life". May his example and prayers lead us to live such a life!

      Priest James Carles, Umina Beach, August 2004


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