Fr. Damascene (Christensen), “Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works” (2010)

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“A monk is one who, being clothed in a material and perishable body, seeks to resemble incorporeal life and being. A monk is one who follows only the words and commandments of God in any time, and place, and action. A monk is the constant coercion of nature, the unflagging control of all feeling. A monk is one whose body is purified, whose mouth is pure, whose mind is enlightened. A monk is one who, grieving and pained in his soul, always remembers and contemplates death, whether in sleep or in wakefulness. The renunciation of the world is the willful hatred of all substance that is glorified by the world, and the rejection of nature, in order to receive those blessings that are higher than nature.”

St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Mt. Sinai, 7th century

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) was a hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church (Outside Russia) during the 1970s. He had no Russian background (born Eugene Dennis Rose, into a Protestant family in San Diego) and no connection to Russian culture. However, by the end of his life, and in the years following his death in 1982, he became one of the most striking writers, ascetics and preachers in 20th-century Church history. The trajectory of his life was so unusual that (so an Orthodox Christian would say) it could only have happened by a direct act of God.

First and foremost, he is known as an ascetic. Upon having encountered the vast corpus of Orthodox monastic philosophy, he interpreted the ascetic writings of the 6th- and 7th-century Desert Fathers as a call to arms. In 1968, he retreated to a remote wilderness in northern California (Platina, CA, population 200) and founded what is now called the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, which he built literally from the ground up in the middle of the woods.

St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina CA

“We do not have electric lights, telephone, or flush toilets. There is one cold-water shower. Our buildings are heated by wood stoves. There are no fans or air conditioners. The guest house is located on a steep hill which can be slippery. Getting from the guest house to the monastery church and refectory requires walking up a dirt path. The main guest facilities are a common room for men with several beds and a similar one for women. We provide pillows, sheets, blankets and towels, and we have some sleeping bags available. If you are visiting in cold weather you may want to bring your own sleeping bag, if possible. Please bring a flashlight if you have one. There is no cell-phone reception in the area.”

“Guide for day visitors,” St. Herman Monastery, 2017

Eugene Rose was tonsured in 1970 and received the monastic name “Seraphim,” after St. Seraphim of Sarov, a renowned 19th-century Russian saint. For the remainder of his life on earth, Fr. Seraphim stayed in Platina. However, from this remote location, he took on an increasingly active role in the missionary and intellectual life of the Church. The only electrical equipment allowed in the monastery was a printing press, which Fr. Seraphim used to publish English translations of Orthodox spiritual texts, as well as a missionary periodical called The Orthodox Word. Later, he wrote a number of books of his own, two of which were widely read throughout the Orthodox world and have been translated into multiple languages.

Though not without a certain amount of controversy, Fr. Seraphim’s name now commands considerable reverence and admiration in the Orthodox Church. In many ways, mainstream Orthodox thinking is now closer to Fr. Seraphim, and to his mentors and role models, than it was during his lifetime. But since Fr. Seraphim’s role models were the ancient Holy Fathers, and since he saw himself as only passing down their teaching, his own influence has had a restorative effect on the Church.

“‘And why is it’ — they will say — ‘that none of the great Fathers spoke of himself so openly and in such words as you speak of yourself?’ …Then examine and test what I say. And, if I do not think and speak the same thoughts and words as the holy and God-bearing Fathers…if I do not repeat what God has said in the holy Gospel…then do not merely close your ears, so as not to hear my words, but kill me with stones, as one who is unholy and godless! But if I should restore the Godly and apostolic teachings, which have been distorted by some…then should you not receive me…as one who shows the perfect works of love?”

St. Symeon, the New Theologian
Constantinople, late 10th century

At the same time, Fr. Seraphim is known for his uncompromising zealotry, which was inseparable from his asceticism. Fr. Seraphim was a notorious anti-ecumenist; his best-known book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future is an incendiary attack against religious syncretism (which, for the past 100 years, usually chooses to present itself as experimentation with Eastern religions).

“On what possible ground can there be any kind of unity, however loose, between Christians and those who not merely do not know Christ, but — as is the case with all the present-day representatives of non-Christian religions who are in contact with Christianity — decisively reject Christ? Those who, like Metropolitan Georges Khodre of Lebanon, lead the avant-garde of Orthodox apostates…speak of the ‘spiritual riches’ and ‘authentic spiritual life’ of the non-Christian religions; but it is only by doing great violence to the meaning of words and by reading his own fantasies into other people’s experience that he can bring himself to say that it is ‘Christ’ and ‘grace’ that pagans find in their scriptures…
No: ‘Christ,’ no matter how redefined or reinterpreted, cannot be the common denominator of the ‘dialogue with non-Christian religions,’ but at best can only be added as an afterthought to a unity which is discovered somewhere else. The only possible common denominator among all religions is the totally vague concept of the ‘spiritual,’ which indeed offers religious ‘liberals’ almost unbounded opportunity for nebulous theologizing.”

(Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, xxix-xxx)

That was one of the less inflammatory passages, and we are still in the preface. But the polemical tone is actually the least remarkable aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s writing. His theological and apologetic texts faithfully recreate the 6th-century Egyptian desert — demons roam in the air, saints walk on water and read minds, and while God answers every prayer, the only way to hear His answer is by suffering. Unsurprisingly, Fr. Seraphim is famous as an eschatological writer. As will be shown later, even in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future the polemical dimension is not an end in itself (especially now, when most of its targets will be completely unknown to its readers), but a means to Fr. Seraphim’s reflections on the Apocalypse.

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The main biographical source on Fr. Seraphim is the book Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, written by Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), one of Fr. Seraphim’s disciples and the current (as of 2017) abbot of the monastery that Fr. Seraphim founded. In and of itself, Fr. Damascene’s book is an unusual object, mainly because it is over 1000 pages long. It seems like a tall order to write 104 chapters about someone who died at age 48, and lived in the woods for the last 14 years of his life.

But Fr. Damascene’s text is not a report on biographical events, but rather provides a kind of philosophical biography. Ideas are living characters in this book, on par with the man who is the book’s ostensible subject. He was preoccupied with ideas throughout his entire life; the book follows him from one to the next, leading to long excursions into the lives of various writers, thinkers, and clergymen with whom Fr. Seraphim engaged at some point. Whole chapters are used to outline certain theological or philosophical currents (or controversies), or to provide background information on religious figures, living and dead, that had a significant impact on Fr. Seraphim. A large body of information on Orthodox Christian philosophy and tradition is dispersed throughout the book and integrated into the narrative, usually as a part of more individual stories about specific monks or hierarchs.

In this way, Fr. Damascene’s book attempts to reconstruct Fr. Seraphim’s entire world. Fr. Damascene’s own intellectual outlook is more limited than that of Fr. Seraphim — in many places, his extensive efforts to process and explain his mentor’s beliefs reflect a fairly conventional conservative Christian worldview, distinguished only by his deep knowledge of Orthodox history and tradition. At the same time, when describing Fr. Seraphim’s life before his conversion, Fr. Damascene is able to rise above petty moralizing and portray this world from the inside, that is, as Eugene Rose may have seen it at the time. He treats Eugene’s youthful rebellion and his like-minded friends with great respect, maybe more than I would have — even if his chapter on Eugene’s forays into bohemian pseudo-intellectualism is titled “The Taste Of Hell,” he still dutifully documents his protagonist’s tempestuous emotions and beliefs, seeing in them a meaningful precursor to Christian struggle.

Eugene’s actual conversion is a small part of the story — in the book, he is received into the Orthodox Church on p. 199, which means that Fr. Damascene still has over 800 pages to go. So, from the biographer’s own point of view, the point of this story is not that there was a “sinner” who “found Jesus” and was therefore “saved.” Sin, by itself, is not interesting to Fr. Damascene even as grounds for moralizing. Far from being neatly divided into “before” and “after” conversion, Fr. Seraphim’s life consisted of continuous intellectual and spiritual movement, which did not end until he died.

Thus, the book is not about Fr. Seraphim’s search for God, nor is it about how he found God. It follows his monastic journey toward God, which began with his baptism but continued for another 20 years. At various times, Fr. Damascene insists on Fr. Seraphim’s cultural impact and relevance to the present day — for example, the back cover of Father Seraphim Rose states, a bit hyperbolically, that “his name is known and loved by millions throughout the world, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe, where during the Communist era his writings were secretly distributed in thousands of typewritten manuscripts” — but ultimately, even to Fr. Damascene himself, the final religious meaning of his mentor’s life lies in something else:

“The author of these lines was a spiritual son of Fr. Seraphim, having been returned to the love of Jesus Christ through him. My initial impressions of him were, first of all, that he was the wisest man I had ever met, and secondly, that he was as one dead: a man who had died to himself and to everything in this world because he had set his sights on the Kingdom above. I was in awe of him.”

Father Seraphim Rose, author’s introduction (Damascene, xv)

It is here that Father Seraphim Rose is elevated from biography to hagiography — I say “elevated” because hagiography is a higher genre, in which all descriptive and literary aspects are subordinate to the protagonist’s struggle to reach God. The last two chapters, which take place after Fr. Seraphim’s death, aim to establish him as a heavenly intercessor. The last chapter in particular is a catalogue of visions of Fr. Seraphim that various people claim to have seen after his death, and although Fr. Damascene stops short of openly calling him a saint, he doesn’t hide his belief in this either.

As a biography, the book thus leaves itself open to criticism, but any possible criticism is so excruciatingly obvious and dull that it becomes completely pointless. What am I going to do, write a long tiresome lecture about the importance of “objectivity”?

In any case, there is one respect in which Fr. Damascene’s book is completely “objective” and accurate. For him, Fr. Seraphim’s life evokes the Orthodox Christian monastic ideal. Fr. Seraphim himself would have resisted this interpretation, but there is no question that this ideal was just as central to his life as the book says it was. Did he dedicate his life to serving God? Yes. Did he suffer and struggle in doing so? Undoubtedly, yes. What more is there to say?

(Continuation: part 2.)

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