Platina, CA. Winter 1969-1970.
(Continued from part 3.)
In the 1960s, for some time after his conversion, Eugene worked on an ambitious project, a book of religious philosophy that was to be titled The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God. This book was never finished — only one chapter was polished to the degree where it could be (posthumously) published as a stand-alone text (Nihilism: the Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, 1994). However, many of the themes that Eugene raised here would eventually resurface in Fr. Seraphim’s later writing.
From the fragments quoted by Fr. Damascene, one can see that this book was to be essentially a long repudiation of modernity. It is painstakingly detailed; clearly Eugene spent years gathering material and more years thinking about it. His new faith provided focus and purpose to the feelings of alienation and spiritual discontent that he had been carrying since his early youth. However, as Fr. Damascene frankly admits, “In studying the thousands of pages of material compiled for Eugene’s book, one finds that the preponderance of it is devoted to refutation, and relatively little to affirmation.” (137) Eugene sketched plans for chapters that would describe “the power of Christ” and “the Kingdom of Heaven,” but they did not move past the outline stage. His critique of modern civilization, however, was fleshed out quite extensively.
Eugene tried to avoid giving the impression of writing an ideological manifesto — in his intended foreword, he emphasized, “the author is not a theologian or a monk… If, then, there be in these pages errors of theology or faith, we defer to the higher authority of the Church, whose teachings are their corrections” (Damascene, 135) — but it is hard to view some of these passages in any other way.
In what is hardly a shocking twist, a connection is then drawn from humanism, socialism and anarchism to you know who:
Nonetheless, the author’s purpose in writing this piece was philosophical analysis, not pandering to a political faction (in fact, I cannot imagine whom Eugene might have intended to be his audience — no one, most likely), and there is philosophical content in it that should be taken seriously. Out of Nihilism and the other notes quoted by Fr. Damascene, two ideas emerge.
First, while the philosophy of “progress” relies heavily on the cult of reason and the idea of the “rational” triumphing over the “superstitious,” in practice this glorification of the “rational” has been utterly powerless against the advance of increasingly grotesque forms of “irrationality.” At some point, one might get the sneaking suspicion that this seeming weakness is actually built into the design. In Nihilism, Eugene writes, “the multitudes demonstrate it by looking to the scientist, not for truth, but for the technological applications of a knowledge which has no more than a practical value, and by looking to other, irrational sources for the ultimate values men once expected to find in truth. The despotism of science over practical life is contemporaneous with the advent of a whole series of pseudo-religious ‘revelations’; the two are correlative symptoms of the same malady: the abandonment of truth.” In other words, far from eradicating “superstition,” scientific progress actually helps it to assume more destructive forms. There is no need to conjure up the ghosts of “Bolshevism and Fascism” in order to see this; the circumstances of Eugene’s youth demonstrate that the increased secularization of public life took place simultaneously with the proliferation of innumerable cults and sects (and it wasn’t even the sixties yet). Alan Watts didn’t promise his followers that they would become more educated and logical — if you recall, he instead told them that “the capacity for mystical religion will be increased to a hitherto unknown degree.” Even without any overt “mystical” meaning, crypto-spiritual language has become pervasive throughout private and professional life, and it now feels natural to casually describe various life experiences in terms of (in Eugene’s words) “a vague, immanent ‘force’; these are the varieties of ‘new thought’ and ‘positive thinking,’ whose concern is to harness and utilize this ‘force,’ as if it were a kind of electricity.”
Probably there are still people in this world with the psychology of Galileo or Copernicus — scholars who never really wanted to argue with theologians in the first place, and whose main goal was only to accurately record and communicate their observations of the physical world. But people like that are rare. In the late 2010s, an Orthodox clergyman might even be pleased to have found an old-school rational atheist; at least that would be an interesting conversation. Today, hostility to “organized religion” (with that very term taking on a pejorative connotation), on an individual level, is unlikely to be based on a purely secular, rational worldview. It is more likely that the individual in question will profess various “spiritual beliefs,” which will be a combination of vaguely Eastern-sounding platitudes (possibly involving Jesus, why not) with “believing in yourself,” maybe even with a dash of positivism and a few references to technological progress. Even expressions of materialism are often accompanied by “irrational” attributes — it would be a cheap rhetorical device to say that waiting in line overnight to buy a new smartphone is an act of religious devotion, but surely you will agree that it is not very “rational.” In short, organized religion has in general not been replaced by something more “provable,” more well-defined, or more amenable to scientific analysis; rather, the right word for this fragmented mixture of “beliefs” is, as Eugene says, obscurantism.
(“Vitalist” is one of Eugene’s invented terms in this essay. That is one of its weaker aspects, which gives it a lingering resemblance to a college paper; Eugene probably recognized this eventually, which may have contributed to his decision to abandon the project.)
The second idea is what Eugene called “subhumanism.” Discussing modern art, he writes in Nihilism that “little reflection should be required to penetrate to the secret of this art: there is no question of ‘man’ in it at all; it is an art at once subhuman and demonic. It is not man who is the subject of this art, but some lower creature who has emerged (‘arrived’ is Giacometti’s word for it) from unknown depths. The bodies this creature assumes…are not necessarily distorted violently; twisted and dismembered as they are, they are often more “realistic” than the figures of man in earlier modern art. This creature, it is clear, is not the victim of some violent attack; rather, he was born deformed, he is a genuine ‘mutation’… confronted with the actual image of a ‘new man,’ an image brutal and loathsome beyond imagination, and at the same time so unpremeditated, consistent, and widespread in contemporary art, one is caught up short, and the full horror of the contemporary state of man strikes one a blow one is not likely soon to forget.” Elsewhere, he adds, “Subhumanism, therefore, is not a disturbing obstacle to the realization of humanism; it is its culmination and goal.” (Damascene, 140)
I am not interested in the debate over modern art. However, I believe that this passage has a second meaning, which Eugene intuited but did not clearly articulate, and which is much clearer now, fifty years later. After all, the word “transhumanism” is now valid currency in corporate jargon. Across the world, the ruling elite evidently has convinced itself that the vast majority of human beings has become simply unnecessary (or “superfluous” — that is a word that you can actually see used in this context), and that “artificial intelligence” will suffice to handle the mundane work of running society. It takes about 30 seconds to find recent articles by mainstream journalists describing “the idea that humans should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology — that we should embrace self-directed human evolution” (The Globe and Mail), or how “science will produce humans who have vastly increased intelligence, strength, and lifespans” (The Guardian), or “a philosophy of transcendence. With technology and the right attitude — aggressive individualism, cool rationalism, and other vaguely libertarian leanings — followers of the movement would ‘become more than human.’ They would become transhuman, possessing ‘drastically augmented intellects, memories, and physical powers,’ or maybe even post human” (The New Republic).
Most of this is just meaningless pabulum that gives hack writers a way to earn their keep. But, first of all, it is quite abnormal to begin with that this could ever be viewed as a valid topic for discussion in a public forum; and second, the way I see it, having 71 gender options to choose from on your social media profile is a low-budget version of the same thing. You can also find some public criticism of this “philosophy of transcendence,” but it mainly boils down to the concern that most people would not be able to afford “self-directed human evolution” and so would be unfairly marginalized. Well, here’s their answer to that: while your corporate owners are busy “drastically augmenting” themselves, at least you will have the consolation of “defining” yourself through a customized sexual identity generated by your AI assistant on the basis of your Internet history. In the belief that various aspects of human life and biology are constructed is the unspoken implication that they can be arbitrarily overwritten — and it does not have to happen according to the way that one believes to be “better” or “more progressive,” it can happen literally in any way whatsoever. To be sure, rich people have purchased a number of intellectual puppets, such as Yuval Noah Harari, who then pollute the public consciousness with soundbites like, “Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so,” but it is not only the elite, but the general public, that now feels burdened by their own humanity, which to them feels like an obstacle to their self-realization, an annoyance that they can’t wait to cast off; and, furthermore, this feeling is not secular or “rational” in the slightest, but is entirely religious in nature.
A consistent pattern that one can observe — and that, in fact, is sometimes even pointed out in these news articles — is that adherents of this religion are unable to explain its consequences and unwilling to think about them. You would think that, as secular and enlightened rationalists, our first concern would be with the stability and well-being of our society. Since we are educated thinkers, free from all superstitious prejudice and organized religion, we can surely have a reasonable public debate about “transcending our natural state and limitations using technology” or whatever, but first, before we vote on it (there will be a vote, right?), we would really like to see a one-page cost/benefit analysis and executive summary of the possible risks. Instead, however:
After all, Eugene’s word choice does have a certain descriptive ability: “the ‘new man’…will resemble less a mythological ‘fully-developed’ perfect humanity than a veritable ‘subhumanity’ such as has never before been encountered in human experience.” What he calls “subhumanism” can be defined as the willful rejection of humanity and human qualities in favour of a “freedom” or “evolution” that has no concrete qualities to speak of. In general, when reading Fr. Seraphim’s cultural commentary, it often seems to me like the times in which we live offer stronger arguments in support of it than those that the author himself had made…
As to the substance of the issue, I believe that mortality, like existence, is a gift from God. To the elite, it is their only chance for one last scrap of meaningful feeling (Charles Foster Kane’s dying breath); to everyone else, it offers the dignity of freedom from the weariness of a life that has outlasted its interest. It is hard to accept death when it appears to come before its time, but, given enough time, everyone reaches their limit — eventually, when the world around you no longer resembles anything that you recognize, and no words are left with which you could explain your world to others, then you, too, will feel ready to leave. If you are denied this ability, your “immortality” will become a form of torment, which, come to think of it, certainly sheds a new light on the age-old doctrine of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps the righteous die and stay with God eternally, whereas the wicked “transcend their current natural state” and live forever on an earth that they have turned into Hell.
What I will say next may sound odd after all that, but I am convinced that Fr. Seraphim’s failure to complete this book was, in itself, his greatest achievement. Letting go of it was a much deeper affirmation of the faith that it was supposed to defend. For his admirers and followers, there is a bittersweet pleasure in imagining some sort of immense philosophical tome that would have “told it like it is,” but the simple truth is that there is nothing that this could have possibly accomplished. The market was (and is) flooded with pseudo-philosophical and quasi-religious product, from Watts to Harari; adding an “Orthodox perspective” to this list would only have brought Orthodoxy down to that level and subverted it to the services of this “cultural debate,” which in fact has no value and is completely peripheral to the meaning of Fr. Seraphim’s life.
Fr. Seraphim in 1975 (Damascene, 476)
Eugene could have become a “religious philosopher,” but instead he became religious. The purpose of a monk is to find salvation, which is seen in “an elemental inward suffering, the bearing of an interior cross while following Jesus Christ, and a spirit broken in contrition.” (Damascene, 475) St. Isaac of Syria expressed this idea as, “If the soul does not taste of the suffering of Christ, then it will not be one with Christ.” But, of course, getting book deals and speaking engagements to expound on the importance of suffering is the exact opposite of suffering; therefore, it is better and wiser to simply fall silent. Thus, fortunately, instead of Eugene Rose, the “conservative commentator” or “traditionalist thinker,” people remember Fr. Seraphim, the monk.
- Independence, self-sufficiency: We must ‘live off the land’ as much as possible, also keeping in mind that at some not-distant date it may be necessary to be entirely self-sufficient. For this reason we must have no direct connection to the outside world with the single exception of a road, and even this must be as remote as possible. This means: no water lines from the outside (we must develop our own spring and reservoir); no sewage line (our own cesspool); no electricity from public source (our own generator); no telephone ever. Our only contact with the outside world need be the road that leads to the nearest store and post office, and to the bookstore in San Francisco — until even that connection is broken off. This is not daydreaming or escape; it is practical, and any other way will involve us in great danger.
- Simplicity: We must have a minimum of ‘conveniences’; so as, again, to develop self-reliance, closeness to God’s nature (creation), and trust in God instead of devices. This means:
- Hot water: Either none at all or, maximum, coils in the fireplace.
- Stove: Woodstove or simply the fireplace; besides this the maximum tolerable will be a small device for heating tea.
- Refrigerator: None, only a cooler in a shady place.
- Water faucets: To be kept to a minimum, such as for irrigation.
- Lights: Electric lights to be kept at a necessary minimum, as for printshop. Electricity is to be generated for printshop and probably nothing else.
- Heat: Preferably none besides stove or fireplace. The sick can sleep in front of the fireplace.
- Agricultural equipment: No power machines at all if possible. Probably this won’t be a problem unless we get rather large.
Eugene’s outline for what became the monastery,
written in 1966 (Damascene, 334-335)
It is hard to say exactly when Eugene first thought of becoming a monk. For a while, he worked menial jobs while working on his book in his spare time; after meeting St. John, he started running the parish bookstore (which is still there, next to the cathedral building) and participating in Church services as reader. As seen above, his vision became increasingly detailed throughout the 1960s, so that by the time of St. John’s death, the only question that remained was where the land for his monastery (initially a skete) would come from.
These plans were made jointly with Gleb Podmoshensky, a young Russian from an emigrant family whom Eugene met in 1961. He quickly became Eugene’s closest friend and accompanied him into the monastic life, becoming known as Fr. Herman (after St. Herman of Alaska, a Russian missionary and ascetic from the early 19th century). Podmoshensky is, in many ways (not all positive), a key figure for this story; for one thing, much of what Fr. Damascene is able to tell about Fr. Seraphim actually originates from Fr. Herman. Quoting someone else, Fr. Damascene describes the two of them as, “they were outwardly as different as could be imagined. In contrast to Eugene, Gleb was ebullient, excitable, and talkative. He was always shooting out sparks. Eugene grounded this energy, and turned it into a positive electrical force. He gave focus and stability to Gleb’s enthusiasm, and kept it on track.” (305)
Podmoshensky’s excitable qualities are evident from the moment he appears in the book. His narrations usually have an ecstatic air, and miraculous visions seem to naturally appear, as a matter of course, when he is around. Early on, he gives a lengthy account of how he enrolled in and graduated from Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, but somehow did not quite settle on how he wanted to serve God (evidently, becoming a parish priest did not seem appealing), so he visited a number of holy places and finally had the following experience at St. Herman’s tomb on Spruce Island, Alaska:
Of course, this is intended to be read as foreshadowing for how Eugene and Gleb later formed the “St. Herman Brotherhood,” which initially existed mostly in their dreams, but which later became the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. It still bears this name today, when neither founder is living. For this reason, even though one may wish to take Fr. Herman’s mystical visions with a grain of salt, one should have a considerable amount of respect for the brothers’ pedantic lists and hyper-earnest correspondence, in which they remind each other about the importance of humility and so forth. Out of this sometimes awkward zeal, which itself feels like a throwback at least to the 19th century, the medieval desert ideal assumed physical, tangible form in the backwater of California.
St. Ephraim of Syria
Edessa, 4th century
It has to be understood that, even if the skete at Platina did not literally live out every single statement made in every ancient tract, the life that Brs. Eugene and Gleb designed for themselves was difficult, in a way that cannot be grasped only from their intellectual writing or from the religious community in which they lived. Even St. John, who practiced severe personal asceticism, lived in a modern city, ran a parish, interacted with fairly ordinary people, and served in the relatively standard roles of mentor, teacher, humanitarian worker and so on. He had a deep knowledge of ascetic literature and strictly followed its spiritual guidance — one might say he carried the Desert within himself — but in a certain way, Eugene’s physical recreation of the Desert is more difficult to comprehend than St. John’s harsh self-discipline. One could imagine an exalted seminary student getting excited about the idea of desert life after reading about it, but there is an enormous gulf between an intellectual or aesthetic appreciation of the Desert Fathers (even I can manage that), and this:
Eugene in 1968 (Damascene, 360)
A large part of the Brotherhood’s activities, both before and after the move to Platina, consisted of establishing and maintaining a “printshop” that would distribute Orthodox spiritual literature, such as the works of the great medieval saints, in English. At the time, ROCOR did not have the resources (or the interest) to translate these texts into English or to print them in large quantities. The Brotherhood did not have much in the way of resources either; Fr. Damascene describes how “Eugene found a simple, hand-operated [printing press] with type for two hundred dollars” (290) which “was only large enough to print a page at a time… Each tiny metal letter of the text was typeset separately by hand, a painstaking and laborious procedure which, in the beginning, required a full day to set up a single page.” (293) However, from the beginning, Eugene was hoping to reach a purely American audience, and so, an immense, disproportionate amount of time-consuming manual labour went into tiny print runs of home-made translations of old pre-Revolutionary Russian editions, which, for the brothers, became the mite that “she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”
And, on a less comical note:
Fr. Seraphim’s monastic cell in Platina.
In short, they “often found [they] spent more time in trying to make the machines work than…in actual typesetting.” (Damascene, 383) However, in the present day, Saint Herman Press is alive and well, and continues to be operated by the monastery, hopefully with slightly less hazardous equipment. Dozens of titles have been published under this imprint, many of them in multiple printings (Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future has sustained nine; The Soul After Death, six).
In addition to the Lives of Saints, Blessed John the Wonderworker, collections of St. John’s sermons or other brief writings, translations of the 19th-century Russian theologians St. Ignatius Brianchaninov and St. Theophanes the Recluse, prayer services to their patron saint Herman of Alaska, and various medieval tracts, the brothers also published The Orthodox Word, a kind of combined newsletter/magazine/call to arms in which many of the same texts appeared in serialized form together with analytical and polemical articles by Eugene himself. It is perhaps here that Eugene’s “reputation” first appeared and began to grow — a number of discontent young Orthodox were attracted to the uncompromising vision that Platina represented (even if the reality of it turned out to be too much for them to bear), while several “academic theologians” were quite unnerved by this sudden appearance of the monastic tradition in living, rather than book, form.
Left: First issue, 1965. Right: An issue from 2017.
…Well, of course, that is an oversimplification. In fact, some of the young zealots quickly found some reason why Eugene wasn’t Orthodox enough, and explained this in lengthy “open letters”; on the other hand, some of ROCOR’s leading hierarchs and scholars, some of whom later rose to (and still hold) very high positions in the Church, saw in Platina an inspiration that had been missing from Orthodox life. Either way, the printshop may not have immediately drawn huge crowds of converts, but it eventually made the brothers into public figures in the Orthodox community and, over time, accomplished their goal of broadcasting Orthodox monasticism to the world. In light of that, one begins to understand Eugene’s insistence on rough living, daily physical labour, and the elimination of all “conveniences” — that was a way to keep from getting bogged down in pedantic squabbles, or from turning into caricatured “gurus” and “spiritual authorities.”
This was a serious risk. His monastic solitude notwithstanding, Eugene (both before and after tonsure) never shied away from using The Orthodox Word as a pulpit when he felt that principle demanded it. On the subject of “academic theology,” Fr. Seraphim wrote:
from The Orthodox Word in 1975 (Damascene, 488)
Whatever else could be said of the author, for him the subject matter was now undeniably “a matter of life and death.” However, the power of the printed word carries its own temptations. The feeling of being a “righteous zealot” is one of them; Fr. Damascene describes the sudden rise of a faction in Church politics which, “having been inspired to take up the zealot position in the first place largely thanks to the Platina fathers, assumed that the fathers would naturally join their movement… Some of them were truly disappointed when it became clear that the fathers were not going to follow their line.” This led to the emergence of a new theme in Fr. Seraphim’s writing, about “a false but attractive premise: that the chief danger to the Church today is lack of strictness. No — the chief danger is something much deeper — the loss of the savor of Orthodoxy, a movement in which they themselves are participating, even in their ‘strictness.’ …’Strictness’ will not save us if we don’t have any more the feeling and taste of Orthodoxy.’” (Damascene, 534) This idea became very important to Fr. Seraphim later in life, and recurs frequently throughout his letters, sermons and articles:
Fr. Seraphim in 1976
Eugene and Gleb were tonsured in 1970, after two years in Platina. At this moment, the life of Eugene Rose ended; the remaining 12 years of this story are about the monastic journey of Fr. Seraphim. However, the importance of these first two years, when “their daily prayers and labor were seldom interrupted by visitors” (Damascene, 385), may perhaps be understood by analogy:
from the Life of St. Nilus of Sora (1443-1508)
Frs. Herman (left) and Seraphim (right).
Unlike his monastic co-labourer, Fr. Seraphim never claimed to see any mystical visions, and certainly never provided lengthy literary descriptions of them to others. However, Fr. Damascene’s book does attribute one such experience to him, during their first winter in Platina. It is, of course, told second-hand through Fr. Herman. However, it has a much less “obvious” reading than all of Fr. Herman’s other visions, and it is the only one of them that has the sobering quality of 4th-century ascetic writing:
(Continuation: part 5.)