“Brothers: it is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God.”
(Conclusion. Continued from part 8.)
Fr. Seraphim’s life was miraculous in the sense that what happened was the most improbable and implausible among all possibilities. At every step of the way, it was much more likely that he would have become someone else with a more comfortable, “successful” life. He could easily have become a professor of Oriental Languages at Berkeley, and sublimated his religious feeling in the study of ever-more refined philological curios — as did his M.A. advisor, Peter Boodberg, who in his spare time wrote exalted monologues that were never published, perhaps because they said things like, “I believe in Language, chorus of numberless voices, product of myriads of minds, the universal and inclusive art, the massive and enduring monument of ages past; and in the Word…and in the Light that shines from the beginning of time, through the darkness and silence of tombs unto the heart of Everyman,” trying to give Biblical import to their author’s intellectual pursuits. Professor Eugene Rose could have been everything that Gi-ming Shien wasn’t.
Or, the world might have known Eugene Rose the beatnik writer or New Age guru, some carnivalesque fraud with a flashy stage act and an entourage of gullible female followers; or, even worse, there might have been Eugene Rose the right-wing intellectual, the embittered counterculture conservative. In his twenties, Eugene was enamored of the writings of René Guénon; even close to the end of his life, Fr. Seraphim recalled in one of his letters, “It so happens that René Guénon was the chief influence in the formation of my own intellectual outlook (quite apart from the question of Orthodox Christianity). I read and studied with eagerness all his books that I could get a hold of; through his influence I studied the ancient Chinese language and resolved to do for the Chinese tradition what he had done for the Hindu; I was even able to meet and study with a genuine representative of the Chinese tradition and understood full well what he means by the difference between such authentic teachers and the mere ‘professors’ who teach in the universities.”
“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
Guénon (1886-1951) is another example of the bizarre cultural detritus of the late 19th century. Fr. Damascene bends over backward to be generous to him, describing him as having “said that it is only through a return to the traditional…forms of the major world religions, either Eastern or Western, that man can even begin to come once more into contact with truth.” (65) Indeed, Guénon was called a “traditionalist,” criticized modernity, spoke highly of ancient philosophy, and even attacked some forms of modern occultism, but his own worldview was nothing other than pure unadulterated occultism — he interpreted modern society entirely through Hinduist terminology, and for him the value of “traditional” religions lay entirely in the “symbolism” and esotericism that he claimed they contained (it is truly amazing that there is absolutely no trace of these Guénonian fixations in Fr. Seraphim’s writing). The severe cognitive dissonance of upholding “tradition” only to project modern occultism onto it can be seen even more clearly in Guénon’s understudy Julius Evola, who likewise positioned himself as a “radical traditionalist” (and criticized fascism on the grounds that it was too democratic) while also writing entire books on “magic” and what he called “the yoga of power.” Whatever else might be said of Fr. Seraphim’s writing, at least anyone who has read Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future will never trust any murky Westerner who talks about the yoga of anything.
Fortunately, we were spared Eugene Rose the Guénonian cultural critic. But even after his conversion to Orthodoxy, we could have had Hieromonk Seraphim the one-note “zealot,” who might have dedicated himself to enforcing some sort of “party line” regarding some obscure theological issue. In fact, even before their tonsure, Eugene and Gleb were approached by one Fr. Panteleimon (Metropoulos), a Greek-American monk who had founded a monastery in Boston, and who was dissatisfied with what he perceived to be ecumenist tendencies in the Greek Orthodox Church. Seeing him as a fellow zealot, Fr. Seraphim convinced him to join ROCOR, and for a time they got along very well. By 1973, however, Fr. Panteleimon had decided that Fr. Seraphim was not sufficiently zealous either (ironically, the disagreement was over Fr. Seraphim’s views on evolution — that is, Fr. Panteleimon believed that “Christian evolutionism” was the proper “zealous” position), and began sending him lengthy “open letters.” Fr. Seraphim ruefully observed that “everything holy, spiritual, and canonical in [the letters] is used for some ulterior motive, and the letter is devoid of Orthodox heart and feeling…” (Damascene, 526) In 1976, he predicted that, “The ‘right wing’ of Orthodoxy will probably be divided into many small ‘jurisdictions’ in the future, most of them anathematizing and fighting with the others,” (533) and this is exactly what happened: in 1986, Fr. Panteleimon was suspended by ROCOR after being charged with sexual misconduct, and (not unlike Fr. Herman in this way) subsequently left and proclaimed a new church based out of his monastery, which he presided over — with more scandals — until his death in 2016.
Technically, a pre-canonization icon should not show the halo,
but we’ll make allowances for the artist’s depth of feeling.
A more subtle temptation might have been to continue churning out books and articles about the end of the world and the coming reign of antichrist, turning the alarm call of Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future into a kind of crowd-pleasing slogan for the faithful, an echo chamber for Orthodox reactionaries. This was not the case in Fr. Seraphim’s time, when most Orthodox theologians were comfortably buried in their history books, lost in contemplation of dogmatic nuances, and were not interested in discussing evolution or modern society; but, being honest with ourselves, Orthodoxy does have a bit of that dimension and it does account for some of the book’s lasting appeal for Orthodox believers (and, let’s face it, for me as well).
I would not recommend approaching Fr. Seraphim’s books as if they were manuals of some kind, in which “all the answers” are to be found. More generally, I do not think there is much use in reading them with the goal of finding polemical or philosophical statements with which one has to “agree” or “disagree” depending on the strength of their argumentation. They were written by someone who was tremendously intelligent, and had the mindset of a philosopher, but who was also self-taught to a large extent and had to create his own intellectual environment literally with his bare hands, deliberately forgoing access to the resources of even an Orthodox seminary. Furthermore, they were never addressed to the general public, or even to potential converts — on the surface, at least, they are written for practicing Orthodox Christians who already accept much of the same worldview, and are only in need of a slight jolt “because thou hast left thy first love.” They have a certain unfinished, patchwork quality (especially Genesis, Creation, and Early Man).
At the same time, Fr. Seraphim’s books can force one to see the world around oneself in a very different way. They do this not by gradually building up a polemical “case” with which one is compelled to “agree,” but suddenly, in a kind of sharp flash that leaves out many details. The ideas, perhaps, may never be presented to completion; but, having once become familiar with the overall point of view, it is very difficult to forget it, and, from then on, one might begin to notice or remember many things that remind one of what Fr. Seraphim said — enough that, years later, Orthodoxy might start to seem excessively understated and obvious…
In that respect, Fr. Seraphim’s books reflect the genius (I said it again) of their author, and yet, they are somehow peripheral to the meaning of his life. As I said before, it was for the best that he never finished The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God, and likewise we did not really need him to finish Genesis, or to write a new expanded edition of Orthodoxy, or to start some other book, although when a writer and thinker dies at 48 there is always the feeling that there could have been more. But, if he had never written anything at all, fewer people would have heard of him, but otherwise not much would be different. If I could have a conversation with Fr. Seraphim, I don’t think I’d ask him anything about evolution or even about theology; I’d just ask for his blessing.
Classroom in Sretensky Theological Seminary, Moscow, Russia.
(Look closely at the portraits on the walls.)
Looking at the various ecclesiastical “controversies” in which Fr. Seraphim was involved during his life, it is surprising to see how completely they have vanished in the time since his death. Despite the vehemence of the accusations against St. John during his trial in the 1960s, he is now universally revered in Orthodoxy as a great saint and wonderworker. Analogously, most theological attacks on Fr. Seraphim have evaporated with the passage of time, in some cases because the critics eventually discredited themselves (like Fr. Panteleimon), but more often just because the critics simply died and left no legacy that anyone might have wanted to carry on. Thus, for instance, in the early 1970s, Fr. Seraphim polemicized with the liberal academic theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who proposed to improve what he saw as the overall poor morale of Orthodox parishes of the time by revising Church services to make them less “demanding.” Fr. Seraphim wrote: “He believes…the Typicon must be revised in the light of our knowledge of its historical development, of other traditions, and the like. In a word, the services must be made somehow palatable to spiritually bankrupt people! Fr. Schmemann takes a bad situation and makes it worse, advocating the establishment of a new typicon, a lower standard — which the next generation of [OCA] will undoubtedly likewise find ‘unmeaningful’ or too demanding!” (Damascene, 484) While this debate may surface in the Church again from time to time, overall, it is now very difficult to imagine a young seminarian or catechumen reading Fr. Alexander’s books and feeling inspired by them — they may have a certain scholarly value for specialists, but there is little about them that can move souls, Fr. Alexander’s own undoubted piety notwithstanding. The same can be said of virtually all of the other “modern academic theologians” mentioned in Fr. Damascene’s book — while Meyendorff and Florovsky continue to have a narrow specialized interest for historians of the Byzantine Empire, it is completely unimaginable that anyone would read their books and light up with the love of God, or with the wish to serve Him. The opposite is true of Fr. Seraphim — even if he had been wrong or insufficiently nuanced about some minor point or other, it is absolutely clear that the love of God led him to put all of himself into everything he did and wrote, and later generations of readers have had no trouble seeing that.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Fr. Seraphim’s vast correspondence brought him into contact with several clerics and hierarchs who would later hold leading positions in the Church. His address to the seminarians (“Who are you? What is your identity?“) was made at the invitation of Bishop Laurus (Skurla), who was then abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, and who later became Metropolitan of ROCOR and signed the Act of Canonical Communion that reunited ROCOR with the Russian Orthodox Church. Fr. Damascene also mentions a certain Fr. Hilarion, now better known as Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), ROCOR’s current first hierarch as of this writing. Fr. Seraphim’s visit to UC Santa Cruz was organized by the founder of an Orthodox Christian campus fellowship — one James Paffhausen, later Metropolitan Jonah of OCA (now of ROCOR).
Metropolitan Laurus (left) and Patriarch Alexis II (right),
signing the formal reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But it would be too far-fetched to claim some measure of Fr. Seraphim’s direct influence on these historical events; in fact, Fr. Damascene sometimes implies that he and Bishop Laurus did not always see eye to eye, perhaps because of the latter’s heavy administrative responsibilities. However, I believe that Fr. Seraphim rejoiced in heaven at the news of reunification — first, because St. John always believed that ROCOR’s separation was temporary, and continued to commemorate the Patriarch of Moscow at the Liturgy (that was one reason for the attacks on him); second, because the veneration of St. John, which was so important to Fr. Seraphim, played a major role in the deliberations leading up to reunification; and finally because Fr. Seraphim himself, especially close to the end of his life, “maintained that jurisdictional divisions should not prevent one from receiving Holy Communion” (Damascene, 1000) and generally argued that such divisions can be overstepped for the greater harmony of the Church. Therefore, we should say that his prayers helped bring about reunification just as those of St. John did.
Is the Orthodox Church today how Fr. Seraphim would have wanted it to be? If I evaluate myself according to his standard, the result will be very unpromising. At an individual level, the problems that he pointed out are undoubtedly still there. However, if we consider the common ideal of today’s Orthodox Church — some kind of agreed-upon consensus of how the Church and its individual members should be — then it seems to me that Fr. Seraphim exemplifies it, and that this is exactly his impact and significance. Perhaps, during his lifetime, this was not as clear; now, however, after reunification, after the rebirth of monasticism in Russia and with the recent explosion of historical and theological publishing there, it is plain that Fr. Seraphim’s ideal at Platina (even if the reality fell short of it) was exactly the ideal of the Holy Fathers, and that his asceticism was the moral standard of the Orthodox Church. By looking at his life, it is much easier to understand that the Holy Fathers meant what they said, that their writings are addressed directly to us and not just to some long-gone medieval audience. And, if we wonder what those legendary holy men might have been like, Fr. Seraphim’s life again shows us: like him, they were protective of their desert solitude, which they saw as the only way to preserve the purity of their devotion against a flood of worldly concerns encroaching on the Church (that part never changes); at the same time, like him, they were conscious of their obligation to provide spiritual guidance to people who were not capable of the same resolve. They were exceptionally perceptive of the subtle psychological impulses that grow into destructive passions, and they recognized these same impulses in themselves and prayed to God for the perfect faith that is the only means of overcoming them.
Fr. Tikhon (Shevkunov), one of the most influential figures
in the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church, visiting Platina.
One of the old local Orthodox traditions that has been revitalized in contemporary Russia is the annual Velikoretsky Procession of the Cross. On a certain day in early June, pilgrims gather in the provincial capital of Kirov, walk to the village of Velikoretskoe, situated on the bank of the province’s major river, attend Liturgy there, and walk back. The entire walk (both directions) is 150 kilometers long and takes six days to complete. The procession is led by priests and monks carrying an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of this event. The route proceeds along forest paths and unpaved rural roads; participants eat and sleep outdoors (the Church provides meals, but not camping supplies). Some years, the weather is warm and pleasant; others, it rains without stopping the entire week and the back roads turn into knee-deep mud. Tens of thousands of people participate every year, coming from all corners of the country and from abroad, although not everyone is able to walk the entire length.
Most likely, Fr. Seraphim never knew that this particular tradition existed, and he died long before anyone imagined that it could again become a reality. Nonetheless, if you ask exactly what it was that Fr. Seraphim taught, what exemplifies his spirituality and his idea of what Orthodoxy was about, it is undoubtedly this:
If Fr. Seraphim ever truly had a program of bringing Orthodoxy to Americans en masse, it obviously did not succeed. But Orthodoxy has no “mechanism” for mass conversions; occasionally clergymen meet to discuss how there should be more missionary outreach, but it is not really possible to administratively establish such a thing. Orthodoxy is a religion of the individual, based on the individual’s dialogue with God; every example of successful missionary work depends heavily on the individual clergyman, and every conversion or baptism has an individual set of circumstances that cannot be reproduced on an assembly line. A defining characteristic of the end times will be mass apostasy, justified by superficial “Christian” rhetoric; therefore, conversion to true Christianity must be as individualized as possible, to ensure that it reflects a conscious moral choice. Thus, the true nature of Fr. Seraphim’s God-given task in America was precisely to reach Fr. Alexey Young and the handful of other people who ended up answering the call (and still do, sometimes). But, whether he liked it or not, he was a Russian Orthodox monk, to the bitter end, and his lifetime of prayer and ascetic labor is now rightfully part of the heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As you can see, Fr. Seraphim is now venerated by some believers, and there are several pre-canonization icons of him painted in different styles. In Orthodoxy, canonization of a particular person cannot be imposed from the top, by committee; it is meant to be a reaction by the Church hierarchy to the already-existing “local” veneration of that person. In other words, believers first address their prayers to the new saint (as they did with St. John for years before his canonization), and the Church merely acknowledges this fact and gathers evidence for the saint’s miraculous intercessions. Indeed, there are already some claims of miraculous healing attributed to Fr. Seraphim, though not enough (yet) to call for canonization. But, at his funeral, Bishop Nektary (Kontzevich) encouraged the inhabitants of St. Herman Monastery to pray to him, perhaps foreseeing something in the distant future.
In 2001, Fr. Seraphim’s reputation had reached his alma mater, which ran a piece about him (“Lives of a Saint”) in its official periodical, Pomona College Magazine. This article mainly emphasized the paradoxical quality of Fr. Seraphim’s life, i.e., the fact that a young intellectual with fairly typical bohemian tastes had come to embrace ancient Christian monasticism (if it had been non-Christian monasticism, no doubt it would have seemed much more comprehensible) and subsequently became a revered figure in this spiritual tradition. The overall tone is respectful of Orthodox spirituality, but with a note of detached bemusement at its alienness, saying of Fr. Seraphim, “It is a life both famous and obscure.” One of Fr. Seraphim’s former classmates made the following comment: “I thought of Eugene as a person who looks for answers to life’s problems. Most people keep on looking, but Eugene stopped. I think what we missed is the degree of suffering that was within him. His outward personality kind of obscured the inner desperation he must have felt to have embraced such a rigid system.”
I do not accept the unexamined premise that there is great value in “looking for answers,” in and of itself. All of the possible “answers to life’s problems” are on the surface — God either does or does not exist; one should live either for oneself or for others; and so forth — and do not require much effort to “find.” The difficulty lies in taking one of these answers and actually turning it into something more than a subject for aimless pontification, that is, living it with all of its implications, and willingly accepting whatever limitations on oneself may be entailed. It therefore seems to me that, if one never “stops looking,” that is because one was never really interested in any answers, which in turn implies that one was never really “looking” for them in the first place. Instead one’s true interest must have been in something else, like having a good time, for example.
I strongly believe that Fr. Seraphim was profoundly free. To me, his life and writing indicate a powerful inner freedom — that is why I decided to write about him — and I further believe that this freedom was made possible by the “rigidity” of the system that he embraced. Freedom is the goal of monasticism; by “severing one’s will,” painfully removing one’s dependence on passions, the monk becomes able to see himself as God sees him — himself as he really is. Only this absolute freedom can allow one to remain human amid the perilous “signs of the times,” and to retain sight of God’s goodness and mercy.
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
Russia, 18th century
With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant Hieromonk Seraphim,
and through his holy prayers have mercy on us, sinners.