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As we promised last time, in this talk, we’ll continue the list of things to do in order to acquire the “radar equipment” of discernment, to acquire a deeply serious Orthodox way of looking at things, based on the example and writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose. After going through the rest of our list, we’ll then go on to discuss two aspects of Fr. Seraphim’s writing that are still somewhat controversial, which are his response to ecumenism and his approach to eschatology.
Before going back to our list of “to-dos”, we need to make a qualifying introductory statement: Everything I’m about to say represents an ideal, a statement of insights and principles. When I criticize the Internet and electronic media, for example, I know full well that I am using the Internet to get out this message. When I criticize the superficiality of virtual friendship on the Internet, in which people never actually meet each other, I know full well that many of us have formed a needed community of faith, commitment, and shared interests that would not have been possible without this technology. But we know how easily the technology is abused, and we have to do reality checks constantly on ourselves, constantly recurring to the basic insight that life today is abnormal, and we have to strive in whatever little way possible to return to older, more human ways of doing things. If we forget this, we’ll be lost.
I. Tools of Discernment, continued:
Love the place where you are – live life in depth not on the surface
Many of you are probably familiar with Fr. Seraphim’s answer when asked if he would like to travel to see the historic sites of the Faith. Someone asked him, “Well, Father, you’ve written so beautifully about Holy Russia, Orthodox Gaul, and so forth – wouldn’t you like to travel to some of those places?” He responded with, “Everything I need is right here.” Of course, this is the attitude of a true monk, who should practice both stability and enclosure in the monastery of his profession until death. But it also reflects the fundamental wisdom of loving one’s own place – the earth beneath one’s own feet, the sky over one’s head, the familiar landmarks of one’s farm, village, or neighborhood. Recall that prior to becoming a Christian, Fr. Seraphim was deeply influenced by the philosopher Rene Guenon, one of whose insights was that contemporary, post-industrial civilization had abandoned the quest for quality in favor of quantity; his most famous book is entitled The Reign of Quantity. Another way of putting it is that people are increasingly obsessed with the surface of things and do not care about – or even know the existence of – the depth of things. Because the surface quickly becomes unsatisfying, one runs to a new sensation, a new interest, a new friend, a new sound bite on the news, another Youtube video, etc. in order to find satisfaction. But it is not there, and so he runs to something or someone or somewhere else, piling up endless experiences lacking in depth, understanding, or spiritual nourishment.
By staying put in one place, by learning to live a quiet and ordered life deeply in touch with the small world around us, by living life on the human scale instead of the scale of giantism and quantitative mass, a man acquires not only greater wisdom about the world outside of him, but simultaneously, and more importantly, greater wisdom concerning his interior life, the life of the mind and the soul.
This does not mean that an Orthodox Christian, in the course of his earthly pilgrimage, may not have to search for the right place to put down roots. Very few today are blessed to be born, grow up, live, and die in the place of one’s birth, and also live an Orthodox life. Given today’s circumstances, this search for the right place can take years, as many of us know from experience. But one should search for that place earnestly and ask God for it, just as one asks God to send one the right spouse or send one to the right monastery. There are a few special people called to the life of homeless wandering, a form of radical non-possessiveness for Christ’s sake, but that is a rare vocation, not the normal Christian way of life.
Of course, today, people can run around to countless new places, so-called friends, and titillating experiences without leaving their room, because of the Internet. So what we are trying to convey here can no longer refer only to physically staying in one place – which most people in fact do now, hypnotized by the screen in front of them – but also withdrawing from the stream of shallow experiences on the Internet, television, and so forth, and dealing directly with the actual God-created world and God-created people around us. We have to do a few real things, and do them in depth, with patience, attention, and persistence, instead of doing lots of things inattentively and giving them up in favor of a new activity. We have to have a few real friends, not thousands of virtual “friends” who are actually barely even acquaintances as understood historically in traditional social life.
From everything we know about Fr. Seraphim’s personality that can be known to be reasonably trustworthy, and in complete harmony with his own statements in his writings, surely it is safe to say that, as his biographer asserts, he really did intensely love the natural world that was all around him in his monastery: the stars in the sky, the trees of the vast northern California forest, the forest animals, the majesty of the surrounding mountains, and so forth. This was not at odds with, but rather helpful to his striving for the eternal life of the next world, for a healthy love of God’s creation incites us to love the Creator and seek union with Him. We all know this, and yet we take so little time to withdraw from the fake world of electronic media and engage the real world. The very nature of the electronic media addicts us to living life on the surface rather than in depth, hurriedly instead of calmly, and inattentively instead of attentively. By contrast, the very nature of doing real things – of sitting down and reading a real book, of practicing a traditional craft, of growing food and tending animals, of learning about the types of trees in our locale, the habits of the animals, and the ancient wisdom of traditional astronomy regarding the sky over our head, of taking hours to prepare, store, and cook food properly – the very nature of doing these real things can enable us to transform our experience of the outer world from a labyrinth of perpetual and fragmented meaninglessness into a doorway to the contemplation of eternal realities.
Choose to do things a harder, older way on purpose.
Those of us who are blessed to own old copies of Orthodox Word from the sixties and seventies, and first editions of Fr. Seraphim’s books, know the special feel of those pages – we can feel the imprint of the hand press that they used to print the books that he wrote and the journal numbers that his articles first appeared in. When Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Herman moved out to the middle of nowhere, they did it on purpose, and on purpose they chose to live as simply as possible, and to do things an older, harder way, not a more convenient way using more advanced technology. The hand press is only one example of this approach they took, though it is the most remarked-upon. Of course there was a touch of romanticism in this – aren’t most people at least a little romantic about such things? – but there were also genuine spiritual principles involved: that we acquire virtue through struggle, that bodily ease leads to sin, and that the physical artifact of a man’s direct doing with his own hands carries within it the imprint of his soul as well as the sweat of his body.
Well, getting back to that hand press: the price they paid for using the hand press was that they could only print a limited number of copies, but again, it was a matter of quality – I don’t mean superficial quality, but the quality of an integral interiority, of producing something with depth not just surface – over quantity, and a rejection of the materialistic ethic of utilitarianism, the idea that the morality of an action is in direct proportion to the number of people supposedly being benefited. Of course, we may in a given situation rightly choose to do things a faster and easier way in order to (it is to be hoped!) benefit more people, but when we do, we must recall that usually there is in fact a trade-off, that something of true beauty, interiority, and integrity is lost by mass production and ease of production using more and more impersonal technology.
(I’ve often thought that I would like to stop writing these notes on a computer and also no longer put the notes or these recordings on the Internet. I’d much rather write them on a typewriter [it would be even better by hand, but my handwriting is dreadful!], make photocopies, and mail the text to a relatively small postal mailing list of serious people who would go out of their way to subscribe to the list, and who would want to sit down and read something on paper instead of on a screen. I’d still be using modern technology, of course – perhaps an electric typewriter, certainly a copying machine, and obviously that great [and most excellent!] modern institution of the Post Office – but at least it would be an older technology, and the whole process would be blessedly more cumbersome and time-consuming, and have more integrity. I welcome your comments on this idea! Maybe I’d still make the audio recording, learn how to make compact discs, and then mail the CDs to the mailing list along with those typewritten notes. The CD would still be digital technology, but at least one would get a physical object in the mail. A real live human being, the postman [Yes, I still say “postman”!] would stick a physical object into your mailbox, and you would open it up and put it in your little machine and listen to it, while reading my typescript. [Perhaps I should get an old manual typewriter with one irritatingly defective letter, like an “a” that jumps halfway up above the line.] Well, it’s an idea.)
Here’s another idea: Get an old clock that you have to wind periodically. If it doesn’t keep time with perfect exactness, that’s all the better! (And make sure you teach your children and grandchildren how to read a clock face). That’s just one example; there are a lot of other ways of doing things that are slower and older and less convenient, but they still work, and what they do is to force us to slow down and think about what we’re doing, and they force us to have more direct, more human, more personal contact with the action we are performing. (Our granddaughters were fascinated to learn that there are hand cranks to raise and lower automobile windows, such as I have in my old pickup truck). The more advanced the technology is, the more impersonal it is – we go faster and faster, we get more and more detached from the action some machine is performing for us with ever lessening participation on our part, and we live on the surface of life, skimming from one superficial experience to another. Of course, depending on our work, unavoidable responsibilities may force us to keep up – to some extent – with so called progress in technology. But we still have to fight back somehow, or we will become less and less human.
Be content with a lack of perfection; remember that the “better is the enemy of the good.” Keep trying.
When Eugene Rose and Gleb Podmoshensky, the future Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Herman, moved out to the wilderness, they really did not know what they were getting into, and they never figured out how to do everything properly that a skilled and experienced outdoorsman or homesteader would know how to do or that someone with lots of money could hire someone to do. Their building constructions were miserably rough, and they were always failing at their vegetable gardening. But they persisted; they were humble enough to do things badly, as long as things got done, and that is the key. We have to do the same with whatever efforts we make at doing something for God, efforts to live more fully the Orthodox life God is calling us to live. We can’t wait till we have all the money we think we need, or all the skills we think we need, or all the knowledge we think we need, or all the people we think we need – at some point we have to trust God and take the plunge and start our efforts, whether it’s building a church or starting a parish school or moving out to a homestead in the country or writing a book, or whatever it may be. Perfectionism is a temptation from the right side, and the demons in the form of angels of light are actually appealing to your vanity, not your conscience, when they make you depressed about not doing things just right or just as well as someone else over there somewhere who you think is more successful. Homeschooling is a very common example of this – homeschooling parents almost always think they are not doing the job well enough, and they’re always tempted to throw in the towel, and yet despite their mistakes their children usually turn out a thousand times better than if they had gone to some mainstream school.
And just forget about having all the money you need before you start your pious project! We read something very instructive in the Life of St. Moses, the superior of Optina monastery whose self-sacrificial labors set the monastery on a firm basis both physically and spiritually in the first half of the 19th century, which enabled the ministry of the more famous elders, like Leonid, Macarius, and Ambrose, to flourish. He never waited till he had all the money – or even half the money! – he needed to start his building and farming projects, whose success eventually led to making the monastery self-sufficient, depending only on the labors of its brotherhood, as a monastery should be. He would just start things, he would pray, the money would come, and he would spend it. When he reposed, the entire contents of the monastery treasury were a ten kopeck coin found stuck in a a crack in his desk drawer! And it was said that if he had found it, he would have spent that too.
In short, let us make our Sign of the Cross and charge ahead. The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us pray for more courage and trust in Him, and be willing to fail in the eyes of the world, as long as we are serving Him. If we do go down to defeat, it will be the glorious defeat of the hero who gave his all, not the ignominious defeat of a coward who never went into the arena to do battle. And if this or that fails, we just have to get up, dust off our britches, and keep trying.
Never compromise your integrity. There’s no use being Orthodox if you’re not even human.
One of the things we find in Fr. Seraphim’s published biography that we can be fairly certain of is that as a young intellectual in his pre-Orthodox years, he was continually tortured by the lies of the modern world, which he experienced bitterly first hand as he continuously encountered the lack of integrity in official academia. He had a burning desire to know the truth and to live by that truth. Eventually He found the Truth Himself – Christ, the true God of Orthodoxy – and he tried to conform his life to that Truth. This profound integrity, this willingness to suffer for truth, shines from his writings, and this is a big reason why so many people thirsting for the answers to life have been attracted to what he wrote. There was no posturing, no fakery; he neither pandered to corrupt worldly sensibilities nor did he haughtily assume the superior air of someone who knew better than everyone else. It was straight talk, and it was not casual or effortless – he worked very hard at it, because he did not trust himself not to make a mistake. He kept suffering.
In speaking of reliable criteria for discerning who is telling the truth, Fr. Seraphim often referred to St. Gregory the Theologian’s expression, “Our suffering Orthodoxy.” In the series of talks that was later published in a slim little volume called God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, he identifies a suffering heart as one of the signs that someone is on the right path, that he is seeking the truth, and that his heart will be open to God’s revelation. If you love truth and have a sensitive conscience, you are bound to suffer, at least within yourself if not outwardly, because you have to live in this world, and the world is full of lies, being under the dominion of the father of lies. Moreover, you see the lies inside yourself, you see more and more that you are part of the problem. This causes the salutary pain of heart that cries out, in the favorite prayer of St. Gregory Palamas, “O Lord, enlighten my darkness!”
Another favorite saying of Fr. Seraphim’s was in the form of a question, “We know they are Orthodox, but are they Christians?” It was a rhetorical device, of course, an artificial paradox, not a real question, for he well knew that only Christians can in fact be Orthodox, and only those in the Church can be said to be Christians, strictly speaking. What he meant was, “One can be Orthodox formally, and even profess great knowledge and zeal, but ultimately you have to practice the Gospel, or you will give the lie to your noble name of Orthodox Christian and fall short of your vocation.” In the Gospel, the only people Our Lord condemns, the only people He shows anger at, are the officially religious people who are nonetheless hypocrites, the ones of whom He said, “You say that ‘we see,’ and so your sin remains.” They were not crying out, “Enlighten my darkness,” though they had the True Light standing right in front of them in the flesh, the Incarnate Word of God. They were saying, “We already have the light, and we don’t need You.” There was no way they could even begin to understand St. Ignaty Brianchaninov’s powerful insight, that even the greatest saints fall short of the standard of the Gospel.
This hardness of heart, this smugness, this delusion that one knows it all, is a sure sign by which we can discern that someone – including oneself – is on the wrong path. This does not mean that we should live our whole lives with the attitude of skepticism towards our Orthodox theological and philosophical convictions. Of course not! “We have seen the True Light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the True Faith,” as we chant at the conclusion of every Divine Liturgy after the reception of Holy Communion, which is the ultimate moment of enlightenment, the fullness of the entry of the Eternal Light into the soul and body of a man. But we must never be content with our own reception of Orthodoxy, with making it our own, with the depth of our own understanding, with the fullness of our Orthodox life in action. This must go on until one’s last breath. If we stop doing this, we become hard of heart, we stop the salutary suffering of soul that leads to purification and illumination; we enter the world of delusion, of plani, prelest, we join the ranks of those whom St. Paul calls the deceiving and the deceived, the blind leading the blind.
So we understand that we cannot be Orthodox without striving to be Christian, without striving to live the Gospel. But what about the fact that we cannot be Christians if we are not even human? I don’t mean human in our ousia, our human nature, which is always there no matter how much we deform it, but in our energeia, our energies/operations, the expression of our humanity, our functioning as human beings. Let’s circle back to something we talked about last time, Fr. Seraphim’s practice of getting new converts to read the great literature and listen to the great music of the post-Orthodox Western European culture and ancient pagan culture. He was saying, in essence, “Listen, in your reading of the Church Fathers and Orthodox spiritual literature, you are learning for the first time about genuinely spiritual things, and that’s very good, but remember that much of what you are reading is in fact inaccessible to you at this point – to a great extent you don’t know what you are looking at. One of the reasons that you are not ready for this is that you don’t even have normal human – much less Christian – reactions to ordinary human experience because of this brutalized, nihilistic anti-culture you were brought up in. You can’t even imagine what a noble pagan is, much less a Christian, and much more less a saint! Read this literature – Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, great novels of the 19th century, etc. – about the heights and depths of fallen human nature, and develop a sensitive mind and heart for man as he is in his fallen state, his simultaneous nobility and fragility, the tragedy of his existence without Christ! And notice: There are heroic characters here in this literature who are striving with every ounce of their being, and who are suffering, for integrity, for not being phonies, for following conscience, for doing the right thing, and they fall short, and they know that they fall short! Do you do that? Do you strive and suffer like that? Can you see that in your behavior you do not even rise to the level of this noble heretic or pagan character in Shakespeare or Sophocles? Does your heart suffer over their plight, and over your own sins and the sins of the whole world? Do you really, really, realize to what extent – what immeasurable extent! – all men need, and you need a Savior?”
The great crisis of civilization that we face today is bringing to the surface the hidden thoughts of men, including Orthodox men. We see so many non-Orthodox people out there now – heterodox Christians, non-Christians, completely secular people, all kinds of people – who are willing to suffer in order not to lose their fundamental integrity and moral freedom as human beings. They speak out, they do not bow down to self-evidently immoral rules and decrees with the excuse that they have to “obey the government,” they are willing to lose their jobs, get kicked out of school, lose their professional licenses, have SWAT teams kick down their doors and put them in handcuffs, to spend time in jail, even to be murdered – all for speaking the truth about what is going on around us. We have to be honest and recognize that if we choose to live in denial, if we are smug and complacent about the plight of our fellow human beings, if we are not suffering at least inwardly, in our minds and hearts, over the outrageous lies of the Satanocracy that is now openly forming the anti-Christian One World Government before our eyes, then we are, in our behavior, less moral than these brave people who are, sadly, outside the Church. Thank God, we are also seeing that there are Orthodox Christians who are willing so to suffer, for, indeed, it is the Church that has the real answers for everyone, and Her children should take the lead in the fight against evil.
In this great crisis, then, the Church has the ultimate answers – only She can fully explain to suffering man the origin of these problems, which is the perpetual war of Satan against the human race, which now has reached a great crisis point, but has been going on since the beginning of the world and will last till the end of the world. Only the Church can offer the true deliverance from sin, death, and corruption, the results of the Fall from which all human ills, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, derive. Only She knows and teaches correctly how Our Lord will return to judge the living and the dead, and cast Satan and his minions into the lake of fire. And we, the Orthodox Christians, are inexpressibly and undeservedly blessed to be in the Church. But membership in the Church is not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” not a painless escape into some kind of anesthetized Never-Never Land. We are not like the sectarians who believe they will be “raptured” out of all persecution and sorrow. We are not Gnostics who seek to enjoy spiritual experiences apart from social responsibility, moral striving, and real suffering. We are Christians, and that means we must take up the Cross. But without this fundamental love of truth, without the burning desire to conform one’s life to truth and not be a pseudo-spiritual hypocrite, we cannot fulfill the vocation to prophetic and martyric witness that is required of all Christians. And we will be judged more harshly than those outside, precisely because we have received the fullness of Truth and grace that is in the Church, and we would have every help from God to live the Truth that we have received, if only we would ask for it.
So to summarize our little list of the Tools of Discernment:
Love to be quiet.
Deeply study history.
See the continuity of organic Orthodox right up to the 20th century; get in touch with it.
Appreciate the good things about Western European culture without losing sight of the Orthodox critique of that culture.
Love the place where you are; live life in depth, not on the surface.
Choose to do things a harder, older way on purpose.
Be content with a lack of perfection; remember that the “better is the enemy of the good.” Keep trying.
Never compromise your integrity. There’s no use being Orthodox if you’re not even human.
These Tools of Discernment were the main thing I wanted to talk about. But briefly I’ll address two areas that still cause a lot of arguments, which are Fr. Seraphim’s teaching on ecumenism and his understanding of eschatology
II. Two Controversies: Ecumenism and Eschatology
- Ecumenism: If you read old Orthodox Word articles from the 1960s and 1970s, there is no doubt that Fr. Seraphim was a staunch opponent of ecumenism. Furthermore, early on he even stated, at least once, that the Russian Church Abroad, the Catacomb Church in Russia, the Greek Old Calendarists and those in communion with them, et al, i.e., the non-“official” Orthodox, were what remained of the true Orthodox Church. This is easily demonstrable from his writings, and the fact that after his death his publishers actually changed his words in some places to make it look like he never said that only proves that they know they don’t have an argument for some kind of revisionist, non-zealot Fr. Seraphim that was eager to join “World” Orthodoxy: you don’t falsify documents if you already have real evidence and a strong case for your position. But it is also true that in the last few years of his life, Fr. Seraphim made it clear that he had not adopted the “no grace in World Orthodoxy” position of some of the True Orthodox jurisdictions. He simply followed the basic attitude of the Russian Church Abroad of his time, which was expressed most clearly in a 1948 essay of Professor Andreyev, “Is the Grace of God Present in the Soviet Church?” Andreyev’s position was that it was certainly possible to make the case that the Moscow Patriarchate was graceless, but that the time had not yet come to make such a determination. As the 1950s and 60s wore on, and the apostasy of all the official patriarchates – not just the MP – metastasized into a cancer of epidemic proportions, the leadership of the Russian Church Abroad took this approach to World Orthodoxy in general – they remained apart, but without making a final judgment, unless one regards the 1983 Anathema against ecumenism as a final judgment, but, then, Fr. Seraphim reposed in 1982, and therefore this Anathema is outside the scope of our topic tonight.
In regards to the Moscow Patriarchate in particular, Fr. Seraphim took the hopeful attitude of many in the Russian Church Abroad – “Perhaps when the communist yoke is lifted, we’ll find a big, healthy body of lower-ranking bishops, lower clergy, and faithful who will overthrow their Sergianist leadership and unite with us in a pure confession of true Orthodoxy!” Of course, he reposed years before that hypothesis could be tested. When it was tested, we know the sad result – instead of the truly believing people in the MP rejecting their apostate leadership, a vast majority of the ROCOR submitted to that same unrepentantly apostate leadership, and they remain in this compromised position until this day. But Fr. Seraphim was taken by God before all this happened, and it’s really pointless to argue about how he would have reacted to ROCOR’s auto-demolition in 2007. There is no such thing as “what if,” and, furthermore, dead people can’t defend themselves from mischaracterization. So the best approach is to say, “He reposed in 1982, this was his position at that time, and let’s leave it at that.”
B. Eschatology: Probably Fr. Seraphim’s most quoted remark is, “It’s later than you think.” That makes it pretty obvious that he saw the great apostasy as far along, and that the times of Antichrist could not be far off. It is also clear that his teaching was completely in line with the remarkably united teaching of recent luminaries of the Russian Church Abroad, several of them who were still alive and still teaching during Fr. Seraphim’s lifetime, such as St. John Maximovich, St. Philaret of New York, Archbishop Averky of Syracuse, and Archimandrite Constantin of Jordanville: following their teaching, he believed, as they did, that the future of the world depended on the repentance of the Russian people and the rebirth of Holy Russia, and that if this rebirth did not occur, the end was not far off.
Note that he did not base his fundamental conviction on visions and so forth, like we see circulated on the Internet these days: “Elder So and So had a vision and prophesied this engineered pandemic and the evil vaccine to bring about the New World Order,” and so forth. I am not saying that these visions were true or not true; I’m just saying that Fr. Seraphim’s approach was not based on visions. It is true that in at least one of his talks – one of the few recorded talks we have – he did quote the prophecies of recent Russian elders about subjects such as the return of the Tsar and the last times, but the substance of his teaching on how we should interpret the signs of the times was based not on prophecies but instead on his laboriously acquired Orthodox philosophy of history applied to common sense observations about the direction of the entire Western Christian world for the past millennium and the state of the formerly Christian world today. It was precisely this labor of Fr. Seraphim – to understand the trajectory of world history in light of Holy Scripture and Orthodox tradition, and to apply this understanding to reading the signs of the times today – that inspired our own Survival Course. His approach to understanding the literal fulfillment of specific prophecies in the apocalyptic books of the Bible, however, was cautious, as he makes clear in the introduction to his translation of Archbishop Averky’s commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian.
We could, then, sum up his approach to eschatology thus:
- The entire direction of the Western Christian world since the schism has been away from God.
2. Today man has forgotten God, there is no repentance, and therefore the spirit of Antichrist dominates society in all of its institutions and culture.
3. The one hope is that Russia will repent and be reborn. If this does not happen, the end could not be far off.
One Final Observation
The much-controverted biography of Fr. Seraphim records that after his burial, the late Bishop Nektary chanted the magnification to a monastic saint in honor of Fr. Seraphim, as though he had now joined the ranks of the saints. From then, until now, certainly, there have been movements here and there to proclaim him a saint. About this, there is no need for us to have an opinion. Let us benefit from his teaching and example, and pray for his soul. If he has found favor with God, he is praying for us.
To our beloved teacher in Christ, Hieromonk Seraphim: Eternal Memory!