Orthodox Survival Course, Class 66: In Memoriam, on the 39th Anniversary of the Repose of Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) – Fr. Seraphim and the Tools of Discernment

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Introduction – 

Last week on the 20th of August OS (2nd of September) 2021 we marked the 39th anniversary of the repose of Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) in 1982.  Though I plan to continue the series of talks on virginity and marriage that were begun in Classes 64 and 65, I thought it appropriate, on the occasion of the anniversary of Fr. Seraphim’s repose, to say a few words about him and the message contained in his writings.   This is a debt of gratitude I owe him after all, since his original Survival Course notes were the inspiration for these lectures, and they provided a lot of material for many of them.  But moreover, and more importantly, Fr. Seraphim provides us with insights that are critical to our acquiring the discernment we desperately need to read the signs of the times accurately and to respond to what is going on around us in such a way that we will do God’s will,  keep our Faith, and not lose our souls.   It is these larger insights, these criteria for discernment, that I want to emphasize today, and not any of the controversies that Fr. Seraphim was involved in during his life, or controversies about his life and his real or imagined opinions that still rage years after his repose.  We have to refer to the controversies, sometimes, in order to give adequate background to the insights, but the purpose is not to dwell on the controversies, but to use Fr. Seraphim’s response to them in order to illustrate a larger point about acquiring the underlying attitudes, assumptions, worldview, and state of mind and heart that enable one to take a genuinely Orthodox approach to specific questions.  This primacy given to acquiring the Orthodox mind and heart is that aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s teaching which everyone can benefit from, regardless of his agreeing or disagreeing with him on the specific points of controversy which arose during his lifetime. 

A Personal Note – 

Before I begin, I’d like to clear something up:  A few people I’ve talked to had the impression that somehow I knew Fr. Seraphim personally and was under his spiritual direction or something like that.  I don’t know how widespread this mistaken impression is, but if I’ve ever given that impression it was inadvertent, and I certainly beg pardon for this.  Besides reading his books and articles during the years leading up to my conversion to Orthodoxy in 1983 and throughout my early years in the Church, the only connection I had to Fr. Seraphim was friendships with people who knew him well and worked with him closely.   Fr. Seraphim’s first convert to Orthodoxy, Fr. Vladimir Anderson, was a priest friend of mine.   Also, I spent a lot of time and had many conversations with Fr. Alexey Young (now Hieromonk Ambrose), who had worked closely with Fr. Seraphim from the time of Fr. Alexey’s conversion to Orthodoxy in 1970 until Fr. Seraphim’s repose in 1982.  From 1987 to 1989, and then again from 1996 to 2000, Fr. Alexey and I worked together, co-pastoring parishes of the Russian Church Abroad in Denver, Colorado.   At that time, of course, memories of Fr. Seraphim were still very fresh, and Fr. Alexey imparted to me his own knowledge and understanding of his reposed spiritual father’s outlook on things.   But these friendships with Fr. Seraphim’s direct disciples were my only personal connection.  When in the talk today I say, “Fr. Seraphim said this or that” what I mean is that he wrote this or that, or that Fr. Alexey or someone else who knew him told me that he said this or that; I never met him or heard him speak in person.  

The Radar Equipment of Discernment 

As Fr. Seraphim often wrote, we live in times of great spiritual confusion, and obviously that’s only gotten worse – much worse – in the years since his repose.  Therefore, besides learning the objective content of the Orthodox Faith – its dogmas, system of worship, moral teachings, directions on prayer and spiritual life, art and architecture, church history, and so forth –  it is more important than ever that we acquire the gift of discernment, which St. John Cassian calls the “hegemonic virtue,” since this is the virtue that guides our practice of all the virtues.  One can store up a lot of head knowledge about Orthodoxy, and along with that even great zeal for Orthodoxy, but still lack the discernment to grasp the wholeness of Orthodoxy in its lived reality, and how to live Orthodoxy in the real world around us.  The Christian faith is, after all, not a set of propositions, but rather it is life itself, theWay, as St. Luke calls it in the Acts of the Apostles.  It is the lifein Christ, Who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Orthodoxy is not simply a religion as a component of life; it is the life of God in us; it is reality.    

So I’d like to approach this talk by presenting some insights of Fr. Seraphim in light of their function in providing us with the “radar” equipment of discernment:How can we benefit from his writings and from what we can gather about his personal example, in order to acquire an intuitive sense, a radar, a nose, so to speak, for discerning truth from falsehood as we struggle not to drown in the flood of information and disinformation that surrounds us?  I use the expression “a nose” on purpose, because Fr. Seraphim often wrote about something he called the “fragrance of Orthodoxy,” the otherworldly scent of the genuine presence of grace that is perceived by the discerning soul when the wholeness of Orthodoxy – its living, whole, organic, historical reality, its warm and nurturing catholic spirit – is present, rather than a cobbled together, shallow, and lifeless caricature of Orthodoxy based on a punch list of approved opinions within this or that clique, whether “modernist” or “traditionalist,”  whose followers become mindless parrots of this approved list of disconnected opinions about lofty realities of which they have only a fragmentary understanding.

When one acquires somewhat this sense of what Orthodoxy is, one also acquires some discernment about the world around us.   And this is Fr. Seraphim’s great appeal:  He took on the modern and post-modern world head on, with eyes wide open, yet without becoming worldly. In his own life he made a game effort – not a perfect effort, not an ideal effort, but what we old folks  used to call “the old college try,” a spirited, earnest, and persistent effort in spite of one’s failures – at living his life according to the real practicality, the true Gospel practicality:  that is, an otherworldly approach to real, worldly things. It was thus that he inspired others to do the same.  He did not retreat into a falsely spiritual – dare one say gnostic? – retreat from reality on the one hand or give in to the temptation to a secularized neo-Orthodoxy on the other hand.  As a result of what they read in the things that he wrote, and what they were able to learn about his life, hungering, lonely, confused, sinful souls who were nonetheless searching for integrity and who were wanting to grapple with the reality around them – not just to escape it – were attracted to the writings of this man who felt as they did and who had pioneered a way for his contemporaries, a way to think about and approach the world around us, with an Orthodox mind and heart, to face the world in all its post-Christian – indeed post-human – horribleness, and to be simultaneously realistic while having all-daring hope in God.   

So now let’s get specific:  What are some of these tools of discernment I’m talking about?  They are nothing spectacular, just homely insights into how to approach aspects of our life and the life around us in an Orthodox way.  Here’s a list of eight of these insights that occur to me:   

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; don’t get itchy feet. 

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. 

Love to Be Quiet

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first conversation with Fr. Alexey Young, in his beautiful Victorian home in Englewood, Colorado, right around this time in 1987.   We had just moved to Denver and met Fr. Alexey, and, of course, a young buck like me in the presence of the famous Fr. Alexey was bound to ask, “Well, what was Seraphim Rose like?”   The first thing he said was “Well, he was something!”   Then immediately he said, “He was very, very quiet.”  Later on, when I met more people from Russian Church Abroad circles on the West Coast, who had visited Platina, and when I talked to them about the fathers who had lived there, they all said the same thing:  When you went there, another monk did nearly all the talking, while Fr. Seraphim was quiet and did not say much, outside of his sermons and lectures, though he tried always to be cheerful, in spite of being tired all the time and having a lot of worries.  Moreover, he imparted this spirit of quiet to those who came to see him; he was a calming, cheerful influence.    

This combination of quietness and cheerfulness would make for a priceless tool to live our lives today.   We talk all the time, and we get upset all the time, and we just end up going around in circles and nothing ever changes.   Of course, this shows our lack of prayer and our lack of trust in God.    We need to take a hard look at how much we talk and also how much we watch and listen to a lot of nonsense out there, and we must ask the Lord to give us the love of quiet, so that we can hear that still, small voice that Prophet Elias heard on Mount Horeb.   

Also, I’d like to point out that quiet is not only needed for prayer, as well as for wise and practical living; it is also an absolute pre-condition for the intellectual life.    As we know from his biography – and this is pretty certain, unlike some other things in that book – Eugene Rose was a very serious scholar for years before he became Orthodox, and he took the quietness, steadiness, soberness, and real discipline of a true scholar into his Orthodox and monastic years, which gave him the needed tools to understand what he did and to write the way he did.   Today we need genuine Orthodox intellectuals more than ever, and we need to encourage our young men who have the needed intellectual gifts to pursue scholarship as a holy vocation, a way of life, not just a dilettantish or mercenary occupation.   One reason that people found Fr. Seraphim, in person or simply as someone they read about, charming and fascinating – though he obviously made no effort to be either! – was that he was a throwback to an earlier time, and he portrayed the image  of the monk-scholar, the ascetic intellectual, in the tradition of old Christian Europe.    We need to revive that tradition amongst ourselves, both for married and monastic men who want to pursue the intellectual life.   

  (In our own Church here in North America, we have begun an extremely important effort, in the form of the St. John of Damascus Orthodox Educational Initiative, to educate our Orthodox young people.   We pray that at least one, if not several, Orthodox true scholars will emerge from our humble efforts!).  

Deeply Study History 

Earlier in our Survival Course, we did a series of talks on Fr. Seraphim’s study of Nihilism, which was the only completed and published section of a much longer work he had intended to write in the early 1960s, which he intended to title The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man.   He was preparing to write this magnum opus on the basis of studying hundreds of books and articles, and he was struggling to synthesize his knowledge in the light of an Orthodox understanding of history, to produce an Orthodox meta-history of the modern world.   Though the finished product never emerged, the notes he prepared over a period of years bore fruit not only in the short finished work Nihilism, but also in his own Orthodox Survival Course lectures and, in general, in the entire viewpoint, the lens through which he saw the signs of the times and how he would write about them in all of his books and articles.  

These labors of Fr. Seraphim are bearing fruit right now, as I am speaking with you, because our own little “Survival Course” was of course inspired and informed by his.   And it’s very important, really a matter of life or death, that we not become chronological provincials, locked into an obsession with our own time, but that we always recur to the study of history and strive prayerfully and intelligently to acquire its lessons for us.   To be truly human – and that’s a prerequisite for being truly Christian – we have to see ourselves within the Great Story of our race, from its creation through the fall, redemption, and working out of our future destiny in the life of the Church as we look forward to the Second Coming and the Four Last Things:  Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.   This not only gives us understanding; it also simultaneously gives us comfort and hope.   We see that we are really very little people after all, and our troubles are really very small after all, in the great Scheme of Things.    We can’t fix everything:  We take our part in the battle line, do our little part, and die with our boots on. We leave the rest to God.  

A charming but actually very serious and useful aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s sense of being part of history, of living inside of history and not just talking about it, is that he portrayed his continuity with history in his life.  He purposely did not adopt trendy fads in dress, speech, or behavior.    (We shall speak more about this when we discuss the idea of doing things an older, harder way instead of a newer, easier way.)  It is not incidental, but essential, to his sense of what forms the genuine Orthodox personality that as a layman he always dressed very conservatively and that he used very polite and dignified forms of speech.   I don’t know what he would make of this current trend of people “Orthodox” motorcycle gangs or “Orthodox” rock bands or “Orthodox” tattoos, but I doubt that he would approve of it.  To a great extent, the medium really is the message, and we need to be sober and careful about how we present ourselves.   We must always remember that we are, and conduct ourselves as, the bearers of a great tradition.  We should attempt in various ways to remain old-fashioned, or, rather, timeless, in our approach to day to day outer life, in order to give a quiet outward expression to, and to protect, the timelessness that should characterize our inner life. 

See the Continuity of Organic Orthodoxy Up to the 20th Century; Get in Touch with It

We know that the Church is of divine origin, and we’d like to experience that aspect of Her all the time, but we don’t.  Most often we are tempted to a superficial critique of secondary aspects of the Church and think ourselves very wise for making it.   We create an idealized picture of the way things should be, and imagine that we can fix the faults we see in order to make that picture come to life, like Pygmalion and his statue.   But it just ain’t so.  This tendency, to “improving things” all the time, partakes of the spirit of Progressivism, which is one of the great and destructive errors of our time, the idea that God put us here to “make everything better all the time, world without end, Amen.”  

Fr. Seraphim dealt with Progressivists within Orthodoxy on two sides:  There were the out and out Modernists like Fr. Alexander Schmemann and the people like that, who made no bones about their intention to create a new “Orthodoxy” that embraced the spirit of the modern world, and there were the Pseudo-Traditionalists, like Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros and his group, who claimed to re-create a “pure Orthodoxy” of the past by attacking what they perceived to be corruptions in thought or life over the past thousand years that had obscured some real, real Orthodoxy that did not exist any more, except in their little group.  Using his deep and broad knowledge of history – not to mention his common sense – Fr. Seraphim could see through both agendas and realize they were pretty much the same thing:  Progressivism and Covert Progressivism.  

Fr. Seraphim’s solution to this problem, as far as I can tell, consisted of several things we should do.   One of them is what we’ve already talked about – study history seriously and realize that what counts about the Church is the big picture, and that big picture is very good indeed – there’s nothing we could possibly do to improve on it.  The more knowledge we have about Church history, the more we read the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints ancient and recent, the more we realize that we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that we do not have to uphold ourselves:  we are being upheld.  

Another cure to Progressivism is not to take ourselves too seriously, which is essential to spiritual and psychological health.  If you are getting all gloomy and getting tunnel vision about some problem in the Church, that means you can’t see it clearly, and you won’t make good decisions on fighting it (and if it is a real problem, you may have the duty to fight it, but you have to do it wisely, trusting in God, with courage, humor, and a compassionate understanding of the human enemy you may be facing).   

Fr. Seraphim was well known – and in some circles disliked – for his fondness for the Russian Church of the 19th century.   What is interesting here is that both the overt renovationists and the supposed Byzantine purists disliked him for this.   To the renovationists, this revealed him as a White Russian Tsarist reactionary who was stuck in some ideal vision of “the good old days” and opposed the newly revealed social morality of universal rights and social justice.  Of course, to a serious Orthodox person, this accusation is a badge of honor, not a negative criticism.  For us tradition-minded people, however, what is of greater concern is that some supposed Byzantine purists saw Fr. Seraphim’s love of the 19th century Russian Church as prima facie evidence of his “Latinophrone” corruption, of his not being quite a pure Byzantine true, true Orthodox.   But this is as unfair as it is ironic, because no one labored more than this man to show the continuity of the very real Orthodoxy of the 19th century – the Orthodoxy of St. Seraphim, of Optina, of St. John of Kronstadt, etc. –  with the school of hesychastic Orthodoxy that Holy Russia had received from Byzantium before the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, though weaving the bright thread of spiritual and cultural history he showed us in publishing  The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia by I.M. Kontzevich, his translation of saints’ lives published as the Northern Thebaid, the translation of the Life of St. Paissy Velichkovsky, and the re-publication of the Russian originals and his own English translations of the Lives of the Optina Elders.  I won’t go into the details here here, but you can go back to our Orthodox Survival Course #24 and re-read the section on St. Paissy Velichkovsky and the Kollyvades, along with Optina and the Slavophil theologians, to recall how important these books are in forming a genuinely Orthodox meta-history of spiritual and cultural continuity within the Orthodox nations.   

So the terribly critical insight of Fr. Seraphim was this:   Orthodoxy had a tremendous, easily demonstrable organic unity right up to the disastrous 20th century.   To repair the damage done to us by the revolutions, wars, and social engineering of the past 100 years, we don’t have to go all the way back to a reconstructed Golden Age of the Early Church or the Byzantine middle ages – What was essential about the Church of all these ages was still intact prior to the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and what followed.    The really life-giving thing about the 19th century Russian Church, and why the demons and evil men fight us when we look at it sympathetically, is that its lessons – its writings and living examples – are not only true, they are also accessible to us, more accessible than the writings and examples of earlier periods, simply because they were modern people in many ways like us.  But they were also the authentic bearers of a golden thread that was snapped very recently – not a long time ago – and we have only to pick up the thread and move on.  The bad guys – the social engineers, the utopians, the One World cabal – don’t want us to see how accessible this real Orthodoxy really is.  There is a great deal more that could be said about this, but that could be a whole talk in itself!   

Appreciate the good things about Western European culture without losing sight of the Orthodox critique of that culture.

Closely related to Fr. Seraphim’s approach to the 19th century Russian Church was his approach to the Western European culture that reached its apogee in the 19th century, which approach in turn is related to the Kiryevsky brothers’ and Khomiakov’s thought, which you can read about briefly in Orthodox Survival Course # 24 and in Fr. Alexey Young’s A Man Is His Faith.  Like them, Fr. Seraphim, while seeing the wrong direction that heretical Western Europe had taken for centuries – indeed, this wrong direction is the entire subject of his Survival Course, as it is of most of ours! – did not react to the European culture of recent centuries with wholesale rejection, with the saeva indignatio we see in some Orthodox zealot writings or the arrogant, supercilious dismissiveness of modernist renovationists.  Instead, with sympathetic sadness, he points out the bad things that did happen while pointing us to the good things that remained.   He realized that all of us, whether adult converts from non-Orthodox Christian confessions or cradle Orthodox, are to a greater or lesser extent the products of this received European or European/American culture, and that to simply ignore it, to treat the soul in front of him as a blank slate to be written on from scratch,  was neither healthy nor even possible.   True, the music of a Bach or Vivaldi or the later Russian romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, the poetry of Pope in one era or Coleridge in another, the painting of the Pre-Raphaelites, the arts and crafts productions of William Morris, the novels of the great 19th century writers…none of these is completely Orthodox (even Dostoevsky, though he gets close!), but certainly none of it is utterly demonic, as some fanatical purists would maintain, and all of it has elements of great beauty that can lead a wounded, brutalized soul to higher things, and ultimately to God. 

Fr. Seraphim came to see that the deracinated, uneducated, uncultured converts that came his way needed to be humanized before they could be Christianized – they needed to fill in that gap in the human organism between the bodily and the spiritual, which is the intellectual and psychological.  This is why he told his catechumens to read great secular literature and to listen to classical music, while at the same time they were taking the baby steps in that part of their life which is spiritual strictly speaking.  It all works together.   Of course, there is a point in one’s spiritual development, especially for monastics, when this aspect of life becomes unnecessary or at least can be minimized.  But most of us need, to some extent, to keep doing this remedial work on ourselves in simply becoming human, while we are also trying to become Christians.  

Next Time…!  

I see that we are only halfway through my list and I’ve already talked for awhile now.   Let’s resume next week, finish our list of Tools of Discernment, and then go on to deal with some controversial but useful aspects of Fr. Seraphim’s thought, specifically his views on ecumenism and on eschatology.  See you then! 

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