Orthodox monk Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina

Review of Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose

Biography by Damascene Christensen. Forestville, California: Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, 1993. $29.95 hardbound, $24.95 paperback.

Since edited and retitled Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works.

Far back at the beginning of all our changes, if I may speak for many much better than myself, there was the idea that we must have reasons for not joining the Catholic Church. I have never had any reasons for not joining the Greek Church.... Doubtless, I could have discovered and defined the reasons, had they been demanded; just as I could have found the reasons for not going to live in Lithuania, or not being a chartered accountant, or not changing my name to Vortigern Brown, or not doing a thousand other things that it never occurred to me to do.
--G.K. Chesterton,
Where All Roads Lead

Last year a rather interesting advertisement began appearing in some conservative publications. It proposed an essay contest on the “Most Politically Incorrect Book” of the year, with the winner to receive a $5000 prize. That was certainly an attention-getter. But the book in question turned out to be both more and less surprising than its promoters seemed to promise. The book, Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, is the massive biography of a man who spent a good portion of his life cut-off from the rest of the world in the mountains of northern California. He was hardly political enough even to be politically incorrect. Yet this man embraced a philosophy, a theology, and a way of life, in short, a tradition, so completely at odds with the prevailing orthodoxies of the liberal, secular West as to make that advertisement’s claim seem like an understatement.

Not of This World is the story of Eugene (Father Seraphim) Rose (1934-1982), a convert in 1962 to the Russian Orthodox Church from lapsed Catholic and denomination-hopping Protestant roots. Such Orthodox convert stories are now quite plentiful, as an increasing number of Protestants make their way into the Orthodox Church, just as similar works by Catholic converts were quite common fifty years ago and indeed remain so today (see, for example, three collections of such stories all published in 1987: The New Catholics, Spiritual Journeys, and The Ingrafting). Father Seraphim, however, was not part of this contemporary movement. His was a more solitary quest, undertaken like those others of earlier generations like Frederick North, fifth earl of Guilford, J.J. Overbeck, Stephen Georgeson (Timotheos) Hatherly, Chrysostomos H. Stratman, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos) Ware, and more recently the British composer John Tavener. We can imagine that it was a much more lonely passage than it would have been today when a two-thousand-member American Evangelical denomination has been received corporately into the Antiochene Orthodox Church, or when a significant percentage of recent graduates of Oral Robert University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have converted to Orthodoxy, many of whom have since been ordained to the priesthood.

Father Seraphim was raised in Southern California and studied at Pomona College (where he read for the later prolific autobiographer and essayist Ved Mehta), at the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco (then headed by the renegade Episcopalian cleric Alan Watts), and at the University of California at Berkeley. His main academic interests were in Chinese language and philosophy, in which he perceived an authentic tradition with much to offer to the West. But neither was he immune from the effects of the Beat movement and the counter-culture that was then being born in the Bay area, as his early attachment to Zen Buddhism attests. His path out of the counter-culture, though, led him to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (also known as the “Synod”), which then as now retains a strongly anti-ecumenical stance (even with regard to most other Orthodox churches and jurisdictions), as well as a tradition of heroic and sometimes even holy hierarchs. Father Seraphim’s main contact with the Synod and with living Orthodoxy came in the person of Gleb (Father Herman) Podmoshensky, a Russian émigré and seminarian at Jordanville, the intellectual center of the Synod in North America, who was touring the West coast on a combination pilgrimage-mission tour.

The two quickly recognized in each other spiritual brothers, soul mates, and together they discerned a mission to bring Orthodoxy to the New World, and the New World to Orthodoxy. Under the patronage of the sainted Archbishop John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco, the two formed what later became the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, which in turn ran an Orthodox bookstore in San Francisco, published a monthly magazine, The Orthodox Word (which in time gained an international reputation), and a series of books on matters theological and hagiographical. In 1969, the brothers moved to Platina, California, several hours north of San Francisco, and there established the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. Father Seraphim was ordained priest there in 1977, and with few exceptions, he remained there for the rest of his days, quietly evangelizing for the Orthodox church, yet largely removed from the affairs of both Church and State. He died in 1982 in Redding, California, of a rare intestinal disorder.

The subtitle of Not of This World is “Pathfinder to the Heart of Ancient Christianity.” This is a conceit that one hears often from recent converts to the Orthodox Church. They claim to be searching for “ancient Christianity” and profess to have found it in (Eastern) Orthodoxy. While the antiquity of the Church is important to some extent, its great age has never been a credal mark of the true Church. Rather the Church is noted for its “apostolicity,” that is, that it is the vessel of the faith handed down from the Apostles. While that fact makes the Church and her faith very old today, there was a time when it was very new. And in a sense the nature of tradition is that what is handed on is “new” to each generation that receives it. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the concept of tradition when considering the life of Father Seraphim. From his earliest acquaintance with the French philosopher of tradition René Guénon, tradition was a guiding principle. This principle allowed him to see the authenticity of the world’s many great traditions, while ultimately seeing the distinctiveness of Christianity. He saw this in particular in the case of the Taoist teachings of his mentor at the Academy of Asian Studies, Gi-ming Shien. He writes:

After becoming Orthodox I saw how limited was his teaching: the Chinese spiritual teaching, he said, would disappear entirely from the world if Communism endures another ten or twenty years in China. So fragile was this tradition--but our Orthodox Christianity I had found would survive everything and endure to the end of the world--because it was not merely handed down from generation to generation, as all traditions are; but was at the same time given from God to man.

Here we have the two great marks of the Christian tradition: first, the importance of the actual transmission proceeding generation to generation, and second, the fact that the matter of the transmission involves Divine Revelation. While both of these marks involve antiquity, the greater emphasis, I think, is on their living connections to the past and their power here and now. One could argue that Father Seraphim engaged in a continual critique of the false view of antiquity which would deny the continuity of tradition and thus put at risk the very notion of Divine Revelation and its continual relevance for men today.

It is no small irony, however, that Father Seraphim’s defense of “tradition” was most often aimed at members of his own spiritual communion. He opposed “the ‘theologians’ of our own day, who for all their logic and their knowledge of Patristic texts, did not convey the feeling or savor of Orthodoxy as well as a simple, theologically uneducated Abbess,” whom he knew in San Francisco. They could not communicate the attraction of Orthodoxy, in his view, because they refused to be bound by what had been handed on to them. That this is not a new problem can be seen in the very canon of the New Testament when St. Paul writes: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings” (2 Tim. 4:3). The problem is put succinctly, if somewhat differently, a thousand years later by St. Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) when he wrote, “A man who does not express desire to link himself to the latest of the saints in all love and humility . . . will never be linked with the preceding saints and will not be admitted to their succession.” This refusal is the hallmark of all kinds of Protestants and false reformers and is not limited to those of the “left”: “Father Seraphim saw that what these apparent traditionalists and zealots were doing was precisely what the so-called liberals . . . were doing: severing the link, cutting off the recent roots to the ancient Fathers, in order that they themselves might be the authorities.”

The solution that Father Seraphim called for to this crisis of tradition was renewed fidelity to the “continuous line” that links the sons with their contemporary Fathers, and thus with the Fathers of recent centuries past, all the way back to the ancients. Father Seraphim himself was in the providential position to have been the heir to a whole host of “living links” between the contemporary American Orthodoxy and the spiritual tradition of Holy Russia and beyond. Through Archbishop John and others of his generation, Father Seraphim was linked to the Elders of the famous Optina Monastery, located to the southwest of Moscow on the Zhizdra River, which during the nineteenth century attracted and influenced the likes of Gogol, Khomiakov, Dostoyevsky, Soloviev, and Tolstoy. The monks of Optina were, in turn, in the direct succession of St. Paisus Velichkovsky, the eighteenth-century monastic reformer and translator of the Philokalia, and through him to the traditions of Mount Athos and back to the deserts of Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Thus Father Seraphim had firsthand knowledge not only about the means--the how--of tradition, but also about its matter, its substance, which was nothing but the intense experience he called “orthodoxy of the heart,” an experience he cultivated for the last half of his short life.

What then should Chestertonians, and especially Catholics, make of this phenomenon of American converts to the Orthodox Church, and particularly of the life of Seraphim Rose? One wonders what would have happened to this movement had the late Thomas Merton, selections of whose correspondence have just been published in five thick volumes, bothered to answer a lengthy, 1963 letter from the young monk-to-be, Eugene Rose. But apart from conjecture of this kind, there is much to be concerned about. A great deal of harsh criticism is aimed at the papacy generally, and specifically at Pope Paul VI and his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1965 (although nothing is said about the courage of the pope in publishing Humanae vitae three years later, or the supine reaction of most Orthodox hierarchs to the contraceptive revolution). In addition, there were many confused and disillusioned Catholics among Father Seraphim’s converts to the Orthodox church, prominent among them the “Western-rite Orthodox” activist Father Alexey Young and former Catholic Worker Vladimir Anderson. This might be seen as exactly the same kind of “poaching” that has infuriated Orthodox hierarchs in Russia in the past few years. (Whatever the culpability of these “apostates,” their movement into the Orthodox Church points to the terrible pastoral neglect, not unlike Merton’s seeming indifference, that has afflicted the Catholic Church for the past thirty years, and from which we are only now recovering.)

On the other hand, what would Chesterton have made of these large numbers of Protestant converts to the Orthodox Church? Given what he wrote in Where All Roads Lead, he might not be surprised. Although, as he indicated, Chesterton himself never considered that path, the Eastern way has always been of interest to Protestants, from the late sixteenth-century correspondence between the Lutheran divines of Tübingen and Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II, to the eighteenth-century Anglican Nonjurors’ overtures to the Russian Church, to contemporary converts like Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Evangelical theologian Francis A. Schaeffer. The reason, no doubt, lies in what the late Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “Unity of Negation.” There exists a kind of uneasy communion among those who reject Rome (as Joseph de Maistre wrote, “All enemies of Rome are friends”). It is a communion made all the stranger when Western Protestants become Eastern Orthodox. Not only are they abandoning their cultural heritage, but they are effectively side-stepping the whole question of the traditional authority of the Roman Pontiff, apart from his universal mission, as Patriarch of the West. William Palmer (1811-79), friend and disciple of Cardinal Newman, was one such orientophile Protestant. During 1840-41, he visited Russia with the aim of promoting intercommunion between the Russian and Anglican Churches, and perhaps with a view to his own individual succession to Orthodoxy. In the course of conversations with Russian churchmen and scholars, a history professor told Palmer, “If we had any communication with your Church, it must be through the Pope, and the Church of Rome, nor can we recognize you otherwise. Reconcile yourself to your own Patriarch first, and then come back and talk to us.” No doubt Chesterton would have agreed with Professor Mouravieff’s view, as did Palmer who became a Catholic in 1855.

And yet might there not be some quiet good to come out of this movement, some small hope for the reconciliation of East and West? For his part, Father Seraphim remained open to the Western tradition and indeed was indebted to much within it: St. Augustine, J.S. Bach, and twentieth-century writers like Joseph Pieper, Étienne Gilson, Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Max Picard, and the Thomas Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, in particular, all helped him on his way into the Orthodox Church. He refused automatically to castigate Western influence on modern Eastern theology. And he worked hard for the retrieval among the Orthodox of the lives and works of many of the great Gallic saints, especially St. Gregory of Tours. Father Seraphim even took up the defense of St. Augustine against Orthodox calumniators in a series of articles reprinted in what has now become an important little book, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (1983). British Dominican Father Aidan Nichols recently remarked that modern Orthodox anti-Augustinianism (and thus anti-Westernism) may have a distinctively American origin, and thus he implied that Father Seraphim’s attempt at mediation may be particularly important. A larger lesson may here be drawn: namely, that perhaps this movement of disaffected Protestants and unchurched converts to the Orthodox Church may in some small ways help bring about the “restoration of the full communion” between East and West for which the Fathers of Vatican II called. Just as intermarriage is thought to decrease racial tensions, so too may this movement decrease the inter-ritual and cultural hostilities that have plagued relations between East and West for at least a thousand years. But it is certain that that will only come about if those converts act in the spirit of fidelity and conversion and holiness which Father Seraphim Rose embodied.

William M. Klimon
University of Maryland School of Law
Baltimore, Maryland