September 2, 1982 saw the untimely death at the age of 48 of Eugene Dennis Rose, better known to the world as the ascetic monk of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, Fr. Seraphim Rose. For an ascetic ROCOR monk, Fr. Seraphim had an unpromising start. Though born a Methodist and baptized at the age of fourteen, he later declared himself an atheist, and studied Oriental philosophy at Berkley College in California, coming under the spell of Alan Watts. He graduated with a Master’s degree; his thesis was entitled “‘Emptiness’ and ‘Fullness’ in the Lao Tzu”. He had a gift for languages, and explored Buddhism. In 1956, at the age of 22, he “came out of the closet” and declared himself a homosexual. This was, remember, 1956, and such admissions were more costly then than now. All in all, Rose made an unlikely candidate for an Orthodox ascetic.
Then he was exposed to Orthodoxy through the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia at their San Francisco cathedral, along with his friend, Gleb Podmoshensky. Rose converted in 1962, and the pair came to the notice of Bishop (now Saint) John Maximovitch, who served at the cathedral. With the bishop’s blessing Eugene and Gleb opened a book store attached to the cathedral in 1964 and were tonsured monks in 1968. They also began a monastery in the small northern Californian village of Platina. Fr. Seraphim was ordained priest-monk by Bishop Nektary in 1977, and continued to live, study, write, and pray in the humble and primitive cabin in Platina dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska.
Fr. Seraphim was known for championing the fullness of undiluted Orthodoxy in the New World. Among his writings are Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, and The Soul After Death, all published by his own St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press. Foremost in the latter volume is his promotion of the idea of “toll-houses”, the concept that after death the soul is confronted with its sins in a process of self-understanding. Though denounced as heretical by then Deacon Lev Puhalo in his counter-blast of the time The Soul, the Body, and Death, the teaching finds support from Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, and of course St. John Maximovitch. In the ensuing theological dust-up between Fr. Seraphim’s teaching and Deacon Lev’s denunciation, the ROCOR synod sided with Fr. Seraphim, and told Puhalo to stand down, saying that no such certainty as Puhalo asserted was possible.
It may be said that he was slow to stand down; his denunciations still flow, despite Fr. Seraphim’s death in 1982 and his subsequent inability to offer rejoinder. Those wanting to examine the true patristic teaching about the soul after death may refer to a volume published by Jean-Claude Larchet, Life After Death according to the Orthodox Tradition which offers a comprehensive survey from a wide selection of the Fathers, or examine the volume’s teaching here. This volume does not so much argue a case as simply present the relevant material. Reading it makes it clear that in the Soul After Death debate Rose was the horse to bet on.
As we can see, Fr. Seraphim Rose can still excite controversy today. What are we to make of him? Any analysis of his abiding worth must take into account the times in which he lived. As a loyal son of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, he partook of all the strengths and weaknesses of his church at that time. Let us remember that when Rose lived the Cold War between America and the Evil Empire was very cold indeed, and many expected that Communism would continue to spread its tentacles around the globe and take over the world. Rose’s version of Orthodoxy had a rather beleaguered feel about it, like a kind of bastion mentality, as he expected “World Orthodoxy” led by the apostate Moscow Patriarchate to become Communism’s puppet, leaving ROCOR and its friends standing alone. History has proven such predictions wrong. With the fall of Communism’s Berlin Wall in 1989, such fears look quite dated now, and those (like Rose) predicting an imminent Red take-over appear alarmist and foolish. Such is the 20-20 of hindsight. But that is not the whole story.
Rose not only shared his jurisdiction’s weaknesses, but their strengths as well. That is, he had the courage to proclaim the truth however unpopular it might be, and to press on in faithfulness even if the path he was treading was a lonely one. Such courage and integrity should not be undervalued, especially today when the Orthodox way is rapidly becoming more unpopular and our path promises to become even more lonely. Further, let us not forget that Rose was a homosexual. Despite this, when he gave his heart to Christ and his life to fullness of Orthodoxy, he repented of his past and put homosexual behaviour entirely to one side, living in righteousness and chastity to the end of his days. This also called for courage and should not be undervalued. And his example is proving even more necessary today, when many people declare themselves to be gay, lesbian, transgendered, or otherwise in a state of fluid sexuality, but may nonetheless find themselves attracted by the beauty of Orthodoxy. Such people are loved by God, and need an example to follow, if not a patron saint. Fr. Seraphim Rose would seem the obvious candidate.
Finally, in his ministry Fr. Seraphim increasingly spoke of an “Orthodoxy of the heart”, an approach to God, neighbour, church, and world which transcended political and jurisdictional quarrelling. He knew that one could love one with whom one disagreed, and be kind and gentle with all. Love and akribeia (or strictness) are not the twin components of an eternally warring dichotomy, but found their happy combination in the life of Fr. Seraphim. Whether or not he will be eventually canonized, his works may still be read with profit today. And the example of his joyful and gentle spirit and his unrelenting courage are needed all the more. May his memory be eternal! And may he pray for us in turn as we wait to join him in the Kingdom.