Appreciating Seraphim Rose

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 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.

14 comments:

  1. I agree with Gabe — this is a very nice, balanced reflection.

    I think it’s still difficult to really understand Fr. Seraphim’s legacy, in large part because of how that legacy has been managed by his followers. His association with Fr. Herman, and the departure of Platina from canonical Orthodoxy (which, thank God, is no longer the case) probably unfairly sullied Fr. Seraphim’s reputation. But beyond that, I think the keepers of Fr. Seraphim’s memory did him a disservice by trying to paint him as a prophet of the end times, rather than as a new St. Mary of Egypt, or even a new St. Augustine. Someday, someone should write, “The Place of Blessed Seraphim in the Orthodox Church.”

    This post, Fr. Lawrence, is a good start, and I think you are absolutely on the right track by emphasizing the opportunity for Fr. Seraphim to be a patron for homosexuals, etc. If only the Platina biographies had trumpeted his penitence, rather than not talking about it!

    1. Dear Matthew: I absolutely agree that Fr. Seraphim’s legacy is not well served by hagiography/ his followers. The difficult history of Fr. Herman/ Gleb also muddies the waters. If memory serves, Fr. Alexey Young (Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual child/ the author of “Letters from Father Seraphim”, a wonderful book) has lamented the contribution of Fr. Herman, and opined that if Fr. Seraphim had lived, he never would have allowed himself to be lionized by Fr. Herman in this way.

  2. Fr. Lawrence,

    A good article, with only one part that was not quite right. Fr. Seraphim did not in fact believe that communism would take over the world. He clearly wrote about the break up of communism which was already happening during his lifetime. He prophesied the fall of communism in Russia and he felt that communism was too obviously flawed to deceive the whole world. He believed the final deception of the world would happen through a politics that was much more deceptive and less obvious in its intentions than communism. Otherwise, it was a vet good reflection on Fr. Seraphim.

    1. Thank you, Fr. Ian, for that correction. I just came across this reflection, and was going to make the same point. My only addition would be that I don’t agree that Fr Seraphim suffered from a “beleaguered” sort of Orthodoxy, but rather, as a missionary-minded monk, wrote and spoke compellingly of the Orthodox Revival in Russia as something American Orthodox could learn from and be inspired by. Also, as he aged, he lamented and denounced the “ultra-correct” disease (and repented for any part he and Fr Herman had played in stirring up zeal ‘not according to knowledge’ in some quarters), and urged in his pastoral counsels, “Less head and more heart.”

  3. Fascinating, thank you Fr. Lawrence. It was through Fr. Seraphim’s biography that I was first drawn to Orthodoxy. One of the only Orthodox Christian books, then (20 years ago) or now, that one would be likely to find in a New Age bookstore, as I did. Let me concur with the group that Fr. Seraphim was not well-served by those who followed after him.

  4. Wonderful, both the content and writing style. My heart longs to see him canonized in my lifetime. Pray for us, Priest Seraphim.

  5. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Fr Seraphim has been extremely helpful to me as an American coming to Orthodoxy. Without his insight and example, I might still be struggling with silly things.

  6. Greetings Fr. Lawrence,

    I agree with many of your sentiments in the article. However, I would like to say that Eugene Rose was a homosexual but Seraphim Rose was “washed, sanctified and justified” (1 Cor. 6:11), as St. Paul says: “such WERE some of you”. I do believe that his repentance should have been addressed to edify many in the Church who struggle with that sexual vice. But perhaps Fr. Seraphim never expressed his struggles to any one, God knows.

    Also, I think the fathers of Platina are being overly criticized, they actually did excise Fr. Herman’s presence from the new edition of Fr. Seraphim’ Life and Works. Fr. Alexey Young identifies Fr. Herman’s handiwork that he finds objectionable from the first bio in this book review:

    http://www.roca.org/OA/126-127/126p.htm

  7. Fr. Seraphim’s sexual orientation was not even really addressed in his biography from St. Herman Press. Rather, it seems to indicate that Eugene had some romantic feelings for his friend Alison, and considered the possibility of marriage and priesthood after his reception into the Church. Ultimately I don’t know what was in his heart. Either way, the point was that before he came to Christ, he lived a prodigal life that encompassed more than just sexual immorality but an overall life of self-gratification, which he repented of whole-heartedly. He’s a great example of a complete giving of self to Christ and leaving behind all that this world considers important. That, combined with the fact that he was American from birth to death, provides a great example for modern Americans, both Christian and not. My 2 cents.

  8. Fr. Seraphim Rose was certainly a remarkable man and true American ascetic. I also met Fr. Gleb several times and he was a kind and knowledgeable monk despite some of his moral failures. Fr. Damescene who was Fr. Seraphim’s disciple has written some remarkable things as well.

    However, I wouldn’t be so quick to embrace Fr. Seraphim’s toll house theory and to condemn Fr. Lev Puhalo. The toll house theory which most reputable theologians (Fr. Hopko, Fr. Michael P. (sorry can’t remember his last name but he wrote Orthodox Dogmatics) and many others relegated this theory to the level of allegory at best. The theory which is no doubt been taken literal by many does not make it dogma and it has served to cause some to leave the church and others to cool their faith in a God who would turn over his creatures to the “care of demons”. Personal it left me depressed for several years after reading about it in Fr. Seraphim’s books. It’s certainly not biblical and the “historic support” is hardly convincing but I figured that Fr. Seraphim knew best.

    An Abbot of a well respected Greek Orthodox monastery told me, it is “folklore” from the village made dogma.

    Also, as Fr. Lev points out, many of the patristic texts used to support the theory are spurious at best and their are plenty of other patristic quotes that mitigate against this highly controversial theory.

    Praise Fr. Seraphim for his holy ascetic struggle which is admirable by any measure. He may even be a saint, but this does not validate his understanding of tollhouses which mainly came through Russian writers who had their own influences. If he was merely using them to “scare” Christians into not sinning, I can think of much better ways and dogmatizing questionable opinion is not a good way to make sound minded Christians. I have found in general that alpha male priests and bishops that love the tradition to sound rigorous love this theory, but they seem to have little knowledge of what it can do to crush a sensitive soul who struggles with sin and constantly worries that demons may one day cart them away and most of humanity that dies without “confessed sin”. Demons become the co-workers of God’s justice– hardly a biblical concept.

    So enjoy Fr. Seraphim, but please don’t continue to herald his highly controversial and in my opinion, greatly harmful opinion. Fr. Lev, for whatever you think of him, has interacted with many whose faith has been shipwrecked in by this teaching and are no longer able to trust a God who seems ever so willing to let demons judge according this this theory.

    Just my thoughts.

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