“Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters”: A Review

Cathy Scott’s Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters (Regina Orthodox Press, 2000), is a deeply flawed book. Less than a biographical work, it is a polemic: primarily a reaction to Not of This World, Hieromonk Damascene Christenson’s first biography of Father Seraphim Rose (to be replaced in 2003 with the vastly improved Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works). Despite its deep flaws, however, it is a book well worth reading, and for those who revere Father Seraphim and wish to know as much about his life as possible, it is a book well worth owning.

Ms. Scott begins her work with

Much has been written about my uncle, Eugene Rose, who in 1970 became Monk Seraphim Rose. This book is a biography based on true and first-hand accounts from his family, friends, priests, and professors. Most importantly, it includes his personal correspondence from the time he left home for college to his passing in Redding, California, nearly three decades later. This compilation is the true account of his life’s journey, which led him into Orthodoxy. It is not a purified version of his life. The sanitized version was authored in 1993 by Monk Damascene Christenson in Not of This World. Large portions of Eugene’s life were omitted in that version. [Emphasis added]

However, in reading Ms. Scott’s biographical insertions and the letters of (then) Eugene Rose, it becomes clear that only one primary factor of Father Seraphim’s life had been omitted in Not of This World: his homosexuality. Ms. Scott refers to this a few paragraphs later in the same introduction by a tortuous circumlocution (apparently not wanting to give the game away until later in the book).

Long before he became a monk, he gave up certain things, including what the Church considers to be immoral actions. From my research, I learned that Eugene quit that behavior around 1960, when he embraced Orthodoxy and the rules of the Church, even before he joined that faith, in 1962, and a decade before he became a monk.

Without knowing in advance that Ms. Scott is referring to homosexual behavior, one is hard pressed to grasp what connections she intends between “immoral actions” and “that behavior.” Drugs? Gambling? Masturbation? All condemned by the Church. Aside from the fact of ostensibly delaying (until pp. 71ff) the shock value of “outing” the “pre-Father Seraphim” Eugene Rose, this is just bad writing.

Regrettably, the pot shots at Not of This World, do not end with this initial reference, but are inserted in a few other places throughout the rest of the book (pp. xii, 55-56, 235). But in reading the two books, Ms. Scott’s and Not of This World, it becomes clear that the things Ms. Scott objects to are the omission of any overt reference to Father Seraphim’s pre-Chrismation homosexual behavior and the characterization of him in his college days as “an angry young man” (Scott p xii).

But instead of an angry young man, Ms. Scott, through interviews with Father Seraphim’s college friends, presents a young man “in pain” who didn’t convert to Orthodoxy “and embrace that rigidity without needing to” (p. 160). Ms. Scott attributes to John Zeigel that “Eugene turned to the priesthood as an escape.” She goes on to quote Zeigel (“a postulant for the Catholic priesthood before he came out as a homosexual”) directly: “I was headed in that direction,” he said. “Once I found love, I reversed my directions. That put me at a crossroads. I woke up from this narrow Orthodoxy.” (p. 160) So, instead of an angry young man, Ms. Scott presents Father Seraphim as essentially a neurotic who became Orthodox to ease his pain. One wonders which is the worse.

But this failure of explanation with regard to Father Seraphim’s conversion to Orthodoxy is only compounded by the extended reflection Ms. Scott records of Eugene’s friends of his rejection of academia and an academic career as “a waste” (p. 163-164).

Embarrassingly, whatever her research entailed for her book, she clearly did not research the philosphy that formed so much a part of Father Seraphim’s college formation. She refers to “David Hume, a philosopher who was into skepticism” (p. 26), as though Hume’s lifework could be reduced to a fad he engaged in: he was “into” skepticism. And the reduction of Arthur Schopenhauer to a “nineteenth-century philosopher of pessimism” (p. 26) is equally egregious.

In addition to these failures is Ms. Scott’s clear lack of comprehension of Orthodoxy itself. She is clearly not Orthodox, and very little of her work presents Orthodoxy in a sympathetic light. Although the only outright criticisms of Orthodoxy come from the mouths of Eugene’s college friends, she lets these criticisms stand without fuller explanation, either from herself or other potential interviewees (such as Hieromonk Ambrose [Alexey] Young, Val Harvey, and other of Father Seraphim’s spiritual children).

But perhaps the chief flaw of Ms. Scott’s book is that it is so poorly written. Much of the book is the stringing together of Father Seraphim’s letters with occasional comments about the date of the letter and to whom it was written. And if Ms. Scott’s work is intended to be a “true story” of Father Seraphim’s life, the great bulk, two-thirds, of the work (pp. 1-161) mark out Father Seraphim’s life up to the completion of his master’s thesis in 1961 (less than a year prior to his Chrismation into the Orthodox Church). Only the last eighty pages (163-243) have anything to do with the last half of Father Seraphim’s life. If this is a “true story” of Father Seraphim’s life, it pays comparatively scant attention to what Father Seraphim himself considered to be the most fundamental aspect of his being.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Ms. Scott does not otherwise oversensationalize Father Seraphim’s homosexual behavior, nor presents Orthodoxy as a cult. One supposes that she intends an “objective” viewpoint, letting Father Seraphim’s friends and family, and Father Seraphim himself in his early letters, speak to the various matters. Indeed, through this revelation of Father Seraphim’s homosexual behavior, and his later rejection of it, Ms. Scott, perhaps unwittingly, provides hope for those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wish to be conformed to the life of Christ in the Church.

But most important are the letters themselves. Perhaps not obviously so at first, upon repeated readings they set out the gradual conversion of Father Seraphim from his former life to his life as Orthodox. This background makes much more rich one’s own reading of the truly worthwhile biography Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works.

To my knowledge, Ms. Scott’s book is out of print, though one may contact the publisher.