“Not of This World”: A Review

[Note: I have, since 2002, read Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim’s biography each year. Beginning sometime in the autumn, in September or October, I read a chapter or two most everyday. In 2002, my first exposure to Fr. Seraphim was through the first edition of his biography, authored by Hieromonk Damascene Christenson, Not of This World. In 2003, shortly after the release of the new edition of the biography and again in 2004, I have read Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works. Having read both, there is a clear difference between the two. Many of the controversial parts, involving largely the words, recollections and later behavior of Fr. Seraphim’s monastic brother, Abbot Herman, have been excised in the new biography to be replaced by much fuller and richer accounts of Fr. Seraphim’s own word and works. This year, however, I decided to go back and re-read the original edition of the biography. Rather than write a review of it myself, I decided to allow Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual son Hieromonk Ambrose (Fr. Alexey) Young’s words to measure the first edition of the biography, Not of This World.]

Hieromonk Ambrose (Alexey) Young’s review of Not of This World.

Without doubt, the late Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) was a most remarkable American convert. He was a contributing editor for Orthodox America and editor of The Orthodox Word; he was also the author of many books, and the translator and/or editor of many other works, in both English and Russian. In addition, he wrote scores of articles on a wide variety of church subjects, and composed services to four saints. His death in 1982, at the early age of forty-eight, brought this prolific career to an abrupt close. Those who were privileged to know Fr. Seraphim personally, as this writer did for more than twelve years, also saw something of Fr. Seraphim “the man”: the spiritual director, the monk, and-in his last few years-the priest and confessor. His brilliant and even splendid intellect was combined with a rare soul and a peaceful outward personality that was self-effacing, quiet, still-a personality that, frankly, loathed controversy and conflict. Especially would he have disliked the controversy generated by his biography.

Many of us-his spiritual children and his readers-had long wished for a biography of Fr. Seraphim. Some, assuming that such a work would be only a straightforward account of his remarkable life and thought, were asked to share our personal memories for such a study. Last summer [1993–cdh], Not of This World: The Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose, was published. And, indeed, the biographer, Fr. Damascene (Christensen) has managed to integrate a massive amount of material. He narrates Fr. Seraphim’s life skillfully, and we learn many things about Fr. Seraphim-especially his pre-Orthodox life-that we did not know before. This, in spite of the fact that Fr. Damascene himself hardly knew Fr. Seraphim, and was only baptized at the time of Fr. Seraphim’s death. The book is also filled with photographs that help to make the man and his times come to life. Not of This World is, however, both a treasure and a disappointment, a joy and a sadness, an inspiration and a scandal. The purpose of this review is to examine these contradictions.

Some may ask: how can this reviewer-Fr. Alexey Young-possibly give an objective evaluation of Not of This World? After all, as a spiritual son of Fr. Seraphim (and co-worker with him on a number of projects), Fr. Alexey is perhaps too close to his subject. Also, Fr. Alexey was for many years closely associated with the St. Herman of Alaska Skete (where Fr. Seraphim lived) in Platina, California. The third, and, perhaps the most serious criticism of all: five years ago Fr. Alexey left the Russian Church Abroad, and he is no longer in a position to speak with any credibility.

May I say forthrightly that it is precisely because of these objections that I am in a position to write an honest review of this biography. First, while I knew the man, trusted him, and believed he achieved righteousness, I was not blind to his weaknesses-nor would he have wanted me to be. Fr. Seraphim had a horror of “guru-ism.” He never demanded blind or unquestioning obedience, and he would have been appalled by statements such as one printed on the back of the book jacket: “Without Fr. Seraphim we’d all be dead.” In a letter to me he once described himself, in an obviously understated way, as only an “elder brother,” one who had taken a few more steps along the path than I had.1 He often made suggestions but always added, “do what you think is best.” He himself always preserved a kind of polite but definite “distance” between himself and others, so that it was possible for us to view him objectively. He was not a cold or arrogant men, yet he did not permit any kind of what we would now call “co-dependance” between himself and others.

Secondly, I was an outside witness to a number of the events described in this book; most of those I did not personally see, were described to me by Fr. Seraphim himself, either in person or by letter. Although the St. Herman Skete was a very important influence in my life, I found it impossible to support the transient whims and peculiar ecclesiology of the Skete’s then-Abbot, Fr. Herman (Podmoshensky), when, after Fr. Seraphim’s death, he entered into an almost paranoid combat with his ruling hierarch, Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco and Western America. Fr. Herman was ultimately suspended and then defrocked by the Russian Church Abroad-after a series of provocations by Fr. Herman that would have horrified Fr. Seraphim, and which would never have been tolerated, had he lived. Thirdly, my own departure from the Russian Church Abroad to another jurisdiction had nothing to do with Fr. Herman and the Skete’s troubles, nor did I follow him into his present ecclesiastical affiliation. Nor was I rejecting the priceless spiritual formation I so generously received in the bosom of the Church Abroad. In fact, in my present-day contacts with clergy and laity of other jurisdictions, I gladly and proudly defend the Church Abroad when she is criticized.

Lastly, since the book’s appearance last summer, I have been contacted by a score of people around the country who, not having known Fr. Seraphim, but seeing that I am quoted in the biography many times, have asked my opinion of the book and its accuracy. I have felt an urgent responsibility to speak truthfully and set the record straight.

In a certain sense, this biography is actually three books in one. The first concerns Fr. Seraphim’s early life and his intellectual and spiritual development up to the time of his conversion to Orthodoxy (approximately 250 pages). The second deals at length with his life as an Orthodox Christian -as a layman, monk, priest, writer, and teacher (more than six hundred pages). The last and, blessedly, shortest section (about 150 pages) concerns events that occurred after his repose-primarily Fr. Herman’s activities and troublesome new directions. The word is not hagiography, but biography, and so it naturally contains much material of a personal and even seemingly trivial nature-in order to “fill out” the man as completely as possible, especially in his youthful, formative years.

Before discussing these three sections, it is important to note that this biography is at its best when Fr. Seraphim is allowed to speak for himself. Since he left behind a considerable body of published work, was a prolific letter-writer, and also kept a private journal, we can know something of what he was experiencing, thinking, and feeling about many things, both in his own life and in the larger life of the Church.2 In these parts of the book-and they are many-we recognize the Fr. Seraphim we knew and so warmly remember.

But, unfortunately, there are also a number of critical places where we do not hear Fr. Seraphim’s “voice”; nor do we really hear the voice of Fr. Damascene, the author, either. Instead, we are subject to the views and interpretations of Fr. Herman, the co-founder of the St. Herman Skete and Fr. Seraphim’s monastic brother-and not all these ideas were shared by Fr. Seraphim. Anyone who knows Fr. Herman can quickly identify these passages-and, unfortunately, there are many. Fr. Herman’s speaking and writing style is quite distinctive, a style not at all shared by the author or Fr. Seraphim, who wrote and spoke in a very unsentimental and lean manner. Perhaps these sections were simply dictated to Fr. Damascene, who then edited and corrected them, incorporating them into the text. In any case, what we get in some passages is not the unadorned Fr. Seraphim, but Fr. Herman’s own version of him.

Fr. Damascene’s use of pseudonyms for certain people-usually bishops and other leading figures in the Church Abroad whom Fr. Herman does not happen to like-is unscholarly, childish, and offensive. One can understand that it would be appropriate to change the names of less important individuals, to protect their privacy, but to do this with well-known, public figures makes no sense, since most readers know, or can easily discover, who these people really are. Frankly, it is cowardly to change the names of only those who are being criticized, slandered, and held up to ridicule. In some ways, the first part of this book is the most important and the most positive. It is refreshing-especially for those who knew the mature Fr. Seraphim only in his last years-to see that as a boy and young man he had a girlfriend, favorite pets and music; he participated in sports, he both smoked and sometimes drank too much-like so many young people. On a broader level, his is the story of a young man, typically American, middle-class, generically Protestant, who very much reflected the anxious post-World War II soul-searching of many of his generation, and even many today in the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, most who read this section will find in it a disturbing mirror of their own overly-intellectual, skeptical, and self-destructive lives. It is precisely this that is so inspiring and encouraging for the modern reader: he can see how a man (the future Fr. Seraphim) can go from the darkness of intellectual pride and agnosticism (at times even atheism) to simple hope and belief.

In his early twenties, he was influenced by the philosopher and writer, Guenon, from whom he learned the meaning and disastrous effect of “modernism” on Western civilization and became convinced “that the upholding of ancient tradition was valid and not just a sign of being unenlightened, as the modernists would claim. Whereas the modern mentality viewed all things in terms of historical progress, Guenon viewed them in terms of historical disintegration.”3 This discovery actually prepared him for his later encounter with Orthodox Christianity, a traditional religion with a very old but very functional world-view.

When, finally, he discovered True Christianity in his late twenties, he saw quite quickly and lucidly that because Orthodoxy is the Living Truth, it is also “all-or-nothing”-“a scandal and insult to the ‘wisdom’ and instincts of ‘this world’.”4 He particularly saw this in the person of Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch, with whom he came into frequent contact, but who was regarded by a few as a “scandal” precisely because he took Orthodox Christianity so literally and lived it so uncompromisingly.5

Whereas this first section of the biography is instructive and encouraging, the second is sometimes inspiring but is, at times, deeply troubling and bewildering. Inspiring because it deals with Fr. Seraphim’s actual entrance into the Church and his ever-deepening discovery of Orthodox piety and practice, patristics and spirituality and-above all-his encounter with and deep love for the rich monastic tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, in particular the Optina and Valaam traditions, which became a constant source of spiritual consolation and encouragement. The events surrounding the founding of The Orthodox Word and the establishment of the St. Herman of Alaska Skete in the mountain wilds of northern California are informative and fascinating.

It was during this period, also, that Fr. Seraphim “hit his stride” in terms of using his intellectual and pastoral talents for the greater good of the Church. He was able to identify and understand the “convert phenomenon” but, more than this, began to realize that the most important thing about controversies and problems in the Church (a constant temptation for converts, especially) is how to understand and view them from the calm perspective of eternity, without being drawn into passionate arguments for this or that figure, “party,” or ideology. These are extremely valuable insights and principles by which we can and should live today-and they are all contained in this book. The tragedy, however, is that in the last several months or so of Fr. Seraphim’s life, his monastic partner and “inspirer,” Fr. Herman, began to go in a quite different direction, a direction that ultimately took him, after Fr. Seraphim’s death right out of the Church.

Much is made in this biography of the “oneness of mind” that existed between Frs. Herman and Seraphim. Undoubtedly this did exist, especially in their early years together. They certainly shared a common vision of what their life and work should be, and out of this came a constant and fruitful stream of edifying books, articles, translations, etc. many of which have become widely known, and some of which have been translated into other languages (particularly Russian). Because of their shared commitment, many-possibly hundreds-converted to the Faith.

This biography does not tell us, however, that in the last years this fabled “oneness of mind” began to break down significantly. Substantive disputes about the future of the Skete and its work occurred with more and more frequency as Fr. Herman developed a more idiosyncratic and flamboyant attitude that grieved and worried Fr. Seraphim. He told me and others about this himself.

On one occasion, about six months before he died, he said that he was never happier than when Fr. Herman was off on one of his many “trips”-for then, he said, “we have peace, quiet, and order at the Skete.” Clearly, something had gone wrong. One of their disagreements concerned the question of establishing a monastery in Alaska, on St. Herman’s own island. Although the book says that Fr. Seraphim gave his permission for this on his deathbed, the facts are actually quite different. Regrettably, we must now speak of this episode in detail.

About three months before Fr. Seraphim died, Fr. Herman came to see me at my home. He was in an extremely agitated state. He took me aside and said that he and Fr. Seraphim had just had a “terrible fight.” “Fr. Seraphim,” he said, “doesn’t understand me! I don’t know what will happen, now, in the future.” He explained that the argument concerned a possible future monastic establishment in Alaska, a venture that Fr. Herman was eager to pursue, but one for which Fr. Seraphim refused to give his blessing, although he did bless Fr. Herman to spend Pascha on Spruce Island, which he did.

Is it possible that Fr. Seraphim on his deathbed finally did give his blessing to proceed with this plan, as the biography maintains? It is very unlikely-for two reasons: first, shortly after Fr. Seraphim was admitted to the hospital he was put on life-support systems, including a respirator-which meant that he was unable to talk. He was also in and out of consciousness-as all of us who were there can testify. Secondly, and more serious: several months later Fr. Herman himself told me that the very last words spoken to him by Fr. Seraphim were: “I’m finished with you. Damn you!” Fr. Seraphim’s uncharacteristically angry words bespeak a mind deeply troubled over Fr. Herman’s general behavior and suggest that there was more going on than any of us suspected at the time. Needless to say, none of this is in the biography.

This work contains an enormous, almost obsessive, amount of “anti-bishop” talk. Much of this is petty and gossipy and seems to bespeak some kind of unresolved psychological conflict with authority figures on Fr. Herman’s part. None of these nasty remarks come from Fr. Seraphim himself, however. It appears to be an interpolation by the author and/or Fr. Herman. Nor did I ever hear during Fr. Seraphim’s lifetime any such talk at the Skete-except, once, around 1973, from Fr. Herman. I had written a series of articles called “What is a Bishop?” Fr. Herman urged that I not write any more such articles. When I asked why, he only replied: “We shouldn’t make so much of bishops. They can get ‘big heads’.”

I thought very little about this at the time because, in all of my own publication and missionary work, both Fathers had always spoken well of Archbishop Anthony (who also spoke very appreciatively of them to me!). Furthermore, they always insisted that I do nothing without his blessing. But in 1987, on the only occasion I saw Fr. Herman after 1984, when I asked him if he had gone under a bishop of another jurisdiction, he replied tartly: “Who needs bishops? All they do is cause trouble. They are the enemy of the Holy Spirit!” When I said that he sounded like an Old Believer he responded, “I don’t need a bishop!” (As it happened, however, he had already secretly left the Russian Church Abroad and placed himself under the uncanonical and completely unrecognized “Bishop” Pangratios. Interestingly, a few years later when he visited Russia, he did not disdain to accept an award from the Patriarch of Moscow.)

Many of the alleged “encounters” between Vladika Anthony and the Fathers-often described as angry attempts on the Archbishop’s part to control and “squash” them-are simply exaggerations or outright misrepresentations. Fr. Seraphim himself told me about many specific occasions when Vladika visited the Skete, was “pleased” with them and their work, and was happy to be with them, even if only briefly, in their seclusion and peace.

At other times he mentioned minor and normal disagreements or misunderstandings with their ruling hierarch-but these were always worked out and there was never any sense of enmity in those days, such as this book portrays. Naturally,the Archbishop had an appropriate responsibility for pastoral oversight, and he wished to be consulted and kept informed about various projects and plans. There may even have been times when he did not completely understand certain goals and aspirations of the Fathers. But this is all quite normal, as anyone who has worked for an employer in the world knows.

In any case, the portrayal of Vladika Anthony as some kind of “ecclesiastical monster” or tyrant does not ring true to anyone who knows him. His own repeated, sincere, and long-suffering attempts to make peace with Fr. Herman for more than four years after Fr. Seraphim’s death-all of which were angrily rejected by Fr. Herman-bear witness to Vladika’s true character and need no further defense or explanation.

Similarly, although Fr. Damascene’s book is filled with sly remarks and attacks against the Church Abroad, I never heard any criticism of the Synod from Fr. Seraphim. Quite the contrary. Although he did caution against putting too much trust in the outward, external “institution” of the Church, Fr. Seraphim wrote the following to me on October 18/31, 1972: “Our [Synod of] bishops on the whole are better than any others we know about, and probably no different from the bishops of the last 2000 years, through whom the Holy Spirit has led His Church.” He went on to write that we must “become the bishops’ best helpers-for we are working together with them in the true service of the Church’s ‘organism,’ the Body of Christ. If we thereby sometimes suffer misunderstandings and offenses from each other (and we are guilty of this, not just bishops!), the Church gives us the spiritual means to forgive and overcome these.” This is a radically different view from that given in this biography.

The final chapters, which deal with the sad and, frankly, terrible events that occurred after Fr. Seraphim’s repose, and which have no business being in this biography, are a disservice to his memory, and are nothing more than a one-sided apologia for Fr. Herman’s decision to leave the Church. By “one-sided” is meant that he (through the author) simply does not tell the whole truth. For example, no mention is made of the fact that charges of a moral nature were brought against him about eighteen months after Fr. Seraphim’s death. The Archbishop treated these accusations against Fr. Herman with utmost discretion, with all his heart he did not want not believe them and did not press these particular charges against Fr. Herman. (It is a fact, however, that Fr. Herman’s alleged problems in this area actually surfaced shortly before Fr. Seraphim’s death, and were known to him, undoubtedly contributing to the overwhelming sense of sadness that precipitated his final illness and repose, and which may explain his last words to Fr. Herman.)

The narrative leads the reader to conclude that Fr. Herman left the Church Abroad because his hierarch “persecuted” him and wanted to “seize” the Skete and its property-something he had supposedly long coveted. Not only is this not true, but the actual charges against Fr. Herman concerned legitimate matters of “insubordination and disobedience,” and it was for these that he was ultimately defrocked.6

In general, this self-serving one-sidedness demonstrates the way in which many incidents have been exaggerated, distorted, and made to serve the private ideology of Fr. Herman. It is a poison that came into full “flower” only after Fr. Seraphim’s death, when he was no longer present to provide the needed “balance” to Fr. Herman’s exuberant personality-a personality that gave so much to the Church in his healthier, obedient days, and which was greatly valued by so many, but which later came to possess the ugly qualities that he is now so quickly to ascribe to others in the Church Abroad or, indeed, to anyone who does not completely agree with him.7

Finally, what can be said about this biography of Fr. Seraphim? As was pointed out earlier, where Fr. Seraphim is allowed to speak for himself, in lengthy quotations from his writings, the book is magnificent because Fr. Seraphim-his mind, his soul-was so rare, so wonderful and “good” a human being. In this sense, it is an important work. But the biography is extremely flawed because it has been made to serve the interests of Fr. Herman’s own bitterness, and to justify or excuse his grave and unresolved personal problems. The average reader, who does not know all of the principal people involved, will have difficulty sorting this out, if he even can do so at all.

Archpriest Alexey Young

NOTES:
1. Fr. Alexey saved twelve years of Fr. Seraphim’s letters of spiritual direction, written to him both as a layman and, later, as a priest. Orthodox America is now preparing these letters for publication.

2. N.B: While we can trust the accuracy of all those things published before Fr. Seraphim’s death, we cannot be sure, for obvious reasons, that the excerpts in this book from his private journal are his original and unedited thoughts and jottings. Nor, because of Fr. Herman’s present anti-Synod bias (which manifests itself only after Fr. Seraphim’s death), can we now ever be sure of this.

3. Christensen, Monk Damascene, Not of This World: the Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose.

4. Ibid.

5. The relics of Blessed Archbishop John (who will be canonized by the Church Abroad in the summer of 1994-the same jurisdiction and hierarchy that, according to this biography, “persecuted” him!) were recently found to be whole and incorrupt. Unfortunately, Vladika John’s struggles are wrenched out of their proper context and given a meaning they actually did not have at the time-a literary “technique” that occurs frequently in this book. For further information about the alleged “treatment” of Vladika John, see a review of this biography by Novice Sergey in Orthodox Life, Vol. 43, No. 5.

6. For the full text of the Ecclesiastical Court’s decision, see Orthodox Life, op. cit.

7. In a letter Fr. Herman wrote to a layman in Britain during this time, he said that even Fr. Alexey Young had “betrayed” him. In fact, on the last occasion I visited him at the Skete, in 1984, I begged him on my knees and in tears to make his peace with the Archbishop and not jeopardize all of the work he and Fr. Seraphim had done.

One thought on ““Not of This World”: A Review

  1. I believe Fr. Ambrose left the Russian Church Abroad only last year (he was at Holy Cross Hermitage until recently). He had been in the Antiochian Western Rite for a while and then returned to the ROCA and has since left.

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