It is probably solid evidence of my own narcissism that I take up again this series of reflections on my ongoing conversion to Orthodoxy (still underway, I hasten to add). But it has been about three years since I undertook this sort of an exercise. And as our chrismations and baptisms are closer now than they have been, I thought it would be helpful for my own growth in the catechumenate to reflect on some of the important influences and developments that have shaped me in the past three years. I do not think this exercise will be nearly as protracted as before. I anticipate only a handful of posts, and those grouped thematically rather than chronologically.
4. Encountering Living Orthodoxy, September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007)
Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) of Platina
Three days after our first Sunday worshiping at All Saints together as a family, I received in the mail, my copy of the revised and updated Father Seraphim Rose biography: Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene and published by St. Herman Press. I had already, by then, read twelve books written by, translated by or about Hieromonk Seraphim: The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (January 03), [Tr] St. Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia v. 1) (January 03), Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (February 03), [Tr] Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers (February 03), [Tr] On the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God (February 03), [Bio] Not of This World (October 02-March 03), [Tr] The Apocalypse in the Ancient Teachings of Christianity (May 03), Nihilism (July 03), [Tr] Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (July 03), [Tr] First-Created Man (July 03), Genesis, Creation and Early Man (August 03), and [Tr] Guidance Toward the Spiritual Life (September 03). Over the next few months I read the new biography ([Bio] Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works [September-December 03]), as well as a book of his letters (Letters from Father Seraphim [December 03]).
As I have indicated elsewhere, Father Seraphim has become a significant influence in the shaping of my faith and the practice of prayer and disciplines which I pursue. Indeed, about a year after I set my face toward Orthodoxy, I had come under the conviction that Father Seraphim had become one of my patron saints, in ways strikingly like St. Benedict had done some dozen or so years earlier. As the Lord has mercy, and my priest blesses, I will take the name Benedict Seraphim at my chrismation.
What is it about Father Seraphim that so strikes me and serves as an inspiration to my faith and life? It is difficult to articulate. I have, every years since the autumn of 2002, read his biography, either in the first version (Not of This World) or in the current edition. And every year, I devour it. It is not something I intentionally set out to do: Saying to myself, “Oh, it’s nearing September, I should begin reading Father Seraphim’s biography.” And yet, like some internal magnet, as his feast day approaches, I begin to turn my attention toward reading his life. This is not true of all of his writings. While I have read most of what has been published, and several of those items twice or more, I have not come back to everything again and again. But the account of his life speaks to me again and again.
There are superficial similarities between us: he was, in his academic career, a student of ancient philosophy (in his case Chinese philosophy, whereas my focus is Hellenistic). He chafed under the superficiality and vacuity that is ubiquitous within academia. He experienced the pain of the schism between the mind and the heart. In a much lesser way, I, too, have known these things. And I think, then, what he demonstrates to me is the integration of one’s person that Orthodoxy makes possible in a way I have found nowhere else. His were no superhuman ascetic feats. It was enough for him to simply follow the way of the life of the Church, fasting when she requires a fast, and fasting according to the guidelines she provides; praying as she requires us to pray, with the prayers she has given to us; giving to the poor as one poor himself. His life, though a monastic one, was an ordinary monastic one. And it speaks, in that ordinariness, of the normalcy that Orthodoxy establishes for a soul. Surely Father Seraphim was a thinker and a writer. And he certainly has had a very wide, multi-national influence. But his heart’s desire was simply to struggle, to work and to pray, in one place, his beloved mountain. And it is his influence, coupled with St. Benedict’s moderate Rule for laymen, which has probably shaped me the most, outside the worship of the Orthodox Church.
But Father Seraphim’s influence was a necessary foundation for the significant personal developments in my understanding, and more importantly practice, of the Orthodox Faith and way of life. In spring and summer 2005 I would experience some blessed formation and change in these things.
[Next: St. Maximos and Soteriology]