[A note to certain of my Protestant friends and family: an important article of Christian faith lies behind the following account–the communion of all the saints. It is essential to understand the connection of that dogma to this account.]
In October 2002, I began reading the first edition of Father Seraphim Rose’s biography, Not of This World,. By March 2003, I had finished it. It was my first introduction to Father Seraphim, through a deeply flawed book, and I have to confess, forgive me, but my first reaction was, “How weird.” The “oneness of mind” he sought to practice with his then co-laborer, Abbot Herman, just seemed plain goofy to me. And then the whole beard, ryassa, “fringe” traditionalism (so I thought) just added to the mixture of oddity I was perceiving. And yet . . . there was something that really drew me to Father Seraphim and his life.
So I also read during this period: The Soul After Death, God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, Heavenly Realm, his translation A Treasury of St. Herman’s Spirituality (Little Russian Philokalia v. 3), The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, another of his translations, St. Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia v. 1), Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, and two other of his translations, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, and On the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God.
Later, just a few days after my birthday in 2003, I received the much better revised version of his biography, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works. I read his biography ever year beginning roughly around the anniversary of his death. (I read St Benedict’s Rule and Life daily. They’re much shorter.)
Like the first edition of his biography, my reading of his other books carried some mixed emotions. I remember reading these books, particularly Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future and The Soul After Death, and being a bit mystified by them. Keep in mind that this was early on in my intensive investigations into Orthodoxy. On the one hand, much of what they said I could definitely agree with. The dangers of occultism and the lifting up of religious experience over dogma. The necessity of sobriety about one’s own death. But there were other teachings of ancient Christianity that struck me as, well, frankly, weird. The concept of prelest, or spiritual delusion, and the necessity to focus on religious struggle. The reality behind the metaphor of the toll-houses.
A few months after finishing the biography, I read Father Seraphim’s Nihilism, as I commuted on the bus. I also remember my first experience with this book, and coming at it from a philosophical perspective. I thought, “Father Seraphim doesn’t understand the philosophers he’s criticizing.” But later, after more than a year of Divine Liturgies under my belt, and something like a discipline of daily prayer, as well as being more grounded in my academic discipline, I thought, “Man, Father Seraphim is dead on.”
So, for several months I carried this ambivalence.
But it wasn’t until May 2003, a couple of months after finishing the first edition of the biography, that I knew Father Seraphim was going to be my other patron saint. The event was entirely by “accident.” It was 30 May 2003, and I had gone to see the movie “X2: X-men United” in the early afternoon. After the movie I had had about an hour to kill till Anna left work to pick me up. I had originally decided to just cross the street and head into Borders for some coffee and to do some reading. For some reason, however, I thought I’d instead head to the library. But while on the way, I changed my mind yet again and decided it would be too far to walk to the library and back, and since Barnes and Noble happened to be on the way, I ended up stopping there and browsing. I had no desire to buy any books, nor did I even have any books in mind that I was really wanting to look at. But as it happened, while browsing in the Christian section I happened upon the out of print original edition of Father Seraphim Rose’s biography, Not of This World. I was stopped in my tracks. This was a book I couldn’t order online, and would have had a hard time getting anywhere. Barnes and Noble wouldn’t even have been able to special order it for me. But there it was, providentially moved out of some warehouse somewhere and plopped down on the bookstore shelf, waiting for me to catch it in my peripheral vision.
I should at this point tell how St. Benedict came to be my patron saint as well. While I was still in Bible college, and only just beginning my journey to historic Christianity, I happened to be on a short trip to one of our sister colleges and seminaries in Lincoln, Illinois. I’d already done some reading about St. Benedict through my then-new interest in monasticism, and had read some snippets from St. Benedict’s Rule. While in the college bookstore–a conservative evangelical bookstore, mind you–I happened to notice a copy of the Rule, tucked neatly away from merely curious views on the clearance shelf. I bought it without a second thought. It was, at the very least, a serendipitous moment. And although I then had no concept of what a patron saint was, I began to have an affinity of sorts with St. Benedict, his rule, and monasticism.
So, there I was, more than six years ago, in Barnes and Noble having an almost identical encounter, some thirteen years after St Benedict “introduced himself” to me. Although I had not yet considered Father Seraphim my patron saint–that spot had long been held by St. Benedict–this “chance” encounter was so similar to how St. Benedict “found” me, that I took it as an indication another saint had “picked” me. That 30 May 2003 experience was a turning point. (Forgive the many scare quotes, but after all, how does one speak analytically of such things?)
Less than a year after that Barnes and Noble encounter, I ordered some CDs of one of Father Seraphim’s lectures. The hermit from whom I purchased them providentially placed in the package a vial of oil from Father Seraphim’s vigil lamp at his grave, as well as some earth from the gravesite as well. Since I received them, they’ve been on my prayer shelf, with other such relics (oil from the vigil lamp at St John Maximovitch’s tomb; a stone and pine cone from St Herman’s beach on Spruce Island; some earth from the Holy Land).
Since 2003, I’ve grown in my appreciation of Father Seraphim and his role in my prayers and understanding the Orthodox Faith. In fact, about a year and a half ago, I experienced an answer to one of his prayers for me.
In autumn 2005, I had been reading the book, by Anthony Coniaris, Confronting and Controlling Your Thoughts According to the Fathers of the Philokalia. I had also read Father Seraphim’s translation of a couple of works of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, much of which dealt with the Jesus Prayer. I also spoke with our parish priest about the Jesus Prayer and practicing it. I struggled in my undertsanding and actions to practice the Jesus Prayer.
It was difficult for me to make sense of some of what I was reading and the counsel I was receiving. I now see that such counsel was not essentially contradictory, but it felt to me as though I was being encouraged in two opposite directions, to both pursue and avoid the same things. I was quite confused.
But I knew better than to simply trust my own thoughts, or work toward my own conclusions on the matter. One does not expect expert level skills from one who hasn’t even begun the life of prayer. So I simply stood still, neither pursuing nor avoiding what I had been counseled on, and just maintaining my modest and irregular practice.
One thing I did do, however, was to ask the intercessions of Father Seraphim, on my behalf, that I might be brought to both correct thought and correct practice on the matters that were confused in my own mind.
For the next several months, however, I shied away from reading certain books on the Jesus Prayer, and simply continued what I had been doing, doing it no more nor no less than had been the case. I had one book on my shelf, Igumen Chariton of Valamo’s The Art of Prayer, which I frequently was drawn to read, but hesitated to do so, because I did not think I was at a point in my life where I would be making useful gain of such reading. I was concerned that reading it apart from a state of readiness to both receive and to practice the teaching would end up being spiritually harmful to me.
But in the fall of 2006, I had a sense of being more ready to receive direction about the Jesus prayer, and so began to read Igumen Chariton’s book. And in so doing, I had at last, after about a year, the answer to my questions and to Fr Seraphim’s prayers on my behalf.
Only a few months later, I was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation. I was, therefore, extremely blessed to be able to take the names of two patrons on my chrismation, St Benedict of Nursia and Fr Seraphim of Platina.
Just as St Benedict’s influence of stability, discipline, work, study and prayer has grown on me over the nearly twenty years ago that I encountered his Rule in the bookstore, so, too, has Father Seraphim’s influence of subsuming the mind in the heart, of struggle as the essence of spiritual growth, of reliance on the Tradition grown on me as well. I started my encounter with Father Seraphim thinking him odd and weird. Through his struggle to “crucify his mind,” his emphasis on the heart as the organ for knowing God, and his soberness regarding Christian life and witness, I have come to know him as the most normal man I could think of.
Through his prayers, may God grant us mercy, life and peace.
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