A warm and inspiring first-person account of the author’s journey to the Holy Mountain as a young man, his experiences with different monasteries, counsels received from various monks and elders, and how the Lord directed his steps and helped him grow in his early days as a monk.
Published in the early years of St Gregory Palamas Monastery (Hayesville, Ohio) under the direction of Bishop Maximos and the sponsorship of the GOA Diocese of Pittsburgh, this beautiful memoir exudes the fragrance and savor of Holy Orthodoxy, and may be of special help to monastic seekers in discerning the Lord’s will for their lives, and in helping them live it to the fullest, as they heed the call to the narrow way to the Kingdom of God.
Rather than being a didactic book of instruction like The Arena and Letters To A Beginner, Recollections of Mount Athos weaves monastic counsels through a charming narrative of unforgettable ascetics, strugglers, abbots and elders, all seen through the wide, perceptive eyes and warm, faithful heart of young George, the future Archimandrite Cherubim, and all overshadowed by the grace of God.
From Chapter 1, First Impressions:
From the time I was fourteen years old, the vivid descriptions of two Hagiorite [i.e., Athonite] hieromonks who were rigorous in practicing the virtues, the Elders Paisios and Chrysanthos, had molded Mount Athos in my soul like a place that, though terrestrial, touches heaven. My burning desire for that place urged me toward the big decision: I was going to live there forever…
As soon as my foot stepped on land, my first concern was to kneel behind an old building an with emotion kiss that holy ground. I had vowed to do it. I used to say: “My Panagia [Greek for “All Holy”, a loving term for the Virgin May, the Theotokos], enable me one day to find myself on the Holy Mountain, and the first thing I will do will be to kiss its ground.”
My favorite quote:
“Talk like a monk, look like a monk, sit like a monk, walk like a monk, eat like a monk, sleep like a monk, think like a monk, pray like a monk.” ~ Papa Joachim, St Anne’s Skete, Mount Athos, p. 82.
Featuring an Introduction by Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, ‘Monasticism in the Orthodox Church’, with a helpful glossary of terms.
“This book springs from the author’s own personal monastic experience on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain. Archimandrite Cherubim Karambelas spent only four years on Mount Athos. He was eighteen years old when he went to the Holy Mountain with the intention of staying there forever. However, he was forced, due to ill health, to return to wartime Athens. He was not to return to the Mountain again until many years later, and then only to visit a dying monk, a friend, who wished to see him before he died. At that time he was the abbot of the Holy Monastery of the Paraclete which he established, located on the outskirts of Athens.” — From the Translator’s Preface
A classic manual on the Christian spiritual life, by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, this is the second in this series of posts. See post 1 here.
The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life
By Ignatius (Brianchaninov) Translated by Lazarus (Moore) Foreword by Kallistos (Ware); Holy Trinity Publications, Jordanville NY.
From the publisher’s description:
This is one of the most important and accessible texts of Orthodox Christian teaching on the spiritual life, and and not unlike the better known “Philokalia.” The author, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) describes this work as his legacy “of soul saving instruction.” He promises that “Those who carry out these instructions will enter into possession of spiritual riches.”
In an age even more alienated from spiritual culture and rooted in materialism, his words pose both a challenge and an invitation to all who ever say to themselves “There must be more to life than this.”
For anyone who desires to deepen their own spiritual journey based upon an encounter with Christ as God, this book is essential reading. Its contents may ultimately be accepted or rejected, but they will be very difficult to ignore.
For the first of a new series of blog posts, I would like to share a thin but extremely weighty and important book which was recommended to me several years ago when I was preparing to test the monastic life:
“The work of success in your monastic life—the work of your salvation, is, so to speak, in your own hands; and would it not be a shame, would it not be sad, to lose it from your hands irretrievably?”
—excerpt from LETTERS TO A BEGINNER
This book was so popular and beneficial for those leading a spiritual life in pre-Revolutionary Russia that it was reprinted several times and distributed to all monasteries, sketes, and many parishes. It was a key guidebook for women monastic aspirants, giving them a right understanding of how to dedicate their lives to God.
Here is a wonderful spiritual reflection on Elder Ephraim of Arizona and the significance of his establishing 17 monasteries in North America in the Athonite tradition.
You can learn more about St Anthony’s Monastery in Florence AZ here, which relates the story of Elder Ephraim’s monastic life and how he began establishing monasteries in America in 1995.
I have several of the Elder’s monasteries on my itinerary, and look forward very much to imbibing spiritual nectar from them, and, God willing, to making some compelling photographs of their hidden life.
The author of the below article, Igumen Gregory (Zaiens), is a monastic himself, and writes from the Hermitage of St Arsenius in Texas. Fr. Gregory describes the unique gift which Elder Ephraim has planted in America as follows,
For those in America who have chosen monasticism and have the thirst for an intense struggle in prayer, the Elder Ephraim has brought them the Athonite Hesychast tradition.
The Elder Ephraim of Arizona: His contribution to North America
The Elder Ephraim recently reached the age of ninety. He has not been functioning as an elder for more than a year because of health issues; and at his age and with his physical condition it is doubtful that he will again function in that capacity. As one who has become somewhat renowned, however, there has occasionally been controversy over him. Most of the spiritual children of his monasteries consider him to be a saint and one who has wrought a miraculous renewal among the Greek Orthodox in North America. This effect did not cease with the Greek faithful but spread elsewhere, as well.. Indeed, the lives of many have been touched and changed by the Elder. However, he has also been under attack at times, and negative opinions have been expressed concerning him—I do not want to approach this subject. But there is one aspect of the work he has accomplished that has been much on my mind recently and this is what I want to write about. I will introduce this topic with a question: What has Elder Ephraim done for monasticism in our land?
So, when I recently happened across Monk Martin’s website, Orthodox Music, which includes sheet music for the hymns on the CD, plus much, much more, I was doubly intrigued. Not only do I long to return to Archangel Michael Monastery in New Mexico, but now I am even more desirous of making my first pilgrimage to All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, from where Monk Martin hails.
Fr. Seraphim Rose and the call for a North American Thebaid
Two brief passages from Fr. Seraphim’s monastic life and writings make clear how he longed for an American Thebaid to flourish in his homeland, as it had in Orthodox lands in preceding centuries:
As at the beginning of his monastic path he had drawn inspiration from the phenomenon of desert-dwelling in northern Russia, so now was he to do so from an identical phenomenon in the land of his forefathers. The flight of God-seeking men and women into the Jura Mountains of ancient Gaul was in fact an exact precursor of the movement that began in Russia almost a millennium later. “The Jura monasteries,” wrote Fr. Seraphim in 1976 to a young monastic aspirant, “are especially interesting to us because they are a forested desert, very close to the spirit of the Northern Thebaid (or to the American Thebaid that could be if there were souls to match the mountains!).”
The second excerpt comes from the Epilogue Fr. Seraphim wrote for The Northern Thebaid itself, and shows how his monastic inspiration was always connected with the real examples of earlier desert-dwelling men and women who serve as spiritual trailblazers, showing us the way:
“In these days of the feast of the Dormition of the holy Mother of God, we come here to this holy place to venerate and give honor to another dormition, of the ever-memorable hieromonk Seraphim Rose. The holy Mother of God bore for all of us her Son and God our Savior, and is blessed by all generations. Fr. Seraphim also contributed to my life and to all of ours here, and to those of many more people, and we come here to give due love and to receive his blessing…” —Bishop Daniil (Nikolov)
Presented at the retreat in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of his repose, 2012
For the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the repose of Fr. Seraphim Rose on Sept. 2, 2012, hundreds of faithful pilgrims convened upon St. Herman’s Monastery in Platina, CA to remember Fr. Seraphim and offer prayers both for him and to him. The faithful gathered were a microcosm of the greater Orthodox world, with pilgrims representing the Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Georgian Orthodox Traditions, among others. Several moving talks were offered throughout the weekend by those who had known Fr. Seraphim personally, and those whose life were impacted by the testimony of his life and works.
His Grace Bp. Daniil (Nikolov), Vicar of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canadana and Australia spoke after the Saturday morning Liturgy on the eve of the anniversary of Fr. Seraphim’s repose, recalling how important and influential he was for young Bulgarians returning to the Church after the fall of Communism in the early 1990’s, and how much he appreciated Fr. Seraphim’s insightful critiques of the lie of our modern age. The following day a number of personal reminiscences of Fr. Seraphim were offered, before which Fr. Damascene (Christensen), who is now the abbot of St. Herman’s Monastery, offered a reflection on Fr. Seraphim’s recently-discovered spiritual journal, highlighting his relentlessness in combating sin, and his emphasis on nourishing himself with the writings of the Holy Fathers. Fr. Damascene was introduced by then-abbot Fr. Hilarion.
His Grace Bp. Daniil (Nikolov), Vicar of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia:
In these days of the feast of the Dormition of the holy Mother of God, we come here to this holy place to venerate and give honor to another dormition, of the ever-memorable hieromonk Seraphim Rose. The holy Mother of God bore for all of us her Son and God our Savior, and is blessed by all generations. Fr. Seraphim also contributed to my life and to all of ours here, and to those of many more people, and we come here to give due love and to receive his blessing.
When I was making my first steps into the Church in the middle of the ’90’s of the previous century in the years after Communism, Fr. Seraphim was very popular among the new Bulgarian converts who were entering the Church for the first time. It was very unusual and surprising to hear from this place, where Western culture flourishes, someone who has a sober view, and who warns us of the dangers of this consumer society, and raising our children in such a way that they become small princes and kings, in whose hearts the passions are rooted from early childhood. And all this not from a psychological point of view, but the Orthodox point of view—that the modern world makes the Chrisitan life more difficult and is so dangerous for the salvation of our souls. He was the very presence of Christ.
Presented at the retreat in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of his repose, 2012
UPDATED: See also this companion article, also from Pravoslavie, featuring recollections of Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim by His Grace, Bishop Daniil, Vicar of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia, and an especially insightful talk by Hieromonk Damascene (now Abbot of St Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA), who draws on excerpts from Fr. Seraphim’s monastic journal to show just how intense a spiritual struggler he was:
Hieromonk Seraphim Rose is known the Orthodox world over as an ascetic struggler of our modern times. His writings and the testimony of his life have inspired countless seekers of truth to find their way home to the Orthodox Church, and to deepen their spiritual life within the Church, not only in America, but in traditionally Orthodox countries like Russia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia, and so on. He gave himself wholly over to the Lord, in body and soul, in his monastic and priestly vocations, ultimately departing to the Lord in 1982 at the young age of forty-eight: He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time (Wisdom of Solomon 4:13).
In the thirty-four years since his repose he has continued to inspire and uplift Orthodox Christians, now with the added benefit of his Heavenly prayers. In this light, his monastery of St. Herman of Alaska in Platina, CA held a gathering in his honor over the weekend of Sept. 2, 2012, for the thirtieth anniversary of his repose. A host of pious, Fr. Seraphim-loving pilgrims came to pay their respects and to pray at his grave, including notably His Eminence Met. Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Grace Bp. Daniil of the Bulgarian Archdiocese of America, Canada, and Australia, Archimandrite Luka, abbot of two monasteries in Montenegro, Serbia, where he named a kellia in honor of Fr. Seraphim, and Abbot Sava (now bishop) of the Georgian Orthodox Monastery of St. Davit the Builder in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
Additionally, many who had personally known Fr. Seraphim returned to the monastery to offer both prayers, and personal reminiscences about him. These words of those who knew him are valuable in that they show us simply Fr. Seraphim the man and monk, always concerned first of all for cultivating the Truth, and a loving Orthodox heart both in himself and in all those he came into contact with. His more theological works can and should be read in the context of the picture we are presented here, of a man of great spiritual depth and calmness, striving to give his all to our Lord Jesus Christ.
* * *
His Eminence, Met. Hilarion, First Hierarch of ROCOR
His Eminence met Fr. Seraphim twice in the days before his episcopacy, and also recalls how the brotherhood’s journal The Orthodox Word was so influential in guiding his life in the Church.
Your Grace Bp. Daniil, Fr. Abbot Hilarion, fathers and brethren of the monastery of St. Herman of Alaska, brothers and sisters, it’s a great privilege and joy to be here with you on this historical event when we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the repose of Fr. Seraphim of blessed memory. I thank Fr. Hilarion and the fathers for inviting me to take part in the service, and give thanks to Bp. Maxim for his blessing. It’s a wonderful feeling to be here with you, all of us who greatly respect and love Fr. Seraphim. I thank Fr. Damascene for your moving words and we thank God that He has healed many wounds and that His blessing is on the work of this monastery and may God always take care of us and the work which all of you are doing. As Fr. Damascene mentioned, in Australia where I’ve been the bishop for fifteen years or so, our hieromonk Joachim Ross, who has a great love for Fr. Seraphim, organized an annual seminar in which guest speakers were invited to talk about his life or an aspect thereof, which has taken place for a number of years. I was once asked to share my recollections of Fr. Seraphim, even though they are not that long. I met him just twice, but I’d like to read some of those reminiscences which I shared at that time.
Our Lord has a marvelous way of placing key people in the right place at the right time for their spiritual benefit. That’s the way it was in Old Testament times with prophets steering His often wayward chosen people along the path of righteousness, and in our New Testament Church, as St. Paul writes God has given the first place to apostles, then prophets, then teachers, and I believe that Fr. Seraphim was just such a teacher of Orthodoxy for others for our times. His great contribution and gift was that he was able to speak to the English-speaking world in a language which is clear, and not just to Americans, but to Russians too, because these same words were translated in a new way, and the people who had lived under Communism found this very refreshing and to be a very clear portrayal of Orthodox teaching on the way to salvation. When translated into Russia the writings of Fr. Seraphim instantly gained enormous popularity before the fall of Communism, and especially now that many of his books have been published in Russian, and in other languages as well. It was like manna sent down to the people in Russia who had been starving spiritually for so long, and to this day he remains one of the popular spiritual writers.
I was fortunate enough to have met and heard Fr. Seraphim speak on two different occasions. I first met him sometime in the 1970’s. I was passing through California from visiting my relatives in Canada, and having corresponded with Fr. Herman and Fr. Seraphim, they invited me to stop by and visit the monastery. That was my first opportunity. The monastery was much more humble and small with fewer monastics but it made a very great impression on me, especially in conversing with Fr. Seraphim who was very humble and one could immediately see what a spiritual person he was.
My second opportunity to meet him and associate with him at length was in December 1979 when Fr. Seraphim was invited to be the guest speaker at the annual St. Herman Youth Conference held that year at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. Fr. Seraphim was well-known by then and held in great esteem by the monks and seminarians. At that time he delivered an inspiring lecture on the topic of Orthodoxy in America and there was a lively discussion afterwards about how to live an Orthodox life in today’s world.
For the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, here is a classic text from our own times, on how the living tradition of the Orthodox Church is passed down. The monastic life plays a central role in this paradosis, this “traditioning” of the Faith.
In this case, the young convert, Eugene Rose (the future Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina) relates his encounters with a holy elder, Archbishop John of San Francisco & Shanghai, and with a holy monastic eldress, Abbess Ariadna, and how “[their] words… struck him to the heart, and he understood that there was something deeper to the reception and understanding of Orthodoxy than what our own mind and feelings tell us.”
“To the reader, it will hardly sound surprising that the evil one is far from thrilled to hear that a man or woman wishes to profess monastic vows. If we imagine the whole body of the Church as an army of the faithful here on earth regarding the spiritual life, monks and nuns are like the elite special-ops teams. We stand on the front lines of the battle for the world, and the enemy sends the fiercest attacks against us.”
Within the Tradition of our Church, monastic tonsure is considered a sacrament, a holy mystery, and thus forms for the monk or nun a liminal event in life.
Many sources consider tonsure to the schema a “second Baptism,” and having been recently tonsured myself as a stavrophore monk, I can vouch for the aptness of this description. Tonsure is the beginning of another life: all sins are washed away, the old man is laid aside, and a new person is born with a new name, given by the abbot or abbess and taken by the newly-enrolled soldier of Christ in love and obedience.
Like any mystery in the Church, tonsure itself and life as a fully professed monk is hard to put into words; I must admit I was a bit daunted by the task of speaking of doubt and tonsure simply because it defies expression on many levels. As with baptism or marriage, you cannot fully know what to expect on the other side of the font or the next day after the wedding. At these thresholds of our life in the Church, we have to leap out in faith, trusting that God is leading us along His path.
I had been a monastic for five years before my tonsure, and when I first entered the monastery, I was chomping at the bit to be tonsured into the schema. I had no clue about the hard work, both physical and spiritual, that monastic life would lay on me in order to peel away at least some of the passionate crust around my heart in order to begin to see who I really was, and who God wanted me to be.
Yet this process, as necessary as it may be, is also very frightening. Over the past few years, I’ve had to confront my own weaknesses in a very matter-of-fact way. I’ve had to humble myself (or be humbled, as it were) and deny myself: my way of thinking, my desires for my life, my understandings of where life was going.