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.
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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.
WE HAVE THE PRIVILEGE of living in an age in which stone piled upon stone no longer remains. The last consequence of the values and and ideals exalted by Western society has been the disintegration of society.
I consider it a quite positive and challenging fact to live in a culture in ruins. Those values and ideals were idols destroyed by the power of their own deceptive effectiveness. Now we have the possibility to begin anew with the enriching experience of the past.
As an Orthodox monk, I believe in the fertility of zero. I think that those idols were the product of an unconscious but mistaken search for the authentic Value, for the true God, in whom all values are recapitulated. In fact they were created in order to justify man’s egoistical passions. This exaltation of man led Western society not only to abandon belief in God, but even in man himself…
“Holiness is not something that is just about the saints, whose icons we venerate and whose lives we read about. Holiness is better understood as wholeness, made whole, or healed…”
by Abbot Tryphon, The Morning Offering, February 12, 2016, All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington:
The monastic vocation is a special calling from God that is all about relationships. It is a relationship that involves community (the monastic brotherhood), but primarily revolves around the monk’s relationship with God.
The valley of the Nile, under Roman domination, was divided into four provinces: Lower and Upper Egypt, Lower and Upper Thebaid. The last two comprised the upper part of the valley. During the fourth to fifth centuries it was the chosen land of the monks, who by their sanctity and by the form they impressed on the monastic system greatly influenced the East and the West.
A thousand years after this initial flowering of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian Thebaid, there was already flourishing in Russia a “Northern Thebaid,” and in the mid-1970s, St Herman of Alaska Press of Platina, California, published a collection of the lives of many of the great Russian ascetics in a book bearing that title. The book’s description reads:
Here we have a very profound and important message from St John Climacus, conveyed to us by Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg), Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan in Sonora, California. In it he reminds us that “the Christian calling involves finding a suitable place, and suitable exercises, for living out the transformative life in the Lord.”
For some, that can be best accomplished in a monastery, but for many it will involve a life in the world, married, serving Christ at the parish level. This is a very helpful message for those considering the monastic life, and indeed, testing that life may be essential for a Christian to come to know himself or herself well enough to be able, with the counsel of their priest or a monastic elder or eldress, to discern where they may best live and serve the Lord.
This landmark address by the Abbot of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery is one of the primary motivators behind the effort to launch The Northern Thebaid Pilgrimage Project as quickly as possible. The Project can help foster a “culture of monasticism” in the Church, one which continually turns our hearts and minds towards prayer, pilgrimage, and the one thing needful.
“The health of the Church in a particular area can be measured by the health of monasticism in that area, and thus the relation of monastic life to the greater Orthodox Church in America is one that concerns all the faithful.”
Address of Abbot Schema-Archimandrite Sergius of St. Tikhon’s Monastery to the 18th OCA All-American Council
During the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, Archimandrite Sergius, the abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Waymart, PA addressed the delegates concerning monasticism and its role in the contemporary American Church.
His address is of interest to all the faithful for as he noted both monastics and married laity are “called to live 100% for our Lord 100% of the time,” and the monastic life has traditionally been accepted as the inspiration for the laity. As St. John of Climacus wrote: “Angels are a light to monks, and the monastic life is a light to men.” The health of the Church in a particular area can be measured by the health of monasticism in that area, and thus the relation of monastic life to the greater Orthodox Church in America is one that concerns all the faithful.
In his practical talk Fr. Sergius gives three points for encouraging the growth of Orthodox monasticism in America which, like the Orthodox Church in general, is small in comparison to other ‘churches.’
The first and most important point is to “Never disdain or discourage any vocation” to monasticism, the priesthood or any clerical office. To do so will hinder the call of God in that person’s life.
Archimandrite Sergius secondly encourages pilgrimages to monasteries to benefit from the spiritual atmosphere there and, finally, to be inspired by the example of prayer that monasteries set for the Church.
Monasticism effects the entire Church:
We, as members of Christ’s body, can and must support the building and growth of monasteries and monastic vocations. By so doing, we invest in the well-being and preservation of the Church as well as in the “churching” of America. Through the monasteries, organic Orthodox life will grow and flourish, and acting like a catalyst, it will empower and inspire local parishioners to give more of their own hearts and lives to God and to prayer. The power that emanates from a monastery is not only real and tangible, it is intensely powerful, life-creating and life-changing.