As I prepare for another round of monastery travel and photography, I thought it might be inspiring for you (as well as for me!) to revisit some of my early posts on this website, which try to sketch out the contours of “Why” I am undertaking this two-year pilgrimage, “What” it means to me, and “Where” I hope it will lead.
With some minor editing, this is the section I wrote in Autumn 2015 on the Inspiration for the North American Thebaid.
The inspiration for The North American Thebaid Project springs primarily from the example of seminarian Gleb Podmoshensky, whose 1961 pilgrimage to monastic sketes and settlements across the United States, Canada and Alaska, and his photographic slide show from these visits, had an inspiring and pivotal impact on a certain young man: Eugene Rose.
Gleb titled his presentation, “Holy Places in America,” and described his encounter with Eugene as follows:
Before Eugene’s amazed expression, Gleb recalls, “a new world of Apostolic Orthodoxy revealed itself. Color icons and portraits of saints and righteous ones of America; scenes of Blessed Fr. Herman’s Spruce Island in Alaska; renewed miracle-working icons that had been brought to America from Shanghai; abbesses and schemamonks in America; Canadian sketes; Holy Trinity Monastery and New Diveyevo Convent in New York, which brought the tradition of the Optina Elders to America, and so on. I gave a brief explanation of the slides, and of the phenomenon of the martyrdom of Holy Russia. Finally I told of the martyric fate of my father and its consequences, which had brought about my conversion to Christ and had eventually brought me here…
“The lecture was finished. My host, Eugene Rose, the future Fr. Seraphim, drawing in his breath, said, ‘What a revelation!’”
Here is a challenging reflection on photography, by David DuChemin, whose work I have been following for a while now and whom I greatly admire for his emphasis on “vision”, not mere “pictorialism” (if I can coin a word).
“The calling of the photographer is to see the invisible and to show it to the world, and those are the things we see not with our eyes so much as with our heart.”
— David duChemin
His words hit me hard, as I have myself written about striving to “reveal glimpses of the hidden, unseen Monastic Way, through visual means.” It is both paradox (so beloved by Orthodox Christianity) and challenge, one which I do not claim to have risen to, but to which I press onwards, striving to fulfill.
Perhaps someone might ask, “Why?”
Because, as an Orthodox Christian, I believe in “Vision.” We even have a theological word for it: “Theoria.” Even if I do not attain it in either my life or my photography, yet will I press forward, hoping that my efforts may help inspire others to do so.
So, I hope you enjoy this article and David’s challenge to go deeper. He writes of the heart, from the heart, and I have appended a few closing thoughts at bottom on this heart of the matter…
A couple years ago the number being floated around about photographs on the internet was this: 1.8 billion images a day were being shared on social media channels. All of them showing us what every minute corner of the world looks like. It is safe to say that there is little – if anything at all – that remains to be shown. Do a Google search for any conceivable thing, place, or person and there’s a good chance you’ll get more images than you can use. This used to be the job of photographers, particularly the so-called professionals: to illustrate. To show the world what it looked like.
In order to show the world what it looked like the photographer had to use a rather technical means, had to understand the physics, the chemistry, the optics. Owning and using the gear required was not easy. This was the means by which the photographer accomplished his craft and remained relevant. And that, for generations was the task of most photographers – to use complicated gear to show the world what it looked like.
Can you see where this is heading? Something only has value when it’s needed. When it’s scarce. And you can say neither about the use of the camera nor the need for more illustrative images of a world in which 2 billion photographs are shared, not to mention the ones not shared, every day. Before you despair or rush to the ramparts to defend this craft, let me say that I believe more than ever in the value and need for photographs. It just isn’t where it once was, in illustration.
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.
This past year I’ve begun following photographer David duChemin. He is a wonderful photographer and I love his images, his approach. But I have been stunned at how his words about photography sound at times like Orthodox Christian Monastic and Patristic writings.
Remember when every frame was golden and filled with wonder? Remember being so in love with the strange, beautiful alchemy of this craft that we weren’t looking for atta-boys or Facebook likes? When our joy came from the creation, not the feedback? Remember how that joy led to curious, creative play, and the way the hours would pass while we were on our knees with a camera in the grass, or watching images come alive in the darkroom? Remember when the name on our gear didn’t matter because it was just all so mind-blowingly magical and we didn’t care what others thought about us? I do…
Learning to be a photographer is learning to see. It’s about receptivity. Perception. An openness to the world around us. Wonder. Curiosity. And yes, the growing ability to wield these clumsy black boxes to turn the light into an image.
Saint Herman of Alaska, America’s first canonized saint, was an Orthodox Christian monk of holy life who lived in Valaam Monastery in Russia.
In 1794, along with nine other monastics he was sent to Alaska to evangelize the natives there. In time St. Herman would become the sole survivor of the original missionaries.
Throughout his long life he cared for the natives of the Kodiak area, nursing them in their illnesses, educating them, and defending them from the abuse of the Russian fur-traders. By his meekness and firm faith he won the love and respect of all who came to know him, and inspired many to follow Christ. Eventually settling on nearby Spruce Island, he lived a mostly eremitic life, while also establishing an orphanage for the children of parents who had died during epidemics.
By the power of God, St. Herman was able to see into the hearts of others, as well as into the future. He worked miracles during his life, such as stopping a forest fire and a tsunami by his prayers. To this day he remains a wonderworker, healing the souls and bodies of those who ask for his intercessions before the throne of God.
The Importance of St Herman for Orthodox Christians in America Today
When we really stop to reflect upon what Blessed Father Herman accomplished in Alaska — and what his significance is for us today — we should be stunned by his humility, his selflessness, and his simple and pure dedication and obedience to his original mission to bring the Orthodox Faith to his new land.
The greater part of his forty-plus years in Alaska he lived alone, tirelessly caring for the native Alaskan peoples who, seeing the Love of Christ embodied in their beloved “Apa” (grandfather) became themselves pious and faithful Orthodox Christians. We should be similarly moved and converted in our hearts by Elder Herman’s witness. As one monastic writer in North America has put it:
The first saints God raises up in a country contain a special message about what Orthodoxy must be like for that nation. Thus, Sts. Boris and Gleb for Russia—the passion bearers. And it is not a coincidence that Holy Russia begins with passion bearers and ends with passion bearers (the royal martyrs) and a whole host of New Martyrs!
So what is the lesson the Lord wants American Orthodox like us to learn from St. Herman? He was a meek and humble monk, not even a priest, but a strong witness against injustice and a confessor of the true Faith. These are the qualities, I believe, that Orthodoxy in America must emulate. But so far, we aren’t. We are obsessed with jurisdictional administrative issues, while the inner life of the Church—which leads to repentance and deification through humility—is largely neglected at the official, organizational, level…
We need a ‘revival’ inspired by St. Herman!
— Schema-Hieromonk Ambrose (Young)
Therefore, let us persevere in our faith and in doing good, being inspired in the depths of our hearts by our beloved Elder and Wonderworker, St Herman of Alaska, that we may embody his teaching:
From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and strive to fulfill His holy will!
“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.
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.
Nothing exists in general. If something is beautiful or good, it is manifest in a particular way at a particular time such that we can know it. And this is our true life. A life lived in a “generalized” manner is no life at all, but only a fantasy. However, this fantasy is increasingly the character of what most people think of or describe as the “real world.”
A monk lives in a monastery. He rises early in the morning and prays. He concentrates his mind in his heart and dwells in the presence of God. He will offer prayers for those who have requested it. He will eat and tend to the work assigned for him to do. And so he lives his day. He works. He prays.
And someone will say, “But what does he know about the real world?” But what can they possibly mean? He walks on the earth. He breathes the same air as we do. He eats as we do and sleeps as we do. How is his world any less real than that of anyone else on the planet?