Fr Seraphim Rose
Fr Seraphim the Philosopher: Teacher of Ancient Piety
In His Love for Mankind, God has placed in every person an innate longing for His Divine Truth. In order for the fulness of Truth to be revealed, however, one must first renounce the opinions of this world and inwardly die to it. This renunciation occurs through suffering, in which man’s spirit is torn, like the curtain of the temple, away from his fallen, carnal self and is led to seek enlightenment from above. It is then that our gracious Lord, if He finds a loving heart that may serve as a sure receptacle of His Truth, imparts a higher understanding to the devout seeker.
Few in our days have sought the Truth with such singleness of purpose as did the righteous Fr Seraphim. He was a philosopher according to the original meaning of the word: a “lover of wisdom”. Just as Solomon once found favour in God’s sight by desiring wisdom above all else, so did Fr Seraphim become chosen to be God’s servant through his earnest, painful longing to acquire the Truth at all costs. Having at last discovered it, he became free of the bonds of earth and ripe for eternity, as say the Scriptures: “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).
Fr Seraphim was born outside the saving enclosure of the Church, in order that, through his spiritual quest, conversion and subsequent missionary work, he might lead other searching souls into the Body of Christ. His quest for Truth became apparent at an early age. His mother, noticing how much her son was studying for school, once said to him, “You will be a smart man someday”. “I don’t want to be smart,” the boy replied, “I want to be wise”. The older he grew, the more intense became his inquiry into the nature of his existence. His studies led him through the literature and traditional philosophies of many different cultures, especially to the wisdom of the ancient Orient, for the acquisition of which he spent many years studying the languages of ancient China. But his hungry soul remained unfed, and he existed on the edge of despair, isolated and alone. For hours he would walk along deserted beaches at night, thinking that, without the Truth he sought, life was devoid of meaning, wondering if perhaps the oblivion of death was preferable to having such a burning unfulfilled desire. Little did he know then that his silent longings had not gone unnoticed, for God, in His limitless mercy, was soon to open to him another world.
God’s providence worked through one of Fr Seraphim’s friends, who once recommended that he visit an Orthodox Christian Church. Heeding this advice, he walked into an Orthodox Cathedral and witnessed a solemn and beautiful service, handed down from the times of the early Christians. Feeling as though he had stepped into the ranks of angels in Heaven, he joyfully said within himself, “I’ve come home.” His philosophical quest thus brought him at last into the presence of Christ, Whose image he had not been able to find until he had made personal contact with the ancient Christian experience of the Orthodox Church. In this way he discovered the Truth he had been seeking resided not in a single philosophy, but rather in the Divine Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
Upon receiving Holy Communion for the first time, Fr Seraphim felt a Divine taste in his mouth which lasted for several weeks. Being humble before God, he thought that all newly-baptized Christians had the same experience, and it was only later that he learned that he had indeed received a special gift of grace.
This rare man, Fr Seraphim, not satisfied merely with being externally a member of the Church, begged God that He would bring him into the very heart of the Truth, wherein all the saints and righteous ones have found the means for their salvation. His newfound “pearl of great price”- the true Gospel of Christ – was so precious to him that he wanted to dedicate his entire life to serving it. He wanted to do something with what he had received, not just bury his talent in the ground.
While this yearning still burned within Fr Seraphim, he fell ill with a serious ailment, which grew worse and worse until he feared that he might die from it. How great was his anguish when he thought that he would be taken away so soon, before he had even begun to serve God! In such a state, he went one day to a small store that sold, among other things, ikon cards. He looked entreatingly at one of the ikons, an image of the Mother of God, and spontaneously said within himself, from the depths of his troubled soul, “Most Holy Mother of God, please hear me! Before I die, let me do something to serve your Son!’ The Holy Virgin did not withold her mercy from the needy supplicant; and thus it happened that shortly after this incident, Fr Seraphim, already recovered from his illness, heard a knock at the door. When he opened it, he found a young seminarian, a man with ideals similar to his own, wanting to serve Christ but not yet knowing exactly how to do it. They later decided to open an Orthodox Christian bookstore, so that other seekers like themselves could be provided with soul-profiting reading. In this way was granted Fr Seraphim’s wish to work for God. His other need, that of entering into the fulness of the Church, was fulfilled at the same time through a righteous man who arrived in the city in which Fr Seraphim was living, San Francisco. This man was Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch, a wonderworker sent by God to Fr Seraphim as a living vessel of Divine Truth, which Truth he did not hesitate to impart through his holy example and words of instruction. Fr Seraphim deeply loved his spiritual teacher, and Archbishop John in turn did all he could to help his disciple.
With the blessing and encouragement of Archbishop John, Fr Seraphim and his seminarian friend became co-labourers in a missionary brotherhood dedicated to St Herman of Alaska. In addition to working at the bookstore, they began to publish a periodical, “The Orthodox Word” for the mission of true Christianity. And here is where God, wanting to make use of His willing servant, provided Fr Seraphim with the opportunity to exercise all his talents – his penetrating mind and his writing ability – for the spreading of the Gospel. Fr Seraphim devoted all of his energy to his God-pleasing literary work so that, at the time of final reckoning, he would not be found empty handed, but with his talents increased hundredfold.
Ever since his conversion, Fr Seraphim did much reading of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and he was especially drawn to the ancient desert dwellers and ascetics. In these desert-dwellers, he found living illustrations of Christ’s otherworldly teaching, transfigured beings who disdained all attachments to things temporal and who sought only that which lies beyond this corruptible earth. So much was he inspired by their example that he longed to have a small taste of the life of silence and prayer, unhindered by the tumult of the world. For this reason, he and his partner decided to move their publishing work to the mountains. Soon they found land suitable for their needs: a forested area high on the top a ridge, miles away from the noise of cities. After they had lived there for a few years, they were tonsured monks, and thus their brotherhood became a monastic one. Their literary work continued, and expanded to include the printing of books.
Having been delivered from death and granted more years of life through the intercessions of the Mother of God, Fr Seraphim cherished the time he was able to spend in his forest hermitage. His heart so overflowed with thanksgiving that he would be seen blessing and kissing the trees. Because he valued every moment of life as a gift from God, he was filled with a sense of urgency and repeatedly warned: “It is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God”.
Through daily Divine services, constant exposure to spiritual literature, and separation from the world, Fr Seraphim’s experience of spiritual life deepened. He lived for another world, guarding himself against idle talk and soberly viewing ordinary events in the context of heavenly reality. His loving heart, warmed and softened by his early years of suffering and his profound conversion, combined with his brilliant mind, his noble truth-loving character and his depth of spiritual experience, to make him a Christian teacher unparalleled in our days. Having steeped himself in the writings of the Holy Fathers; having come to them as a loving son and learned from them Divine wisdom; having lived like them and acquired their way of thinking and feeling, he became as one of them. He successfully transmitted the spirit of the Holy Fathers, in his writings, thereby feeding the souls of thousands of readers and enabling them to attain oneness of soul with the Christians of past centuries.
When Fr Seraphim was made a priest, his responsibilities increased even more. He was called upon to pastor a parish flock in a nearby town. For a man who longed for desert solitude, this was certainly a burden, and yet he bore it without a grudging word. “Whatever God sends us,” he would say, “we must accept and do our best with. Each day brings a new struggle, a new chance to increase our prayer and new ways in which to serve God”.
He was a loving pastor not only to those in the town parish, but also to the many brothers who came to the monastery. Late at night, he would be seen kneeling before the altar of the monastery church, praying fervently with tears for those souls which had been placed under his direction.
Fr Seraphim was only forty-eight years old when Our Lord was pleased to take him into his Kingdom. As it is written in the Wisdom of Solomon: “He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time: for his soul pleased the Lord: therefore hasted He to take him away from among the wicked” (Wis. 4:13). When the course of his blessed life was drawing to an end, he was suddenly afflicted with acute pains in his stomach. Being of such a humble disposition, he never complained or tried to draw any attention to his sickness, but only retired to his cell to pray. Soon, however, the brethren realized that his ailment was a serious one, and took him to a hospital for treatment. After the doctors had operated on him, they said that the disease would probably be fatal. The news spread, and people travelled from distant places to be at Fr Seraphim’s bedside during his last hours. Day and night they stood near him, consoling him with the sacred hymns of the Church. How great was the lamentation, how fervent were the prayers of the faithful! So many people were about to be deprived of their beloved spiritual father and teacher. And yet there was joy mixed with the sorrow, for all were aware that, from among those assembled in the hospital room, one person was soon to step over the theshold of death and stand before the throne of Almighty God. It was as if the ceiling of the room had opened up, as if everyone was in the presence of the blessed world beyond death.
Here during his last, painful days in hospital, Fr Seraphim finished the holy task he had begun when he first took on the yoke of Christ, he eradicated the vestiges of selfish, human will so that he could belong wholly to God, with Whom he would spend eternity. Again it is written in Holy Wisdom: “And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for Himself. As gold in the furnace hath He tried them, and received them, as a burnt offering” (Wis: 3: 4-5). In truth was the spiritual gold of Fr Seraphim’s soul purified by suffering, for he was tied to the hospital bed as one crucified, his arms and his legs shaking from the intense pain that ran through his body. He could not speak because of the air tubes which the doctors placed in his mouth. All he could do was pray, gazing imploringly into heaven. As his co-labourer in the wilderness said, “Fr Seraphim suffered as he did in order to receive the glory of Martyrs”.
A young catechumen was standing at his bedside when a priest came in the room to give Fr Seraphim Holy Communion. Before administering the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ, the priest read the Gospel and then, holding the book over Fr Seraphim’s reclining body, began to bless him with it. Suddenly Fr Seraphim, exerting every last bit of strength in his dying, convulsing frame, raised himself up to kiss that sublime and holy Book that had given him Life. There was not a face in the room that was not covered with tears. The catechumen standing there said later that this incident was so inspiring that it erased all thoughts of hesitation concerning his baptism.
Finally, when the soul of the blessed one was sufficiently purified, it departed unto the Lord. Fr Seraphim’s body was brought to his monastery to be buried on his beloved mountain, and, for the three days following his repose was kept in the monastery church. There, as Fr Seraphim lay in this simple wooden coffin, his face became radiant and smiled with such a serene smile that all were moved by the sight.
During the funeral, the church was filled to overflowing with faithful pilgrims. All came up to his coffin to kiss the blessed hands which wrote so many soul-profiting books, articles and church services. When the coffin was about to be taken from the church and buried nearby, one of the pilgrims, a woman named Helen was vouchsafed to see Fr Seraphim shining with celestial light above the coffin, facing the altar and swinging a censer.
Forty days after Fr Seraphim’s repose, a bishop named Nektary came to the monastery and led the singing of the Glorification hymn: “We magnify thee, our Holy Father Seraphim, instructor of monks and converser with angels”. During his sermon, he called Fr Seraphim a righteous man, possibly a saint. The verity of this appraisal is attested to by the numerous miracles which Fr Seraphim has performed since his death.
Blessed Father Seraphim pray to God for us!
An Edited extract from The Orthodox Word No. 136 1987 pp. 291 – 299