The Illumined Heart:
The interview that follows is Part 2 of a three-part series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the repose of Fr. Seraphim Rose who left this world on September 2, 1982. The interview was conducted by Illumined Heart co-host, Kevin Allen, with his biographer and spiritual child, Fr. Damascene, conducted in Fr. Seraphim’s rustic cell in the forest in Platina, California. Today’s program is titled “Fr. Seraphim Rose: The Man, the Struggler”. If you’d like information on the books published and distributed by St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, their website is http://www.sainthermanpress.com. Let’s return now to the rustic cell of Fr. Seraphim Rose with Kevin Allen.
Kevin: Father Damascene, thank you again for joining me on this edition of The Illumined Heart.
Fr. Damascene: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: It’s a blessing to be back in the monastic cell of both yourself and your mentor, Fr. Seraphim Rose, for our interview—in this edition—“The Man, the Struggler”. We’ll talk a little about Seraphim Rose as an individual. You mentioned and you’ve written in your book, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and His Works, that a large number of figures and writers influenced Eugene Rose first and Fr. Seraphim Rose. In a brief interview, it would be impossible to go through all of the influences. But one sticks out and that one is John Maximovitch. So I thought we’d start this interview talking about St. John the Wonderworker of San Francisco, John Maximovitch, and his relationship with Fr. Seraphim Rose.
Fr. Damascene: Archbishop John was his guiding star, and he’s our guiding star. He was many things to Fr. Seraphim. He was his Hierarch when he was San Francisco’s ruling bishop. The St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood was founded with a blessing by St. John. He was the guide of the brotherhood during those early years and a personal guide and spiritual father of Fr. Seraphim. He was an example to him of what an Orthodox Christian should be. He was a living saint, as Fr. Seraphim recognized as such from the very beginning. Fr. Seraphim saw the spiritual power and grace of the Orthodox Church embodied in St. John. Fr. Alexi Young told me something that Fr. Seraphim told him back in the early days of our monastery here. He said that before Fr. Seraphim became Orthodox, he was attracted to Chinese philosophy, which he studied in depth, because it had a very noble conception of man. Later, when he became Orthodox, he found in Orthodoxy the most noble conception of man—the fulfillment of what was prefigured in Chinese philosophy. He said that he found in St. John a man more noble than any person he had met before.
Kevin: It strikes me that they were really different sorts of men in some ways. It seems to me that Fr. Seraphim was highly intellectual, almost a genius. He knew many languages and studied theology and Eastern religions. On the other hand, St. John has even been called—I hope this isn’t irreverent—a fool for Christ in some ways. They were just very different sorts of men. Do you find that ironic or striking? That a man that came from where Fr. Seraphim was coming would be so impacted by someone who had maybe a very different demeanor and orientation?
Fr. Damascene: I think that there were more similarities than differences. Obviously, they have very different backgrounds. Fr. Seraphim was raised in San Diego in an American Protestant family, and he went through this whole period of searching and struggling to find the truth. Archbishop John never went through that. He was raised in a pious, Orthodox home. So their backgrounds are very different. Where they are similar, of course, was their single-minded determination to really live out the Orthodox faith to its fullest and to really fully enter into the heart of the Church, experience the grace of the Church, and, as Fr. Seraphim said, “To find Christ in the Orthodox Church.” They were both selfless servants. Especially in Fr. Seraphim’s later life, he took on that cross of pastorship that St. John bore so nobly. In that sense they were very similar.
In terms of Fr. Seraphim being an intellectual and Archbishop John not being known as an intellectual, actually even in that they weren’t so different. St. John was a very intelligent person and Fr. Seraphim had this genius level IQ, but Fr. Seraphim consciously, deliberately humbled his mind. If you remember in the last talk we had, I said that Fr. Seraphim said, “I crucify my mind.” So he became like St. John. In fact, I said that St. John was a model for him. Well, he was a model for him in all ways. In presenting the theology of the Church, Fr. Seraphim was very much like St. John. Fr. Seraphim took as his example for presenting theology St. John. In fact, in an article he wrote for the 10th anniversary of St. John’s repose in 1976, he talked about the theology of St. John and began by relating a service that he had attended in San Francisco in the convent of Abbess Ariadna which was under St. John. Abbess Ariadna was a close disciple of St. John. It was the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and Fr. Seraphim, at that time Eugene Rose, was of the mindset “do we have to believe these accounts about all the Apostles being brought from the ends of the earth to attend the burial of the Mother of God? It sounds a little bit hard to believe”. Then he heard from the Abbess, during her sermon, who said, “We must believe the teaching of the Church. We must believe it simply and not doubt.” Fr. Seraphim was struck in his heart like that. He understood that we have to be simple, we have to believe simply what is handed down to us in the Church. Fr. Seraphim wrote in this article that he found that simple faith, that simple childlike faith, in St. John. That became his model for believing in the Church, believing in the theology of the Church, and presenting the theology and teaching of the Church to others.
Kevin: You wrote in your book, quoting Fr. Seraphim, where he said, “If you are an Orthodox Christian, you can do this [constantly thinking of higher things] and have people call you crazy or say that you’re a bit touched, but still you lead your own life and get to heaven.”
Fr. Damascene: Yes, I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s another aspect of St. John’s influence on Fr. Seraphim. Fr. Seraphim saw in St. John a man who lived for the other world. He was already in another world. He had his feet firmly on earth, as Fr. Seraphim said, and at the same time his mind and his heart were constantly in heaven. That’s where his heart was - as Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” St. John’s treasure was in heaven, so he was constantly looking above. That’s one of the main things that Fr. Seraphim learned from St. John—to always be looking above. Fr. Seraphim had many struggles—after he became Orthodox and after he became a monk. There were many struggles in the monastery. Any time he would be tempted to get discouraged, and there were many times that he did, he would always be thinking of the example of St. John and how he was constantly always looking above. Fr. Seraphim would pray to St. John, “Help us out.” He knew that St. John was with him, with the brotherhood, with the monastery, as the monastery’s heavenly protector, guiding and protecting the monastery just as if he was alive and on the earth.
Kevin: So, clearly, he considered St. John Maximovitch a saint before he was officially recognized, because Fr. Seraphim reposed before that happened.
Fr. Damascene: Oh, yes. Fr. Seraphim considered him a saint while St. John was alive. At that time, in the Russian Church abroad, there were two different schools of thought on who St. John was. Some thought he was crazy—sometimes you really couldn’t depend on him; he was a little too odd, strange. And there were other people, many, many people, who regarded him as a living saint. Fr. Seraphim, from the very beginning, was in the latter group. Many of the former group repented later and acknowledged him as a saint, even at his funeral.
Kevin: St. Ignatius Brianchaninov and St. Theophan the Recluse were also important influences on Fr. Seraphim, correct?
Fr. Damascene: Yes.
Kevin: I believe somewhere he called them “the link to the Patristic Age” for those of us are in the contemporary world. How are we to understand that? Why were they considered by Fr. Seraphim to be such significant links?
Fr. Damascene: Fr. Seraphim said that if we’re going to be linked to the saints of ancient time, the Early Fathers of the Church, we have to be linked to the saints of our own time. He had that connection with St. John. And we also have to have the links to saints of recent times who transmit this Patristic wisdom from ancient times to our modern times. He said St. Ignatius (died in 1867) and St. Theophan (died in the 1890s), although they didn’t live in the 20th Century, dealt with many modern problems. Many of the issues that we face in our modern times were already known in their day. They dealt with these issues straight on and help us to know the Patristic mind as it views these various modern issues and problems.
Kevin: Moving to a different topic, from reading your book I understand that Eugene Rose prayed the panagia prayer—“Most Holy Mother of God, save us”—even before he knew the Jesus Prayer. Some might find that shocking or surprising, especially if there are any non-Orthodox out there—that he would have prayed to the Mother of God before he even prayed the Jesus Prayer formally. Can you put that in context and talk a little bit about Fr. Seraphim’s piety to the Mother of God—how it was formed in him, how he understand the place and role of the Mother of God in the life of the Orthodox Christian?
Fr. Damascene: Concerning that statement about him praying the panagia prayer before the Jesus Prayer, Fr. Seraphim prayed that prayer before he became Orthodox. He was still preparing to become an Orthodox Christian. It might have even been before he met an Orthodox priest. I don’t know, but it was definitely before he became Orthodox. He had this piety, this veneration, for the Mother of God from the very beginning. Really, this is a mystery. We just know that he was praying to the Mother of God and had this great devotion for her. Of course, he was also praying the Jesus Prayer and this was the main prayer for him, as for any Orthodox monk or Christian. But he also had this piety for the Mother of God. Every day he would say the Optina 500. That comes from the Optina Monastery. The Optina elders would have this prayer rule that they would give to people where you say 300 Jesus Prayers, then 100 prayers to the Mother of God, 50 to one’s guardian angel, and 50 to all saints.
He prayed much more than that and also prayed frequently akathists and canons to the Mother of God. Our former abbot, Fr. Herman, said that, especially at the end of his life, Fr. Seraphim was frequently doing these canons and akathists to the Mother of God either in the church or in his cell. And he published a book on St. John on the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God. He understood the proper veneration. That’s really between Fr. Seraphim and the Mother of God. It’s kind of a mystery. Vladimir Lossky, in his book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, even said that the Most Holy Mother of God is a mystery of the Church, and it’s really hard to explain to those outside the Church. We don’t believe that she is our Redemptress. Christ is our only Redeemer. But she’s a heavenly intercessor, a helper, and close to us. Fr. Seraphim had that veneration. It’s very interesting that he died in the Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Perhaps she took him and helped him to the other world. In our Church’s prayers, we even ask the Mother of God to help us, and, at the hour of death, to help us in the passage to heaven.
Kevin: Former Abbot Herman once called Fr. Seraphim a hesychast, and I asked this question of Abbott Gerasim when I interviewed him. For those who are listening who don’t know what that word means, it is one who prays constantly. Would you describe him as a hesychast?
Fr. Damascene: Well, Fr. Herman once told Fr. Seraphim, “Fr. Seraphim, you’re a hesychast.” Fr. Seraphim became indignant. He said, “I don’t know what that means.” He knew intellectually, but he didn’t want to pose in any way as some holy hesychast. He was not a person who stayed in his cell all the time and prayed. He prayed his cell rule at night, he said special prayers at night, and he’d be kneeling at the altar in the church in addition to attending all the daily services of the Church and serving the Divine Liturgy. He labored in the monastery. They had to labor in order to support the monastery, because they were publishing books. He was always busy and never wasted time.
I would say that he was a hesychast in this sense: he was in a constant state of keeping his mind directed toward God and heaven, keeping his mind and his heart in the other world. He was in that constant state of watchfulness, that state of prayer. People would talk about how they would see him at the table in trapeze, saying the Jesus Prayer quietly to himself or silently. That was when people would happen to see him. What he was doing when people were not watching him, I can’t say. But from knowing him and from what other people have said, it was evident that he was in that constant state of prayer and watchfulness.
Kevin: I’d like to talk about some of the personal attributes, characteristics, and virtues of Fr. Seraphim that have been described in your book and in other places. I find it so interesting that you write that he struggled really hard to work on these. Maybe as we go through them you can highlight or give a story or give an example of each of them. I would like to quote you here for our listeners: “As Fr. Seraphim knew, transfiguration doesn’t happen of itself. He did not wait for the virtues to come naturally; but, seeing their lack in himself, he would consciously labor to acquire them, hoping on Christ to strengthen them and each day entailed constant, unseen warfare watching and fighting against the interior movements of the fallen man.” One of them, and you’ve kind of mentioned it a couple of times, is this kind of deadness to the world. Now, we tend to understand the world not as just the world we live in but the passions. Can you talk about your experience with Fr. Seraphim in that virtue?
Fr. Damascene: Definitely in terms of cutting off the passions, he was always in this watchful state. He was a dedicated, true monk. He took his monastic life seriously and the fact that he was an Orthodox Christian. He talked frequently about this struggle that the Christian life entails. He talked about how in our modern American society we don’t like struggle. He called our Modern American society “pampered”, a self-worshiping generation, the Me-Generation. He realized that we have to fight against that in ourselves—the state of always wanting to pamper ourselves, to gratify our egos and so on. So he was always in that state of putting himself to death, putting the fallen man, the old man, to death, so that Christ could live in him. He didn’t have idle moments, but was constantly laboring, praying, or somehow working for the Kingdom of God every minute of his life.
He talked a lot about the virtue of constancy, that we have to be constant in our daily practice of our spiritual life, constantly giving ourselves to daily spiritual injections—reading the lives of the saints, reading the spiritual literature, the Holy Scriptures, going to the services of the Church, our daily prayers, etc. He lived that life of constancy and stability, staying in one place, laboring with one’s salvation and not floating around from place to place. All these things helped him to die to the world of the passions. But in addition to that, he was dead to the world in the sense of dead to any kind of intellectual modern fashions. He saw the modern world as an anomaly. Even before he became Orthodox, he understood the modern world to be an anomaly, turned away from the wisdom that was known in ancient times and more engrossed in materialism, sensuality, and so on.
Kevin: …and the philosophies that come out of that.
Fr. Damascene: Yes, the philosophy of the 20th Century is nihilism, quoting from Nietzsche. The other side of nihilism is chiliasm which is the belief that since there is no God and no heaven, let’s make the kingdom of God on this earth. That’s where this whole pampered, self-worshiping generation comes out of. He says that we have to realize that that is in ourselves—we have this nihilism in ourselves, this unbelief in ourselves, and we have to war against and struggle against it. That’s why he was able to see through the deceptions of the modern times, whereas many contemporary Orthodox Christians kind of go along with the spirit of the times. We can kind of mix Orthodoxy with the mind of the times, with the contemporary world view and cosmology. Fr. Seraphim was able to cut through that deception. Where the teachings of the Holy Fathers, for example, were at variance with the modern world view and cosmology, modern scientific theoretical models, Fr. Seraphim openly taught that these were incompatible, and this is the teaching of the Fathers. He did not try to make some artificial combination and force the teachings of the Fathers into the modern cosmology. He didn’t want to view Orthodoxy and the teachings of the Fathers from the point of view of a modern mind looking at them. He wanted to look at the modern world from the point of view of the Holy Fathers. In order to do that, he had to acquire the mind of the Fathers. In order to acquire the mind of the Fathers, he had to put to death his own mind. That’s why he said, “I crucify my mind.” That’s what makes him so special. He was this great intellect, but he crucified that mind, humbled it. He had that simple faith of St. John and all saints.
Kevin: You’ve written that he was a discerner of the times. I think we’ve kind of covered that one. He saw the times for what they were. He didn’t buy into the nonsense that most of us buy into. He was able to separate the wheat from the proverbial chaff and know what the Patristic mindset was. Is that correct?
Fr. Damascene: Yes. Even before he became Orthodox, he was involved with that whole nihilistic mentality. He kind of lived through that and emerged out of it, so it gave him kind of an edge to understand the nature of the times. He was also on the vanguard of that whole movement toward Eastern religions that occurred in the West, beginning in the late 50s and early 60s. He was able to show the way out of that as well.
Kevin: You’ve spoken about this but maybe you can just highlight on his humility and the fact that there is “no spiritual pretense or affectation on him” (your words).
Fr. Damascene: He didn’t think much of himself really. He knew what he was about, and he knew what Orthodoxy was about. In that sense, he was very firm in his conviction and belief. But personally he didn’t think much of himself. He didn’t want to exalt himself in any way or think of himself highly. That’s why, as I said earlier, when Fr. Herman called him a hesychast, he didn’t like it at all. I remember that I was at a lecture at St. Herman pilgrimage in 1981, and I was sitting in the audience. Fr. Seraphim was giving a talk and asking for questions and answers. Some person stood up in the back and said, “Fr. Seraphim, I perceive you are a holy man.” Fr. Seraphim did not like that and said, “Get to the question. What’s the question?” That’s just one example. In knowing him and with people telling me about him, I know that he really cultivated that virtue of humility. And certainly whatever intellectual power he had, he had no pride in that. It meant nothing in the scheme of things in the Christian life.
Kevin: You write that love was something that was important and you experienced that. Tell us about that. That’s a virtue that, with someone like him, maybe you wouldn’t expect with his intellect and ascetism. Can you talk about how that manifested itself?
Fr. Damascene: I mentioned before that he went through this spirit of intellectual elitism before he became Orthodox. I don’t think he was very loving there. I think deep down he had a loving heart, but it wasn’t opened up. Through the grace of the Church, when he was received into the Church and received the sacraments of the Church and living the Orthodox life and had such examples before him, like St. John, that love blossomed out in him. It just grew as time went on, especially as he grew as a pastor. His faith matured right up to the time of his death. His love was manifested in his concern and care for people and his suffering for and over them, praying for them. We had these young men sing in the monastery and some of them came from troubled backgrounds. Fr. Seraphim would be praying in the altar at night, weeping over these people. Many people would talk about how he would sacrifice for them. It would be snowing outside, and he would have to walk several times up and down the hill to get people’s cars stuck out of the road. So there were many ways that he sacrificed himself, and that’s where we see most of all that love. He talked about that a lot.
He saw that one of the main dangers of Orthodoxy in our times is this “head knowledge”—we become Orthodox in order to be better than the Protestants or Catholics, or we know more than them, or we have the right teaching, etc. It’s a temptation because Orthodoxy means “right glorification”. So people have this temptation to be correct, to be intellectually superior to others.
Kevin: Hyper Orthodox.
Fr. Damascene: Yes. It’s all in the head, and he would say that’s not going to save you. You have to develop your heart. You have to have a Christian heart. He would say that you can be Orthodox without being Christian, in the sense that you can intellectually have these right beliefs but you’re not really living a Christian life. We have to develop, make the heart more supple and warm, and we have to pray for that.
Kevin: Speaking of heart, that’s a great lead in on this aspect of his personality—pain of heart and suffering. I know that his monastic partner and former Abbot Herman wrote, “Above all, Fr. Seraphim knew how to suffer.” You also refer to the pain of heart. Can you talk a bit about how Fr. Seraphim understood the pain of heart and suffering in the life of an Orthodox Christian?
Fr. Damascene: He said that the main key to enter into the mind of the Holy Fathers was precisely that pain of heart. I think he meant different things by that. It’s the suffering that all Christians must endure in this world, because we’re not of this world. We’re living for another world, so we’re not going to fit in totally with the world. We’re going to have to suffer in some way in the world, if we’re really living an Orthodox life. If we feel totally comfortable in the world, then something’s wrong. That kind of suffering is one aspect.
Secondly, pain of heart is repenting over one’s sins. There is pain of heart in praying for others and caring for other people. Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos talks a lot about feeling pain in one’s heart when praying for others. He said, in order for one’s prayers to really be effectual, you really have to feel that pain. Another aspect of pain of heart is a literal pain of heart. The Holy Fathers, including Elder Paisios, talk about the literal pain of heart where the mind descends into the heart—the heart is the center and pious part of the soul, the nous—and a person can literally feel pain in the physical organ of the heart. Fr. Seraphim said that the heart is not just a pump—it’s an organ that knows God. The Holy Fathers, including St. Silhouan the Athonite, talk about how we have the physical heart in addition to the metaphysical heart, which is the center of our being and the place where we feel that repentance and pain of suffering over others and our praying for them.
Kevin: For those of us who are not in a vocational place where we can really approach that level of understanding (I’m tempted to go there, but I know it’s above my head), would pain of heart be just caring deeply for others, putting others above self and sharing in the suffering of others and the world and over one’s sins?
Fr. Damascene: Yes, absolutely. We pray with all our heart, and that’s a kind of pain of heart. Nobody is without suffering. Suffering is the reality of the human condition since the fall. God has allowed that in order to remind us that we’re not God, and we have to return to God. This fallen world is not our final home, but the Kingdom of heaven is our final home. So we’re going to suffer. The question is what are we going to do in that suffering? Are we going to seek distraction…
Fr. Damascene: Drugs, Valium, or some technological device where we can entertain ourselves and tune everything out…
Kevin: Entertain ourselves to death…
Fr. Damascene: Yes, exactly. What are we going to do in that suffering? Are we going to try and escape from it? There are so many ways. The world is perfecting the art of escaping from suffering. Each year new things come out to escape from suffering. But instead of escaping from it we have to face that suffering and endure it. As St. Mark the Ascetic said, “Endure it in the spirit of devotion to Christ.” That’s what pain of heart is. Are we going to lay that suffering before God in prayer, in the spirit of devotion? Are we going turn away from God, tune him out, and seek distraction? Each person, whether or not he can enter these deep levels of prayer of the heart, can enter into that experience of pain of heart.
Kevin: Thank you for clarifying that. I appreciate that and I know our listeners will too. I think I read in one of your interviews that said you always felt deep stillness in his presence.
Fr. Damascene: Yes. First of all, literally. When I would sit and talk with him—I remember sitting on a little log outside the church, and I would be talking about things going on at the campus, and he would just listen. Then I would say something, and he would just say a few words. He wouldn’t say much and then he would become silent. He would be waiting for me to say something. Then I would say something and he would say something. If he had something to say, he’d say it. There would be these moments of silence. Fr. Seraphim didn’t want to say an unnecessary word. You can read the writings of the Holy Fathers, like St. Joseph of Optina. People said he really didn’t say too much. It’s because he didn’t want to speak an unnecessary word. He didn’t want to offer his own ideas. He wanted it to come from the Holy Spirit. If he was asked a question, then it meant that he was called upon to answer. So oftentimes, Fr. Seraphim would just be silent.
I have a friend who is an Orthodox Christian who became Orthodox just about the same time that I did, in fact she was at Fr. Seraphim’s first lecture at UC Santa Cruz. She remembers talking with Fr. Seraphim. She would be talking away, and Fr. Seraphim kind of had his hand near his mouth, and then she noticed that she was crossing his mouth. Her understanding of that was that Fr. Seraphim didn’t want to offer any words from his own wisdom, his own opinion. He wanted to offer something that came from God. In that sense, he had that silence. That was a literal sense of silence.
Also, there is that spiritual sense. Many people have talked about this, and I myself have experienced it. Fr. Vladimir Anderson is a close, spiritual godson of Fr. Seraphim, as was Fr. Alexi Young who is now Hiermonk Ambrose. They both talk about when they were in Fr. Seraphim’s presence, there was a stillness that kind of radiated from him. They would come with these problems, and they were kind of agitated, coming from the world, and they were in the presence of Fr. Seraphim. Even though he didn’t have to say many words, that stillness was contagious. They caught that stillness and walked away feeling it. Another spiritual daughter of Fr. Seraphim, Barbara Murray, says that she would come to Fr. Seraphim with all kinds of perplexities, and she would wonder, “How am I going to deal with all these problems that I am facing in my life?” She would leave Fr. Seraphim and go to church and suddenly all the problems didn’t seem important at all. He had that stillness. Also, Fr. Alexi said that at the end of Fr. Seraphim’s life, right before he died (it was the last time he saw Fr. Seraphim before he got sick), he sat outdoors with Fr. Seraphim talking and he felt that very profoundly, that stillness that came from his being totally at peace. Right before he died, he had really entered into that deep stillness, that peace.
Fr. Damascene: Palpable stillness, yes…
Kevin: …that could be communicated to others almost.
Fr. Damascene: It’s like what Christ said, “My peace I give you, not as the world gives, give I unto you.” It’s Christ’s peace. It’s not the peace of the world. This is what Fr. Seraphim had.
Kevin: Again, I’m quoting a lot of former Abbot Herman from your book, but he said that he learned patience from Fr. Seraphim.
Fr. Damascene: Yes, that was a virtue that he had and cultivated. I mentioned earlier that he talked about these virtues of constancy and stability. Even before he became a monk, there was another friend of the brotherhood from the very early days, when Fr. Seraphim was still a layman and working in the Orthodox bookstore—a friend named Anthony. He was a layman, and Fr. Seraphim (at that time, Eugene Rose) would talk to him about stability. He would say that if you go to a parish and you find that there is better chanting in another parish, or perhaps the spiritual father spends more time with people in confessions or maybe the spiritual level seems higher in another parish, whatever it is that seems more spiritual, don’t go, don’t leave your parish. Stay in one place. If you jump around from place to place, you’re not really putting down roots, and you can’t really grow spiritually. In order to grow spiritually, you have to put down those roots. Fr. Seraphim did that very much in his own life. When he came to the monastery, he just wanted to stay here. He didn’t even want to travel. Fr. Herman would say to him, “Don’t you want to go to Mt. Athos?” Fr. Seraphim would say, “No, we have to find Mt. Athos in our own hearts.”
Kevin: Father, you wrote in the eighth chapter of your book, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and His Works, entitled “The Taste of Hell”, the “forbidden deeds” that, at that time Eugene Rose, had “disgusted him even at the time he was committing them”. You don’t go into details and I’m not asking for the details. But I’m assuming that they were of a sexual or fleshly nature. I’m wondering how and what did Fr. Seraphim counsel on these sorts of struggles.
Fr. Damascene: Well, he gave the teachings of the Fathers on dealing with sexual temptations and passions. Of course, he recognized that this was a very prevalent problem in our times. I think it’s more prevalent today since his repose, with Internet pornography. It’s a new thing the devil has invented to tempt people. In one letter that he wrote to a spiritual son he said, “Flee quickly to the prayer of Jesus,” quoting from Abbot Barsanuphius of Gaza which he translated. He says, “Flee quickly to the prayer of Jesus and you will find repose. Pray ceaselessly, saying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me from shameful passions.’” So he would counsel to turn to God in prayer. If we turn to God in prayer, first of all, we can’t be indulging in these sexual passions in our mind or physically if we’re in the presence of God and conscious of God’s presence. Fr. Seraphim constantly had God in his mind. His mind and heart were directed toward heaven and God. If we have our mind in heaven like that, then we won’t be going down to the earth to these sinful passions. So, first of all, raising the mind to God in that way is a major help. Secondly, God does help. We pray to God, and it’s not just the fact that we’re turning our mind to him. It’s not just psychologically, but we are receiving God’s grace and help. There were other counsels he gave concerning avoiding over familiarity with people with whom you might be tempted to have a sinful relationship with. Just being constantly on guard in the spiritual life.
Kevin: Father, you commented to me in your book. You mentioned that Eugene Rose had written in a letter some suicidal thoughts. Former Abbot Herman mentioned that he definitely had a death wish. What would you say to those who might comment that, because of his psychology, Fr. Seraphim represents a Christianity which somewhat overplays morbidity.
Fr. Damascene: We have to distinguish between the “old” Eugene Rose and the “reborn” Eugene Rose and Fr. Seraphim. Fr. Seraphim was literally reborn when he entered the Orthodox Church. He wrote about this. He said that he had been reborn in the Lord and he had felt such joy that he had never known. All the goodness that was already in his nature just blossomed out and was multiplied by the grace of God which united with his soul. He became a new being. It was that old Eugene Rose that had those suicidal thoughts. As you mentioned, in one of Fr. Seraphim’s letter, during a very dark period of his life before his conversion, he does mention having suicidal thoughts. He was in despair of not finding the truth. They said that he experienced the torments of hell even while he was alive. He had consciously turned away from God, because he had not found him in the religion in which he was raised. He was looking for something more, looking for that truth. He encountered that truth in Orthodoxy. When he became Orthodox, he became a new person. Of course he had no suicidal thoughts after he became Orthodox. There’s no record of that, and I certainly would doubt it, knowing of his true rebirth in Christ and the Orthodox Church.
But he had a healthy remembrance of death, as the Fathers talk about, and wanted to continue working. He felt that we had a limited time in order to do the work of God. He said, “It’s later than you think; therefore, hasten to do the work of God.” He had that awareness. He had a limited number of years, and he wanted those years in order to come closer to God, to find God. He told Fr. Alexi young that if you don’t find God in this life, you will not find him in the life to come. He wanted to draw closer to Christ and have that closer experience of Christ in the Church—the deeper experience of the Church. And an important part of his life was to bring that Orthodox faith and grace of the Church to others, to the non-Orthodox, to be a disseminator of grace. He wanted to bring the truth that he had discovered in the Orthodox Church and over which he had suffered so long to find. He wanted to give that truth to others, and that truth was Jesus Christ. He said that, when he became Orthodox, he understood that truth was a person. So he had that desire to live and bring forth fruit in the time God gave him. Therefore, I don’t think he was morbid. He definitely had a healthy understanding of Christian struggle and the place of suffering in life. Maybe that’s what some people might consider morbid. He was a monk and just lived the life of a true monk. I don’t think he was extreme.
Kevin: Which raises a question, as we’re leaning toward the wrap up of this interview, and that is this: Since his work is so missionizing and evangelical in orientation, and since he was a discerner of the times and talked about topics which are so important in the modern world we live in (therefore, a lot of people will read them), do you think that there is a temptation perhaps, for those of us who are not monastics and who read the work of one whom you’ve just described as being a maximalist, to perhaps confuse his vocation and calling as a monk with the normal or appropriate non-monastic life for those who are reading his work? Is there some way you can respond to that?
Fr. Damascene: Well, he did write his works for the non-monastics as well as the monastics. He wrote for the general readership and trying to reach out to everyone. He wrote a lot about putting the monastic texts of the Orthodox Church in their proper context, according to one’s own spiritual state. He said that we should not, either as monks or lay people, be proud and think that we can apply some very lofty teachings in the line of Divine Ascent or the Philokalia to our own spiritual state as if we are on the level of a saint. We have to realize that we’re starting our spiritual life at the lowest step, whether we’re monks or lay people. We have to have a down-to-earth, realistic understanding of our own low spiritual state, and the low spiritual state of our times. As I mentioned before, he said we have to understand that we come out of the self-worshiping, pampered generation. So, I think his writings are applicable to everyone, because he meant them to be that way, and he has many warnings in his writings against misapplying spiritual texts to one’s spiritual condition.
Kevin: So he didn’t expect obviously everybody who would read his works to come to the wilderness and live in a ten by fifteen foot, rustic cell.
Fr. Damascene: Absolutely not. He would not expect that. His constant teaching was that we are to apply the teachings of the Church, the writings of the Fathers and the monastic saints, etc. to our own condition.
Kevin: Father, as we wrap up, I have one final question, and it’s a tough one because it’s so broad. What in your opinion about Fr. Seraphim’s life and writing has inspired and fascinated so many people all over the world. You mentioned Russia. They may have read more about him than people in the States. What is it about his life and his work?
Fr. Damascene: There are many aspects and many things that can be said about that. First of all, he was a discerner of the times. He understood the modern times very deeply, and he also understood the Orthodox faith very deeply. So he was able to cut through the deceptions of the times and give the Orthodox teaching, the teaching of the Fathers, straight. When you go to Fr. Seraphim, you find the pure teaching of the Fathers, the pure water of grace that come from those writings. It’s not distorted or twisted or artificially molded to conform to the modern mentality. You find a basic honesty in his writings, which I think is very refreshing for many people. Some people can kind of fudge a little bit. If there’s a teaching of the Church that’s a little bit too hard for our self-worshiping, pampered generation to take, they can kind of fudge a little bit, kind of soften it around the edges. Fr. Seraphim didn’t do that. I think some people get turned off by that and have a hard time with it. But there are many people who want that. I really appreciate that.
I should say, also, Fr. Seraphim can be very hard-hitting in his writings, because he was writing for everybody and this was going out to the world. He didn’t want to compromise or sugarcoat anything. But pastorally, when he was dealing with people on a one-to-one basis, he was different. You see that in his letters. Therefore, you’re dealing with a soul, and the soul has these various burdens and obstacles. He understood as a pastor that you have to reach out to a person where there are and not expect too much. As Christ said you don’t want to put new wine into old bottles. So he was very careful with that. For example, when he talked with people who were involved in Eastern religions, he would take a different tone than when he was writing about Orthodoxy and the religion of the future. When he was writing to people coming out of a Charismatic background, he would be different.
Kevin: That’s an important nuance of reading him, that as a pastor he was applying that warm-heartedness and love, whereas here had to deal with a movement or large issue of the times. It might come across a little on the strong side or the hard-hitting side. Father Damascene, again, thank you very much for this wonderful interview. It’s very much appreciated.