Heavenly Realm

July 19, 2010 Length: 13:59

Nicholas Chapman reviews Heavenly Realm: Lay Sermons by Fr. Seraphim Rose, published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.





As somebody from overseas now living in the United States, it’s hard not to be aware of the importance in the whole culture of this country of the notion of “manifest destiny,” which I understand goes back to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers and the early Puritans who settled in Massachusetts, early Protestant groups who saw coming to America as to the land of freedom, a land where, they would quote the Gospel as saying they could create the ideal city, “a city set on a hill,” a city that lights up the world. One of the effects of this understanding which permeates the culture is a very noticeable idealism, the ideal, be it with the election of a new president, for example, or indeed through the creation of a new church, of some kind of ideal community that can be created on earth. This notion and understanding, I think, even has permeated in effect Orthodox Church life in our day.

The book I want to talk about today is a book which I think can be very, very helpful in correcting, if you like, the effect of the influence of the notion of manifest destiny in contemporary Orthodox Church life in America. This book is entitled Heavenly Realm, and it was published quite some time ago by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood in California. We’ll come back to that later. It’s a book of the early writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose.

Fr. Seraphim Rose, I think, is what everyone thinks about him, and I think he’s somebody who tends to promote different reactions in different people. Undoubtedly, he is one of the key figures of the life of Orthodoxy in America in the last 50 years, and perhaps, even more interestingly, if you want to travel to Russia today, and you were to ask your church-going Russian Orthodox to name some Orthodox Christians from America, the two names which I think would be most likely to come up, whose writings are still being most widely read, would be Fr. Seraphim Rose and Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

These two are often understood in America as being polar opposites; you have to follow one or you have to follow the other. The interesting thing about that is that it really follows a trend that has been there in Church history since the very beginning. St. Paul is contrasted with St. Peter. In 16th century Russia, St. Nil Sorsky represents one interpretation of the tradition, St. Joseph of Volokolamsk a very different one. And yet, in reality, the truth of our faith, the truth of the Church, is found in the totality of the thought and life of the different teachers of the faith.

One thing that struck me, reading the introduction to this book which was written in 1984 [and published] shortly after the repose of Fr. Seraphim, is that there is a quotation from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who died within weeks of Fr. Seraphim. Fr. Alexander was able to serve a panikhida of Fr. Seraphim, and apparently said, “Here is a man to whom belongs the future.” Although we often see these two, as I said, being polar opposites, perhaps they themselves would not have shared our understanding, and perhaps we could all benefit and grow more spiritually if we were to take on board the insight and the wisdom of both.

This book is a short collection of essays written by Fr. Seraphim in, really, his early days in the Orthodox Church, when he was still in his 20s. He lived a very short life on this earth, dying in his 48th year, back in 1983. So these essays date from the mid- to late 1960s, and another commonality, if you like, between him and Fr. Alexander Schmemann comes out in the introduction, which is entitled “Fr. Seraphim’s Beginnings as an Orthodox Writer,” where it’s remarked of him the quote:

He attended services in the morning and evening, quite consciously building in himself a fortification of his spiritual life based on liturgical theology which he was drawing from the divine services.

In this I see particularly the link between both Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Alexander. They both saw the services of the Church and the Divine Liturgy as being both at the center of their lives, the center of the reality of the Church, and, fundamentally, as a breaking-in of the heavenly kingdom into this fallen world. That is precisely the strength of these simple, short essays, is that they challenge us to ask the question: Are we living our Orthodox life, our Christian life, with a true sense of the reality of the breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven, or are we actually just repeating the mistakes of our parents and forefathers in somehow believing that we can create the perfect society on this earth rather than seeing this life as a preparation of the kingdom which is to come?

Again, Fr. Alexander Schmemann is best known for his writings, and one of his best-selling books is Great Lent. The first essay of this collection of Fr. Seraphim’s is entitled, “The Great Fast: Exile.” He writes there:

For us, the Great Fast is a season of exile ordained for us by our mother, the Church, to keep fresh in us the memory of Zion from which we have wandered so far. We have deserved our exile, and we have great need of it because of our great sinfulness. Only through the chastisement of exile which we remember in the fasting, prayer, and repentance of this season do we remain mindful of our Zion: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”

And this is what, perhaps, distinguishes in some senses Fr. Seraphim’s writings—or one of the ways, I should say, Fr. Seraphim’s writings could be distinguished from Fr. Alexander’s is that, whereas Fr. Seraphim very much emphasizes this fluctuation in our life between fasting and feasting—and there’s chapters in this book about Pascha and the Transfiguration and the Ascension and so on—he also very much is tied to the reality of the suffering Church, and in particular the martyric life of the Church of Russia, at both the time that he was alive and prior to his birth following the Bolshevik Revolution. One of the chapters in this book was actually written on this day, I think, in 1968, which is the day on the Church calendar of the royal martyrs Tsar Nicholas II and his family who were martyred in a basement room in Ekaterinburg in the Siberian Urals in July of 1918, and he is very much put forth by Fr. Seraphim as a martyr of our day who suffered for his people, and it’s this understanding of the reality of the Church being made up of the Church on earth, the Church in heaven, of the martyrs and the saints, which is part of that breaking into the kingdom of heaven, which is what this book expresses.

Fr. Seraphim was also very much a disciple of one of the saints of the 20th century, St. John Maximovich, who is mentioned and whose influence is very strong and who again epitomized the otherworldly life which this book, Heavenly Realm, is talking about. Chapter six is actually headed, “The Otherworldliness of Holy Orthodoxy.” This perhaps I would see as being the seminal chapter of this book, and perhaps the most important, because I know it challenges me and I hope it will challenge all of us. As I said: Do we actually live our daily life with any sense of the otherworldliness of our faith and indeed the otherworldliness of our total existence?

Fr. Seraphim begins:

It is often said of holy Orthodoxy that she is otherworldly. This is true and it is her strength, but the full significance of this fact is often forgotten or neglected, even by Orthodox Christians themselves. It means that we believe in and govern our lives by invisible realities, that we walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). It means that our daily lives are an unseen warfare, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

It means that we daily pray to and receive help in the battle against the invisible enemy of our salvation, from supernatural beings of whom the world does not even recognize existence, from the most-holy Trinity, from the mother of God, and from the numerous angels and saints. It means that we live by standards that are often not merely beyond the comprehension of the world, but are directly opposed to the wisdom of the world; that we do not find the end of life in success, prosperity, and earthly happiness, but rather welcome that these be God’s will for us: affliction, sickness, pain, humiliation; that we do not indulge in the passions of the natural man, but with the aid of the disciplines provided by the Church crucifying them. “Know that if you live after the flesh, you shall die, but if in the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the body you shall live” (Romans 8:13). It means that we do not lay up treasures for ourselves on this earth that will be destroyed, but that we will keep always in mind the final destination of the soul.

This reading, a fairly lengthy passage, [makes me consider] I can’t help but be challenged and to say to myself: Do I actually live my daily life unlike the wisdom of the world, or do I actually live my life following the wisdom of the world? When things go badly, do I resort to blame others—to blame the system, the government, whatever it may be, some business, some company—and when things go well, do I always see that as being a result of my own intelligence and actions, or do I actually understand that waging all around me is a spiritual warfare, and that what matters in the outcome is not whether I materially prosper or indeed materially suffer, but whether or not I grow in love and faith and knowledge of God and love of my brethren? Am I actually living in the heavenly realm?

I commend this book very much as something which can challenge us, which is written very, very simply. It doesn’t require a great degree of education, but brings us back to I think the fundamental, distinct understanding of the ancient Christian tradition which we believe is found in the Orthodox Church.

As I said at the beginning, the book is called Heavenly Realm, and it was published by St. Herman of Alaska Press, but it is not currently in print, although I imagine copies can probably be found, used, on various websites and so on. However, the good news is, having spoken to the publishers, is that a new edition is in preparation, and, God willing, will be back in print at the end of this year or, perhaps, early in 2011.