FOR THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REPOSE OF FATHER SERAPHIM ROSE
Born Eugene Rose to an ordinary lower middle-class family in San Diego, California, the future Father Seraphim was distinguished even from early childhood by his seriousness and strong intellect. His natural self-restraint and willingness to submit to his parents made him their pride and joy. He inherited the practicality and ability to see through falsehood from his hard-working, no-nonsense mother and his meek but wise father, both of whom were the American salt of the earth, forged under the pressures of the Great Depression.
His teachers at school even felt a little intimidated by his seriousness. They felt as if they had to be on their toes in his presence, so not to waste his precious learning time. He excelled in all subjects, especially mathematics and foreign languages. Despite his obvious genius, Eugene’s modesty never allowed him to feel better than his peers, and the satisfaction of scholastic mastery never overpowered his awareness of being somewhat isolated from the rest. This same unpretentious studious drive would later manifest itself in a desperate search for truth that would take him down a dangerous path, but finally deliver him home to a greater truth found only in Christ.
Eugene’s family was Protestant and church-going, and this provided the religious background of his formative years. But by the time he entered the conservative Pomona College in Southern California, he had rejected the Christianity of his childhood as too complacent and materialistic. His diamond sharp intellect had pushed it all aside, as can be seen from a paper he wrote in his freshman year entitled, “God and Man: Their Relationship”. ‘Universe’ is my term for ‘God’”, reasoned the critical Eugene. “It is an improvement over the latter term, I believe, for it far more readily conveys the impersonal, unified, concept I wish to present…. All science points to the existence of the Universe, the totality of all things. Nothing in science points to the existence of a God removed from the Universe. For the present time, since I have not yet developed my own theory of knowledge, I assume for convenience’s sake that I can gain knowledge (as certain as can be obtained) through science. Therefore, I believe in the findings of science that point to the existence of the Universe; I reject the concept of an independent God for insufficient evidence.” Nevertheless, he had not rejected the concept of human happiness. “Man should live for his happiness, accepting the times when he is not happy merely as passages to higher times; his love of the Universe will tide him over to better times.”
The rational approach to belief in God combined with a natural, irrevocable need for some form of personal contentment could not but impel Eugene towards a search for happiness without God. As his biographer, Hieromonk Damascene writes, “Young idealists who are rebelling against the Christianity of their childhood, who can accept nothing above the rational and yet are seeking something else to satisfy their spiritual needs, are apt to hear the call of a number of different siren voices.” So it was with the young, intellectually vigorous Eugene. His longing for something greater than himself led him like a moth to the flame of such German philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche, whose heated embrace of a “Superman” had drawn him into the delirium of nihilism, and eventually closed his aging lips with the muteness of insanity.
Eugene’s end, as we know, was very different from that of Nietzsche. But he would have to pass through the same dark furnace in order to reach a permanent, eternal light, a cool refreshing place of eternal happiness. As Hieromonk Damescene writes, “Eugene had begun his philosophic search by repudiating the very thing he was seeking. At the deepest level, he was being driven to find God, but he would have to go full circle before unexpectedly returning upon that from which he was running.”
From a mathematician Eugene became a philosopher. He remained an amiable young man with a good sense of humor and a close circle of friends, but there was an enigmatic side to him that no one around him understood. He would often take solitary nocturnal walks, brooding over something that he revealed to no one. This introverted brooding would later spill over the surface in rare moments of lowered self-restraint, when he would literally rage against a God he didn’t believe in, challenging that very God to make Himself known.
The material light of Western philosophy finally burned down and fizzled in Eugene’s mind. It had left him wanting, and so he set off in the direction of Oriental philosophy. The early 1950’s saw the rise in fame of a former Anglican priest who had embraced Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts. Watts had something alluring to say to a spiritually dispossessed generation, and he became very popular. “Watts surprised his young listeners by telling them that the whole structure of the Western thought they had been studying was completely wrong-headed…. The secret of life is to stop thinking about it, and just experience it.” Watt’s Western assimilation of ancient Oriental thought would prove to be a turning point in American popular culture. Although it was taken from a tradition of strict self-discipline, its transplant onto American soil would produce fruits of plain hedonism and a seeking of what “feels good”—experience for the sake of experience. Watts himself would become disillusioned and bitter toward the end of his life, left unsatisfied and empty.
Eugene’s exploration of Zen Buddhism did not conflict with his atheism. But it would never really answer his deeper questions and needs. His close friend Alison would later relate that Eugene had thrown out his aspirin and alarm clock as thing unneeded by a practitioner of Zen. As a result of his “renunciation”, she would have to supply him with both, because he couldn’t function without pain relievers, and if she didn’t knock on his door he would be late for class. She said about that period, “Zen helped Eugene in a negative way. He went into it with the idea of finding knowledge of himself, and what he found was that he was a sinner. In other words, it awakened him to the fact that he needed something, but provided no real answers.”
This same Alison was a believing Christian in the Anglican faith, and was ironically the only person who, as Father Seraphim would later note, actually understood him. “Although Eugene was the most openly atheistic of all her peers at Pomona,” Hieromonk Damacene writes, “Alison recognized him as being also the most spiritual. ‘Even when he was an atheist,’ she says, ‘he gave it his all’.”
After Eugene had moved to San Francisco to enroll in Watt’s Academy of Asian Studies, he began to reach the culmination point of his own spiritual despair. Amidst a plainly hedonistic life of tasting all that city had to offer, he still pondered the writings of the nihilist Nietzsche. This once brought him to what he would later know to be the brink of hell, a partial state of demonic possession. One day, after spending hours reading Thus Spake Zarathustra in the original German, he took an evening walk against the blood-red sky of a San Francisco sunset. “As he came to a certain spot on the street, he heard Nietzsche’s poetry resonating inside of him. He felt that ‘Zarathustra’ had actually become alive and was speaking to him, breathing words into him. He felt the power of those words as one feels the charge of electricity, and he became terrified.”
“Deep calleth unto deep.”
There is an enigmatic passage in the Psalms that says, “deep calleth unto deep”. In the Russian Church Slavonic, it sounds more like, “the abyss calls to the abyss”. Some patristic writings explain this passage: The abyss of depravity and sin often exist right next to a depth of wisdom and faith. When a person reaches the very pit of destruction, he may be not far from a complete turnaround to the depth of wisdom. San Francisco, known as a very elite and refined type of “sin city”, would turn out to be the place where the future Orthodox monk would turn away from the siren song of a burned out Alan Watts to find a holy man and wonder-worker of the Orthodox Church—St. John Maximovitch of the Russian diaspora.
Realizing that Watt’s dilettantism satisfied neither his soul’s desire nor his scholarly scruples, he began to study the French philosopher, René Guénon (1886–1951). Father Seraphim would later write in a letter, “It was René Guénon who taught me to seek and love the Truth above all else.” This philosopher inspired Eugene to get to the core of Chinese philosophy by studying it from its traditional practitioners, in the ancient Chinese language. It started him on his honest search for authentic religion, which finally took him to a Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
San Francisco was the final home of a large number of Russian refugees from the Bolshevik revolution. Most of them had been brought from China by their saintly archbishop, John Maximovitch. After years of excruciating search, now open to the concept of authentic religion, Eugene was persuaded by scholarly colleague to at least explore a Church where original Christianity can be found—the Orthodox Church. When Eugene entered the Old Russian Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” he knew that he had found his home. It proved not to be a passing moment, for Eugene would soon be received into the Orthodox Church, and catechized by a man who that same Church would later glorify as a saint. Seeking more than simple contentment and religious life in the world, Eugene was to find the final refuge for his deep, truth-thirsting soul in the wilderness of Northern California, as a monk in the ancient Orthodox tradition.