Saturday, September 5, 2015

An Unpublished Life of Fr. Seraphim Rose, written by his Godfather

As I have tried to do each year since launching this blog, I am posting special articles on the life and teachings of Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim Rose in these days following the anniversary of his repose (September 2).

This warm, poetic recollection of Father Seraphim, written by his godfather, Dimitri, flows from a heart of profound piety and love, and reminds us of the depth and beauty of the Orthodox tradition and culture into which Eugene Rose was planted in the early 1960s, and out of which grew the faithful monk, writer and ascetic we venerate today as Father Seraphim of Platina.

An Unpublished Life of Fr. Seraphim Rose, written by his Godfather
by Dimitri Andrault de Langeron, Pravoslavie — August 30, 2015

The story behind this text: My name is Gregory and around the years 2003-2006 I had the honor of spending time with, praying with and listening to the spiritual words of a truly humble man who loved Orthodoxy with all his heart. I speak of Dimitri Langeron, who lives with his wife Irene and their son Nicholas. 

Dimitri is Fr. Seraphim Rose's godfather and a most pious and God-loving man. Their house is filled with icons, some very old from Russia and in some rooms nearly half of the walls of the rooms are covered in icons. 

There is something very other-worldly about Dimitri and his family; something I can best describe as Old Worldish; remnants of the types of people who so rarely exist these days. They pray, they fast, they constantly speak about God and His Holy Church and I really don't know if I've ever heard them speak of anything else; besides of things concerning the necessities of life. They have a huge garden in their backyard (the size of a large house) and live in simplicity. I visited their home often over the course of these three years or so, as their son is mentally challenged and in their old age, they needed help in caring for him. I was paid by Easter Seals for this and the Langerons were pleased as they preferred someone who was Orthodox to help them. During one of these visits, Dimitri printed for me a text he had written about his godson, Fr. Seraphim Rose. If I remember correctly he had been asked to write it as an introduction for a book; but it either was never submitted by him or the author of the book perhaps chose a different introduction instead. I took this and read it, placing it for safe keeping in a three-ring binder. Now after at least a decade, I just recently rediscovered this work of his. I am sharing it for all those who love Fr. Seraphim Rose. I ask the prayers of all those who read this for Dimitri, Irene and Nicholas, who are all now very old and preparing to pass into eternity ...

* * *

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness ..."
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

John Keats (1795-1821)

* * *

Eugene Rose was born in 1934, into an American Protestant family.

Beauty is what attracted Eugene, the future father Seraphim, to Russian Orthodox Christianity. What he called later “the savor of Orthodoxy.”

Beauty and the passionate search for truth—because, basically, Eugene had a philosophical mind. Besides a strong and penetrating intellect, which could get to the essence of things in a few sober words, he had a compassionate and loving heart. His encounter with Christ was not intellectual, but a leap of faith, an act of love pure and simple. This is how also he came to love Russia, the Russian people, the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, and finally Czar Nicholas II, the martyr. He found Russians psychologically deeper and more sincere and warm in their relations with other people than Western men, and with a religious and mystical bent, a little like the Irish.

Eugene studied in Pomona College, CA, and at the University of California in Berkeley. He was a man of wide culture, very gifted in languages, conversant in French and German. Besides, he learned Chinese and Japanese. Later on, he easily picked up Russian and Church Slavonic. He also studied the sciences, excelling in natural sciences. He was recognized by his professors as an exceptionally brilliant student.

He loved music (especially Bach), opera, literature, poetry. In English literature, he liked Dickens. He loved nature and animals. He was athletically built, and enjoyed sports in college. He was a practical man who could fix automobiles, make repairs and build a house.

But soon Eugene became disillusioned with the emptiness of modern life, its flat materialism, and with the only Christianity he knew: Protestant and Catholic, which he felt, had lost its spirituality. He also saw that science and technology, wrongly used, were slowly destroying the natural beautiful fabric of life. Looking for truth in the East, he studied Chinese culture and religion, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen and the hedonistic teachings of Alan Watts (a former Episcopalian priest, who had rejected his faith in favor of Zen Buddhism).

After a while, he also became disillusioned with the Eastern religions, finding them shallow. He came close to atheism, sensuality, and actual rebellion against God. He also came close to total skepticism, this terrible state of the human mind doubting all, drawing nearer and nearer to total madness and self-destruction. This state is well described in the classical book of Pavel Florenskii, The Pillar and Foundation of Truth.[1] [2]

But a miracle occurred. Eugene came to the night service at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in San Francisco. It was Easter, Russian Easter, so notoriously exuberant and full of joy. Here he experienced something of the original spirit of Christianity from the time of the Apostles. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of the service, by all he saw and heard. He said: "Now I am at home." He realized that he had found what he had been seeking all along. He experienced something neither intellectual nor aesthetic, but existential. And inside of him, there was burning, not a temporary exaltation, but a deep spiritual passion, a permanent determination to preserve no matter what, that was to last for his whole life. From then on, slowly, he became more and more engulfed in Orthodox Christianity. He changed gradually his mode of life, from worldly to ascetic.

This is when I met him in San Francisco. He became a very dear friend. I cannot forget his kind penetrating eyes, his smile, his sobriety, his calmness, his composure, his natural nobility. He was intense, but shy. He knew nobody among young Russian Orthodox intellectuals. I introduced him to my friends. We met very often. I read and translated to him classical texts of Russian spirituality. We had many discussions ...

Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) with his godfather, Dimitri,
and his godmother.
He asked me to be his godfather when he became Orthodox in 1962. He also asked my mother, who was living at that time with me, to be his godmother. He faithfully attended as many services of the Russian cathedral as he could. He quickly learned to sing and to read in Church Slavonic perfectly.

But the catalyst which precipitated and confirmed his conversion was a modern day saint, Archbishop John (Maximovitch), who came to San Francisco to help build a new cathedral. Saint John was an ascetic. He never slept in a bed, and when not attending Church services, spent his time ministering to the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, and those in prisons. Many miracles occurred at his prayers. People were healed. Sometimes, even when there was no telephone communication, he came to the sick when they were asking for his help in their heart, or he just knew of their distress, and came, and as a result they were healed, even in the most desperate medical conditions. He radiated love and spiritual joy. Many people who knew him, who had received his help, who had been the object of his love, loved him in return wholeheartedly. They were extremely attached to him. He was clairvoyant. He could stop a suicide by just calling on the phone, and saying: "Don't do it!” Being a bishop in China during the Second World War, he saved thousands of people from death and deportation, arranging their transfer to the USA. The many orphans that he saved still love him. He was of small stature, dressed in an old tattered cassock, hunchback. He had a speech impediment. Once, during the war between Japan and China, during a firefight between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in Shanghai, he decided to visit an Orthodox Church in the war zone. He was warned that he was exposing himself to a great danger, even death. Disregarding this completely, he crossed the war zone. As long as he was crossing it, the firefight stopped. He came back in the same way. Japanese soldiers at their post stood at attention when he was passing, honoring him, being amazed at what had happened, and saying that God had helped him. His writings and sermons were concise and simple, clarifying the most difficult problems.

The blessing and love of this man drove Eugene to a new life.

The 1960's were a time of a great Russian emigre "Renaissance" in San Francisco, both religious and cultural. There were many outstanding personalities, clerics, writers, artists. The center of this radiance was Saint John, and several outstanding bishops, with links to the spiritual traditions of old Russia. It was a great privilege to be there at that time! Archbishop John was publishing his diocesan newsletter (Tserkovnyi Blagovestnik or the Church Messenger), of which I was blessed to be the first editor. The next editor was Eugene, and he wrote there his first articles which showed immediately his literary talents and a style which went directly to the heart of the reader. Archbishop John organized pastoral courses (bogoslovskie kursy) especially for Eugene. As soon as Eugene had completed them, these courses were discontinued! My friends, the brothers Zavarine, had organized in their home meetings of the so-called "Umoliubtsy" (lovers of wisdom), which had a philosophical, but also religious and literary orientation. Eugene came, and talked about his ideas. Professor Ivan Kontzevitch (brother of bishop Nektary) also came. He was a gifted and well known theologian. Professors of the University at Berkeley also attended. Discussions lasted long into the night (some topics were: Hegel, Kant, Dostoevsky, Professor Ivan Iliine, the boundaries between science and religion).

The services at the cathedral of San Francisco, especially at Easter, were unforgettable. Their impact on the soul was greater than even the best of classical music. The singing of the magnificent choir, the icons, surrounded by candles; the clergy in their shining vestments; the deacons with their incredibly low and powerful bass voices; the saintly Archbishop; the service itself: all this together produced the sensation of a beauty which was truly overwhelming, and conducive to prayer. The choir was under the direction of Michael Konstantinow (formerly of the Opera of Kiev), who was a deeply religious man, loved by all. His enthusiasm was contagious. I was singing in this choir, and so did Eugene, later.

I remember an Easter morning I spent with Eugene in his house after the Paschal service. According to Russian custom, we watched the sun rise. It is said that at that time the sun "dances" (solntse igraet). We contemplated it in awe. We spoke about the sensation "of light" which can be experienced in Church, which is not the usual physical light, but something deeper, filling the heart with joy. Everything remains the same and yet everything is transfigured ...

The just are always persecuted. Archbishop John was hounded, abused, and slandered. A lawsuit was brought against him: he was being charged with holding an illegal church election and embezzling church funds (!!!). His enemies wanted the construction of the cathedral stopped. A great struggle was carried out in his defense by all of us (including Eugene) who loved the Saint. We were helped by several bishops, among them especially Bishop Nektary (Kontzevitch), Bishop Sava (Sarachevitch) who was originally from Serbia, and a lawyer, Bishop Leonty (Filippovich) of Chile, and Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of Jordanville NY. At that time, I was the Secretary to the Archbishop and a member of the Parish Council. The struggle was won. The new cathedral was built, a magnificent building on Geary Boulevard, with golden domes, visible from far, now one of the landmarks of San Francisco ... But shortly afterwards, his heart broken because of all the pain and stress of the long and bitter struggle, Archbishop John died, on July 2, 1966. He was glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile in 1994.

After all this, the life of Eugene took an extraordinary turn. He gave his life to Christ, totally, absolutely. He withdrew to the wilderness near Platina, California, together with a friend, Gleb Podmoshenskii (Gleb, the future Abbot Herman, had introduced me to Eugene). They built with their own hands a small monastery: several small, shabby buildings, in which there was no heat, electricity, telephone, running water (only a brook down in the valley). In this peaceful setting, Eugene's life was one of constant prayer ... Despite the hardships, he was delighted to be in the middle of nature. Animals, which he loved, came to him to be fed ... Only very reluctantly did he leave the monastery. He had no desire whatsoever to travel, to visit other places. He was happy where he was, because, as a poet once said, he was able "To see the world in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of his hand, And eternity in an hour" (William Blake 1757-1827).

Eugene became Fr. Seraphim, hieromonk. He continued to edit a journal (The Orthodox Word—started in San Francisco) whose main subject matter was the description of lives of saints and desert dwellers. This journal became successful. Father Seraphim touched the lives of thousands of people. Many came to faith because of him. Despite his ascetic life, similar to the lives of the desert dwellers, he found the time to write, and his writings attracted immediate attention here, in Europe, worldwide, and especially in Russia. Two of his books stand out: Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, and The Soul after Death. He became perhaps one of the best religious writers of the twentieth century. Everything he wrote is significant for those interested in religion: the young ones, the beginners, and the mature ones, already established in their faith.

Father Seraphim translated many basic Russian religious texts and books, for example those by Archbishop Averky of Jordanville (Holy Trinity Russian Monastery, NY). He wrote a penetrating patristic discussion of the theory of evolution. He admired Saint Augustine, read his "Confessions" during Lent, and mentioned him often in his writings. He had an open mind.

But Father Seraphim was very critical of American academia, where he thought, Truth does not matter, but only "intellectual games." He had an eschatological bent, predicting the "end of time, of history." He linked the future of Russia to the future of humanity. Father Seraphim always repeated: "Struggle! It is later than you think." He accomplished much because of the deep spiritual passion which was constantly burning in his heart.

Father Seraphim always said: "Keep your mind in Heaven and your feet on earth." This was the essence of his philosophy, the secret of his influence on people: his approach was practical, "down to earth," but at the same time ascetic and spiritual. He valued humility and moderation, and had a great respect for the opinions of others. He was patient, gentile and full of love. He always repeated: "Don't blame others. Blame yourself. Don't justify yourself. Always look at your own sins, and don't judge your brother."

I always kept contact with him. We exchanged letters. Once—a rare occurrence—he visited the East Coast, and stayed in my house in New Jersey, where he gave a talk to all of us. He spoke about the life in his monastery, in the wilderness, about the animals living in the forest ... Again he spoke at length and with great love about Russia, the problems facing Russia today, the coming resurrection of the faith, the suffering of the Russian believers, and the persecution of Father Dimitri Dudko "who was attracting too much attention, and making too many converts." He stresses the point that we should be grateful to God for His mercies: to have the treasury of Orthodoxy available to us, to have the sacraments, to have a Church where we can pray ... I drove him at that time to Jordanville, NY and to Lakewood, NJ. In the car, we were singing together ...

He died in 1982, after a short illness, at the young age of 48, in the full efflorescence of his talents. To him, to our dear friend, never to be forgotten, can be applied the following words of the Bible:

But though the righteous be prevented with death, yet shall; he be in rest. 
For honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. 
But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age. 
He please God, and was beloved of him: so that living among sinners he was translated. 
Yea speedily was he taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding, or deceit beguile his soul...? 
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. 
(Book of Wisdom 4:7-11, 13-14)

Dimitri Andrault de Langeron
30 / 08 / 2015

[1] Translation from the Russian of pp. 35ff. in The Pillar and Foundation of Truth:

Here begins the absolute doubt, as the total impossibility to assert anything, even its non-asserting ... The skepticism reaches the negation of itself, but cannot overcome the latter, so that it is transformed into languor, into vain attempts, into the agony of the spirit ... I enter into the last circle of the skeptical hell—in the region where words lose their meaning. Words are no longer fixed, and are pulled out from their base. Everything is transformed into everything, every combination of words become equivalent to any other, and any word can be replaced by any other. Here the mind loses itself, and loses itself into the formless and unsettled abyss. Here is the domain of delirium and absurdity ... But this skeptical doubt, drawn to its limit, is possible only as an unstable equilibrium, as the frontier of absolute madness ... because what is madness if not the experience of non-substance, of loss of any ground for the mind ... A delirious chaos is ejected in puffs from this last boundary of the mind, and the mind, subjected to an all penetrating cold, is being annihilated. Here, behind a thin barrier, is the beginning of spiritual death. Therefore, the state of skepticism drawn to its limit is only possible in a short moment, either to go back to the fiery Pyrrhonic torture of skepticism, to επoχη (stop, obstacle, in Greek), or to get lost in the dark night of despair, from which there is no more exit and where the very thirst for Truth is extinguished ...

[2] Father Pavel Florenskii was a modern day Leonardo da Vinci: priest, poet, mathematician, linguist, engineer, philosopher (applying formal logic). He knew Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and an incredible number of languages. His linguistic notes are fascinating. He was one of the key engineers during the electrification of Russia after the Revolution. In his book, The Pillar and Foundation of Truth there are at the end considerations about Sophia, God's Wisdom, which are erroneous, and which he later recanted. He died as a martyr of the Faith under the Soviets, in a concentration camp.