Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the repose of Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) Some Personal Remembrances
To most people Fr. Seraphim is known through his writings: his two books, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future and Soul After Death and the many articles which appeared over the years in The Orthodox Word. Even during his lifetime, relatively few people knew Fr. Seraphim personally; he was rather retiring and the skete was not easily accessible, especially in winter. But his books, even supplemented by the popular photograph of him wearing his klobuk and patriarchal beard, say little about who he really was as a person. (It is not generally known, for example, that for many years Fr. Seraphim homeschooled a boy who, at the age of ten, came to the monastery to live.)
In Russia, where Fr. Seraphim is widely known and revered, scant biographical information has been embellished with fanciful distortions. It is said, for example, that he lived in a cave, that he studied Judaism using original Hebrew sources, that towards the end of his life he lived as a hermit; according to one biographical sketch, before Fr. Seraphim became Orthodox he dabbled in black magic "and heaven knows what else."
While awaiting a more complete biography, we asked several people who knew Fr. Seraphim to share their recollections in a few paragraphs, focussing on what struck them most vividly about him. The accounts are deliberately subjective, but together-and we hope others will come forth with similar sketches-they provide a unique composite which will help others to know Fr. Seraphim in a very real way.
Solomia Taussig, Jordanville, New York
Barbara Murray, Sunnyvale, California
Deacon Timothy Shell, Redding California
I first became acquainted with Father Seraphim during the summer of 1968, when I was staying for several weeks in San Francisco. Almost every day I would go to the bookstore on Geary Boulevard to visit, and invariably I would be drawn into the activities of the Brotherhood. I can't say that I got to know him very well during this time. He was never particularly talkative and seemed somewhat introspective. Perhaps there was an element of shyness in him as well. But I remember that he was continually busy. There was always something going on. Whether it was tending to the demands of the bookstore, singing the daily cycle of services each morning and evening on the cliros in the adjacent Cathedral, or working on some aspect of The Orthodox Word, Father Seraphim was always laboring.
The demands connected with publishing a bimonthly journal always seemed to weigh heavily on the Brotherhood. There was a constant tendency to "fall behind," and then the countervailing pressures would mount to "get caught up." Of course, it was extremely difficult in those early years because all the printing was done by hand and on antiquated equipment. The printshop was located in a tiny room at the back of the bookstore, where there was hardly enough room to turn around. The frequent interruptions from visitors to the bookstore also tended to hinder the progress of printing. The typesetting itself was a major undertaking because it was all done by hand, letter by letter. There were endless "temptations" with just about every aspect of production. But through all of these Father Seraphim labored patiently and steadily. When the conditions under which the early issues of The Orthodox Word were produced are taken into consideration, one can only marvel at their high quality.
In those days Father Seraphim was neither a priest nor a monk. He was known simply as Brother Eugene, and he held only the lowest clerical rank of reader. Nonetheless, he had already dedicated his whole life to serving the Orthodox Church. And the life he led was one of deprivation and hardship under extremely difficult conditions. He had a brilliant, scholarly mind and could have easily been a "success" in any number of academic fields; however, he chose instead a life of struggle along the straight and narrow path-from which he never swerved.
I only remember one particular conversation with Father Seraphim during that first encounter with the Brotherhood. We were sitting with Father Herman in a Chinese restaurant across the street from the bookstore. Many things were discussed, but I don't remember them now. What I do remember is the profound Christian love that embraced me at that time and which ultimately bound me to them and forever changed my life.
Not many months later I was already in the Army and stationed on the other side of the country. Communication by mail was sporadic at best. It was during this time (1969) that Father Seraphim and Father Herman moved to the wilds of northern California, to a mountainside near the tiny hamlet of Platina. This was in fulfillment of their dream to follow a life of struggle in the desert as had the ascetics of old. Of course, there were certain contradictions in all this. It is one thing to live secluded in the wilderness, and another to conduct a major publishing activity there. Nevertheless, they resolved to do this, and through tremendous labors they achieved their goal.
In early 1970, I was on my way to Vietnam. In view of the uncertainty of my own future, I resolved to travel to Platina to see the brothers once again. It was not an easy trip. The weather was cold and rainy and my car got stuck in the mud on their narrow dirt road. The conditions which I found them in were very primitive. They lived together in a small, one-room cabin, where they slept, ate and performed the daily cycle of services. The cabin was not insulated, and it was heated by a very inefficient wood stove on which meals were cooked. The print shop with all its equipment was housed in another small cabin. There was no electricity, so the press and other equipment had to depend on a small generator for power. Everything had to be brought up the mountain by truck, or, if the road was impassible due to rain or snow, carried up by the brothers. The hardships are obvious; what cannot be readily known are the consolations that helped them to persevere during those first years in the wilderness.
After my return to California and my release from the Army, I had an extended visit to Platina in early 1971. In the intervening years some significant changes had taken place. There were additions to the buildings. This system of attaching various additions to the two already existing buildings over the years became one of the chief characteristics of the "Platina" architectural style. These expansions provided much needed space. It was Father Seraphim who was primarily responsible for these projects, even though he apparently had little previous skill in such matters. Over time, as Father Seraphim perfected his carpentry and building skills, these constructions became more elaborate and extensive. They are remarkable for the fact that they were built with only a few hand tools and often with old, salvaged materials.
One of the biggest technical advances made by the Brotherhood in those early days in the wilderness was the acquisition of a Linotype machine in 1970. Although this kind of machine was fast becoming obsolete in the world of printing, for the brothers it was a quantum leap forward from setting type by hand, and it allowed the Brotherhood to expand its printing activities to include other publications and even whole books. Operating the Linotype was not an easy task, and it fell to Father Seraphim to master all the intricacies and foibles of that ponderous piece of equipment. The machine they acquired was already old and barely functioning. The fact that Father Seraphim was able to keep it running productively for the next several years is a marvel in itself. The process used by the Linotype is very cumbersome and any number of things can go wrong. The countless frustrations and obstacles that Father Seraphim patiently endured and overcame certainly provide eloquent testimony to his spiritual fortitude.
Another notable development at this time was the building of a church for the Brotherhood. The basic construction work was accomplished mainly through the efforts of Protodeacon Nicholas Porshnikov of the Cathedral in San Francisco, but then there was a lot of work done by the brothers themselves to finish it. This church was another typical example of the "Platina" style architecture, with various additions made over the years. Although it was quite humble, it had that special "prayed-in" feeling. I recall many memorable services that were held in that little church, of which Father Seraphim's funeral was the last. A few months later it burned to the ground.
The construction of the church coincided with another momentous event for the Brotherhood: the tonsure of Father Seraphim and Father Herman into monasticism. Of course, they had been living like monks for years; but now they had angelic habit and name of monk to go along with the way of life. Thus their long-standing dream of following in the footsteps of the great monastic fathers was realized.
The Fathers were tonsured by Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco, who was himself a true monk from his young years. Archbishop Anthony always showed great benevolence towards the fathers, and it was he who subsequently ordained them both to the priesthood. In spite of this, Father Herman always exhibited a negative attitude towards Vladika Anthony. He seemed to fault Vladika Anthony for not being more like his predecessor, Archbishop John. Of course, this is quite unfair, and it hardly takes into account the difficulty of succeeding a saint. Whether, or to what extent, Father Seraphim shared this attitude is hard to say because I never heard him even broach the subject. After Father Seraphim's death, Fr. Herman's unfortunate attitude had a decisive impact on the subsequent course of the Brotherhood.
Although these reminiscences are about Father Seraphim, it is impossible to speak of Father Seraphim without mentioning Father Herman as well. They were inseparably bound together. They were quite different in temperament, but this was not a stumbling block to their relationship. Actually, they complemented one another extremely well. Father Herman was quite gregarious, always exuberant and animated, constantly alive with ideas, plans and projects. Father Seraphim was very quiet and restrained, profoundly thoughtful, extremely sober-minded. In spite of their different characters, they were able to obtain a remarkable oneness of mind in everything they did. Father Seraphim's main achievement as regards their relationship was his ability to channel Father Herman's exuberance and ideas into concrete accomplishments by drawing on his own profound experience of the truths of Orthodoxy.
As a monk, Father Seraphim was exemplary. He never did anything on his own or followed his own will. He lived a life of complete poverty and unacquisitiveness. His manner of life was plain and hard, and he never sought any material comforts. He was never concerned about his own appearance, and invariably would be found wearing an old, tattered cassock. Even his riassa usually was in need of serious repair. He did not worry about combing his beard, which was quite long and over time became matted and tangled. Nor did he allow himself the luxury of bathing. All this is difficult for the modern mentality to accept, but it is certainly in the best tradition of Orthodox monasticism, the essence of which is otherworldliness.
Father Seraphim loved the church services dearly. They were a constant source of inspiration for him, and he always sought for others to be inspired by them as well. I remember how he would advise those of us who had attended a particularly moving service to "treasure it up in our hearts". Father Seraphim usually was on cliros, so I had the opportunity to sing with him on numerous occasions. He had a good musical ear and a clear tenor voice. He mastered many of the old Russian chants, including several of the podobny or special melodies, which he had a great affection for. He was an expert in the church typicon, and knew to perfection all the details of how the services should be performed. However, this did not proceed from a dry, formalistic attitude toward the services, but rather, it was the result of a deep appreciation and love for the profound creativity, variety and beauty which characterize the services of the Orthodox Church.
Life during those first years was a constant struggle for the Brotherhood. Just getting water was a major effort in itself. There were no springs or other sources of water on the side of the mountain, so initially all water had to be hauled in by truck. This situation was alleviated a little when a big galvanized iron tank was acquired for collecting rain water.
Unfortunately, the tank would usually run out by the end of the summer, leaving an interval of about two months until the rainy season would begin in northern California. When such occurred, it was necessary to revert to hauling water. I remember making such trips with Father Seraphim in their old, run-down panel truck with numerous containers for water in the back. Most of these containers had no covers, and as the truck would make its way up the dirt road much of the water would invariably slosh out. This situation was only overcome later on when a deep well was drilled.
Trips with Father Seraphim always began with prayer. These prayers consisted of the standard Trisagion prayers and then a large number of troparia, mostly to various saints. The last hymn was always the magnification to the Mother of God. Coming back, we would always begin singing the troparion to Saint Herman as we approached the skete. Father Seraphim knew all these hymns by heart, and they were sung not only on trips, but on various other occasions as well. The constant use of these hymns is particularly revealing, because it opens to us the subject of Father Seraphim's love for the saints.
The saints were without a doubt a key element in Father Seraphim's spiritual make-up. Just as with the divine services, the saints were a continual source of inspiration to Father Seraphim. His love for them is reflected in the fact that he translated and printed their lives and writings, that he composed hymns and even services to them, that he loved to chant their hymns, and that he was always praying to them. Even more telling is the fact that Father Seraphim emulated the saints in his own life. The extent of his success in this endeavor is hard to gauge because he covered his struggles in acquiring the virtues with a mantle of meekness and humility. He rarely talked about himself and his inner life, but from his sermons and writings it is evident that he was speaking from experience.
Through the inspiration of Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch's pioneering work in glorifying the Orthodox saints of the West, Father Seraphim came to acquire a profound love for them as well. This resulted in his translation of the book Vita Patrum by Saint Gregory of Tours. I was privileged to assist Father Seraphim in a small way with his research by making a pilgrimage to several of the sites where the early saints of Gaul struggled. He provided me with instructions on where to go and what to look for, and I was able to provide him with various photographs as well as a journal of my trip which were eventually incorporated into the extensive introduction which Father Seraphim wrote to the book.
By nature, Father Seraphim was not very talkative. But when you could get him into a conversation it was always a wonderful experience. Visitors to the Skete usually didn't see much of Father Seraphim. Most of the time it was Father Herman who would talk to visitors, and Father Seraphim would go quietly about his business. Thus, comparatively few people got close to Father Seraphim or had the opportunity to converse with him very much. Most people knew him through his writings, lectures or sermons.
Father Seraphim liked to go on walks in the wilds around the Skete, and I had the good fortune to accompany him on many such walks over the years. On these occasions it was possible to talk about almost anything. Father Seraphim had a wide-ranging knowledge of the world, and he could speak masterfully on any number of subjects. But he always directed the conversation toward a spiritual end. You never heard any chatter from Father Seraphim, and when he did speak it was obvious that he was weighing his words and not just speaking off the top of his head. One important thing I noticed about Father Seraphim is that he would listen to what you said-certainly a rarity in our day. He would first ask your view and opinion, and then by his own remarks he would lead you to understand the question at hand in a better way, a more spiritual way, a more Orthodox way.
In the mid-1970's the life of the Brotherhood began to change. They established a small skete for women in nearby Wildwood and began providing it with spiritual guidance. Another significant development was the ordination of both Father Herman and Father Seraphim to the priesthood. This came at a time when the missionary activities of the Brotherhood began to expand. The fathers helped to form small Orthodox communities in northern California and Oregon, and Father Seraphim would travel regularly to them to serve the Liturgy. Father Seraphim began to hear confessions and take upon himself the spiritual direction of various people. He also began to give lectures. I remember attending one of these at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he spoke on the last days.
This was, in fact, a favorite theme for him, and his dictum "It's later than you think" has become famous. All this activity did not really perturb Father Seraphim, and he continued his previous labors without significant interruption.
Father Seraphim's words had a special power because he spoke from his own deep experience, and his preaching carried a special weight because he practiced in deed what he advocated in word. Others could talk glibly and even to some extent eloquently about the need to humble oneself, the need to cut off one's own will, the need to reproach oneself, the need to patiently endure afflictions; but when Father Seraphim spoke of these things, his words penetrated to the heart because he spoke with the authority of someone who did these very things himself.
Bishop Nektary of Seattle, of blessed memory, was very much loved by the fathers, and Vladika reciprocated that love. Vladika had a small house chapel dedicated to the Kursk Icon in Alameda, on the opposite side of the Bay from San Francisco. After his ordination, Father Seraphim would usually go there to assist Vladika on the chapel's feast day. These were real all-night vigils, beginning in the evening and lasting until around 4 AM. Usually, it was just a few people who were close to Vladika who would attend these vigils. I always tried to be there because they were so inspiring, something to which Father Seraphim certainly contributed. One year, Vladika Anthony also came, which was surprising, because he had already attended a long service in his own cathedral. Nevertheless, he stayed until the end and joined in the trapeza afterwards. The last of these wonderful vigils was held a few months after Father Seraphim's repose; but without him it was just not the same. Vladika Nektary was already extremely weak, and could barely take part in the service. Two months later he too departed from us to the Lord.
Father Seraphim's death came most unexpectedly. He was not yet fifty years old and at the height of his powers. The last time I saw him alive was just two weeks before his repose. He had not been feeling well, so there hadn't been much opportunity to speak with him. When it finally came time for me to depart, I walked through the woods to his tiny forest cabin and rang the little bell placed there to let him know that someone was approaching. He received me warmly, but we talked only briefly. He did not look at all well; but I thought it was just something minor that would pass. Finally, I received his blessing and left. I hadn't the slightest inkling that I would see him again only in his coffin.
Less than one week later I was in San Francisco for the feast of the Dormition, and it was then that I learned that Father Seraphim was in the hospital dying. My immediate reaction was: "How can that be? I can't believe it! I just saw him a few days ago!" After the Vigil, we hastened to the Cathedral to pray at Vladika John's sepulcher, and there we begged Vladika to work a miracle and save Father Seraphim's life. But such was not God's will. Archbishop Anthony left San Francisco that evening after the vigil and travelled most of the night to be at Father Seraphim's side.
I'll always remember Father Seraphim lying in his coffin. He was so peaceful, so natural; he looked like he was just sleeping. There was no deathly pallor about him whatsoever. In fact, his coloring was almost golden. I remember thinking at the time: "He looks better now than he did alive." Father Seraphim's funeral was one of those uniquely Orthodox events that cannot be adequately described in words. It consisted of a mixture of joy and sorrow, or, perhaps more accurately, joy-creating sorrow. It combined grief with exaltation, mourning with triumph. It was unforgettable.
The loss of Father Seraphim was especially hard on those who were close to him. We never realized how much we relied on him until he was gone. Of course, Father Herman suffered more than anyone else. In fact, I don't think he ever really recovered from the loss of Father Seraphim. The shocking events that have transpired with Father Herman since that time have been truly heartbreaking. This has been Father Herman's personal tragedy, but it has also been a tragedy for those who knew and loved him and who remember him so warmly.
One more thing needs to be mentioned regarding Father Seraphim. It is an undeniable fact that he lived and died as a faithful son of the Russian Church Abroad. In some quarters, though, he is now being presented without any reference to this fact. This is false and misleading. Father Seraphim loved the Church Abroad, and no attempts at revisionism can ever change this.
It has been ten years now since Father Seraphim's repose in the Lord, and I find that I still miss him very much. How I would like to run to him for consolation! There are so many things I would like to ask him, so many problems I would like to have him resolve. But this cannot be. Now I have to seek answers elsewhere, and it is much more difficult.
May God grant blessedness to Father Seraphim and give him rest, and, through his holy prayers, may He have mercy on us, in that He is good and the Lover of man. Amen!
Solomonia Taussig Jordanville, New York
Father Seraphim's spiritual direction was always simple, to the point, heartwarming and awakening, to guide me in every way to try to live a life pleasing to God. He often referred to the scriptures and the teachings of the Holy Fathers to instructs us. For example, when cautioning me to be careful to maintain a godly-minded friendship he pointedly said, "Pilot and Herod became friends before crucifying Christ." He made me stop and examine my motives and guard my heart. His encouragement was always loving and gentle. Once when feeling depressed and condemned by my own sinfulness he encouraged me with the words: "If you feel condemned you will go free." I thank God for having known Fr. Seraphim, for it was the example of his own dedication to God, his love of the saints and the church services which was so strong and sincere that it overflowed, inspiring us and enlivening our hearts also to draw closer to God.
Barbara Murray Sunnyvale, California
One winter I drove to Platina in the middle of a snowstorm to visit the Fathers. The snow was falling so heavily that I couldn't see the road, but as the cares I took with me were also heavy, I thought of nothing but reaching the monastery. I left my car at the foot of the mountain and proceeded to walk the rest of the way. It was a tiring climb even in the best weather, and as my clothing became wet under the snowfall I was chilled and fatigued. On my arrival Father Seraphim and Father Herman greeted me, surprised that I was able to get through the storm, and I quickly settled into the routine of prayer, work and meals. Soon my heart became calm. As the snow continued to fall, sounds were muted and the outside world became far away. The concerns I had brought with me also seemed distant and the longer I stayed and the more the snow fell, my cares became lighter and more bearable.
By late afternoon three feet of fresh snow had fallen before the storm stopped. When it was time for me to leave, Father Seraphim said he would accompany me down the mountain and dig my car out of the snow if the snowplow had been out clearing the roads. We set out, Father Seraphim wearing snow shoes hidden underneath the black fullness of his clothing. He told me to follow in his footsteps, and I was reminded of the page who followed in the footsteps of St. Wenceslav. As we walked Father Seraphim sang various troparia and other hymns, and I joined in. When he found that I didn't know a particular hymn, he began one that was familiar to me. Sometimes we were just quiet, listening to the sounds we made as we walked. Occasionally he would stop and relate something from the life of a saint or quote from one of the early Church Fathers. He spoke about the importance of not being alone in one's spiritual struggles. When we are alone we tend to listen to our own counsel and our perception can get twisted. "If you are alone," he said, "who will pick you up when you fall?" He was referring, of course, to one's falling into sin, but later when he fell in the snow and I helped him up, he was quick to point out the lesson.
When we finally reached my car, it was just as I feared-buried under a wall of snow piled up by the plow. Patiently he dug out the car and pushed it onto the main road. I asked his blessing and drove off, but my heart felt a twinge of guilt as it was by then very dark and cold, and he faced a long walk back up the mountain.
This was a very special day,
and like so many others it wasn't so much what Father Seraphim said that made such a deep
impression on me; it was just what he was, his presence that represented what it means to
live an Orthodox life.
Barbara Murray Sunnyvale, California
Deacon Timothy Shell Redding, California
I first heard of Father Seraphim in 1976 while traveling on the other side of the world. I had been searching for historical Orthodox Christianity, and had taken off a year from my college studies to undertake a pilgrimage to Greece, the Middle East and the Holy Land. When I was in Jerusalem I made the acquaintance of a monk who encouraged me to get in touch with the monks at the St. Herman of Alaska monastery when I returned to my home in northern California.
The following year, upon my return, I began a correspondence with Father Seraphim, and began making visits to the monastery. From the beginning, I was impressed by Father Seraphim. He was kind, gentle, and patient with my questions and confusion.
On a purely "worldly" level, he did not appear remarkable. His long hair and beard were stringy and not overly maintained, though always clean. His cassock was slightly tattered, and his klobuk never seemed to quite fit him just right. He was not shy, but was usually quiet unless he had something specific to say. Idle chatter was simply not one of his traits. When he did talk, especially during a sermon or a lecture at one of the Pilgrimages, his profound intellectual capabilities would reveal themselves. And yet, he was careful never to "invent" new doctrines, but just to pass down what the Holy Fathers had taught.
During those times that I stayed at the monastery, I was able to see how Fr. Seraphim conducted his daily life. He preferred to stay at the monastery rather than travel on missionary journeys, so there were times that he and I, with one or two young teenage boys who were staying there would be the complete population of the monastery. When it was time for the services, Father would be in the Church promptly. He clearly enjoyed the services, and would often join us on the cliros, sometimes translating parts of a service to a Saint from Slavonic into English as we went. On weekdays (non-feast days) he would do whatever chores needed to be done, whether printing, or cutting firewood. He was a hard worker. I can remember being exhausted with trying to keep up with him. In the afternoon he usually retired to his cell to rest, read and write. The evenings, at the meals, were what moved me the most. After the reading of a life of a saint, Father would give a very informal talk, or even lead a discussion of some spiritual issue. Sometimes he would take some previously untranslated writing, and translate it for us while reading, making it sound as though it had been written in English all the time. As we sat in the lampada and candle light, I can still recall the sense I had at the time-that Father Seraphim was passing on the traditions of the Church to the next generation of Christians, and keeping the teachings of the Holy Fathers as a living entity, rather than just a scholarly note in a religious history book.
Father Seraphim consistently hammered home the importance of preparing oneself spiritually for being persecuted, whether it would come in the form of direct attack as happened in the communist countries, or in the more subtle-and more dangerous-form of spiritual deceptions and counterfeits which have "replaced" true Christianity, especially in the West. To Father Seraphim, the modern obsession with comfort through technology was as dangerous to the soul as any heresy. It seemed to many of us who were present at his final illness and death, that the demonic forces themselves were attempting revenge on him for his exposing the truth by literally crucifying him with modern technology. He was stripped, connected to all manner of tubes and machines, and forced to endure a week of medical torture before dying. Although many of us felt abandoned, and orphans, yet having to see him subjected to such an antithesis of his monastic lifestyle we were relieved when God finally removed him from his pain.
Years later, while working as a social worker, I happened to talk to a nurse who had been working in ICU at that time, and I asked her if she remembered Father Seraphim. To my surprise, not only did she remember, but she told me how the entire nursing staff had been moved by their contact with him, and by the outpouring of love shown by the numerous Orthodox Christians to him. She concluded by saying, "He must have been a very special person." And this, indeed, is the heart of the matter: For those of us who knew him, in these modern times when sanctity is an endangered commodity, Father Seraphim was indeed, a very special person!
Deacon Timothy Shell Redding, California