Orthodox America


  With the Saints Give Rest, O Christ, To the Soul of Thy Servant


    The weather had been near-perfect all summer. And so it was on the eve of Transfiguration when the brethren of the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery made their traditional climb up to the top of their mountain to a spot called "Transfiguration Skete," singing the Vigil service as they went. The sky was already dark and the stars were visible as they descended the back of the mountain, their voices carrying the beautiful stichera into the wilderness, and their candles flickering like a chain of lights. When they reached the large cross marking a corner of the monastery property, they stopped and, after the candies were extinguished, Fr. Seraphim gave a short sermon. It was one of his favorite feasts. Like his beloved St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, he loved to look up at night into the heavens. Seeing the starry sky he was always inspired by that mystery of divinity to which we sinners are called, the wonder of Transfiguration. This is the message he spoke that night: "Our home is in heaven. Never forget that for which we are created." Little did anyone suspect that the next morning he would serve Liturgy for the last time here on earth.

    Soon afterwards Father Seraphim became ill. He was of fragile health and it was not unusual for him to be sick. It was never easy to tell just how ill he was because he never complained. In a few days, however, when the pain became very severe, he agreed to be taken to the hospital. It came as a shock to everyone when, after two serious operations in which the doctors had to remove a massive blockage in the intestine caused by decayed tissue, Fr. Seraphim was given only a two percent chance of recovery. For those close to him, it was as though a great cataclysmic event had taken place. The nightmarish intensity of the days that followed--the feelings of shock, of helplessness, bewilderment, anxiety, loneliness, despair--is hard to describe. One could not help thinking of the approaching feast of Dormition. Was the Mother of God going to take her faithful servant?

    On the eve of the feast, many from the St. Herman Mission gathered at the Surety-of Sinners Chapel in Redding to celebrate a midnight Liturgy and there to pray fervently for the recovery of their beloved Fr. Seraphim. Fr. Alexey Young who served the Liturgy, prepared to take the Holy Gifts to Fr. Seraphim. At the hospital Fr. Herman was already keeping vigil. As the Liturgy ended there was a call from the hospital announcing that visitors were allowed one at a time to see Fr. Seraphim. Everyone thought it was to be a final farewell. All knew that having run the race as a prize athlete, Fr. Seraphim was ready to say, together with St. Paul: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21). But while there was life there was hope. We sinners were not ready to relinquish him to the other world. And we prayed for a miracle.

    Having driven all night, Archbishop Anthony arrived at the hospital where he and Fr. Herman read the prayers for the departure of the soul. It was close to 2 A.M. Those at Fr. Seraphim' s bedside did not want to leave. And then something unprecedented happened. Perhaps it was the compassion of the Mother of God which opened the doors. People began to gather in Fr. Seraphim's room--not three or four, but at least 20 surrounded his bed, and for the next several hours they sang for Fr. Seraphim to hear perhaps for the last time the beautiful Dormition stichera: "O ye apostles from afar, being now gathered together..." Then the entire Paschal Canon was sung. Many sang through their tears. Fr. Seraphim was breathing through a respirator and could not speak. But he was conscious, and when he heard the singing of one of his favorite hymns, "Noble Joseph," he began to cry. It was hard to look upon Fr. Seraphim' s sufferings, but it was harder still to tear oneself away from his bedside. Finally, however, the nurses asked everyone to leave. No one knew that this was only the beginning of a vigil that was to last another five days and nights.

     Among us was a catechuman, a young man who had asked Fr. Seraphim to baptize him on the feast of Dormition. Knowing the spiritual strength in the grace of this Mystery, Fr. Herman decided to proceed with the Baptism, hoping that through this act which was so pleasing to God, Fr. Seraphim would also be strengthened. In the company of four others, Fr. Herman left for the Monastery, having promised Fr. Seraphim that he would serve Liturgy for him there that day. The creek beyond the monastery sparkled in the sun. As the newly-enlightened John Damascene was clothed in the white robe of righteousness, a beam of joy pierced the veil of grief which hung heavy over everyone' s heart. Exhausted by the all-night vigil at the hospital, the long drive to the monastery and the long service, an attempt was made to rest. But anxiety overcame sleep. Was Fr. Seraphim still alive? That afternoon at the monastery there were tearful entreaties before the icon of the Mother of God, "Quick-Hearer." On Mt. Athos the monks were also praying before this icon for Fr. Seraphim's recovery. Before leaving for Redding, a phone-call to the hospital--always made with a pounding heart--relieved everyone with the news that Fr. Seraphim's condition had slightly improved.

    That evening there were still more people at the hospital. And a greater feeling of hope, even though Fr. Seraphim was still given only a ten percent chance of recovery.

During the very early hours of the morning, the night-shift nurses kindly permitted prolonged visits. Those who had the opportunity to spend several hours at this time praying or reading the Gospel at Fr. Seraphim's bedside will never forget this intense and very sobering experience, It was a time to think about death which was hovering very close, and about the meaning of suffering for Christ, Utterly helpless, tied to the bed to avoid danger from possible seizures, wires from monitoring devices crossing his chest, his arm s punctured with tube and breathing with the help of a respirator Fr. Seraphim looked like the image of one crucified; truly, we were witnessing a martyrdom. So often he had spoken about suffering and the benefit it had upon the Christian soul. He had such compassion and admiration for the suffering Orthodox behind, the Iron Curtain. Perhaps God was allowing him to co-suffer with them. The Scripture passage came to mind: "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (II Cor. 4:17).

    The Sunday Liturgy in Redding was followed that evening by a service of Holy Unction. Each one felt as though his other sin were at least partially responsible for Fr Seraphim's illness. Everyone therefore too part in the service of Unction, being anointed unto the healing of soul and body, repenting and fervently praying during the service, 'Hear us, O God!" Afterwards, Fr. Herman went to the hospital to anoint Fr. Seraphim.

    For all those close to Fr. Seraphim, it was a very intense and exhausting experience -emotionally, physically, and spiritually. the phone in the ICU waiting room began to ring constantly with calls from people all over he country asking about Fr. Seraphim--and praying. Here, and even abroad, fervent petitions were directed to the throne of God, imploring Him to spare Fr. Seraphim, not for His sake, for he had long since prepared himself for this hour, but for those of us who needed his guidance for the salvation of our souls. A man of such rare spiritual stature, lamp of true wisdom in this age of spiritual darkness and confusion... Surely God would not deprive us so soon of such a brightly shining light? The fields white with harvest in which Fr, Seraphim had labored so zealously... Who could replace him? His sermons, so simple yet piercing the heart.., who would speak them? The many profound and inspiring articles and books he had written, guiding souls along the "royal path ,"... who would be able to take up his pen? How we needed him! But we had to remind ourselves that God's ways are not our ways, and we had to prepare ourselves to accept His will.

    The hours passed slowly. Each telephone :all, each visit from the doctors or nurses-we hoped for the best, and feared the worst. The waitin g room became a prayer room, with one akathist or canon following another. The Gospel was read by turns, all four books, and again. It was such a time of intense and prolonged prayer that few of us had ever experienced before.

    Tuesday morning Fr. Seraphim's condiion again became very critical; phone calls were made to ask for increased prayer. That afternoon Abbot Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Auxentius arrived from St. Gregory Palamas Monasteryin Ohio. Soon afterwards Bishop Nektary of Seattle also arrived to keep watch over his spiritual son whom he had ordained only 5 years ago. That night a midnight Liturgy was held in the hospital chapel, a room on the same floor as the Intensive Care Unit; it had a low ceiling and no windows which gave it a catacomb feeling. This was heightened by the intensity of the situation and the fervent prayers, united in spirit and purpose. Just as he had every day that week, Fr. Seraphim received Holy Communion and appeared to be more at peace.

    That night a dying young boy had been brought into the Intensive Care Unit. His mother was weeping uncontrollably. When Fr. Herman approached her the next morning to comfort her, he asked if she would like her son to be baptized. Receiving an affirmative reply, Fr. Herman lost no time in baptizing the dying boy, Christopher. It was none too soon. Late that afternoon, it pleased the Lord to take his soul, pure and clean from the waters of Baptism. All felt that this was already a fruit of Fr. Seraphim's sufferings.

Wednesday afternoon the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, "Unexpected Joy," was brought from San Francisco. It was immediately carried in to Fr. Seraphim. Throughout the day those present prayed before it, and sensed that truly, the Mother of God was keeping a close watch over Fr. Seraphim and that his sufferings were not in vain.

It was, after all, still the period of Dormition. Liturgy was again served at midnight in the hospital chapel and Fr, Seraphim received Holy Communion at 3 A.M. on Thursday morning. The icon remained in the hospital where people were still keeping vigil and periodically taking the icon into Fr. Seraphim whenever visitors were permitted.

But this vigil was not to last much longer. At about 10:30 the doctors announced that there was very little hope left, there was nothing more they could do. And within minutes, the vigil over the dying had ended, and a new life for Fr. Seraphim had begun. So it was pleasing to God. He had passed from death to life, from earth to heaven where the choirs of the righteous shine like the stars in the glory of Transfiguration.

    Of the minutes and hours that followed, Abbot Chrysostomos has written:

     "I went with Abbot Herman into the hospital room to help prepare the body, immediately after the death of this holy man. The room was now filled with love, with an inner spiritual fragrance, and with a sorrowful joy. From that moment on, no one who had not loved the man ever touched his body. And thus the fruits of his suffering, the victory of his struggle with whatever evil it was that he chose to do battle, became perfectly united with those around him. His unembalmed body we carefully and lovingly dressed. And despite efforts to bind his jaw, his face naturally fell into a quiet smile of unmistakable heavenly joy. His body never stiffened, nor did decay of any kind set in. The skin remained soft and the body seemed to be one of a sleeping child. A scientist from the University of California at Berkeley correctly described the body when he commented, "He looks precisely like a relic."

    

"The death of Father Seraphim produced a spiritual phenomenon untold of in our times. Lying in state in a crude wooden coffin in the humble monastery church, not only did the body remain soft and life-like in the summer heat, but so comforting was his face that one could not bear to cover it, in the traditional monastic way. Even children could hardly move away-from the coffin, since the body brought such internal peace and suggested such love. Everyone was aware that, in our times, among us, a holy man had left in his body a phenomenon that challenges science and our hearts. There was a universally expressed feeling among those present that we were privileged witnesses to a manifestation of God's Grace.

    "The funeral for Father Seraphim, officiated over by Archbishop Anthony of Western America and San Francisco, and by Bishop Nektary of Seattle, produced even greater fruits. Over Fr. Seraphim's coffin two novice s were tonsured rassophore monks; Deacon Vladimir Anderson from the St. John the Almsgiver Mission in Willit s was ordained priest; and Reader Lawrence from the Etna Mission was ordained to the diaconate. Father Seraphim's victory over an inexplicable evil with which he had struggled for his life had blossomed into a flower of overflowing love--a victory upon victory. And the gentleness with which he became victorious is perhaps best expressed by the family of deer which we, looking out the altar window during the singing of the Creed in the funeral Liturgy, saw gathered around his grave.

    The burial of this holy man took place amidst great personal grief, for his loss was unthinkable to all who loved him. But this grief was overcome, washed away, and transformed by a joy that one could only compare to that of Pascha. And indeed, several times during the burial the Paschal Troparion was spontaneously sung. What all of this means for us Orthodox in America, one can only vaguely understand from the astounding phenomenon which I have described. But without doubt, the death of Father Seraphim will benefit us as greatly now as his tremendous witness has during his years on earth."


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