Thursday, 27 June 2013

Father Seraphim Rose: the beginning of an era - or its end?

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On the whole, I would regard Father Seraphim Rose, the American born Russian Orthodox monk (later 'Hieromonk' or Priest--monk) as the Western man of the Twentieth Century most advanced in holiness (theosis) of whom I know.

But the way in which I understand this fact has changed since first I became aware of him and absolutley immersed myself in his work somewhat more than three years ago.

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Fr Seraphim died in 1982, and at first I assumed that his life marked the beginning of an Orthodox revival in the West, with Fr Seraphim as a bridge between Holy Russia and the modern world - most specifically by his discipleship to St John Maximovitch

http://orthodoxwiki.org/John_(Maximovitch)_the_Wonderworker

But, as I discovered more about his legacy and the events following the death of Fr Seraphim, my perspective changed, and he seemed more like the final fruition of Holy Russia, its rounding-out; than a bridge into modernity.

In particular, modern Orthodoxy does not seem to have solved the dichotomy about which Fr Seraphim wrote so much: as he describes it this dichotomy is between, on the one hand, apostasy and accommodation to the prevailing society (mostly Leftism-Liberalism, although in modern Russia there are also anti-liberal currents); and on the other hand the distortion of 'ultra-correctness' in which strict adherence to liturgical and devotional forms combines with a cold hearted and uncharitable disposition which negates the value of these practices.

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Fr Seraphim was quite clear that after the death of St John Maximovitch, there were then no true Spiritual Fathers (Holy Elders, startsi) in the United States nor indeed anywhere else, and this meant that the chain of discipleship stretching back to the life of Christ was now broken, extinct.

The cause of this was, seemingly, the Russian Revolution, the Martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas and the systematic destruction by the Bolsheviks of Holy Russia and its monastic traditions.

But whatever its cause, the effect was drastically to reduce the possible degree of theosis or sanctity in the modern world, since without the supervision of a Holy Elder and the ascetic disciplines of monasticism, the higher degrees of theosis were impossible.

Hence there are now no Saints, and nobody with the authority to resolve misunderstandings and disagreements, to interpret scripture, to guide the Church etc.

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So, by Fr Seraphim Rose's own account, and the accounts of those he regarded as authoritative, Orthodoxy is now and irreversibly a much diminished thing; and - I infer - does not any longer stand with its peak above all other Christian denominations, but is simply one of a group of valid denominations with its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Yet, by his work of translation and interpretations, and by the example of his life, Fr Seraphim Rose has made it possible for us to appreciate what has been lost from the world.

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8 comments:

  1. That would seem to negate what our Lord Jesus Christ said: "I am with you always, even to the end of the world."

    If God can raise up stones to be children of Abraham, he can raise up spiritual elders in his Church. And we won't necessarily be the first to know about them.

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  2. @SH - I don't believe that God (could or would) make stones into persons with free will - that passage must mean something else.

    And surely that there will an 'end time' in which such things will happen has *ample* scriptural basis?

    You are correct that we would certainly not necessarily know if there were now spiritual elders - but Seraphim Rose would have known, I believe; and the Orthodox church always used to know this kind of thing (even when the starets was in the middle of a remote forest, people knew and would travel).

    Whatever the situation - things seem to have changed.

    At the end of the day this post simply describes my take on things, and go some way to explain why I did not become Orthodox, as I intended and set out to do.

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  3. I'm trying to get to grips with your comment that the "chain of discipleship" is now extinct.

    Perhaps I am coming at this from a different angle and we may be a cross-purposes, but as far as I understand it, the Roman Catholic doctrine on the Eucharistic is an answer to your assertion. If you believe in the Real Presence, then the Eucharist is link to the life of Christ.

    Perhaps the loss of a monastic lineage is compensated by the direct link in the Eurcharist. Of course, all depends on the disposition of the recipient (just as it would on that of the novice monk in his development of theosis). But, is it not possible that with the right disposition, in receipt of the Body and Blood of Christ, one could attain the degree of sanctity you speak of?

    In saying that, I haven't met any individuals myself who have attained it, but that is not to say that they don't exist and it could be that I would not recognise them.

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  4. @bgc "... some way to explain why I did not become Orthodox, as I intended and set out to do."

    I seem to recall you complaining that you did not feel, in the end, that Orthodoxy provided sufficient justification for mortal, incarnate existence.

    I'm guessing that, while Orthodoxy has centuries of accumulated wisdom, it does not present any systematic 'plan of salvation' that would make the intellect satisfied that everything is "well in hand"; instead, trying to get to a place spiritually that allows the soul to renounce the appetites of the intellect. The set of questions being asked is far too different.

    For instance, one thing that struck me in this famous discourse by St. Seraphim of Sarov:

    http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

    Was his drive-by repudiation of 'conventional wisdom' of the account of the creation of Adam:

    "Many explain that when it says in the Bible: 'God breathed the breath of life into the face of Adam the first-created, who was created by Him from the dust of the ground,' it must mean that until then there was neither human soul nor spirit in Adam, but only the flesh created from the dust of the ground. This interpretation is wrong, for the Lord God created Adam from the dust of the ground with the constitution which our dear little Father, the holy Apostle Paul describes: May your spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thess. 5:23). And all these three parts of our nature were created from the dust of the ground, and Adam was not created dead, but an active living being like all the other animate creatures of God living on earth. The point is that if the Lord God had not breathed afterwards into his face this breath of life (that is, the grace of our Lord God the Holy Spirit Who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son and is sent into the world for the Son's sake), Adam would have remained without having within him the Holy Spirit Who raises him to Godlike dignity. However perfect he had been created and superior to all the other creatures of God, as the crown of creation on earth, he would have been just like all the other creatures which, though they have a body, soul and spirit each according to its kind, yet have not the Holy Spirit within them.

    Of course, in terms of having a worked-out account of the sequence of events in Genesis, this aside raises far more questions than it answers. (Very likely, speaking in the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim was not ordained to give any new revelation on the matter.) But that's an issue that is not really central to the dialogue, which makes this kind of material very challenging to use to one's benefit if having a systematic and stable theory of reality is a spiritual requirement.

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  5. @Mat - My understanding is that the Eucharist is mostly to do with salvation - this chain of discipleship to which I refer is the selection and (prolonged, arduous) training then validation of exceptionally saintly persons who serve as intermediaries and interpreters. This process is liable to be derailed by spiritual pride and to demonic influence generally, which implies the need for supervision. Once the chain is broken there is nobody to supervise. That seems to have happened.

    @A "Orthodoxy provided sufficient justification for mortal, incarnate existence." - that was probably a more profound dissatisfaction, but the historical argument was something I found within Orthodoxy itself - Orthodox authors I trusted were telling me that Orthodoxy was now permanently damaged (I have blogged about this several times - that is why the interest in the Fall of Constantinople, then the 1917 revolution). In terms of this theological history, which I believe, the world has fundamentally, irreversibly changed (in several steps); and we are now in the End Times or Latter Days although nobody knows how long they will last. The End Times may last a very long time - or not - nonetheless some things that were possible are now not possible. Some things that were relatively safe - e.g. spiritually ambitious ascetic monasticism - are now unsafe. Christianity now needs to be childlike, simple and comprehensible (and energizing) enough that we do not stray into confusion.

    In lots of ways, we are not so clever as we think! We mistake confusion and incoherence for profundity, and are become a culture of pseudo-intellectuals, and much of our theology is pseudo-spiritual.

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  6. But maybe there are indeed starets, and maybe indeed people do know, maybe a great deal of people, maybe even thousands upon thousands, but perhaps they are hidden from those who cannot understand them or who would be harmed, drowned in the depths of their teaching?

    Christianity is world-wide; it is the universal Truth; it is not just a western phenomenon.

    And maybe even in the West too they exist, but did you expect to find holy men on TV?

    After all, it is not like many of us have undertaken a daring spiritual journey in anything but intellectual and reflective activity. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it's probably quite good that many have taken time to intellectually and spiritually reflect -we have to start somewhere- but maybe it just isn't worthy of finding starets. I mean, we have this mentality, in the words spoken (in humor, not seriousness, and usually in regards to romantic relationships) by college students: "If it ain't on Facebook, it never happened!" More appropriate to us, it seems our mentality can sometimes be: "If it ain't found in the Google search results, it don't exist!"

    Or in other words: "If I haven't found it, then no-one else has!"

    From 1 Kings 19:

    And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

    He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

    The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

    Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

    Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

    He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

    The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came ... Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

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  7. @FHL - First, you must recognize that this is a blog, thus a personal view, thus cannot possible be a receptacle of purely eternal truths: I am thinking aloud a lot of the time, which is not-necessarily-good but may be harmful to some people all of the time and to some people all of the time.

    Here I am exploring why, despite my reverence for Fr Seraphim Rose, I did not become Orthodox - and I find that it is not entirely a matter of no happening 'despite' my reverence, but partly because I do take seriously what he says about the history of Orthodoxy and modern Orthodoxy.

    Furthermore, everything you say about modern Orthodoxy may well be true - but if it is, then that only goes to show how much Orthodoxy has changed over the past century - which was my point.

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  8. "Furthermore, everything you say about modern Orthodoxy may well be true - but if it is, then that only goes to show how much Orthodoxy has changed over the past century - which was my point."

    If what you mean is that Orthodox thought has become less and less orthodox thought, then yes, indeed, things have changed. But it is orthodoxy which has changed, and not Orthodoxy. The difference is between "Orthodox" meaning "right way/belief," which has not changed, and "orthodox" meaning "common way/belief," which has changed.

    "First, you must recognize that this is a blog, thus a personal view, thus cannot possible be a receptacle of purely eternal truths: I am thinking aloud a lot of the time, which is not-necessarily-good but may be harmful to some people all of the time and to some people all of the time."

    My comments are also personal views, how can they be anything else? I do not know if there are any truly holy men left, but I just wanted to add that viewpoint, because I have not yet given up on Orthodoxy, and I hope I never will.

    But I apologize if it ever seemed I expected otherwise from you. I never wanted to place the burden of teaching on you. I know this blog is titled "BC Miscellany" and as such, is composed of your personal thoughts; I also know you never wanted the burden of teaching about such matters.

    But I still feel as though I have to present another view when I think you are misguided or missing something, not because I present anything greater than my own personal views, which may very well be mistaken and mislead people, but because we are talking about very important things.

    But as always, I greatly appreciate all of your posts, even those I disagree with!

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