Now that we are in the fast free week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, and thus well and truly into the Lenten Triodion, even the most negligent naysayer among us has to start thinking about Lenten reading. The season is, of course, one that demands that we read something edifying and spiritual. My usual practice is to read The Ladder by St. John Climacus. A fine choice, and one that never fails to have me checking the preface to find out when he died, since so much of the book (at least the parts describing what not to do) seems to be written directly about me. I’m sure I’ll pick it up sometime before Pascha, but I think I’ll start with something else, something a bit unexpected.
My choice is Father Seraphim Rose, by Hiermonk Damascene, a book I first read in California last summer. As Lenten reading, it may seem more than a little odd. Father Seraphim, who reposed in 1982, is a highly controversial figure in American Orthodoxy. Many of his writings have been attacked by others in the Church. For purposes of this Lent, however, it is not his theology — whether right or wrong — that interests me. Instead, it is his life, which bears some parallels to my own, if not in the details, then in the environment that forms us.
Father Seraphim was a product of the same America that produced so many of us in the United States. He was raised in a solidly middle class home, where he attended — somewhat haphazardly — the local Methodist Church. He went to college, where he pretty much abandoned Methodism, and threw himself into intellectual pursuits, experimenting with lifestyles and trying to find himself. In broad outline, that is the story of a great many of us. Our particular experimentations may vary, and our commitment to intellectual pursuits may not have been as fervent, but essentially his path was our path. Most of us, however, return to the broad path. We pursue careers, we become enmeshed in the world — we join society.
But not Eugene Rose, the future Father Seraphim. In 1963 he took the (at the time) unheard of step of converting to Orthodoxy, and in time became an author and speaker whose influence extends to our own day. In the early 1970s, he and a friend established St. Herman’s Monastery near Platina, California. When I visited there last summer, I found conditions primitive. There was no electricity, no running water, beds in the guesthouse were plywood boards covered with a foam egg crate. Yet by all accounts the conditions I found were vastly more luxurious then what Father Seraphim lived under. When he and Father Herman moved onto the property, there was only a hunter’s lean-to. Later, they built very small cells in which to live.
The cell, as I saw it last summer, was tiny — perhaps six feet wide by 12 feet long. It contains a board bed, a small desk, and icons hung on the walls. Hieromonk Damascene, the author of the book, lives there now, if memory serves. This evening, walking the dog, I eyed a shed of about the same size in our garden. I could not imagine living in it, winter and summer, sleeping on a couple of boards.
That is all very nice, you might say, but how does that link to Lenten reading?
In this fashion: How does someone, with an early life more or less similar to my own, find within himself the discipline and daring and (if I may say it) love necessary to wholly abandon the world? How does such a man live a life that is so wholly and radically different from that of his contemporaries? Father Seraphim — already canonized on a local level in Romania, and very likely to be eventually canonized in this country — represents a diverging path so different from my own life that it merits study.
Of course, I am long past the “death to the world” road Father Seraphim trod. I am married, with children, and I am sloppy and lazy. But I wonder, as we edge our way into Lent, if there is not some part of me, deeply buried at the moment, that might not be revealed? Some untapped vein of love?
It reminds me of something Father Seraphim wrote about another person in the church, St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine has also been widely villified because of teachings that do not agree with that of the Church as a whole, such as pre-destination. Father Seraphim defended him, on the grounds that even if his theology was suspect, his life was a model of love. Writing to a friend in 1976, he said:
“Anyone who has read Blessed Augustine’s Confessions will not readily want to “throw him out of the calendar” — for he will see in this book precisely that fiery zeal and love which is precisely what is so lacking in our Orthodoxy today!”
The same could be said about Father Seraphim. Love or hate his writings, love or hate him: he is still the first middle class WASP American who strode down the path of self denial without looking back. Others are following him. At Lent, it is worth pondering the love that drives the heart of one who takes that lonely road.