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A Kinder, Gentler Priest-monk Seraphim

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Written by Basil on 06/4/2005 7:58 AM. Filed under:

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Orthodoxy of the Heart – Chapter 86 from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works

This amazing chapter reveals a little more of the real Priest-monk Seraphim, the flesh-and-blood man who won so many followers. Perhaps if I had encountered more of this man, and less of the reactionary Priest-monk Seraphim who decries everything modern, I would have more love and respect for his memory.

A recent comment by Paige got me thinking about what, specifically, I find so distancing in Priest-monk Seraphim’s writing.

Paige’s comment actually gave me more cause for concern than I had before. What “bad things” did his “friends” — which I read as meaning his disciples — do after his death? They left one schismatic group and created their own, but is that all? (To be fair, they are now under the Serbian New Gracanica Metropolitanate.)

“We’re gonna blame him for things that happened after he died?” Our Lord instructed us to judge a tree by its fruit. Judging a teacher by his disciples is a perfectly valid application of this principle. I mean by this not only those who lived with him in Platina, but also every person who puts themselves under his tutelage through his writings and those of his disciples, particularly his most vociferous disciple, Priest-monk Damascene (Christensen). For every Orthodox Christian I encounter that remains in communion with the Church, I know of a handful who develop what Priest-monk Seraphim decried as “correctness disease,” who follow a tendentious, schismatic path that ultimately smells of death and individualism. Even those who remain in communion with the Church tend to call themselves “traditionalists” (as if the rest of us do not live by the Tradition of the Church) and display a generally reactionary bent. Judging the tree by its fruit, Priest-monk Seraphim comes out ambiguous at best.

His affinity for Chinese philosophy does not bother me, and I found Christ, the Eternal Tao to be a wonderful appropriation of pre-Christian thought in Lao-Tzu and other foundational Taoists. My own spiritual father is a former missionary to Hong Kong, so I inherited a fondness for seeing Truth in every culture, longings for fullfilment in Christ.

Priest-monk Seraphim’s patristic hermeneutic is overly literal and tends to homogenize differences among the Fathers.

When they are giving the teaching of the Church, the holy Fathers (if only they are genuine holy Fathers and not merely ecclesiastical writers of uncertain authority) do not contradict each other, even if to our feeble understanding there seem to be contradictions between them. It is academic rationalism that pits one Father against another, traces their “influence” on each other, divides them into “schools” and “factions,” and finds “contradictions” between them. All of this is foreign to the Orthodox Christian understanding of the holy Fathers. (“Genesis and Early Man,” The Christian Activist, vol and date unknown)

This flattening of the patristic witness forces the reader to devise novel interpretations which reconcile differences among the Fathers which need not be reconciled. The Fathers do not always agree, and this tension within the patristic witness reminds us that the Orthodox faith is transmitted within earthen vessels.

Thus, Priest-monk Seraphim, having already committed himself to an understanding of the Fathers that is not faithful to the human reality of the patristic witness, commits himself to taking at face value the writings of Fathers such as St. Evagrius who are influenced heavily by the teachings of Origen and his disciples. It is this ill-advised patristic hermeneutic that leads to the charge of Gnosticism and heresy. “Heresy” seems a bit overstrong, but Priest-monk Seraphim certainly places unusually heavy emphasis on elements of the patristic witness that seem not to be generally emphasized in the Orthodox faith.

Which brings us to the toll-booths. No one is going to damn a writer for a single mistaken doctrine, unless it goes to the root of their teachings. Priest-monk Seraphim’s affinity for the toll-houses stems from his flattening and homogenizing of the Fathers. When he cannot tell the difference between St Ignatius the God-bearer and St Ignatius Brianchaninov (as calling them both “Fathers” seems to indicate), something is awry. When he equates St Basil the Great and St Theophanes the Recluse, the discerning reader should start asking questions: Is this teaching really the teaching of the whole Church, or a rather late innovation? There is a vast literature by better minds than my own critiquing the toll-houses, and I urge readers to familiarize themselves with it.

In short, I have read some writings by the Priest-monk Seraphim, and I would like to read more. I find it quite difficult to get to the edifying bits, though, so his writings are not very high on my list of priorities.

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14 Responses to “A Kinder, Gentler Priest-monk Seraphim”

  1. Johanna Says:

    “All genuine strivings of men after Truth are fulfilled in Christ. The Holy Fathers of the Church taught that the yearnings of pagan religions & the wisdom of many philosophers are also capable of serving to prepare men for the doctrines of Jesus & are indeed valid & genuine ways to the one Truth of God.” (from a forgotten source, scribbled on a scrap of paper I use as a bookmark)

    With that firmly in mind, I’ll repeat what Fr. Dennis told me recently…”We know where the Church is, but we do not know where the Church is not.” Meaning, truly, that outside of the “official Church, we do not really know all the places where the Church reaches into “outside of the Church.” Convoluted, I know, but maybe you catch my drift. It’s like a Zen koan, looping back in on itself…

    I’m currently reading ORTHODOXY & THE RELIGION OF THE FUTURE by Fr. Seraphim. I am feeling a compulsion to continue reading it, mostly because it’s provocative…it stirs things up, makes me consider my inner life, whether I agree with it or not, it makes me look at my life. That’s why I liked NOT OF THIS WORLD. Not because I think Fr. Seraphim is a saint or some amazing incredible spiritual genius, I really can’t say anything about that, but his writings, like a good question, are kind of unanswerable & force me to look at my world in an entirely new way. They’re unsettling. For better or worse, they can actually get me to shake up my complacency & illusion of comfort & provoke/challenge me to not be so satisfied with all of that. As Paige says, or to the same effect…it all gets you to consider the reality of yr own salvation more deeply…to consider that which most of the time we might prefer not to consider.

    I have the new revised life story sitting here, staring me in the face…but right now I am not up to digging in for another round.

    I’m glad you’re blogging about this, Basil.

  2. Basil Says:

    “With that firmly in mind, I’ll repeat what Fr. Dennis told me recently… ‘We know where the Church is, but we do not know where the Church is not.’ Meaning, truly, that outside of the ‘official Church,[‘] we do not really know all the places where the Church reaches into ‘outside of the Church.’ Convoluted, I know, but maybe you catch my drift. It’s like a Zen koan, looping back in on itself…”

    Archpriest Dennis is actually quoting Bp Kallistos, and I have an article that I’m working over right now on that very subject.

    Johanna, your openness to Priest-monk Seraphim has really shown me a new avenue of approaching his work, wherein one doesn’t immediately try to reason out all the reactions but instead lets it work within the soul at an unconscious level. Not everyone is up to such an approach, and it requires, it seems to me, an ability to do a work of discernment unconsciously, a sort of receptivity that defers final judgment until the subconscious has digested what has been received — as opposed to an indiscriminately accepting receptivity.

    More to think about, as always.

  3. James Says:

    I don’t know what to make of tollboths, but keep in mind Basil that many church fathers (from our own St. Athanasius to St. Theophon the Recluse) taught them. I saw a quote by St. Theophon that said that many supposedly learned men scoff at tollhouses, but they’ll encounter them just the same.

  4. Johanna Says:

    A few rambling thoughts…

    Train without bias in all areas. It is crucial to do this pervasively & wholeheartedly.

    I was once going to say this to Sampson, but I held my tongue…however, it’s something I strive towards…don’t be in such a rush to even out differences. Often, the allowing of precisely that NOT seeing eye to eye will bring up other sides to the issue that all can benefit from experiencing.

    And something about the reality of unknowing…quoting Bp Ignatius here…”Of true spiritual feelings the fleshly man cannot form any conceptions: because a conception of feeling is always based on those feelings already known to the heart, while spiritual feelings are entirely foreign to the heart that knows only fleshly & emotional feelings.” I think, but I may be wrong, that he is trying to say something about that about which nothing can adequately be spoken or reasoned. God is before words, before concepts, before feelings, & before reasoning. In order to approach, it seems I must not rely on those things…what then must I do?

  5. Basil Says:

    James, as I said, there is a wealth of relevant literature criticizing the rather late Russian concept of toll houses. There is a great deal of literature collected here: As for St Athanasius supporting the toll house theory, I rather doubt that any proof-text of his writings could be made sufficiently unambiguous. St Theophanes, being of recent memory, is of much less interest to me. This is exactly the problem that I have with Priest-monk Seraphim: He apparently has difficulty understanding why older fathers are more important that modern ones. (Yes, eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian writers are modern for us.)

  6. Basil Says:

    Johanna, great is the mystery of our salvation. When we come to speaking about the things of God, especially when it comes to respecting the mystery of God, I like to remind myself of this:

    “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.”

    And yet, the Christian tradition is full of mumbled groanings that attempt to point toward the source of Light. At the core of our faith is not a human construct, but the self-revelation of God. He has revealed himself in words that point us back to him, and finally by becoming incarnate as the divine Logos made man. So, we have a paradoxical desire to speak of God and realize that our speaking can never exhaust or circumscribe God. God in a box is not God but an idol.

    The Logos that can be spoken is not the true Logos.

  7. Johanna Says:


  8. James Says:

    “From the earth to heaven there is a ladder and a each rung has a cohort of demons. These are called toll-houses and the evil spirits meet the soul and bring its handwritten accounts and show these to the angels, saying: on this day and such and such of the month this soul did that: either it stole or fornicated or committed adultery or engaged in sodomy or lied or encouraged someone to an evil deed. And everything else evil which it has done, they show to the angels. Then angels then show whatever good the soul has done, charity or prayer or liturgies or fasting or anything else. And the angels and the demons reckon up, and if they find the good greater than the evil, the angels seize the soul and take it up the next rung …” St. Macarius of Egypt (AD 325)

  9. Basil Says:

    James, that is sufficiently unambiguous. However, I’d like some more information. What is the larger context of these words? What work did they come out of? Note particularly Archpriest Michael Azkoul’s critique of Priest-monk Seraphim’s references to patristic writings and his use of poor translations of the fathers in his booklet The Toll House Myth.

    This footnote is particularly salient:

    From where did the Gnostic doctrine of the commemoration of the dead come? Perhaps, the earliest record of it is a clearly Gnostic document entitled, “The Revelation of an Angel about Apocryphal and Ineffable Mysteries about the Commemoration of Those Fallen Asleep” falsely ascribed to St Macarius of Egypt and attached to his Fifty Spiritual Homilies. That St Macarius lived in Egypt is not without significance, for in this land are found the non-Greek roots of Gnosticism. Pagan Egyptian mythology teaches that the soul cannot rest until the body has been properly buried and, therefore, the soul must wander until the embalming ritual for the dead is completed. During this period, the soul is judged and weighed by forty two nome-gods (See M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas [vol. 2], Chicago, 1982, pp. 403-407; and chap. 1 above, note 11).

    So, check out the fuller context and the source of the quote and get back to me.

  10. Paige Says:

    By the logic of that footnote, Christ’s Resurection is not true because some pre-Christian sects had mythology involving a resurrected demigod. I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Pagans ate food. Should we stop doing that, too?” The point is, even pagans got some things right. Whether you believe it was God preparing the world for the revelation of the whole Truth, or whether you believe it was dumb luck, you have to concede that not everything these pre-Christian groups did–and not everything they believed–was wrong. If we limit our theology to only those things that are found solely in Christianity, there’s not much left.

  11. Basil Says:

    The footnote tells us two things: First, the document falsely attributed to St Macarius is actually Gnostic and therefore holds no authority whatsoever for Christians. Second, in case there is any question, the toll house portion of that Gnostic sect comes from the mingling of Christian revelation with Egyptian pagan beliefs. Do pagans get some ideas right? I think Archpriest Michael Oleksa would be among those who answer vigorously in the affirmative. Did these pagans (and the Gnostic Christians after them) get the toll house theory right? I’m less optimistic.

  12. James Says:

    Obviously I’m out of my league and shouldn’t attempt to debate with such an expert, but then again your blog response could be falsely attributed to you by the blognostics for all I know.

  13. neonlinux Says:

    I really -appreciate- and -enjoy- reading your blog that I stumbled across while gathering various articles from a EO and OO perspective.
    I guess I should let you know that altho I do not belong to either (besides it will be quite apparent anyway) I have alot of healthy respect. ; )
    I have asked several Yahoo Orthodox groups about this concept but have not received any feedback yet. Therefore I was very elated to discover your links. This concept really caught me by surprise since I have never heard of it before. It appears to me that Orthodox theologians have the same “fun” as other Theologians do in their interpretations of past Theologians. From the scant knowledge I have of Seraphim Rose it would appear to me that not only was he influenced by some Gnostic tendency but also from his strong interest in Tao that you also are interested in. I have lived in Asia (Taiwan) for most of my adult life. However, I have not really spent as much time as you and others have in reading about the Tao or what I consider to be a ‘contextualized theology’ that is popular at Andover Newton (C.S. Sung for example). I find this very different from my soteriological inklings which are rapidly moving away from a Augustinian Latin Model via Reformed – Evangelical thinking to an eclectic model from Orthodoxy, Barth, Robert Farrar Capon, etc…. His ‘toll houses’ really are quite different from my conception that the ultimate goal for our lives is to be placed in the midst of the perichoretic koinonia between the Members of the Trinity. IF Christ paid it in full then why would he or others construct such a ‘process’?? You do not need to respond that “I don’t get it..” since I am becoming much more aware of a large paradigm shift should one wish to join – participate in a EO tradition. Although I have read several (and will continue to read many more in the future) testimonies to those who have choose to do so I seriously doubt that this would be my so-called cup of tea. ; ) I deeply respect and admire your devotion to your Orthodox tradition. However, the particular eccelesiology and liturgy that you find “very dear” are huge challenges for me. oops! I am starting to ramble … May the richness of the “divine dance” envigorate your life today! May “The Grace of His Life” permeate your entire being! — Jim

  14. Basil Says:

    neonlinux, my advice to you is to focus on what is essential. Let peripheral issues like this “toll house” thing (which are theological opinion — theologoumena/θεολογουμενα) be peripheral. Don’t focus on them, especially if they seem confusing or contradictory. There are so many other things to focus on in your pilgrimage.