ENGLISH VERSION: Sermon on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Repose of the Venerable Seraphim (Rose). By Hieromonk Gregory (Lourie) (now Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov) August 20 / September 2, 2002
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the memory of the Venerable Seraphim (Rose) of Platina precisely twenty years to the day of his righteous repose. Somehow these twenty years have flown by completely unnoticeably for those who remember him, who knew something of him during his lifetime, or who at the very least learned something about him shortly after his death, when color photographs depicting him lying in his coffin spread throughout all of Russia, photographs in which his face had a look of unusual nobility despite the fact that he had died after a serious illness that had left him completely and entirely exhausted.
Fr. Seraphim (Rose) was perhaps the first saint who appeared on the American continent in the twentieth century among Americans, and not among those Orthodox who were Russian or Greek in their upbringing, or from some other Orthodox nation, such as the Arabs, of whom there are also very many in America. America perhaps has a special significance in the fate of contemporary Orthodoxy because the American people are of course the fruit of the entire European civilization of recent centuries; they are the cream – or, to put it another way, the froth – that was continuously taken from European civilization and transported there. Of course, one might say that their cultural level is very low compared to Europe, with a very low level of education, science, and art – and this, of course, is a consequence of having been severed from European cultural traditions. But at the same time this is a good thing, given that the primary cultural tradition of Europe, unfortunately, has a religious significance, and a very bad one at that. The European nations consider themselves Christian, and this is their very greatest mistake. It would be better if they were Muslims and considered themselves Muslims, because that which they call Christianity has nothing to do with Christianity. Therefore the fact that they think they are already Christians prevents them from accepting authentic Christianity, and therefore the preaching of True Orthodoxy in Western Europe, although it is being undertaken and people are converting, has been extremely unsuccessful. In America it is entirely different. Indeed, the civilization there does not consider itself Christian, and therefore people coming to Orthodoxy have no illusions of coming from Christianity to Christianity. Most often these people, like Fr. Seraphim (Rose), understand that they grew up in godlessness, in a godless civilization. They are truly ready to change their lives entirely in order to become Christians.
This is exactly what Fr. Seraphim (Rose) did, and this is his significance for all contemporary Christians: he demonstrated how one could convert to Christianity from our civilization – which has mastered the entire world apart from perhaps its Islamic and Buddhist parts and sub-Saharan Africa – the main ideology of which he identified as nihilism. Fr. Seraphim’s primary thought was that the root of the absurdity and ugliness of human existence, about which so many twentieth-century philosophies spoke, and especially existentialism, in fact lies not in the word, but in man himself. It was not man that became the victim of the world order but, to the contrary, it was the world that became the victim of the terrible order in man; it was precisely from the fact that man so changed and renounced the true order of things, renounced serving God, that the world around him changed and finds itself in insoluble conflict. Man, in order to return to the true order of things, must renounce himself. And that is what Orthodoxy is – or, more precisely, that is what Orthodox monasticism is, because monasticism, as Fr. Seraphim well understood, contains the entire truth of undiluted Orthodoxy. Therefore for him the desire to become Orthodox in fact implied (although he may not have understood it at first) becoming a monk. His Orthodox life, very soon after he accepted it, became in actual fact a monastic life, and a few years later he accepted the monastic tonsure. Therefore Fr. Seraphim’s teaching is very important for monastics in the contemporary world.
Yet many may ask: how important can it be when we see that Fr. Seraphim’s entire work has been destroyed? Indeed, only twenty years have passed since his repose, and yet we see that nearly all his disciples have remained either in ecumenical jurisdictions – that is, those infected by the heresy of ecumenism – or else have disappeared. The monastery he founded in Platina is now under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarchate and it is unknown where his closest collaborator, Fr. Herman (Podmashensky), finds himself. One of his closest disciples, a priest, is in the ecumenical part of the Church Abroad headed by Metropolitan Laurus. Only one or two of Fr. Seraphim’s direct disciples find themselves in the True Orthodox Church. At the same time we see that other monasteries founded at the same time as the one in Platina (a few of them, at the very least) are flourishing and standing fast in the Orthodox faith, doing well materially, with many monks and novices. Why then should we learn monasticism more from Fr. Seraphim than from them? Indeed, if what we want to learn from him is how to build a monastery, or how a community could do well materially, then of course he has little to teach us, because he himself did not particularly excel in this. But this is not the main point of monasticism; the main point is to learn how to build up one’s spiritual life. And it is precisely here that Fr. Seraphim’s significance is enormous. The fact that he did not leave behind any direct disciples is entirely insignificant, because people can learn his teaching from his books regardless of where they live; he has more such disciples than he ever could have had direct disciples. And his greatest significance lies precisely in this.
What did he teach about the monastic life? He taught that monastic life could be divided into three main categories, each of which can be beneficial in contemporary circumstances. It is important that each individual person, however, chooses the one that suits him best. The first is simply to settle in the wilderness, either alone or with someone else, and there start a new monastery. As we know, this is the monastic path that he chose for himself. But he also warned that this path is only for a few, because today people are weak and this path entails great physical hardships – hardships so great that for the vast majority of people it simply is not worth it, inasmuch as it will not be a life that is conducive to prayer, and the burden will be beyond their powers; therefore this path is inappropriate for the majority of people. Indeed, we see that after Fr. Seraphim’s death the hermitage he had founded was practically destroyed. Although for some this path is possible even today.
Another path indicated by St. Seraphim – one that was appropriate for few even in his own time, and all the more so in our own, because much has changed for the worse – is to settle in a large monastery with its own spiritual tradition. Perhaps, and in fact probably, this monastery will not have sufficiently finely-tuned spiritual direction and guidance in prayer – but nonetheless it will provide the general framework necessary for your life that will help you from straying too far from Orthodoxy; and if you wish to make spiritual progress this will largely depend on yourself.
But there are fewer and fewer such well-ordered monasteries that have not turned from spiritual harbors into spiritual dens of iniquity. Already in the middle of the nineteenth century St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) warned that there were few good monasteries, and by Fr. Seraphim’s time in the 1970s there were still fewer, and they have become ever fewer today. This is not even to mention the fact that there can be no Orthodox monasticsm in heretical ecumenical jurisdictions, and that one should not enter their monasteries no matter how well-ordered they are. In the True Orthodox Churches the old monasteries are just barely alive, and all is far from well there, and therefore one cannot advise everyone to go there. True, there will not be the same burden as in a solitary life in the wilderness, and physically it will be easier; but there will be moral pressure that is even worse than physical pressure, and which very few can bear.
Therefore, while not rejecting these means, but warning of their limited importance, Fr. Seraphim (Rose) said that for the future the most promising means for Christian life was to create new communities, not in the wilderness or in harsh conditions, but in physical conditions that are more or less close to our everyday life. Fr. Seraphim did not write in particular about what these communities would be like, inasmuch as he was not practically involved with this, and it is always hard ahead of time to predict what they will be like, especially in our world, where everything changes so quickly; these forms might be entirely unexpected. We know that after the fourth century, when monasticism had just been established, how many different forms of ascetic life there were, including in cities and in urban apartments. At the very least, we know that in the Church monasticism in its inner sense will never dry up, but these forms will. We must only remember Fr. Seraphim’s main words of warning for those who will live in such communities.
This can give rise to the spirit of collective pride. That is, someone may be personally humble, and therefore does not see his personal pride, which in fact he might not even especially have. But the feeling of belonging to the "most correct" community (and if it is not very correct, then why belong to it?), this very sense of belonging to something correct, is fraught with the temptation of pride, and namely collective pride, such that a person attentive to his personal pride might not even notice. Here one needs to be especially on the lookout for collective pride. If we belong to such a community – or, at the very least, are trying to establish such a community – just belonging to a correct monastery or community will not save us and therefore should not be the occasion for pride. A community might be correct times ten, but we can be incorrect times one hundred, even while a formal member. Therefore we must at all times remember that no matter what community we belong to – in the end, what could be higher than belonging to the True Church of Christ, without which monasticism is impossible and unthinkable? – this will save us only if we are attentive to ourselves, if we humble ourselves before God, truly renounce the word, that is, our passions – and perhaps even our passion for monasticism – and follow only God in everything, holding on to nothing. This will be humility; this will be repentance. This is what St. Seraphim (Rose) teaches us in particular today. By his supplication, which today is of course much greater than during his life, may the Lord establish us in Truth and grant true monasticism to those who desire it.