Converts - Chapter 88 from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works

by Hieromonk Damascene

As many as are made partakers of the Spirit of Christ, see that you do not behave contemptuously in anything, small or great, and do not offend the grace of the Spirit, that you may not be excluded from the life of which you have already been made partakers.

—St. Macarius the Great1

Christians are not born but made.

—Blessed Jerome2

A truth-seeker," Fr. Herman used to say, "when he finds the truth in Orthodoxy, must then stop his searching. His path to Orthodoxy, which is on a horizontal plane, has ended, and now he must go 'vertically,' deeper into Orthodoxy. If he continues to progress on the horizontal level, perpetually seeking how to be externally right, it is often the case that he will keep progressing right out of the Church."

In Fr. Seraphim, Fr. Herman found a convert who had turned from the horizontal to the vertical—who, upon finding Orthodoxy, had never ceased to go deeper into it. Now that Fr. Seraphim had jumped so many convert hurdles and acquired that rare “Patristic mind,” Fr. Herman thought he would have some important lessons to give to today’s converts. At one point he asked him to compose a “Manual for Orthodox Converts.”

Accepting this as an obedience, Fr. Seraphim went to his cell to write out some notes. On one page he jotted down the following “convert pitfalls,” or what he called “obstacles in the Orthodox mission today':

A. Trusting oneself, samost.
Remedy: sober distrust of oneself, taking counsel of others wiser, guidance from Holy Fathers.

B. Academic approach—overly intellectual, uninvolved, uncommitted, abstract, unreal. Bound up with A. also.

C. Not keeping the secret of the Kingdom, gossip, publicity. Overemphasis on outward side of mission, success. Danger of creating empty shell, form of mission without substance.
Remedy: concentrate on spiritual life, keep out of limelight, stay uninvolved from passionate disputes.

D. “Spiritual Experiences.”
Symptoms: feverish excitement, always something “tremendous” happening—the blood is boiling. Inflated vocabulary, indicates puffed up instead of humble. Sources in Protestantism, and in one’s own opinions “picked up” in the air.
Remedy: sober distrust of oneself, constant grounding in Holy Fathers and Lives of Saints, counsel.

E. Discouragement, giving up—“Quenched” syndrome.
Cause: overemphasis on outward side, public opinion, etc.
Remedy: emphasis on inward, spiritual struggle, lack of concern for outward success, mindfulness of Whom we are followers of (Christ crucified but triumphant).

F. A double axe: broadness on one hand, narrowness on the other.

Writing about converts in another place, Fr. Seraphim once again identified “pain of heart” as a watershed of true spiritual life. “Pain of heart,” he wrote, “is what separates crazy converts and careless Orthodox from true strugglers.”[3] He believed that, without the contrition and inward brokenness that is born of pain of heart, converts remain on the horizontal level, scrutinizing everything in Orthodoxy according to their self-opinion, and trusting the faulty conclusions of their logical minds. In the words of St. Barsanuphius the Great, which Fr. Seraphim translated into English: “Without pain of heart no one receives the gift of discerning thoughts [the motives of actions and the like].”[4]

In yet another place, Fr. Seraphim described the spirit of undiscerning criticism that often enters converts today:

“My priest (or parish) does everything right—other priests (or parishes) don’t.” “My priest does everything wrong; others are better.” “My monastery does everything according to the Holy Fathers—other monasteries don’t.” “My monastery is not according to the Holy Fathers or canons, but that monastery over there is perfect, everything according to the Holy Fathers.”

Such attitudes are spiritually extremely dangerous. The person holding them is invariably in grave spiritual danger himself, and by uttering his mistaken, self-centered words he spreads the poison of rationalist criticism to others in the Church.[5]

Fr. Seraphim had one spiritual son whom he saw falling into this classic pattern of the “crazy convert” who thinks he knows better than everyone. In a little mission chapel which he had built in his backyard, this man was making an issue over congregational singing versus “partitura” singing by a separate choir. On Pentecost Sunday he had a confrontation in the church with a Russian woman who wanted to have partitura singing. “As I rather bluntly told her,” he wrote to Fr. Seraphim, “I didn’t build a chapel in order to perpetuate error in my own backyard.” In his letter to Fr. Seraphim, he criticized the idea that a person could stand through a Liturgy while a choir did the singing, and said that this was “analogous to going to visit someone in his home and spending the time there with his nose in a magazine.” “I am in no mood to compromise on this issue,” he declared.

In principle, Fr. Seraphim agreed with his spiritual son that congregational singing was to be preferred, but what concerned him most was the man’s attitude. “Beware!” he wrote to him:

No matter how “right” you may be on various points, you must be diplomatic also. The first and important thing is not “rightness” at all, but Christian love and harmony. Most “crazy converts” have been “right” in the criticisms that led to their downfall; but they were lacking in Christian love and charity and so went off the deep end, needlessly alienating people around them and finally finding themselves all alone in their rightness and self-righteousness. Don’t you follow them!...

The attitude toward the little mission which you reveal in your letter is a very dangerous one, both for you and others. I will tell it to you straight and pray that you have the courage to accept it and act on it before it is too late. The “zeal” you are showing for English services, congregational singing, etc., is not primarily zeal according to God, is not based on Christianity; it is, on the contrary, only stubborn self-will, a symptom of the “correctness disease” that plagues so many converts and leads straight to disaster. If you do not fight against this passion now (for it is a passion), the—mission is doomed, and you yourself will very likely lose your own faith and your own family. I have seen this “convert-pattern” in practice too often not to warn you about it.

You are still new to Orthodoxy, and yet you wish to teach those older in the Faith (and from the way you describe it, you are “teaching” them quite crudely, without the slightest tact or Christian charity). Plain common sense should tell you that this is no way to act; Christian love should make you ashamed of your behavior and anxious to learn more of basic Christianity before daring to teach anyone anything. I haven’t heard from anyone in the—area, but I can imagine how your behavior must offend and hurt them. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that you are alienating people; your behavior, as you have described it yourself, is exactly the kind that drives people away and causes fights in the Church. Don’t hide behind “English services” and “no-partitura” singing: these are only half-truths which your pride seizes on in order to avoid basic Christian humility and love.

Look for a moment at how it must seem to others: you couldn’t get along in the—parish and had to drop out; now, in your “own” parish, you drive people away. It simply cannot be that others are always to blame and you are always innocent; you must start correcting your own faults and living in peace with the Christians around you.

How do you do this? You begin by accepting certain basic Orthodox principles:

1. All questions regarding Church services (language, kind of singing, etc.) and behavior in church (including head coverage of women, etc.) are decided by the priest who serves. You are not to be a “policeman” who enforces “church laws” according to your understanding of them; it’s already clear that you are going to drive everybody away doing this, and in any case, people come to church hoping to escape the cold legalism of the world that surrounds us—have pity on them!

2. Realize that you are still a new convert and have much to learn, and are not to be a “teacher” of others, save in the sense that every Orthodox Christian is a source of edification (or the opposite) to others by his behavior. This edification is given first of all, of course, to one’s own family, and this is a place where, according to what you have told me, you are very weak.... You’ve indicated in earlier letters that you and your wife might just drift apart, that [your son] may not end up Orthodox—but how can a Christian husband and father realize such terrible things and not be filled with zeal to correct himself before these disasters happen? (For if these things do happen, you will be to blame: because you did not give your family an example of living Christianity to inspire and warm them, but only some kind of legalistic, soul-less “correctness” that only feeds the ego.)

3. Begin to humble yourself in your relations with others, to act towards them first of all with compassion and love; go out of your way to see things the way they see them and not give offense to their feelings. Cease to be an egotist and learn to live in peace with the Christians around you. This can’t be done overnight, but you can start.

4. Start studying seriously the ABC’s of Orthodox Christianity. Have you read Unseen Warfare recently?—that’s a good place to start....

I’ve said enough, perhaps more than you can digest at once. I do not call on you to “abandon all your ideas,” or to become a totally different man overnight. I only want you to start working harder on yourself and to be more compassionate to others, and to relax on trying to be so “correct.” This is not so impossible, and I think you will never find happiness and spiritual peace unless you do this.[6]

Eight months later, as Fr. Seraphim had feared, the man’s son left him. In his next letter to the man, Fr. Seraphim wrote:

What can I say? Obviously I have failed you as a spiritual father, not communicating to you even the basic ABC’s of Christian spiritual life. In this past year you have gone from bad to worse, alienating even more than before, through your un-Christian behavior ... the Orthodox community, visiting priests, and even your own son—who is surely to a large extent what you have made him, apparently more unconsciously than consciously. The blame for all of this rests squarely upon your shoulders. You are not behaving in a Christian way to any of these people, and you seem totally unaware of the fact....

If you wish to be an Orthodox Christian you must begin now, from this very day and hour and minute, to love God and your fellow men. This means: not to act in an arbitrary or whimsical way with people, not just saying the first thing that enters your head, not picking fights or quarrels with people over anything, big or small, being constantly ready to ask forgiveness of them (and to ask it more than you think is necessary), to have compassion for them and fervently pray for them.... If you had such compassion for your own son, on a regular basis, he would not have left you. He loves you, in case you don’t know it....

If you still accept my authority as a spiritual father, I am giving you a different prayer rule: instead of the Jesus Prayer, say every night 100 prayers by the prayer-rope, with words something like this (or the equivalent in your own words): Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on my brother (name) ... going by name through all the people close to you, starting with your immediate family. With each petition make a bow (prostrations for members of your immediate family). Stop at 100 (repeating names if necessary), and let your last petition be for everyone. By this I want you to wake up and start loving your brothers and sisters, both of the household of faith and those without....

I make a prostration before you and beg your forgiveness for my many sins and failings towards you. May God forgive and have mercy on us all.... I assure you that, whatever your attitude may be towards me, mine towards you has not changed in the least.

With love in Christ,
Unworthy Hieromonk Seraphim[7]

Despite the fact that Fr. Seraphim warned against the dangers of “crazy convertism,” he was never partisan to any silly rivalry between converts and the cradle-Orthodox. He did not agree with the notion, held by some people in the Church, that “the converts are the cause of all the problems in the Church; if we get rid of the converts, the problems will go away.” In a letter to one convert who was trying to deal with a church problem in a restrained and level-headed way, he noted how this convert had acted less like a “crazy convert” than someone who was cradle-Orthodox: “Perhaps we’ve all done a little too much talking about ‘converts’—the pitfalls into which they fall are really the same ones that any believer can and does fall into!”[8]

With this in mind, Fr. Seraphim was against attempts to limit the influence of converts by requiring English-speaking missions to hold their services in Slavonic. In 1979, the priest of a mission parish in England wrote to him in alarm after reading an article by an Archbishop of the Russian Church Abroad which stated that all-Slavonic services had become “Synod policy.” Assuring the priest that no such policy had been implemented, Fr. Seraphim noted that the Archbishop’s views were “extremely unrealistic” and revealing of “very little experience in the mission field.” “We ourselves,” Fr. Seraphim went on to say, “have had complete freedom in developing our American mission. Our services both in the monastery and in our missions are almost entirely in English, and Vladika Anthony when he visits us makes a point of encouraging us to do everything in English, and he himself does as much as he can in English. This is certainly the ‘normal’ attitude of our bishops, and Vladika’s remarks are surely atypical.”[9]

In rejecting the anti-convert view, Fr. Seraphim was also careful not to go to the other extreme, that is, to blame all the church problems on the “ethnicity” of the cradle-Orthodox. He noticed that many Americans who were so strongly against Old World “ethnicity” were not aware of their own ethnicity, which he called “the newest ethnic emphasis: Americanism.”[10] “There are many,” he pointed out, “who now will say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe in ethnicism, we’re American.’ But America is another ethnic jurisdiction. They don’t notice that because they themselves are Americans.”[11] It was wrong, he said, for young cradle-Orthodox to voice their “easy criticism of their elders and their Orthodox ‘ghettos.’”[12] This again was external wisdom. By dismissing something or someone merely on the outward basis of “ethnicity,” one may miss finding the very heart of Orthodoxy, the “living tradition” carried on through the generations. “In the Russian Church,” he said, “we have many ordinary parish priests who are extremely quiet, who would never think of making schisms and factions, who would never think of excommunicating you over various issues of strictness, who are extremely long-suffering and often do not say much; and therefore some people criticize them, saying things like ‘Oh, they don’t guide their people enough, they don’t give them enough.’ These criticisms are superficial: we ourselves must be looking deeper to find something in these pastors and in the Church, something that is not too obvious outwardly—this very ‘link’ with the past.*

“You will not find many people who will explain it in detail like this. No matter where you are—in a parish, or wherever it might be—you have to look behind what is most obvious, and try to receive those things which cannot necessarily be communicated by words. Look for the characteristics that come from a warm, loving heart: long-suffering, patience, fervor—but not fervor of such a kind that it begins to be critical of others.”[13]

Once while working on his “Manual for Orthodox Converts,” Fr. Seraphim made a statement to Fr. Herman which, in the latter’s opinion, expressed a perfectly balanced view of the converts vs. cradle-Orthodox issue. “Those who are raised Orthodox from childhood,” he said, “have patience, but lack zeal. The converts have zeal, but lack patience. The ideal is to have zeal tempered by patience. We must be governed by the Church Fathers, who are the mind of the Church.”[14]

Fr. Seraphim likewise refused to be partisan to another futile controversy in the Church: the relative superiority of the Greek and Russian traditions. To a convert who was troubled by this issue, he wrote:

One can find that in some respects the “Russians” are closer to more ancient and traditional practice ... and in some respects the “Greeks” are closer.... You notice that I put “Greek” and “Russian” in quotation marks—because we are one in Christ, and we should by no means let differences of nationality or custom cause rivalries among us. We have much to learn from each other, but both of us must learn first of all from Christ our Saviour and the pure tradition of His Church! Both “Greeks” and “Russians” have faults and have introduced some minor “innovations” into church practice; but if we love each other in Christ, these faults are tolerable, and it is far preferable to tolerate them than to go about “reforming” other people and being overly critical. Each parish and monastery is free to preserve the Orthodox tradition as fully as it wishes and can, preserving all humility and love.[15]

Father Alexey Young confirms that Fr. Seraphim, far from giving credence to convert vs. cradle-Orthodox rivalries, was actually a “bridge­builder” between “ethnic” Church leaders and a whole generation of American converts. “To understand this,” Fr. Alexey writes, “one must know something about Orthodoxy in America—and particularly in the Russian Church Abroad—back in the 1960s.

“At the time my family and I were approaching Orthodoxy, there were no services in English anywhere (even in many so-called ‘modern’ jurisdictions) and, by comparison with what is available today, there were also relatively few books about the Faith in English. Most clergy spoke little or no English, which made confession and even basic spiritual direction very difficult. Although we were certainly sincerely and warmly welcomed into the Faith (at the Cathedral of the Mother of God, ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’ in San Francisco), much of Orthodoxy was actually still closed to us because of these language barriers.

“Fr. Seraphim, however, was a conscious ‘bridge-builder’ between American converts and the Church. Because of his fluency in Russian, he could represent us—our needs, our motives, our hopes—to the Church authorities and, at the same time, he was able to explain to us the mind-set and worldview of our Russian hierarchs and clergy, as is dramatically clear in his many letters to converts like myself. This meant that we were able to understand the ‘hearts’ of our Church leaders, and they were able to understand our ’hearts,’ too. For those who were part of the early convert movement, Fr. Seraphim’s ‘bridge-building’ was an incomparable labor of love.”[16]

Father Seraphim was never to complete his “Manual for Converts” project. The more he thought about and struggled with it, the more he became convinced that the very idea of a “manual” was wrong in this case. As he so often reiterated, there are no formulas in spiritual life. Christ gave no detailed “recipes,” but rather gave the most awesome commandment of all: to love—even to love our enemies.

If Fr. Seraphim were to create a “manual,” he would be giving formula-seeking converts a new subject at which they could become “experts.” Paradoxically, they could then “know better” than anyone else about all the convert pitfalls! And this would lead to pride, the death of spiritual life.

The state of contemporary converts, however, was far from hopeless. Toward the end of his life Fr. Seraphim noticed that the older generation of converts, which had largely been attracted to Orthodoxy as an opportunity for legalism and intellectual pretension, was being replaced by a much more promising generation. “Out here,” he wrote to a friend in Jordanville, “we have noticed a whole new ‘tone’ in the converts of recent years: much less of the ‘know it all’ spirit, emphasis on ‘canons’ and ‘Typicon,’ etc., and much more just basic Orthodox Christianity.”[17]

Today we see a rising number of such converts who, as Fr. Seraphim liked to say, “get the point” of Orthodoxy. The same old convert pitfalls are still there, and there will always be people falling into them, no matter how many warnings they receive. But the warnings of Fr. Seraphim, found throughout his writings, have not been in vain. Although they cannot provide any kind of sure-fire formula for a “prelest-free” spiritual life, they have helped many souls to take that “vertical” path beneath the externals, to the heart of ancient Christianity.


The following abbreviations have been used in these Notes:

ER—Eugene Rose

FSR—Fr. Seraphim Rose

LER—Letter of Eugene Rose

LFSR—Letter of Fr. Seraphim Rose

JER—Philosophical Journal of Eugene Rose, 1960-62

OWThe Orthodox Word

SHB—St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California

CSHB—Chronicle of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, written by Eugene/Fr. Seraphim Rose

Letter, Journal and Chronicle dates are according to the civil calendar, except where a Church feast day is indicated, in which case both the Church (Julian or “Old” Calendar) and civil (Gregorian or “New” Calendar) dates are given.

Most of the letters of Fr. Seraphim cited in this book were preserved in carbon copy by Fr. Seraphim himself; some were sent by their recipients to the author for publication in this book. In some of the references to letters the names of the recipients have been abbreviated, and in others the names have been omitted altogether in order to protect the privacy of living persons.

The book Letters from Fr. Seraphim by Fr. Alexey Young includes many letters that were not preserved by Fr. Seraphim in carbon copy. When we have quoted these letters directly from this book, references to the book have been given.

* Here Fr. Seraphim was thinking of priests like Fr. Grigori Kravchina of the church of St. Seraphim in Seaside, the first Orthodox priest he had talked to.

1. St. Macarius the Great, Homily 15:4. Quoted in Saints Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, pp. 154-55; revised edition, p. 159.

2. St. Jerome, Letters and Select Works. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), p. 190.

3. FSR, quoted in Saints Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 17; revised edition, p. 15.

4. Ibid., p. 79. The explanatory phrase in brackets was added by FSR, the translator.

5. Notes of FSR, with the heading “Wrong spirit of converts today.”

6. LFSR to —, June 18, 1979.

7. Ibid., March 26, 1980.

8. LFSR to Alexey Young, St. Thomas Sunday, April 23/May 6, 1973.

9. LFSR to Fr. Yves, June 14, 1979.

10. FSR, “Orthodoxy in the USA,” p. 214.

11. Ibid., taken from a transcript of his oral delivery.

12. [FSR], “The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality: Introduction, III: How Not to Read the Holy Fathers,” p. 234.

13. Informal talk by FSR during the New Valaam Theological Academy, which followed the St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, August 1979.

14. FSR, Heavenly Realm, p. 107.

15. LFSR to Nicholas, Feb. 17, 1973.

16. Written communication of Hiero­monk Ambrose (formerly Fr. Alexey Young) to the author, Oct. 11, 2002.

17. LFSR to Fr. Hilarion, June 12, 1980.

From Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press), pp. 843-852. Copyright 2003 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California. Used with permission.