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.
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
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
Remedy: concentrate on spiritual life, keep out of limelight, stay uninvolved from
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.” 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].”
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.
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
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.
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
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!”
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.”
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.” “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.”
It was wrong, he said, for young cradle-Orthodox to voice their “easy criticism
of their elders and their Orthodox ‘ghettos.’” 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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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:
FSR—Fr. Seraphim Rose
LER—Letter of Eugene Rose
LFSR—Letter of Fr. Seraphim Rose
JER—Philosophical Journal of Eugene Rose, 1960-62
OW—The Orthodox Word
SHB—St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California
CSHB—Chronicle of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, written by Eugene/Fr. Seraphim
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.