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Simplicity - Chapter 87 from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works

by Hieromonk Damascene

Be humble, and you will remain whole.
Be bent, and you will remain straight.…
Appear plainly, and hold to simplicity.
—Lao Tzu [1]

In 1979, during an informal talk after the St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, Fr. Seraphim spoke to his brothers and sisters in Christ on the theme of simplicity. Even before his conversion he had encountered this virtue in the writings of the pre-Christian Chinese sages, who by observing and contemplating the created order had understood simplicity and humility to be the “Way of heaven.” In the God-man Jesus Christ he had found this “Way” incarnated, and had heard the call: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18:3).

“A pagan philosopher in China named Lao Tzu,” Fr. Seraphim told the brothers and sisters, “taught that the weakest things conquer the strongest things. There is an example of this here at our monastery. The oak trees, which are very hard and unbending, are always falling down, and their limbs are always breaking off and falling; while the pine trees, which are more supple, fall down much less often before they are actually dead.

“That is, if you bend, it is a sign of strength. We can see the same thing in human life. The person who believes in something to such an extent that he’s going to stand up and ‘cut your head off’ if you don’t agree with him—he shows his weakness, because he’s so unsure of himself that he has to convert you to make sure that he himself believes.”

Fr. Seraphim said that in order for us to “bend” like the pine trees, our hearts must be transformed. “The way,” he said, “is to soften the heart, to make the heart more supple.”

“In the Protestant world, we have many examples of people with soft hearts, who, for the love of Christ, are kind to other people. That is basic Christianity. We should not, in living an Orthodox life, think that we can be cold and hard and correct and still be Christians. Being correct is the external side of Christianity. It’s important, but not of first importance. Of primary importance is the heart. The heart must be soft, the heart must be warm. If we do not have this warm heart, we have to ask God to give it, and we have to try ourselves to do those things by which we can acquire it. Most of all, we have to see that we have not got it—that we are cold. Therefore, we will not trust our reason and the conclusions of our logical minds, with regard to which we must be somewhat ‘loose.’ If we do this, entering into the sacramental life of the Church and receiving the grace of God, then God Himself will begin to illumine us.…

“The one thing that can save us is simplicity. It can be ours if in our hearts we pray to God to make us simple; if we just do not think ourselves so wise; if, when it comes to a question like, ‘Can we paint an icon of God the Father?’ we do not come up with a quick answer and say, ‘Oh, of course it’s this way—it says so in such and such Sobor [Council], number so and so.’ Either we, knowing that we are right, have to excommunicate everyone, in which case we will go off the deep end, or else we have to stop and think, ‘Well, I guess I don’t know too much.’ The more we have this second attitude, the more we will be protected from spiritual dangers.

“Accept simply the Faith you receive from your fathers. If there is a very simple Russian priest you happen to be in connection with, give thanks to God that you have someone like that. You can learn a great deal from him: because you’re so complex, intellectual, and moody, these simple priests can give something very good to you.…

“As soon as you begin to hear or think to yourself critical statements [about people in the Church], you have to stop and warn yourself that, even if it’s true—because often those statements are true to some degree—this critical attitude is a very negative thing. It will not get you anywhere. In the end it may get you right outside the whole Church. Therefore, you have to stop at that point and remember not to judge, not to think you’re so wise that you know better. On the contrary, try to learn, perhaps without words, from some of those people whom you might be critical of.…

“If we follow the simple path—distrusting our own wisdom, doing the best we can with our mind, yet realizing that our mind, without warmth of heart, is a very weak tool—then an Orthodox philosophy of life will begin to be formed in us.” [2]

 

As Fr. Seraphim taught simplicity, so also he lived it. Many people remember how this brilliant man, whose intellectual abilities far surpassed their own, provided them with a constant example of how to be simple. In the words of the biographer of St. John Climacus, Fr. Seraphim had renounced the “conceit of human wisdom.” [3] Here is the account of a pilgrim to the St. Herman Monastery named John:

“When I first met Fr. Seraphim, I had almost finished my freshman year in college. Already I considered myself somewhat of a deep thinker, one who did battle with ‘ultimate questions’ on the path of Truth. I noticed that most of the people around me were not interested in this: either they were too old, tired, and jaded to take up such battles, or, if they were young, they were more interested in having fun or making money in business or computers….

“Seeing in Fr. Seraphim a kindred philosopher, I longed to have deep discussions with him about those ultimate questions. He always listened patiently as I expounded all my ‘profound’ ideas, but he didn’t expound himself: usually he only made simple, succinct comments. I was a bit puzzled by this at the time, but now it makes sense. Now, nearly a decade later, it seems that almost all of those simple comments have remained imbedded in my memory forever.

“I first became interested in Orthodoxy by studying its most exalted teachings. The first Orthodox books I read were Mystical Theology by St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky. I was attracted to ineffable concepts such as the ‘Divine Darkness’ of apophatic theology.

“Fr. Seraphim, however, was always bringing me down to earth. After I was made a catechumen at the monastery, I was expected to learn about the Faith in preparation for baptism. I thought I already knew a lot, dealing as I was with such lofty metaphysics. But when I went to Fr. Seraphim’s cell to talk to him, one of the first questions he asked me was: ‘Do you know about the fasts of the Church?’

“‘I think so,’ I replied. ‘There’s Lent, and another fast before Christmas …’

“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you know about the Apostles Peter and Paul Fast?’

“I was ashamed to say I did not recall hearing that such a thing existed.

“‘This is a very important fast of the Church,’ he said, and went on to describe what it was and why it was done. ‘Someone calculated,’ he said at last, ‘and it turns out that there are more fast days in the Church Calendar than there are non-fast days.’

“This rather surprised me. I believe Fr. Seraphim was trying to tell me that being baptized did not mean feeling important with exalted theology and philosophy, but taking on a life of struggle, of labor and sacrifice for Jesus Christ. In his own unobtrusive way, he was leading me out of the ‘Divine Darkness’ and to the foot of the Cross, the vehicle of our salvation.

“During the year of my catechumenate, I took a university course on the Philosophy of Religion, for which I wrote two highly rated papers I was rather proud of. The first paper was called ‘Reflections on Kant’s “Purely Rational Religion.”’ I gave this to Fr. Seraphim for him to read. I suppose I was anticipating a little praise. Later, I asked him if he had looked at it, and he said he had.

“‘What did you think of it?’ I asked.

“‘It was a little over my head,’ he answered.

“This left me speechless. Later I discovered, much as I suspected, that Fr. Seraphim had made a thorough study, not only of Kant, but of many philosophers I had never even heard of, and that he had a much more penetrating understanding of Western philosophy than my university professors. Why, then, did he say that my eleven-page sophomore paper was ‘over his head’? Clearly, to teach me simplicity and its sister-virtue, humility.

“My other paper was on Søren Kierkegaard, whose philosophy was so full of paradox and intellectual challenge that one could spend days talking about it.

“‘What do you think of Kierkegaard?’ I asked Fr. Seraphim.

“‘I always felt sorry for him.’ Those were the only words Fr. Seraphim had to say to me on the subject. His statement had to do, not with the mind, but with the heart. In thinking more about Kierkegaard—his struggle to maintain Christian zeal amidst the general lukewarmness of his Church, to uphold Christian faith against a barrage of Hegelian philosophy, and to overcome the contradictions in his own personality—I realized later that nothing more precise could be said of him than those few words of Fr. Seraphim.” [4]

 

Another pilgrim, Paul, recalls his futile attempts to enter into intellectual debates with Fr. Seraphim. As a pastor of a Protestant church, Paul was convicted in his heart by the spiritual depth of Orthodoxy. In order to prove that Orthodoxy was not the true way after all, he wanted to win an argument with Fr. Seraphim. Fr. Seraphim would ask if he had questions, but Paul would try to start arguments instead. As he later confessed, “I came to Fr. Seraphim not with questions but with opinions.”

At one point Paul worked out an elaborate polemic against Orthodoxy based on the fact that pogroms against Jews had occurred in pre-Revolutionary Russia. When he approached Fr. Seraphim and began setting forth his points about the pogroms, the latter replied, “I don’t have to defend something that is obviously not Christian.” As Paul recalled later, “That reply shred all my pre-planned arguments to pieces!”

On another occasion, when Paul challenged Fr. Seraphim with the question of whether he, a Protestant, would go to heaven or hell, Fr. Seraphim replied, “Who am I to say whether you’re going to heaven or hell?”

“Fr. Seraphim would just not enter the Protestant dialectic,” Paul later observed. “He would just say, ‘The Holy Fathers said …’”

At other times, when Paul would speak to Fr. Seraphim in a contentious tone, trying to provoke him to debate, Fr. Seraphim would say nothing at all, but would simply stand up and walk away. “This taught me a profound lesson,” Paul now says. “From his silentness and his unwillingness to argue, Fr. Seraphim taught me that faith is something you receive not otherwise than as a little child.” [5]

After Fr. Seraphim’s repose, Paul regretted that his competitive approach robbed him of precious opportunities to receive wisdom from someone he remembered as a true man of God. He was eventually baptized as an Orthodox Christian, and today he is an active and dedicated member of the Church.

 

A young monk who joined the hermitage from another monastery remembers well his first meeting with Fr. Seraphim. Unlike the pilgrims in the above accounts, this monk did not regard himself as an intellectual. He felt somewhat intimidated about meeting Fr. Seraphim, whom he already knew to be a profound and “intense” Orthodox writer.

When told by Fr. Herman to go talk to Fr. Seraphim in his cell, the monk did so nervously. Fr. Seraphim invited him in and he sat down, wondering what in the world a “simpleton” like himself was going to say to this wise and deep man with a long gray beard and penetrating eyes.

Suddenly Fr. Seraphim asked him: “Do you know anything about picking mushrooms?”

“No …” the new brother answered.

A veteran mushroom picker, Fr. Seraphim was able to tell, with openhearted enthusiasm, about all the edible mushrooms found in the area. The brother felt instantly more at ease. It was just what he needed: to hear about the simple joys of monastic life.

 

In seeking simplicity, Fr. Seraphim fled from what he called “spiritual pretense and affectation.” [6] He had none of the “pride of monastic life” that makes some love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces (Mark 12:38). One woman convert to Orthodoxy recalls:

“I was still a Protestant when I met Fr. Seraphim. Icons, relics, monasteries, the idea of ongoing repentance—all this was still foreign to me.

“While visiting an Orthodox friend, I was told that Fr. Seraphim would be coming. I tried to mentally prepare myself. When he walked in, he looked so different, with his long beard, long hair, and long robe. I told myself that this was not really him, but just an external appearance, and that I had to see beyond it. I tried to separate the person from the outward impression, since with so many people the latter has very little to do with the former. But with Fr. Seraphim I just couldn’t do it. I found that what I saw was Fr. Seraphim; that is, his Orthodox Faith, his monasticism, the black he wore as a symbol of repentance—this was part of what he really was inside. They were inextricably bound together.” [7]

Fr. Seraphim also fled from praise and glory as from a flame. Once, during a question-and-answer session after one of his Summer Pilgrimage lectures, a man raised his hand and began praising Fr. Seraphim as a “holy man of prayer.” Fr. Seraphim cut the man off sharply. “Get to the point,” he said. “What’s your question?”

At the same pilgrimage Fr. Seraphim was approached by a young spiritual seeker who worshipped the very ground he walked on. Not yet knowing Orthodox “etiquette,” the young man spontaneously crossed himself and bowed before Fr. Seraphim when asking for a blessing. “You’re supposed to cross yourself before icons,” Fr. Seraphim told him, “not people.”

 

Taking example from Bishop Nektary and, through him, from the Optina Elders, Fr. Seraphim sometimes used humor as a pastoral tool. We have seen that he did not like too much levity in the monastery, how he disliked to see brothers standing around giggling. At the same time, he knew that too much seriousness would not be good for weak Americans, especially young ones. As a spiritual father, he had to take into consideration how the boys and young men at the monastery had been raised. These young people needed a little consolation, a little joke now and then to lighten the atmosphere. Otherwise, they would begin to take themselves too seriously, thereby becoming the criterion by which everything else is judged; or else they would sink into a pit of despondency out of which it would be very difficult to emerge.

Those who knew Fr. Seraphim recall that he had a wonderful sense of humor, though one which, like everything else about his personality, was understated. One story has been told by the same young monk whom Fr. Seraphim had talked to about mushrooms:

Once in the refectory, Fr. Herman was expatiating on the futility of modern technological civilization. “They build skyscrapers high into the air,” he was saying. “They compete to see who can build them higher. And they keep on building, building, building. When will it all end? They can only build so high—and then what?”

“Why then,” Fr. Seraphim said, “King Kong comes.”

Fr. Alexey Young notes that “Fr. Seraphim had a fondness for practical jokes which, unless you had been there, would have seemed very out of character. Nothing low-minded or cruel, mind you, but once in a rare while he would play a modest little practical joke on someone.” [8]

One of Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual daughters provides an example: “Sollie [Solomonia] once told me a story which reflects Fr. Seraphim’s humor. It was at the monastery after a rain and there were puddles around, and he told Sollie to come and look at the duck that was in one of the puddles. He told her to be very quiet so she wouldn’t scare it, so she was. Then he began to chuckle softly, and she realized that it was a fake duck … a decoy!”

Another woman pilgrim, who had been introduced to the monastery only a year before Fr. Seraphim’s death, remembers being surprised at seeing Fr. Seraphim engaged in a snowball fight with the boys at the monastery. At first she thought that this looked out of place; but then, as she entered more deeply into Orthodox life, she realized that yes, it did fit here.

Fr. Herman has said: “When I first met Fr. Seraphim, he never would have lowered his dignity enough to start a snowball fight.” It was only in his later years, when he had become a pastor and had to care for the needs of American boys, that he could be seen doing this. Fr. Seraphim also played catch with the boys.

 

Another virtue of Fr. Seraphim, bound up with simplicity and humility, was patience. “If I possess any patience at all now,” Fr. Herman says, “I learned it from Fr. Seraphim. I think that’s the main thing he taught me.”

In his counsels to his spiritual children, Fr. Seraphim often said that their spiritual survival depended on having patience amidst trials. “The devil is walking about like a lion in our midst,” he said, “but by our patience and endurance of trials we can get the best of him, with God’s help.” [9] Once, when Fr. Alexey Young wrote that he was beset with various difficulties, Fr. Seraphim replied that the “chief answer to your questions” was contained in the words of the Epistle of St. James: Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing (James 1:2–4). [10] In another letter to Fr. Alexey, Fr. Seraphim noted that “It is much better to learn patience and humility than it is to get everything as one wants and then discover … that inside one is empty. May God grant us to trust Him as He guides our daily lives better than we could.” [11]

For Fr. Seraphim, patience was an indispensable virtue not only because it kept one on the path to salvation in the midst of trials and temptations, but also because it kept one from leaping off that path out of misdirected spiritual zeal. “By taking one small step at a time,” he once said, “and by not thinking that in one big leap we are going to get any place, we can walk straight to the Kingdom of Heaven—and there is no reason for any of us to fall away from that. Amen.” [12]

Endnotes

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.

1. Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, chapters 22, 19, trans. Ch'u Ta-kao (London, 1937), pp. 32, 29.

2. Informal talk by FSR during the New Valaam Theological Academy, which followed the St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, August 1979. Published in part in FSR, "Raising the Mind, Warming the Heart," pp. 32'33.

3. St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. xxxv.

4. Reminiscences of the author.

5. Informal talk at the St. Herman Monastery on the 20th anniversary of Fr. Seraphim's repose (Sept. 2, 2002).

6. Manuscript of a short history of the St. Herman Brotherhood, written by Fr. Seraphim ca. 1975.

7. Reminiscences of Agafia Prince.

8. Interview of Fr. Alexey Young by Russkiy Pastyr', March 9, 1999.

9. LFSR to Fr. Mark, July 7, 1976.

10. LFSR to Alexey Young, Oct. 31, 1972.

11. Ibid., Jan. 20, 1975.

12. FSR, "Raising the Mind, Warming the Heart," p. 34.

From Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press), pp. 834-841. Copyright 2003 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California. Used with permission.