Sunday, September 02, 2007

Fr Seraphim (Rose) 25 years on
From Clifton (Benedict Seraphim) Healy

My take on him.

My old acquaintance Alison Engler is an important figure in Fr Damascene’s 1,000-page biography of him which also serves as a good condensed version of everything he wrote. I’ve read the whole thing.

He was a traditionalist who saw through modernity back in the 1950s (a time of fashionable cold agnosticism and materialism, having the form of religion — going through the motions for social respectability — but denying the power thereof) yet also saw about 10-15 years later that the hippies’ romantic reaction (go back to the land, bake bread, have babies, listen to Indian ragas and memorise Buddhist sutras) to their elders’ errors had a point. But he probably saw that, as they were rootless, they were part of the same problem and worsened those errors (overthrow a classical liberal society’s rule of law and you get Maoism and the destruction you saw at the end of the 1960s).

I’ve also read two of his books, The Soul After Death and Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. (And have been to the convent at Forestville and met Fr Herman once.)

The first book has one of the finest explanations of the afterlife I’ve read: the state of the soul right after death including the particular judgement, and heaven, hell and the intermediate state, are states of being but in another dimension usually invisible to us.

He was controversial among some Orthodox because he believed in the aerial toll-houses, an Eastern European folkloric explanation of the particular judgement, which may well be in the space as our air but again in another dimension. It’s a perfectly good opinion!

But when it came to the intermediate state and the finality of hell he was on thin ice theologically.

Functionally Orthodox really do believe in purgatory only they don’t call it that — otherwise prayer for the dead would be a waste like Protestants say. (Anybody who’s seen the traffic around the brass-covered candle table and heard the паннихида that’s often sung on Sundays after Liturgy in a Russian church knows the Orthodox fervently pray for the dead!) His and St Mark of Ephesus’s objection that the defined Roman doctrine is ‘too literal’ strikes me as merely spite-Rome whingeing of no substance. (See below on saints and their opinions.)

Just like there is no doctrine about the form of the particular judgement — you may believe there are aerial toll-houses or not — there is none on the form of the intermediate state. Purgatorial fire is not Roman doctrine!

Fr Seraphim’s bigger problem IIRC (I read his books 11 years ago) was he denied the finality of hell if any people end up there. (You can hope there are none there but have to believe in the terrifying possibility of going there.)

I understand an Orthodox opinion, taught by Fr Seraphim here, is the intermediate state consists of two ‘waiting rooms’, one for heaven, the other for hell. People in either state are helped by our prayers and IIRC Fr Seraphim even goes as far as saying our prayers can get somebody out of hell.

Very appealing, as it highlights God’s love. But just like outright universalism it denies people’s free will.

So that would be heresy.

Yes, I know, St Gregory of Nyssa. Individually church fathers and other saints could be and sometimes were wrong!

That said I rather like St Isaac the Syrian’s idea that in the end people experience God’s all-consuming, inescapable love in one of two ways. The good experience it as joy but for the evil it’s hell.

The un-Westernness of the Orthodox is not a problem at all. Anti-Westernism is. (The ‘anti-’ spirit as the late Gerard Bugge called it.) Among Fr Seraphim’s followers you see the sad irony among conservative Orthodox of people who are admirably fervent and observant, with a mystical, holistic take on things that can be deeper than and gets around some of the problems of the West, but unlike 19th-century Russians can’t see past their nationalism/phyletism/xenophobia or, in some converts’ cases, their residual Protestant bias so either they don’t see or they deny many of the same good and true things in the Catholicism of the West.

Holding that the Pope is not the Vicar of Christ on earth by divine institution with universal jurisdiction, but rather holding that his office is good but man-made like any other rank of the divinely instituted episcopate (apostolic ministry), like other patriarchs, or metropolitans or archbishops, is one thing. (Orthodox commemorate pre-schism Popes of Rome who are saints under exactly that title.) Perfectly respectable. This anti- spirit/spite is another.

The second book is a warning about charismatism, Hinduism (despising the Jesus that Christians believe in as weak!) and 1970s religious fads. He respected Buddhism — as a student of Chinese language and thought in the 1950s he practised it for a while — thinking it one of the noblest ways to go but alas, without Christ. And, like him, I like the Tao Te Ching.

Вечная память. (‘May his memory be eternal’, which roughly means ‘may he be in heaven’.)

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