Father Seraphim was born into a typical white middle class Protestant family in San Diego in 1934. While growing up, he was the proverbial dutiful child and academic achiever. After high school, however, he began to passionately seek the answer to the question “Why?”–and, not finding it in the society in which he had been raised, he began to rebel. He refused to accept the accepted answers. This was at the very beginning of the modern counterculture, the early 1950’s. Father Seraphim became a student of one of the counterculture’s first pioneers, Alan Watts (whom he realized later was totally pseudo) and became a Buddhist Bohemian in San Francisco. He learned ancient Chinese in order to study the Tao Teh Ching and other ancient Eastern texts in their original language, hoping thereby to tap into the heart of their wisdom. By this time he had wholly rejected the Protestant Christianity of his formative years, which he regarded as worldly, weak, and fake; he mocked its concept of God and that that it “put God in a box.” He Read Nietzsche until the Prophets words began to resonate in his soul with an electric, infernal power.
All this time, he had been seeking the Truth with his mind, but the Truth had eluded him. He fell into a state of despair which he described years later as a living hell. He felt he did not fit in the modern world, even his family, who did not understand him. It was as if he had somehow been born out of place, out of time. He loved to roam under the stars, but he felt that there was nothing our there to take him in–no God, nothing. The Buddhist “nothingness” left him empty, just as it did the founder of the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac; and, like Kerouac, Father Seraphim turned to drink. He would drink wine voraciously and then would pound on the floor, screaming to God to leave him alone. Once while drunk, he raised his fist to heaven from a mountaintop and cursed God, daring Him to damn him to Hell. In his despair, it seemed worth being damned forever by God’s wrath, if only he could empirically know that God exists–rather than remain in a stagnant state of indifference. If God did damn him to hell, at lest then he would, for that blissful instant, feel God’s touch and know for sure He was reachable
“Atheism,” Father Seraphim wrote in later years, “true ‘existential’ atheism, burning with hatred of a seemingly unjust or unmerciful God is a spiritual state; it is a real attempt to grapple with the true God Whose ways are so inexplicable even to the most believing of men, and it has more than once been known to end in a blinding vision of Him Whom the real atheist truly seeks. It is Christ Who works in these souls. The Antichrist is not to be found in the deniers, but in the small affirmers, whose Christ is only on the lips. Nietzsche, in calling himself Antichrist, proved thereby his intense hunger for Christ…”
In searching through various ancient religions and traditions, Father Seraphim once went to visit a Russian Orthodox Church. Later he wrote of his experience.
“For years in my studies I was satisfied with being ‘above all traditions’ but somehow faithful to them… When I visited an Orthodox Church, it was only in order to view another ‘tradition’. However, when I entered an Orthodox Church for the first time (a Russian Church in San Francisco) something happened to me that I had not experienced in any Buddhist or other Eastern temple; something in my heart said this was ‘home,’ that all my search was over. I didn’t really know what this meant, because the service was quite strange to me and in a foreign language. I began to attend Orthodox services more frequently, gradually learning its language and customs… With my exposure to orthodoxy and Orthodox people, a new idea began to enter my awareness: that Truth was not just an abstract idea, sought and known by the mind, but was something personal–even a Person–sought and loved by the heart. And that is how I met Christ.”
On becoming Orthodox Father Seraphim continued to despise modern world and hoped for nothing from it; he wanted only to escape it. He felt no less, if not more, estranged from the Christianity he had been raised in, for while that Christianity was at home in the world, his was radically otherworldly. He had finally found the designation of man’s existence, and it was this: man is meant for another world.
Father Seraphim’s was an ascetic Faith. He wanted a Christianity that emphasized not earthly consolation and beliefs, but rather heavenly redemption through suffering on this earth. No other kind rang true to him who had suffered much. Only a God Who allowed His children to be perfected for heaven through suffering, and Who Himself set the example by coming to a life of suffering–only such a God was capable of drawing the afflicted world to Himself and was worthy to be worshiped by the highest spiritual faculties of man.
In his journal, Father Seraphim wrote: “Let us not, who would be Christians, expect anything else from it than to be crucified. For to be a Christian is to be crucified, in this time and in any time since Christ came for the first time. His life is the example–and warning–to us all. We must be crucified personally, mystically; for through crucifixion is the only path to resurrection. If we would rise with Christ, we must first be humbled with Him–even to the ultimate humiliation, being devoured and spit forth by the uncomprehending world.
“And we must be crucified outwardly, in the eyes of the world; for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and the world cannot bear it, even in a single representation of it, even for a single moment. The world can only accept Antichrist, now or at anytime.
“No wonder, then, that it is so hard to be Christian–it is not hard it is impossible. No one can knowingly accept a way of life which, the more truly it is lived, leads more surely to one’s own destruction. And that is way we constantly rebel, try to make life easier, try to be half-Christian, try to make the best of both worlds. We must ultimately choose–our felicity lies in one world or the other, not in both.
“God give is the strength to pursue the path of crucifixion; there is not other way to be Christian.”
Before he had found the truth, Father Seraphim had suffered for the lack of it. Now, having found it, he suffered for the sake of it. He devoted the rest of his life to living that truth, and killing himself to give it to others. Together with a young Russian man, named Gleb Podmosphnesky, he formed a Brotherhood which practiced the “Do it yourself” philosophy. They opened a bookstore in San Francisco and began printing a small magazine called the Orthodox Word by hand on a small letterpress, translating Ancient Christian texts and bringing Orthodox Literature to America. Later, to avoid the emptiness of the city, they moved their printing operation to the wilderness of Northern California, where they began to live like the ancient desert dwellers, of ancient times. There was not running water on their forested mountain, no telephone, no electric lines. They built their buildings themselves out of old lumber taken from pioneer dwellings and hauled water on their backs up the mountain. They lived with deer, rabbits, bear, foxes, squirrels, bats, mountain lions, scorpions, and rattlesnakes.
In 1970 the became monks, thus dying forever to the world. In the wilderness Father Seraphim’s spirit began to soar “The city,” he once said, “is for those who are empty, and it pushes away those who are filled and allows them to thrive.”
Working by candlelight in his tiny cabin, Father Seraphim created a great number of original writings and translations of ancient ascetic texts. In America his writings have so far reached only select circles but in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain they have had and incalculable impact on human lives. During the communist era, Father Seraphim’s writings were secretly translated into Russian and distributed in the underground press (samizdat) in the form of typewritten manuscripts. By the time the fall of Communist power in 1991, Father Seraphim was known all over Russia. Today his books are on sale everywhere in Russia, including book tables in the Metro (subway) and on the street. The reason that he has made a much greater mark on Russia that on his homeland is because in Russia people knew how to suffer. Father Seraphim’s message of underground Christianity, of suffering and persecution in this world for the sake of truth, touches a responsive chord in people who have already been crucified. In America people would rather hear the “nice” messages of preachers like Rev. Robert Schuler (who, by the way, broadcasts his show in Russia, where people can hardly believe how stupid it is). I met Father Seraphim a year and a half before his death in 1982. Like him, I had been seeking reality through Eastern religions, etc., by seeking to escape pseudo-reality through a Zen-like breakdown of logical thought processes. Finally, reduced to despair, I listened to Sid Barrett’s two schizophrenic-withdrawal, childhood-regression solo albums over and over, until I had memorized all his word salads. One day Father Seraphim came to the campus where I was going to school. He drove up in an old beat up pick-up truck and emerged in his worn out black robe, his long hair, and his exceedingly long grey beard which had become matted. I was the image of absolute poverty. Next thing I remember I was walking with Father Seraphim through the college. Dinner had just ended and students were milling and hanging around the outside cafeteria. Everyone was staring at Father Seraphim, but he walked through them as naturally as if he had been at home. I the middle of a progressive American college, he seemed like someone who had just stepped out of the 4th century Egyptian desert.
Father Seraphim went to a lecture room and delivered a talk called “Signs of the Coming of the End of the World.” He had happened to be sick at the same time and sniffled throughout his lecture. Obviously exhausted, he yet remained clear-headed, cheerful, and ready to answer questions at length. I could see that he was at least as learned and far more wise than any of my professors, and yet he was clearly a man of the wilderness, more at home in the forest than in a classroom.
What struck me most about Father Seraphim was that here was a man who was totally sacrificing himself for God, for the truth. He was not a university Professor receiving a comfortable salary for being a disseminator of knowledge, nor was he a religious leader who hankered after power, influence, or even a bowl of fruit to be placed at his feet, as did the “spiritual masters” who had followings in that area. He was not “into religion” for what could he get out of it; he was not looking for a crutch to “enjoy spiritual life.” He was just a simple monk who sought the Truth above all else. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would die for that Truth, for I could see he was dying for it already.