Updated: Oct 30
hollow /hŏl′ō/ adjective 1. Having a cavity, gap, void or space within. This re-published post is longer than normal. But it's worth every second to read each word. It details the journey of a typical American. A young man who searched for Truth. A protestant American, who finally came home to that which had always existed - though he knew it not. This is the story of Eugene Rose, of blessed memory, who by God's grace became Hieromonk Fr. Seraphim, "The Lampstand of America", first modern day convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church in North America.
From Issue 28 of "Death to the World"
Eugene Rose was born into a typical middle-class American family in San Diego in 1934. Like many young Americans, the materialistic attitude of the society that surrounded him did not satisfy his soul and an intense hunger and quest for truth began to arise from somewhere deep inside of him. The gnawing question of “what is truth?” began to completely consume him around the time that he graduated from high school. For the rest of his life, Eugene sought truth at all costs.
He rejected the “Christianity” of America, which he regarded as worldly, weak, and fake.
To him, it seemed that this modern Christianity put God in a box and was not otherworldly; it seemed to be very much at home in this world that Eugene wanted nothing to do with. His zeal turned him to the writings of the mad prophet and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and he poured over his works until his words began to resonate in his soul with infernal power. The nihilism Nietzsche preached made sense to him in a collapsing godless world, however he then fell into total despair which he described in later years as a living hell. He felt that he didn’t fit into the modern world, or even into his own family, and that nobody understood him.
It was as if he was somehow born in the wrong place and time.
He loved to roam under the stars in the mountains of California, but believing Nietzsche’s lie he also felt completely isolated, alone, and without purpose. Alcohol became his “cure” and he began to follow in the footsteps of a man he once met, Jack Kerouac, one of the founders of the “beat generation.” Eugene would get totally drunk and would fall on the floor consumed with rage, screaming at God to leave him alone. Once while drunk on the top of a mountain he raised his fist to heaven, cursed God, and dared Him to damn him to hell. In his despair, it seemed worth being damned forever, if only he could know that God exists, rather than remain in a state of indifference. If God did damn him to hell, at least then he would, for that blissful moment, feel God’s touch and know for sure that He was reachable.
In later years he wrote:
Atheism, 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 great 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…
After graduating from Pomona College in Southern California, Eugene started studying under one of the 50’s and 60’s counter-culture founders, Alan Watts, and became a Buddhist “bohemian” in San Francisco. He devoted himself to this self-proclaimed guru hoping to satisfy his intense pain and hunger for truth. However, it became increasingly apparent to him that Watts was a fraud. This self-proclaimed guru was using watered down teachings to fuel his appetite for material pleasure and luxury. For Eugene this was another proof of the counterfeit Americana he grew up despising; another plastic religion that was subjected to material culture. He then began to pursue more traditional Eastern religions and became fluent in Chinese in order to study the Tao Teh Ching and other ancient Eastern texts in their original language, hoping to tap into the heart of their wisdom and discover something he was missing.
However, he again stared into the dark chasm of nothingness and felt the void of Buddhism’s impersonal sea of emptiness.
The pain and struggle he felt lead him deeper into a search through various philosophers, sages, and cults of his time. Eugene had been seeking the truth with all his mind, but it constantly eluded him. Since his soul could not be satisfied he satisfied his flesh all the more and spent life living as extravagantly as possible. He continued walking the streets of San Francisco drunk, yelling and cursing at God to leave him alone.
Under the influence of the philosopher Rene Guenon, Eugene began to view the world not in a constant state of evolution, going from the primitive ancient man to the sophisticated modern man, but in a movement toward deterioration and regression. Particularly in the arena of religion:
Guenon hypothesized that the most primitive forms were the most authentic and sophisticated while modern religions had lost their authenticity.
This spoke to Eugene and planted in him an admiration for ancient customs and traditions. However, he treated this pursuit academically and as if he was in a cafeteria of various religious beliefs that afforded him the luxury of taking a little of one here and another there. In this search of “collecting” various ancient religious traditions, Eugene was invited to visit an Eastern Orthodox Christian church. Later he wrote about 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 for the first time, something happened to me that I had not experienced in any Buddhist or other Eastern temple; something in my heart said that I was home; that my search was over. I didn’t really know what this meant . With my exposure to Orthodoxy and to 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.
Eugene began to pour himself into this new tradition that was the answer to his life of searching. At his time it was rare to hear Orthodox services in English, so he learned Slavonic to begin to understand and read what was happening around him in the services. The lives of the Saints and the hymns that were entirely otherworldly and uncompromising struck him and began to transform his soul. They despised the modern world and like him wanted nothing from it, but their rebellion against the world was more profound than his ever had been.
These saints lived in the world, but through an intense inner spiritual struggle rooted in the depths of the heart, they lived not for this world. They discovered the Kingdom of Heaven within and no matter what allurements the world offered they held on to their treasure even to the shedding of blood.
This was solidified for Eugene when he met the person of St John of San Francisco. This saint, living amidst of hustle and bustle of San Francisco, embodied the saints of old and made it clear to Eugene that Orthodox Christianity was not some museum of ancient traditions but a living breathing reality that transported men and women to heaven. St John was a severe ascetic, meaning he lived a life of complete self-denial in order to obtain a pure heart and transformed soul in the midst of a decaying world.
This attracted Eugene because he desired an ascetic faith that didn’t seek earthly desires and comforts, but rather redemption through intense struggle and sufferings on earth.
In his journal he later wrote:
Let us not, who would be Christians, expect anything else from it than to be crucified. 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 for a single moment. The world can only accept antichrist, now or at any time.
Before he had found the truth he suffered for the lack of it but now having found it, he suffered for the sake of it.
He devoted the rest of his life to living this truth and taking up intense ascetic struggle to give it to others. The ancient spiritual texts he began to read not only inspired him in this new life, but also caused a deep pain in his heart because they were unavailable to his fellow countrymen (Americans) who suffered for lack of truth. Through the blessing and encouragement of St John, Eugene began a brotherhood with other young men who took up the cause to translate these texts into English. They named their brotherhood after Saint Herman of Alaska, a desert dwelling Russian monk who traveled across Siberia to give the Gospel to natives in Alaska. Together the brotherhood opened a bookstore and began translating and printing on an old hand-operated printing press. They had to arrange each word by hand in frames, roll ink, and press each page with a crank by hand. They drew their inspiration to continue their selfless work from the lives of the saints such as Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saints Paisius, Xenia, and even their contemporary Saint Archbishop John. Eugene slaved over this work and these spiritually rich texts began to be available to Americans for the first time in history. Every page solidified in Eugene the world’s repulsiveness and all its charm and enticements fell away.
He refused to take part in the world’s activities and instead devote his sweat and blood to this great commission.
Translating the lives of monastic saints who lived in the wilderness of Russia set Eugene’s heart ablaze for a solitary life. Like him, these saints felt that this world was not their home and had abandoned wealth, luxury, status, kingdoms, and parents to cultivate their hearts in solitude and obtain the Heavenly Kingdom. After the death of Saint John, the hunger for monastic life grew in Eugene all the more. Furthermore, this world and its collapsing society seemed so vain and fleeting standing before the coffin of this Saint who gave everything to live apart from it. Increasingly sick to death of the city and the world, Eugene and another friend in the brotherhood, Gleb, bought some land in the wilderness of northern California near the town of Platina, and moved their printing operation there. They began to live like the desert dwellers of ancient times who they were writing about. There was no running water, no telephone, and no electric lines. They built the buildings themselves from wood taken from abandoned mining shacks and lived with bears, scorpions, and rattlesnakes.
In 1970 the two friends were officially consecrated and ordained as Orthodox monks, thus dying forever to the world. To signify this death to the world, the two brothers were given new monastic names as is the custom in the Orthodox Church. Eugene was given the name Seraphim, after a Russian desert dweller and mystic, Seraphim of Sarov. As a monk in the wilderness, Father Seraphim’s spirit began to soar. Fr. Seraphim once wrote:
The city is for those who are empty, and it pushes away those who are filled. The desert keeps those who are filled and allows them to thrive.
In the wilderness, far away from the tumult of the world, the two friends were united in soul, sacrificing themselves for the mission that ancient, apostolic and otherworldly Christianity would be made available to America. Working by candlelight in his tiny cabin, Father Seraphim wrote many books on the spiritual state of the modern world and translated ancient texts on spiritual life into English. In countries at that time that were behind the Iron Curtain, his writings on the state of modern man, the meaning of suffering, and the soul after death had incalculable impact on millions of lives.
During the Communist era in Russia, his writings were secretly translated, hand-typed, and distributed in the underground press. You could be killed for just possessing one of these manuscripts, let alone reading them and living them.
Father Seraphim’s message of underground Christianity, of suffering and persecution in this world for the sake of truth, touched a deep chord in the people who were being crucified by the atheistic state. But his message didn’t apply just to them under Soviet governments, but gave and continues to give a devastating blow to those who are satisfied with the world and its institutions.
Father Seraphim wrote that while the Soviet state at his time was imprisoning Orthodox Christians in death camps (called gulags) American society and its amusements provided a new type of prison that was even more sinister: the gulag of the mind.
At the end of his life, he gave a talk and said: It is important for us to realize, as we try ourselves to lead a Christian life today, that the world which has been formed by our pampered times, makes demands on the soul, whether in religion or in secular life, which are what one has to call totalitarian. This is easy enough to see in the mind-bending cults that have received so much publicity in recent years, and which demand total allegiance to a self-made “holy man”; but it is just as evident in secular life, where one is confronted not just by an individual temptation here or there, but by a constant state of temptation that attacks one, whether in the background music heard everywhere in markets and businesses, in the public signs and billboards of city streets, in the rock music which is brought even to forest campgrounds and trails, and in the home itself, where television often becomes the secret ruler of the household, dictating modern values, opinions, and tastes.
The only escape from this prison and only thing worth living for to Father Seraphim was Christ and being part of His Church.
He knew this deeply through experiencing pain of heart and giving himself completely to his pursuit of truth. His description of the “American gulag” was from a heart that knew its imprisonment and was now able to speak as one freed from it. He preached a “crucified mind” that is able to be freed from its tomb and resurrected in Christ, developing what he called an “Orthodox Worldview.” He said, let us begin really to belong to the Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church.
Outward membership is not enough. Something must move within us that makes us different from the world around us, even if that world calls itself “Christian” and even “Orthodox.”
Let us keep and nourish those qualities of the true Orthodox world-view which I mentioned earlier: a living, normal attitude, loving and forgiving, not self-centered, preserving our innocence and unworldliness even with a full and humble awareness of our own sinfulness and the power of the worldly temptations around us.
If we truly live this Orthodox world-view, our Faith will survive the shocks ahead of us and be a source of inspiration and salvation for those who will still be seeking Christ even amidst the shipwreck of humanity which has already begun today.
With the transformation of Father Seraphim’s life and the growing recognition of his sanctity, people began to flock to his monastery to hear lectures, ask him questions, and seek truth. Lost young people especially began to go to him for answers and sometimes he came down from his monastery to give his experience to others. The following is an account by a college student who met Father Seraphim Rose on his college campus in 1980 in Santa Cruz. Soon after meeting Father Seraphim he joined his brotherhood and became a monk.
"I met Father Seraphim a year and a half before his death. Like him I had been seeking reality through Eastern religions but was reduced to despair. Then one day Father Seraphim came to the college campus where I was studying. He drove up in an old beat-up pickup truck, and emerged with his worn-out black robe, his long hair and his exceedingly long gray dreaded beard. I found out later that he hadn’t taken a shower since the day he became a monk. He was an image of total poverty.
The next thing I remember is walking with Father Seraphim through the college. Everyone was staring at him, but he walked through as naturally as if he had been at home. In the middle of this progressive college, he seemed like someone who had just stepped out of the fourth-century desert.
Father Seraphim went to a lecture room and delivered a talk called “Signs of the coming of the end of the world.” 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. It was only later that I had found out that he was at one time a teacher of Chinese at U. C. Berkeley.
What struck me most about Father Seraphim was that he was a man sacrificing himself totally for God. He was not a university professor that made lots of money, nor was he a religious leader that sought after power. He was just a simple monk who desired the truth above all else. I know that he would die for the truth, for he was dying for it already.
In August of 1982, in the midst of writing and translating books, Father Seraphim suddenly became ill and was in unbearable pain. Earlier that month, on the feast of Transfiguration, he gave one of his last sermons after a midnight vigil under a canopy of stars, exclaiming:
"We must always remember that our home is in the heavens. We must shake off the vain and petty passions that keep us tied to the ground, to the fallen earthly world, that keep us from realizing the purpose of our creation… Let us strive toward our heavenly homeland, as St Herman used to say “Ad Astera! Ad Astera!”(“To the stars! To the stars!”).
As he stood and stared into the stars, little did the monks and nuns of the wilderness communities he founded know that he would soon be going there. Soon the pain of illness began to be noticed by his brotherhood and they took Father Seraphim to the hospital. Upon arrival, the doctors identified a blood clot that had killed part of his intestines and were surprised that he had been able to bear such pain in silence for the time he did. One young man who visited Fr Seraphim’s bedside and later became a priest, Fr Martin Person, remembers his visit to the hospital at that time: He [Fr Seraphim] was in really bad shape. There was this one moment there in the ICU at his bedside, where we were praying a moleben, and they blessed him with the Gospel and he reached up through the pain to kiss the Gospel, and all of us were in absolute tears. That was it for me. Here was a faith that stood firm in the face of death. This is the ultimate encapsulation of the Christian life that Father Seraphim lived out.
Eventually Father Seraphim’s conditioned worsened and death became immanent. After much suffering, Father Seraphim gave his soul back to God on September 2nd, 1982. The God Whom he had once cursed and screamed at in fits of drunken rage now welcomed him home into His Heavenly Kingdom. At Father Seraphim’s funeral, his body remained supple and a slight smile appeared on his face—revealing to us on earth the joy of the otherworld. He was buried in his monastery with much weeping accompanied by a feeling of resurrectional triumph.
While the world had lost a man it was not worthy of, the Church gained a Saint in the heavens.