Remembering Fr. Seraphim

August 20/September 2

Fr. Seraphim translated and wrote the introduction to St. John Maximovitch's book, The 0rthodox Veneration of Mary, The Birthgiver of God. In the introduction Fr. Seraphim first writes about himself in the third person. Next he writes about his spiritual father. It is a glimpse into both of their souls, and St. John's deep influence on Fr. Seraphim. -jh

Introduction: The 0rthodox Theology of Archbishop John Maximovitch
by Fr. Seraphim

Not too many years ago [this was written 1978] the Abbess of a convent of the Russian 0rthodox Church, a woman of righteous life, was delivering a sermon in the convent church on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. With tears she entreated her nuns and the pilgrims who had come for the feast to accept entirely and wholeheartedly what the Church hands down to us, taking such pains to preserve this tradition sacredly all these centuries -- and not to choose for oneself what is "important" and what is "dispensible"; for by thinking oneself wiser than the tradition, one may end up by losing the tradition. Thus, when the Church tells us in her hymns and icons that the Apostles were miraculously gathered together from the ends of the earth in order to be present at the repose and burial of the Mother of God, we as 0rthodox Christians are not free to deny this or to reinterpret it, but must believe as the Church hands down to us, with simplicity of heart.

A young Western convert who learned Russian was present when this sermon was delivered. He himself had thought about this very subject, having seen icons in the traditional iconographic style depicting the Apostles being transported on clouds to behold the Dormition of the Theotokos; and he had asked himself the question: are we actually to understand this "literally," as a miraculous event, or is it only a "poetic" way of expressing the coming together of the Apostles for this event ... or perhaps even an imaginative or "ideal" depiction of an even that never occurred in fact? (Such, indeed, are some of the questions with which "0rthodox theologians" occupy themselves in our days.) The words of the righteous Abbess therefore struck him to the heart, and he understood that there was something deeper to the reception of 0rthodoxy than what our own mind and feelings tell us. In that instant the tradition was being handed down to him, not from books but from a living vessel which contained it; and it had to be received, not with mind and feeling only, but above all with the heart, which in this way began to receive its deeper training in 0rthodoxy.

Later this young convert encountered, in person or through reading, many people who were learned in 0rthodox theology. They were the "theologians" of our day, those who had been to 0rthodox schools and become theological "experts." They were usually quite eager to speak on what was 0rthodox and what was non-0rthodox, what was important and what was secondary in 0rthodoxy itself; and a number of them prided themselves on being "conservatives" or "traditionalists" in faith. But in none of them did he sense the simple authority of the simple Abbess who had spoken to his heart, unlearned as she was in such "theology."

And the heart of this convert, still taking his baby steps in 0rthodoxy, longed to know how to believe, which means also whom to believe. He was too much a person of his times and his own upbringing to be able to simply deny his own reasoning power and believe blindly everything he was told; and it is very evident that 0rthodoxy does not at all demand this of one -- the very writings of the Holy Fathers are a living memorial of the working of human reason enlightened by the grace of God. But it was also obvious that there was something very much lacking in the "theologians" of our day, who for all their knowledge of Patristic texts, did not convey the feeling or savor of 0rthodoxy as well as a simple, theologically-uneducated Abbess.

0ur convert found the end of his search --the search for contact with the true living tradition of 0rthodoxy-- in Archbishop John Maximovitch. For here he found someone who was a learned theologian in the "old" school and at the same time was very aware of all the criticisms of that theology which have been made by the theological critics of our century, and was able to use his keen intelligence to find the truth where it might be disputed. But he also possessed something which none of the wise "theologians" of our time seem to possess: the same simplicity and authority which the pious Abbess had conveyed to the heart of the young God-seeker. His heart and mind were won: not because Archbishop John became for him an "infallible expert" -- for the Church of Christ does not know any such thing -- but because he saw in this holy archpastor a model of 0rthodoxy, a true theologian whose theology proceeded from a holy life and from total rootedness in 0rthodox tradition. When he spoke, his words could be trusted -- although he carefully distinguished between the Church's teaching, which is certain, and his own personal opinions, which might be mistaken, and he bound no one to the latter. And our young convert discovered that, for all of Archbishops John's intellectual keeness and critical ability, his words much more often agreed with those of the Abbess than with those of the learned theologians of our time.

THE THE0L0GICAL WRITINGS of Archbishop John belong to no distinctive "school," and they do not reveal the extraordinary influence of any theologians of the recent past. It is true that Archbishop John was inspired to theologize, as well as to become a monk and enter the Church's service, by his great teacher, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky; and it is also true that the student made his own the teacher's emphasis on a "return to the Fathers" and to a theology closely bound to spiritual and moral life rather than academic. But Metropolitan Anthony's own theological writings are quite different in tone, intention and content: he was very much involved with the theological academic world and with the intelligentsia of his time, and much of his writing is devoted to arguments and apologies which will be understandable to these elements of the society he knew. The writings of Archbishop John, on the other hand, are quite devoid of this apologetic and disputatious aspect. He did not argue, he simply presented the 0rthodox teaching; and when it was necessary to refute false doctrines, as especially in his two long articles on the Sophiology of Bulgakov, his words were convincing not by virtue of logical argumentation, but by the power of his presentation of the Patristic teaching in its original texts. He did not speak to the academic or the learned world, but to the uncorrupted 0rthodox conscience; and he did not speak of a "return to the Fathers" because what he himself wrote was simply a handing down of Patristic tradition, with no attempt to apologize for it.

The sources of Archbishop John's theology are quite simply: Holy Scripture, the Holy Fathers (especially the great Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries), and -- most distinctively -- the Divine services of the 0rthodox Church. The latter source, rarely used to such an extent by the theologians of recent centuries, gives us a clue to the practical, un-academic approach of Archbishop John to theology. It is obvious he was thoroughly immersed in the Church's Divine services and that his theological inspiration came chiefly from this primary Patristic source which he imbibed, not in leisure hours set apart for theologizing, but in his daily practice f being present at every Divine service. He drank in theology as an integral part of daily life, and it ws doubtless the more than his formal theological studies that actually made him a theologian.

It is understandable, therefore, that one will not find in Archbishop John any theological "system." To be sure he did not protest against the great works of "systematic theology" which the 19th century produced in Russia, and he made free use in his missionary work of the systematic catechisms of this period (as, in general, the great hierarchs of the 19th and 20th centuries have done, both in Greece and Russia, seeing in these catechisms an excellent aid to the work of 0rthodox enlightenment among the people); in this respect he was above the fashions and parties olf theologians and students, both past and present, who are a little too attached to the particular way in which 0rthodox theology is presented. He showed equal respect for Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky with his "anti-Western" emphasis, and for Metropolitan Peter Mogila with his supposedly excessive "Western influence." When the defects of one or the other of these great hierarchs and defenders of 0rthodoxy would be presented to him, he would make a deprecating gesture with his hand and say,"unimportant" -- because he always had in view first of all the great Patristic tradition which these theologians were successfully handing down in spite of their faults. In this respect he has much to teach the younger the theologians of our own day, who approach 0rthodox theology in a spirit that is often both too theoretical and too polemical and partisan.

For Archbishop John the theological "categories" of even the wisest of theological scholars were also "unimportant" -- or rather, they were important only to the extent that they communicated a real meaning and did not become merely a matter of rote learning. 0ne incident from his Shanghai years vividly reveals the freedom of his theological spirit: 0nce when he was attending the oral examinations of the senior class of his cathedral school, he interrupted the perfectly correct recitation by one pupil of the list of Minor Prophets of the 0ld Testament with the abrupt and categorical assertion: "There are no minor prophets!" The priest-teacher of this class was understandably offended at this seeming disparagement of his teaching authority, but probably to this day the students remember this strange disruption of the normal catechism "categories," and possibly a few of them understood the message which Archbishop John to convey: with God all prophets are "major," and this fact is more important than all the categories of our knowledge of them, however valid these are in themselves. In his theological writings and sermons also, Archbishop John often gives a surprising turn to his discourse which uncovers for us some unexpected aspect or deeper meaning of the subject he is discussing. It is obvious that for him theology is no mere human, earthly, discipline whose riches are exhausted by our rational interpretations, or at which we can become self-satisfied "experts," -- but rather something that points heavenward and should draw our minds to God and heavenly realities, which are not grasped by logical systems of thought.

0ne noted Russian Church historian, N. Talberg, has suggested (in the Chronicle of Bishop Savva, ch. 23) that Archbishop John is to be understood first of all as "a fool for Christ's sake who remained such even in episcopal rank," and in this respect he compares him to St. Gregory the Theologian, who also did not conform, in ways similar to Archbishop John, to the standard "image" of a bishop. It is this "foolishness" (by the world's standards) that gives a characteristic tone to the theological writings both of St. Gregory and of Archbishop John: a certain detachment from public opinion, what "everyone thinks" and thus belonging to no "party" or "school"; the approach to theological questions from an exalted, non-academic point of view and thus the healthy avoidance of petty disputes and the quarrelsome spirit; the fresh, unexpected turns of thought, which make their theological writings first of all a source of inspiration and of a truly deeper understanding of God's revelation.

Perhaps most of all one is impressed by the utter simplicity of Archbishop John's writings. It is obvious that he accepts the 0rthodox tradition straightforwardly and entirely, with no "double" thoughts as to how one can believe the tradition and still be a "sophisticated" modern man. He was aware of modern "criticism," and if asked could give his sound reasons for not accepting it on most points. He studied thoroughly the question of "Western influence" in 0rthodoxy in recent centuries and had a well-balanced view of it, carefully distinguishing between what is to be rejected outright as foreign to 0rthodoxy, what is to be discouraged without "making an issue" over it, and what is to be accepted as conducive to true 0rthodox life and piety (a point that is especially revealing of Archbishop John's lack of "preconceived opinions," and his testing of everything by sound 0rthodoxy). But despite all his knowledge and exercise of critical judgment, he continued to believe the 0rthodox tradition simply, just as the Church has handed it down to us. Most 0rthodox theologians of our time, even if they may have escaped the worst effects of the Protestant-reformer mentality, still view 0rthodox tradition through the spectacles of the academic environment in which they are at home; but Archbishop John was "at home" first and foremost in the church services at which he spent many hours every day, and thus the tinge of rationalism (not necessarily in a bad sense) of even the best of academic theologians was totally absent in his thought. In his writings there are no "problems"; his usually numerous footnotes are solely for the sake of informing where the teaching of the Church is to be found. In this respect he is absolutely at one with the "mind of the Fathers," and he appears in our midst as one of them, and not as a mere commentator on the theology of the past.

The theological writings of Archbishop John, printed in various Church periodicals over four decades have not yet been collected in one place. Those presently available to the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood would fill a volume of something more than 200 pages. His longer writings belong for the most part to his earlier years as a hieromonk in Yugoslavia, where he was already noted as outstanding among 0rthodox theologians. Especially valuable are his two articles on the Sophiology of Bulgakov, one of them revealing convincingly , in a very objective manner, Bulgakov's total incompetence as a Patristic scholar, and the other being of even greater value as a classic exposition of the true Patristic doctrine of the Divine Wisdom. Among his later writings one should mention his article on 0rthodox iconography (where, incidentally, he shows himself much more aware than his teacher, Metr. Anthony, of the question of "Western influence" in iconographic style); the series of sermons entitled "Three Evangelical Feasts," where he uncovers the deeper meaning of some of the "lesser" church feasts; and the article "The Church: the Body of Christ." His short articles and sermons are also deeply theological. 0ne sermon begins with a "Hymn to God" of St. Gregory the Theologian and continues, in the same exalted, Patristic tone, as an inspired accusation against contemporary godlessness; another, spoken on Passion Friday, 1936, is a moving address to Christ lying in the tomb, in a tone worthy of the same Holy Father.

We begin this series of translations with Archbishop John's classic exposition of the 0rthodox veneration of the Mother of God and of the chief errors which have attacked it. Its longest chapter is a clear and striking refutation of the Latin dogma of the "Immaculate Conception."

1 comment:

Joanna Higginbotham said...

The story about the Abbess is one of my earliest 0rthodox memories. I seem to remember the Abbess being quoted as saying something like, "...If Holy Scripture and the Holy Church tell us that the Apostles were transported on clouds, then this is what we must humbly accept as true..." The Dormition is so full of faith-increasing miracles, it came to be my favorite feast. Because this is where my faith crossed that "line," the Abbess and Fr. Seraphim having been my guides.

That Fr. Seraphim's repose comes during the afterfeast of the Dormition seems appropriate, significant, and comforting to me.

The story about the "There are no minor prophets!" is also one of my earliest 0rthodox memories. When I first heard it, I just thought it was a silly pun. 0r an instruction not to misunderstand that "minor" does not imply that certain prophets have a lower rank.

St. John was also heard saying that there was "no such thing" as separated church jurisdictions. [N0TW p.216] This is one of those 'surprising turns, an uncovering of some unexpected aspect or deeper meaning' that Fr. Seraphim wrote that St. John would do for us. In no way does this mean that we can join the renovationists or super-correct, or that it does not matter. But this is the Royal Path where we see those so-called "jurisdictions" as having "imaginary canonicity" and that they have purposely "isolated" themselves to make it easier to maintain this folly. In truth they are 0rthodox parts of our Church that have strayed from the Royal Path. Elaborate self-governing structures do not change the truth. The passing of decades and people forgetting [and rewriting of history] does not change the truth. St. John gives us a glimpse from the higher heavenly perspective when he says "there is no such thing."