THE LAST TRUE REBELLION
The Radical, Catacomb teaching of Monk
Seraphim Rose by Monk Damascene Christensen
It's all over for what was once known as Christian civilization. We're
living in a post-Christian age. As the mad prophet Friedrich Nietzsche
said, "The 20th century will be the triumph of NIHILISM." And this
triumph, said Monk Seraphim Rose, will end in a reign of ANARCHY.
"Nihilism is the means, Anarchism is the end."
from the word nihil, meaning
"nothing." Nietzsche defined Nihilism thus: "There is no truth. There
is no absolute state of affairs--no 'thing-in-itself.' This alone is Nihilism, and of the
most extreme kind." Fr. Seraphim wrote that "Nihilism has become, in
our time, so widespread and pervasive, has entered so thoroughly and so
deeply into the minds and hearts of all men living today, that there is
no longer any 'front' on which it may be fought.
This is the
mind-set of modern society, and it is the wave of the future. But if
abandonment of Truth has become the mainstream, who then are the
rebels? Not the Nihilists who openly declare that life has no meaning
and live as though it did not. They are only victims who have been
devastated by the spirit of the times. The "Christians,"then? Not if
they've sold out to the world, and, while immersed in their slick,
squeaky-clean worldliness, act as if they're trying to stand for
No, the true
rebels are those who, by their deeds and lives, spit on both the
falsness of the world and on the mainstream of Nihilism that refuses to
see above this world. Such a rebel was Monk Seraphim Rose.
Fr. 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. Fr. Seraphim became a student of one of the counterculture's first pioneers, Alan Watts (whom he later realized was totally pseudo) and became a Buddhist Bohemian in S.F. 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 their 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 said that it "put God in a box." He read Nietzsche until that prophet's 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 in later years as a living
hell. He felt he did not fit in the modern world, even in his own
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 out 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, Fr.
Seraphim turned to drink. He would drink wine voraciously, and then
would pound on the floor, screaming at God to leave him alone. Once
while drunk, he raised a fist to heaven from a mountaintop, cursed God
and dared 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 least then he would, for
that blissful instant, feel God's touch and know for sure that He was
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 primarily 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
through various ancient religious traditions, Fr. Seraphim once went to
visit a Russian Orthodox church. Later he wrote about this 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 that 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 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."
On becoming Orthodox, Fr. Seraphim continued to despise the 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.
Fr. Seraphim's was an ascetic
faith. He wanted a Christianity that emphasized not earthly consolation
and benefits, but rather heavenly redemption through intense suffering
on earth. No other kind rang true to him who had suffered so 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 worshipped by the highest spiritual
faculties of man.
In his journal,
Fr. Seraphim wrote: "Let us not, who would be Christians, expect
anything else from it than to be crucified. For to be 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 a single
representative of it, even for a single moment. The world can only
accept Antichrist, now or at any time.
"No wonder, then,
that it is hard to be a 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 the more surely to one's own destruction. And that is why
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 us the
strength to pursue the path of crucifixion; there is no other way to be
Before he had found the Truth Fr. 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 Podmoshensky, he formed a Brotherhood which practiced the "Do It Yourself" philosophy. They opened a bookstore in S.F. and began printing a small magazine by hand on a letterpress, refusing to become a dependent arm of the worldly church establishment. Later, partly to avoid this very establishment, they moved their printing operation to the wilderness of northern California, where they began to live like the "desert-dwellers" (wilderness ascetics) of ancient times. There was no running water on their forested mountain, no telephone, no electric lines. They built their buildings themselves out of lumber taken from old pioneer dwellings, and hauled water on their backs up the mountain. They lived with deer, bear, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, bats, mountain lions, scorpions, and rattlesnakes.
In 1970 they became monks, thus
dying forever to the world. At this time the church establishment tried
to shut down their wilderness hermitage and make them standard pastors
for parishes in the world. The two monks fought long and hard against
this, and after much suffering achieved victory.
In the wilderness,
Fr. 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. The
desert keeps those who are filled and allows them to thrive."
candlelight in his tiny cabin, Fr. Seraphim produced 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 an incalculable impact
on human lives. During the Communist era, they were secretly translated
into Russian and distributed in the underground press ("samizdat") in
the form of typewritten manuscripts. By the time of the fall of
Communist Power in 1991, Fr. Seraphim was known all over Russia. Today
his books are on sale everywhere in Russia, including booktables in the
Metro (subway) and on the street. The reason that he has made a much
greater mark on Russia than on his homeland is because in Russia people
know how to suffer. Fr. 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 Schuller (who, by the way, broadcasts his show to
Russia, where people can hardly believe how stupid it is).
I met Fr. 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 Syd Barrett's two
schizophrenic-withdrawal, childhood-regression solo albums over and
over, until I had memorized all his word-salads. (In Russia, this is
known as "going crazy on a full stomach.")
Then one day Fr. Seraphim came to the campus where I was going to school. 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 beard which had become matted (I found out later that he had not taken a bath or shower since becoming a monk ll years before--which is common monastic practice in Israel, Greece, and Egypt--but for some reason he didn't smell). It was the image of absolute poverty.
The next thing I remember is walking with Fr. Seraphim through the college. Dinner had just ended, and the students were milling and hanging around outside the cafeteria. Everyone was staring at Fr. Seraphim, but he walked through them as naturally as if he had been at home. In the middle of this progressive American college, he seemed like someone who had just stepped out of the 4th-century Egyptian desert.
Fr. Seraphim went to a lecture
room and delivered a talk called "Signs of the Coming of the End of the
World." He happened to be sick at this time, and sniffled throughout
the 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 off the wilderness, more at home in a
forest than in a classroom.
What struck me
most about Fr. Seraphim was that here was a man who was sacrificing
himself totally 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 then had followings in the area. He was not
"into religion" for what he could 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 sense that he was dying
for it already.
As we have said,
Fr. Seraphim's message falls on many a deaf ear here in America. Even
people in his same church will only listen to so much of it. When they
think they might have to go against public opinion and risk losing
recognition and acceptance by the world (including the "church world"),
they stop short. And yet the Crucified God to Whom they give lipservice
once said to His disciples: "If the world hate you, ye know that it
hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would
love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen
you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." "In the world ye
shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the
Those who have
suffered immense pain in this world can believe far more deeply than
those who have not, that there must be another world. Those who, like
Fr. Seraphim, have felt themselves out of place in modern society, who
have been "devoured and spit forth by the uncomprehending world," can
understand better Christ's radical call of rejection of the world and
rebellion against it. Thus it is not the "accepted" ones who can hear
Fr. Seraphim's message "not of this world" and carry it out to the end.
Just as in the time of Christ, it is the outcasts who get the point.
Even an atheist may be closer to God than a "right-believing" one, if
the former is suffering in his unbelief and the latter is smug and
complacent in his belief. As Fr. Seraphim said, God is working in the
souls of the "great deniers" more than in those of the "small
It is not accidental, then, that while many people in Fr. Seraphim's church only go halfway with his teaching, there is a growing number of people from the punk movement who are going all the way with it. Several punx have joined the Brotherhood he founded and are dying to the world as monastics, having found ancient Orthodox monasticism to be the ultimate punkdom.
As early as 1960, Fr. Seraphim
had come to many of the conclusions that the punx of today have come
to. He said that humanity, when divorced from God, naturally becomes
SUBHUMANITY, and that Humanism becomes Subhumanism. Those artists and
musicians who depict modern, godless, autonomous man as empty,
despairing, enraged and dehumanized, hit closer to the truth than the
naive, happy humanist who tries to look at the modern situation with
A few years later, in 1962, Fr.
Seraphim wrote an essay in which he traced the course that Nihilism
takes, directed by the Evil One. His words proved prophetic in
At the first stage
of Nihilism, he said, is "Liberalism," by which he meant the attempt to
work out a compromise between the Old Order ("Christian civilization")
and the New Order of humanity without God. At the second stage is
Realism, in which belief in the other world and transcendent Truth is
abandoned and the whole concentration is on the material world,
physical well-being, technical progress, etc. Realism, however, denies
man's unplanned, irrational needs, and therefore must evoke a reaction
against it, which is the third stage: Vitalism. In the Vitalist stage,
the criterion of Truth is substituted by a new standard: the
"life-giving," the "vital." This may take the form of pseudo-spiritual
experiences, the invoking of "powers" and "presences," or else of the
"cult of nature" with its primary elements of the earth, the body, and
sex. Vitalism, Fr. Seraphim said, is "an unmistakable symptom of
world-weariness. It is the product, not of the 'freshness" and
'life'and 'immediacy' its followers so desperately seek (precisely
because they lack them), but of the corruption and unbelief that are
but the last phase of the dying civilization they hate."
Thus, Fr. Seraphim
believed, beyond Vitalism there can be only one more, definitive stage
through which Nihilism may pass: the Nihilism of Destruction. "Here at
last," he wrote, "we find an almost 'pure' Nihilism, a rage against
creation and against civilization that will not be appeased until it
has reduced them to absolute destruction."
Since Fr. Seraphim wrote about this in 1962, the youth movements have tended to correspond with the stages he outlined. The hippie movement of the 60's and early 70's was an example of Vitalism reacting against the dead Liberalism and dry Realism of the 50's (when sclence was expected to take care of everything, conformity was the rule, and spiritual seeking looked down upon). By the 80's and 90's, the ideals of the hippies had proved naive and simplistic, and their Vitalism gave way to manifestations of the Nihilism of Destruction in a now far more fragmented youth culture. This is where we are at today. And beyond it, Fr. Seraphim said, is Anarchy.
"The Nihilism of our times
exists in all," Fr. Seraphim wrote, "and those who do not, with the aid
of God, choose to combat it in the name of the fullness of Being of the
living God, are swallowed up in it already. We have been brought to the
edge of the abyss of nothingness and, whether we recognize its nature
or not, we will, through affinity for the ever-present nothingness
within us, be engulfed in it beyond all hope of redemption--unless we
cling in full and certain faith (which, doubting, does not doubt) in
Christ, without Whom we are truly nothing....
"Facile interpretations of the 'crisis,' of the 'choice' before us, abound; to take either side of these illusionary interpretations is damnation. The true crisis is now, as it has ever been, within us; it is our acceptance or negation of Christ. Christ is our crisis; He; demands from us all or nothing, and this 'problem' He presents us is the only one that need be answered.... Do we choose God, Who alone IS, or ourselves, nothingness, the abyss, Hell? Our age is founded upon nothingness; but this nothingness, inexplicably to us, presents, for those who can still perceive, the crisis of all men in all ages most clearly and unmistakably. Our age tells, if we can listen, to choose the living God."
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