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Secularism and Saints: A Look at America’s Orthodox Holy People and Places
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Secularism and Saints: A Look at America’s Orthodox Holy People and Places

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“Christ is the only exit from this world; all other exits—sexual rapture, political utopia, economic independence—are but blind alleys in which rot the corpses of the many who have tried them.”

Father Seraphim Rose, Orthodox Christian monk and priest

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These are the words of an American, and an American practically our contemporary. Fr. Seraphim was born in 1934 and died at the tender age of 48 in 1982, having lived all his life in California.  

There are many quotes that could be used to “encapsulate” the life and works and thought of this prolific man, but the above quote captures well his life both before and after he came to unwavering faith in Jesus Christ, and speaks to the milieu from which he sprang in 20th century America.

And his words are all the more relevant today, as the passions of his 1950s Beatnik-era America have only intensified, at a rather alarming speed, recasting America as ever more and more secular.

Every manner of sexual perversion and experimentation is being foisted upon us, touted as means to happiness and transcendence. If society would just accept my personal predilections without reserve, I could finally be happy, so we’re told.

American political discourse is becoming ever more divisive, possibly moreso than ever. Antifa and the Left are certain if they could just get rid of President Trump and his band of racists, homophobes, transphobes, and intolerant Christians in general, then the great society could finally be ushered in. The Right and Left together often insist upon their conviction that America needs to bring its democracy to the rest of the world, then things will be alright. Earthly paradises…

The issue of economics is obvious enough—modern life is entirely centered on earning the almighty dollar, and many are willing to step on, or even sometimes kill, anyone in their way—just for the high that comes from fulfilling the love of money. But whole nations are in debt, and huge swaths of the workforce are kept in perpetual debt to the colleges that gave them the degrees that are supposed to earn them their economic independence.

Perceiving its futility, Fr. Seraphim cast off his generic 1940s Protestant-Catholic upbringing and began to wander. He intuitively understood that the true faith could not be at home in this world. He was a man who, whatever he did, he did to the fullest. His keen interest in science had replaced his childhood interest in religion, and so he truly lived as an atheist, not walking, but running down the “blind alleys” of a wanton lifestyle.

But he was dying spiritually and physically in these alleys, though his remained heart supple enough to realize this. His ensuing search for truth through the various Eastern religions that were the craze in 1950s-60s California, and which he found deeper than the Westernized Christianity of his youth, likewise brought him nothing but suffering—they intrigued his mind but failed to treat his ailing soul.

But Fr. Seraphim’s words, spoken as a man who had found the balm for his soul, spoken as a man who found the path of truth and righteousness leading to spiritual peace (albeit through a fierce spiritual battle), who in the end avoided becoming just another blind alley corpse, reveal to us another facet, another path open to us even in American life, though one at times not visible to all.

America is, as the famous saying goes, a melting pot, referring to culture in general, but this necessarily extends to religion. Every faith imaginable is being practiced somewhere in America. While this lack of cohesion certainly can lead to infighting, it also means the Christ that Fr. Seraphim found, among the myriad of versions of Him, is also being worshiped in America.

You would be hard-pressed to call the Orthodox Christian faith an American tradition. Certainly, the God of our founding fathers was not that of Orthodox Christianity, and yet, Orthodoxy has been in America for centuries. There was a Greek Orthodox presence in Florida in the 1760s, and St. Herman of Alaska, a Russian monk from far eastern Russia, arrived in Alaska in 1794 to bring the light of Christ to the native peoples there (although, true, Alaska was still Russian at that time. Nevertheless, St. Herman’s mission certainly planted the seeds for Orthodox flowering in America).

Today, more than 200 years later, Orthodoxy seems to be still little known in America. Among those who have heard of it, Greek Orthodoxy is likely the most prevalent variety, but even then, it is often thought of as just a variety of Catholicism with delicious desserts.

In America today, there are not only Greek Orthodox, but Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Albanian, Antiochian, etc. Only here, the ethnic diversity does not impede an internal cohesion of beliefs, but rather presents one and the same faith with its local customs and flavorings.

What is expressed in these local varieties is the faith that Jesus Christ taught the Apostles. Anyone can see that Christianity is fractured today, but did not Christ Himself promise that the gates of Hades would never prevail against the Church? If we take Christ’s words seriously, and if we believe that beliefs affect our life, both temporal and eternal, then we have to understand that God has preserved that faith once delivered to the saints, that the path to salvation might be preserved.

Having encountered the Orthodox faith in San Francisco, Fr. Seraphim found the “exit from this world”—not in the sense of abandoning and disdaining the world, but of turning away from those blind alleys that the world would force us into, and finding the true path to holiness, to Christ-likeness—a faith that is not at home in this world, but rather at home in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is important to point to Fr. Seraphim as a born and bred American who embraced the ancient Orthodox faith and plumbed its depths, but his life also opens the door for us to a whole world in America populated by such people.

America has been home to men and women of holy life, so filled with the energy, the grace of God, that it literally spills out of them onto everything around them. Orthodoxy in America is a world of saints from Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia, etc who loved nothing more than Christ and came to America as witnesses to the light that filled them.

Orthodoxy in America is a world where Christ is worshiped in spirit and in truth, where miracles still happen, where the most fervent of hearts give their lives to God in monastic asceticism, where saints still flourish, where holy relics are brimming over with the holiness of God, where iconography communicates God’s presence and healing blessings.

True, most will continue to seek their freedom in “sexual rapture, political utopia, economic independence”—after all, it is inculcated in us from youth that human reason is the be-all and end-all of wisdom, and if God cannot be found within our reason, then what else are we left with but these “blind alleys” of “freedom?”

Pennsylvania is home to America’s first Orthodox monastery, founded by a saint from Russia. Saints of the highest spiritual life have walked and labored there. The Russian Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco is the resting place of the relics of St. John Maximovitch, known as “the Wonderworker.” In Hawaii, an icon of Mary, the Mother of God, streams a healing myrrh. These are places of pilgrimage, where those whose lives are attuned to truth and spiritual transformation come for consolation and peace and healing, and the American heartland in between is dotted with the footprints of such people and such holy sites.

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We propose to give a glimpse into this other world of ancient wisdom communicated in ancient prayers through a forthcoming series that will take the reader on a journey across America to examine the holy Orthodox sites and people of America. This will not be simply a dogmatics and history lesson—there are already a myriad of sources that cover this—but rather more specialized examinations of those places and people through which God has deigned to reveal Himself, where the American soul can flourish, such as we will see with Fr. Seraphim Rose and others.

For those physically and spiritually exhausted by political talking heads, by endless searches for fun and entertainment, by the daily rat race for the almighty dollar, that is, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the Orthodox experience in America offers an “exit” and a path to true freedom.

Come and see.

Author: Jesse Dominick