My friend Margaret writes:
"Nietzsche was extremely cynical of all philosophers (with the exception of himself) because he thought that each philosophy they constructed was no more than "a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir", that each philosopher creates the world in his own image, as he sees it. The point I'm trying (badly) to make is that he saw the world as he did because of how he saw the world ... because of how he was, and he couldn't see it differently without becoming a different person. But my world is different because I am different.
Your monk Seraphim Rose could, perhaps, have not been other than a man who lived in a hut with a matted beard. He clearly did what he did very well, but could he have lived your life with all the things you have done, achieved, the people you've kept happy, the responsibilities you have shouldered, the children you've looked after? I somehow doubt that. Why was his life of contemplation any better than yours? Was not his life of contemplation a predictable outcome of his earlier traumas? If I imagine alternatives outcomes for him with his history, I can imagine an early death more easily than I can imagine a happy family life with children. I've met my own Nietzsches, and the same goes for them. Whether they are destined to live such lives from birth, or whether their early life predisposes them to lives of extreme solitude is a moot point, but one that interests me greatly."
You have a knack for asking hard questions. Questions that I'm not really qualified to answer though I love trying. Seraphim Rose is not yet considered a Saint by the Church although many feel he is worthy of Sainthood. Saints, however, are ordinary people, who indeed, have a personal history, yet go on to do extraordinary things. What is important is not the details of their lives but the spirit that breathes in them. These lives bear witness to the transformation that takes place when the Christian gives himself over to the will of God. Surely, William Wilberforce had such a transformation in his own life, as did Seraphim.
In understanding the life of Seraphim Rose we must understand it according to its own logic and that logic is not of this world. It is based on the wisdom of Christ's life and teaching. If we look at him merely as a recluse living in a hut and wearing a matted beard, we are applying the logic of the world that puts value on living in a comfortable home and personal appearance. Certainly this does not mean that we all have to live the life of a simple monk. In many ways it is easier to live as a Christian in a cloistered community far removed from the temptations of the world than to live a Godly life in that world. The Fathers of the Church testify that the place in which we live is less significant than how we live. The monk's goal is his release from every worldly obstacle, liberation from passions, belongings, and his own free will. The objective is to achieve kenosis or self-emptying and thereby to achieve humility, which will in turn allow him to overcome the obstacles that separate him from God and man. Without experiential knowledge of the spiritual path it is impossible to help others.
Whatever the reason, Father Seraphim chose a very different path than I did. His path is infinitely harder, his path is one of earthly suffering, his path entails cutting oneself off from family and society in order to make the passage from egotism to love of God and to love all men not just the one's who think and talk like us. His life was much more than a life of contemplation; it was a life of ministry, preaching the gospel, helping and advising others. This is from Hieromonk Ambrose, a spiritual child of Father Seraphim:
"A year or so before his repose, I drove Fr. Seraphim someplace where he was going to give a talk. We got out of the car and, as he was walking in front of me, he turned and said, "You know, this is really not for me." Now this is interesting because many think that he was really coming into his own, so to speak, in the last years of his life. And surely, in a sense, that's true. But there was also a part of him that never really loved it at all, because he wanted to just be in the monastery. He did the work of missionary outreach because he knew God was calling him to it. It was his duty."
Elder Joseph the Hesychast lived almost his entire adult life in a remote skete on Mount Athos. One of his spiritual children, Elder Ephraim, came to America, where he has established twenty Orthodox monasteries to date throughout the North American continent. Clearly, we cannot judge the impact of a man's life solely on its outward appearance. Twenty five years after his repose, Seraphim's influence on the Orthodox faithful through his spiritual children and his writings is immense and will continue to shape lives in years to come. He is part of the tradition of spiritual eldership that is an important part of Orthodox Christianity. Despite the traumas of his earlier life, in the end Seraphim not only found Christ but he also helped many others to find him as well.
Ambrose says the following of him: "Fr. Seraphim did his duty in every single moment, and he kept his eyes fixed on Christ and on others, not on himself. And I believe that now, as a result of a life lived so unselfishly in that way, he does indeed now rest serenely and eternally in the arms of Christ, ‘Whom he spiritually beheld day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, here on this mountain. Because of his example, we not only have a model, but we have an inspiration, and we have the encouragement to do just a little bit more than we're doing now.
Orthodoxy is so rich. It has such beautiful externals, which are not just entirely externals—they also partake of the essence of Orthodoxy, of course. But it's very easy, Fr. Seraphim used to tell me, to get distracted by these externals. It's very easy to think that, because we are following all the fasting rules and because we know the Typikon and so forth, we are actually living an Orthodox way of life, whereas we may not be at all. If Christ is not there behind all that, then it's a waste of time: it's a beautiful waste of time, but it's a waste of time nonetheless. For Fr. Seraphim, however, Christ was always there, behind everything. And when Fr. Seraphim breathed his last, Christ was there to receive his soul."
Margaret, I hope this helps somewhat. Thank you for asking the important questions.