Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Passing
As if characterizing the reason we are gathered here today, the eminent Russian ascetic and instructor of piety St. Theophanes the Recluse teaches us that “through their good deeds, the dead continue to live on earth in the memory of the living.”
His younger contemporary, the holy Righteous John of Kronstadt, in his wonderful spiritual diary My Life in Christ, expands upon this thought:
“The true pastor and father of his flock will live in their grateful memory even after his death: they will glorify him. And the less he will worry about his own glorification here, on earth, in his diligent works toward their salvation, the more his glory will shine after death: even deceased he will inspire them to speak of him. Such is the glory of those who work for the common good.”
We have gathered here today to honor the memory of our beloved father and mentor. And to honor him worthily. In order to do so it is our duty to comprehend the full significance of the person of Father Seraphim within the context of the life of the Russian Church Abroad over the past century.
Commemorating fifty years, which is considered even in the Bible to be a jubilee year, we joyfully acknowledge that Father Seraphim’s name has undoubtedly stood the test of time, and worthily occupies an eminent and honorable place in the list of our emigre pastors-ascetics of piety. Today, his name is even better known among Russian believers than it was in those long-ago days of fifty years ago. As it often happens, over time such people appear greater and even more significant. Although it must be said that even back then the image of Father Seraphim was acknowledged to be important and multifaceted.
Today, I will try to concentrate on the substance of his personality in the general plane of Russian church life. I will begin with the most obvious. It is commonly known that Father Seraphim is the author of the famous textbook, The Law of God, whose subtitle reads “a book for the family and school.” Through this work, without being conscious of doing so, he created for himself a monument for all of Russia, which has spread in millions of copies across the broad territory of our fatherland. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is not a single kiosk of church literature on the territory of the former Russian Empire, where it is not sold, thanks to its comprehensiveness, accessible presentation, and ease of use. It was thanks to these characteristics that, in his sermon during the funeral of Father Seraphim, Archbishop Averky noted that “this is not just a textbook on the Law of God for children studying in schools … it is a true encyclopedia of Theological knowledge for adults as well … and this book, after the Gospel, must be central to the life of every Orthodox family.” The book has been translated into various languages, and thanks to this is becoming accessible to many, not only Russian readers. In recognizing the contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in the revival of Orthodoxy in Russia, His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II in 2007 stressed in particular the importance of this book, saying, “It is enough to recall The Law of God by Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, which serves as a textbook for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children in Russian Sunday schools, and which is used by young men in preparation for entering seminary.” Considering such authoritative testimonies regarding the importance of his works for the present-day Russian Church, I will dare name Batiushka the “Law-Teacher of all Russia.”
By the way, Father Seraphim wrote this textbook in the late evenings, taking time away from well-deserved rest, simultaneously building a church and serving as the rector of a large parish. Batiushka did not receive any honorarium for his work, handing over all publishing rights to Holy Trinity Monastery. In addition to this, he donated from his own meager resources to cover some costs of the publication. We trust that he will receive his honorarium in the Eternal Realm. The church authorities, for their part, recognized the worth of this work. A decree of the Synod of Bishops reads: “Taking into consideration the diligence and zeal demonstrated by priest Seraphim Slobodskoy in compiling, illustrating, and publishing the book of The Law of God, he is to be awarded, outside of the typical order of such awards, the right to wear the golden pectoral cross granted by the Holy Synod, as well as granted the right to wear a kamilavka.” (Orthodox Life nos. 7–12, 1958, p. 87). Such an unusual double recognition looks even more impressive once we consider that during the time of His Beatitude Anastasy, liturgical honors were not easily given. In subsequent years, Father Seraphim was honored with the rank of archpriest (in 1964, at the blessing of the church he built), and in 1971 he was awarded the palitsa, in recognition of the twentieth year of his service as a priest. And that was all – in the context of later developments in our church life, this looks rather meager.
From my own experience teaching the Law of God over the past fifty years, I have become convinced of the wonderful usefulness of Father Seraphim’s book for classwork with children. I also give it to persons interested in Orthodoxy and preparing for baptism. In terms of his activities as a teacher of God’s law, I should note that Batiushka was a very talented pedagogue, and that many of his lessons still clearly resound in the minds of those who were lucky enough to hear them. In general, he paid attention not only to religious education, but especially to the church upbringing of young people, for whom he had his own special approach. And this approach he demonstrated not only within the boundaries of his own parish, but also far beyond them, which we can see in his work over the course of a number of years as the spiritual leader of an Orthodox summer camp. And he influenced the souls of hundreds of children, not only through spiritual lectures or lessons, but through sports. The soccer field and court for gorodki in the camp, and the volleyball court in the backyard of the parish house in Nyack, all attracted young souls to Batiushka, and through him to the Church, as he was the spirit of all these enterprises. Now let us look at the specific characteristics of this extraordinary pastor and extract from them an edifying lesson.
Aside from the pedagogical and nurturing role, which Father Seraphim saw as only one (highly important but not overshadowing all others) part of his pastoral duty, he led the enormous task of creating a large, exemplary parish, a parish family united in Christ. He took as the cornerstone of his pastoral labors the Gospel commandments of love for God and one’s neighbor, upon which stand “the law and Prophets.” Indeed, spiritual life is comprised of a continuous conflict between good and evil in the hearts and souls of people who must constantly choose between one or the other. St. Apostle Paul teaches us in this regard, “Conquer evil through good” (Rom. 12:21). Following this admonition, Batiushka served as a living example to his flock. In church lexicon, we have the adjective “dobropobedny,” which roughly means “glorified by victory for his true faith.” This is applied to those who have pleased the Lord throughout their lives by following precisely this admonition of the apostle. Usually, it is applied to the holy martyrs. But if we look carefully, it applies also to others who have pleased the Lord – those who constantly stood before the same choices of good and evil. And this “dobropobednost’” certainly characterized Father Seraphim.
And now I would like to note one more spiritual facet of Father Seraphim which attracted believers to him. I would like to remember him as a lover of the truth. And I wish to pause on this not in order to bring up old ecclesiastical wounds, but to highlight his image as a victorious defender of church truth. This was an inalienable part of his spiritual essence. Consequently, his pastoral authority grew significantly during the mournful years of the church scandals in California. Today it is unpleasant to remember this, but in those sorrowful years, when it seemed we had left behind the upheaval of war and the difficulties of migration to the free world from less fortunate places, and it seemed possible to expect a calm life, the Church Abroad found itself risking a schism, as a result of which some people, even fifty years later, still do not speak to each other. The forces of evil attacked the church through the persecution of the great wonderworker of our times, Saint John of Shanghai. Sad to say, this persecution involved influential leaders of our Church, which caused great temptation among the faithful. Father Seraphim, who due to his integrity could not stand the least untruth no matter where it came from, protested quite loudly against the treatment of St. John, and did all in his power to defend the righteous hierarch. I should note that he evaluated people’s spiritual condition in relation to their attitude towards St. John. He was not worried about those who honored him, but considered those who spoke against him to be in great spiritual danger. And in this there was no partisanship, merely a sober spiritual attitude. Due to this, the Nyack parish began to be considered the “center of the opposition” to church hierarchy, which in fact it never was, but as a result it was viewed askance, together with its rector, by the “powers that be” engaging in the persecution of the saint. Believers, who reacted to what was happening with sorrow and bewilderment, came to Father Seraphim for spiritual consolation and received it.
Today, however, our Lord, who arranges all for good, has put everything into its place, indicating who is who in Christ’s Church. St. John has been canonized, and the same institution, which during his life looked askance at Father Seraphim, now has issued a decree for the entire Church Abroad to prayerfully commemorate his memory and in so doing, immortalize it, as well as that of his faithful companion in life, matushka Elena Alekseyevna, who helped him in his life’s work. And those former adversaries of Batiushka, these so-called “faithful children,” have finished their lives outside of the embrace of the Church Abroad. And thus it is fit to speak of them in the words of the psalmist, “their memory has perished,” and even without fanfare. However, it must be said that the first hierarch of the Church Abroad at the time, Metropolitan Filaret, was not touched by these negative attitudes towards Father Seraphim; indeed, he frequently demonstrated his kind, fatherly attitude towards Batiushka. For example, Vladyka would sometimes seek to rest from the discord around him by taking time to relax by going fishing surrounded by nature. Many times he would invite Father Seraphim to accompany him, clearly seeking his company and resting with his soul in his company, even though Father Seraphim was not an avid fisherman.
I also recall an occasion, where Vladyka came to the parish for Yolka, and a parishioner greeted him with a poorly formulated joke in Batiushka’s presence, “Well, Vladyka, have you come to visit the opposition?” which quite embarrassed Batiushka. But Vladyka replied with his customary good humor, “Yes, I’m spending the entire day today with the opposition, I served this morning at Father Mitrofan’s church in Sea-Cliff, and have now come to visit you.”
In concluding the topic of the relationship between Metropolitan Filaret and Father Seraphim, I recall a patronal feast day of that era, possibly the first one that was headed by Vladyka Filaret. During the trapeza, in honor of the recent consecration of the church, Blessed Gramotas (Commendations) were handed out to nearly the entire parish, underlying the accomplishments of each recipient. Among those honored was even a kind family with many children that had only recently arrived in Nyack, just one year prior, and for whom the parish had, in record time, raised funds to buy a house. Hearing of the virtues and worthy accomplishments of the parishioners, both ones that were evident and ones that were surmised, Vladyka summarized the occasion, again in his usual style, “This is not surprising as the parish is a reflection of its rector.”
All those who witnessed Father Seraphim’s life also remember his image as a selfless pastor. In addition to his humble abode, humble cassocks and worn boots, I remember an example of his lack of concern about possessions as told to me by Archpriest Andrei Semyanko, who served as a deacon in our parish in those long-ago years. The manner of paying for services of special needs (molebny, panikhidas and so forth) was as follows. There was no particular price list; on the candle stand there merely stood a small box with the sign, “for the priest for treby.” People gave as much as they could. Suddenly, on one fine day, upon opening the box, Father Seraphim discovered … Oh horrors! … a twenty-dollar bill. Batiushkabecame quite upset and attempted to discover the identity of the person who had left it, not in order to thank the generous donor … but to castigate him for putting down “such an absurdly large sum.” “Think of the position they are putting me in,” Batiushka lamented. True, the purchasing power of twenty dollars in those days was at least twice what it is today, but nonetheless, this episode perfectly characterizes the deceased pastor.
And now, I will allow myself to share with you some of Batiushka’s views on the state of the world, which may be useful to us during our complicated life today. Back during the times of the “Iron Curtain,” when contemporaries saw our fatherland as an evil empire, and the Western fortunate world as the embodiment of all that is good, Batiushka pointed out that life in Russia would, through God’s mercy, eventually improve, while the West would face a time of terrible change, and that the two would eventually trade places. Which is what we are witnessing today. This I remember from his lessons in the Law of God. And he expressed his assessment of our reality already 65 years (!) ago to my father, when my family arrived in the United States. “Keep in mind, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, that you have arrived in a country of lawful lawlessness.” Which we now see clearly. Yes, Batiushka was deeply forward thinking, and taught us this spiritual vision.
Now, I would like to mention his pastoral attention towards his parishioners. Father Seraphim’s house was open to all. There, at any time of day, one could meet the most unexpected persons. So often, with patience and love, he would listen to serious problems and sorrows, as well as all kinds of nonsense, and instead of telling his interlocutor, “Please do me a favor and shut the door behind you,” he would patiently listen to everything, thus impinging on his own more than well-deserved rest.
In so serving, Batiushka burned with love for the Lord and people, fully justifying his name “Seraphim,” which means “flaming.” After the move to America, his health was undermined, and he was never fully healthy again. Thus all of his pastoral service in the United States was ongoing despite his infirmities. But the first time he seriously fell ill was in December of 1966, when he spent several months in Roosevelt Hospital in New York. There, he underwent a complicated operation and returned home only a few weeks before Holy Pascha. Batiushka always greeted the Feast of Feasts especially joyously, I would even say, contagiously, but that year the usual Paschal joy was joined by general exultation, when the flock saw its beloved Batiushka, cheerful and serving as always with his usual high spirits. Truly Pascha of 1967 was unforgettable. Father Seraphim saw his return in spiritual terms, as a sign of God’s mercy given to him not without reason, but as he commented, as time given to him for repentance. He returned to this theme more and more frequently towards the end of his life. With these same sentiments, shortly before his death, he undertook a pilgrimage to San Francisco to venerate the relics of the not as yet canonized, but deeply beloved by him, Saint John. Despite his relatively young age (of 59), Batiushkahad already seriously prepared himself for departure to the next life. He passed away without suffering, it may be said, at his post, while carrying out his duties, having returned home from a memorial Matins the night before Dimitriev Saturday. We believe that having passed from the Church Militant here on Earth to the Church Victorious in heaven, Batiushkaresides there with eternal joy with his father, the priest-martyr Alexei, and with his deeply beloved St. John of Shanghai. Today, his triple image of an ascetic pastor, teacher of the law of God of all Russia, and victorious defender of ecclesiastical truth stands vividly before us, especially for those who had the fortune of spending time with him during his life. He could, with a clear conscience, say the words of the Apostle “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4: 6, 7), and then hear in response the gracious voice of God, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” And we for our part, hoping for the mercy of the Lord, may boldly say, “Lord, by the prayers of Your righteous servant Archpriest Seraphim, be merciful to us sinners.”
Thank you for your attention.
Archpriest A. Papkov