The whole Point is to serve Christ in our Life

Bishop Seraphim : Interview
The whole Point is to serve Christ in our Life
Interview by Rebekah Goodyear
28 September, 2006

My first meeting with Bishop Seraphim occurred three years ago, when I was beginning my catechumenate. I can still recall how nervous I was, but he almost immediately put me at ease, with his smile, his gentle laughter, his sense of humour. To me, his kindness and humour are indicative of the extraordinary character of this man, who appears to think of himself as very ordinary.

On 28 September, 2005, I was granted a telephone interview with His Grace. I already admired him, especially after having read From the Bishop’s Desk : Writings of Vladyka SERAPHIM of Canada, a work reminiscent to me, in parts, of the gentle honesty and love found in the recorded words of Saint Silouan the Athonite. But after the interview had ended, I found myself respecting him even more. His answers, indicating much thought and prayerful consideration, lend an insight into the mind and heart of our spiritual leader. So it is with joy that I now present my conversation with him.

Your Grace, you were born Lutheran, later converted to Anglicanism, and finally to Orthodoxy. How many years have you been Orthodox, and what drew you to the Faith ?

Well, I have been Orthodox since 1978 (however long ago that is), so about 27 years or so. What ultimately drew me to Orthodoxy was essentially the truth of the Faith, and the fact that I believe strongly that the Lord drew me to the Church. He opened doors that I felt had been closed to me, and He made it very clear that I had to come into Orthodoxy. So, that is how it happened. Some people come to the Orthodox Church as a reaction to things that they feel are somehow out of kilter where they came from. There might have been something of that involved in my entering the Orthodox Church, too, in my hope for direction, but it had much, much more to do with the fulness of the Orthodox Faith and the living ability and viability of the Orthodox Faith, than anything like that.

What is your most treasured memory from your life in the Orthodox Church thus far ?

My most treasured memory ? Oh, probably, I suppose there would be two. They are not single memories ; they are sort of group memories, having to do with living in the New Valamo Monastery in Finland in 1980. Then, after that, the two times I was able to be at the Saint John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, where I met Archimandrite Sophrony.

That must have been really something, to meet him !

Well, this was so particularly because he was a holy man, and because of the sense of peace and joy a person could feel around him. This is what is really significant. What he said in recorded talks and what he wrote is significant, too, of course.

The Church appears to be growing within the whole of North America, including in Canada ; and indeed, the archdiocese now has a new building for Annunciation Cathedral, and it seems that every day, more and more converts are being baptised and/or chrismated everywhere. Are you, as our bishop, pleased with this ? Is the Church progressing as well as you would hope ?

I think that the Church is progressing according to God’s blessings, and that there is development according to God’s blessings. Therefore, I have to be and am grateful for how things are developing as they are. A person, especially someone like me, could be impatient because things might appear to be growing in a somewhat slow manner, compared to how a person would like things to be. However, I think that, regardless, the Orthodox Church has to grow slowly and steadily, in order to put down the correct and viable roots. This is because the Orthodox way is not about some sort of intellectual system or anything like that. It is a way of life. A way of life does not develop in five minutes. So I am happy about the way things are going.

In Holy Scripture, women are given an equally important role to that of men, and treated with the highest respect in the Church ; now, as you know, the diaconate for women is re-opening in Greece and, God willing, the whole Church. Can you describe the exact place of women within the Church – in monasticism, in the diaconate, and as laity, and the contribution they can make ?

That is a complicated question, to say “the exact place”. I do not think that I can say what is their “exact place” in the Church.

How about the approximate place ?

Perhaps that is better, because if you want to say what is the exact rôle, that would be very hard to define. When you say that the treatment of women in the Church and the Scriptures is one of equality, you would be right. However, equality is not the basic identity. In other words, men and women are equal, but they are not identical ; they are not exactly the same. They have different abilities and different gifts, for which God created us. For instance, men cannot be mothers. Therefore, it is important for us, in my opinion, to understand what is God’s will for us, and how we serve in the Church in accordance with God’s will for us, and in accordance with our different gifts, abilities and callings, as He gives them to us. Sometimes, people seem to want to think that in the Church there are special limitations on women, in one way or another. However, if that is what is perceived, then it is usually because of a weakness in our understanding of the Lord’s will. Men sometimes want to lord it over women, which is not what the Scriptures tell us to do, nor do the Scriptures encourage that.

It is important for us all to try to live in a more scripturally-minded way and with a more repentant attitude. As for any supposed difference between monks, nuns and lay-people, we must keep in mind that all have the same calling. Monks and nuns are simply human beings who give themselves more completely to the Lord, and who are determined with focus to serve Christ. This does not mean that one way is better than the other. Various people have various opinions about that. According to the Apostle Paul, the married way is good ; but he preferred everyone to be unmarried as he was, so that they could serve Christ with single-heartedness and single-mindedness. Nevertheless, he makes it clear that this does not mean that the married way is without blessings, do you see ? They are equally blessed ways to serve Christ. The whole point is to serve Christ in our life. Some He calls to be married, and some He calls to be unmarried. We have to be concerned with what He is calling us to do for and with Him. It is not merely an intellectual and logical choice that we make.

And what do you think of the women’s diaconate re-opening ?

Well, the diaconate is good. The diaconate itself is the foundation of what the Christian life is supposed to be about, for everyone, whether ordained or not. This is because the diaconate is the life and way of serving, following in the foot-steps of Christ, who gives us the example of true serving. Nevertheless we are, in the first place, mistreating the male diaconate ; in general, at the present time, the diaconate is, in many places, treated merely as a liturgical function. In reality, the diaconate has a lot more to do with the exercise of social-service gifts and other ways of serving, than merely the liturgical function. In the past, the diaconate was concerned with teaching, with preparation for baptism, with caring for the poor, with administration, and with many other things. In Rome in the distant past, it was deacons who were cardinals. If we have not yet arrived at understanding how male deacons are to exercise more normally the sorts of personal gifts for service that deacons are given by the Holy Spirit, then there is not much point in ordaining women to the diaconate, and after that having them be merely token decorations. In accordance with the Scriptural evidence, our historical experience, and the Canonical Tradition, the diaconate (whether for men or for women) remains rooted in active, practical service. Deacons are not merely liturgical creatures. Deacons care for the day-to-day needs of the faithful Christians and of anyone else whom the Lord sends. Deacons help the priests with baptisms. Deacons help the priests with Christian education and catechesis. Deacons help priests and bishops with administration. The diaconate is concerned with every aspect of the meaning of the word “service”. That is why I would repeat that if we cannot yet find a way to help the male diaconate (which is still active, albeit often minimally so) to be real and true in every way, then what is the point of opening a door for greater temptation, disappointment and resentment by giving women something which is empty ?

When they are doing the same thing ?

Yes. If women may think that they are being treated poorly in some ways without this ordination, then how are they going to feel if they are ordained to be deaconesses, but understand that they are in fact only tokens ? This what I am afraid of. I do not want that, and I don’t believe that anyone seriously does want anything like that. If women are going to be deaconesses, then it has to be real. Moreover, the male diaconate also has to become more real. The Orthodox Church is not about any falsehood or window-dressing ; it’s about reality. Deaconesses never had a liturgical role. They were always concerned with social-service, and baptismal-service as well. They had all those sorts of functions – practical functions. If they are going to be deaconesses, then they have to be doing something that is real and true. In Greece, there are deaconesses (this is the right word ; we really cannot use the simple word “deacon” for women) ; but their deaconesses, as far as I understand, are abbesses of monasteries. In that case, that is part of our tradition, that an abbess might also be a deaconess, and exercise a practical function. I believe that even in Greece, in normal parish life, they are not at all yet ready to embrace the restoration of deaconesses in the parish. This is because the diaconate itself has to be recovered in a full, normal sense before we can properly do this. I am not saying it cannot happen ; I am just saying we have to do it in the right order, or it is going to be very bad. We will be saying the wrong thing. We do not want to suggest the wrong thing to women. Although people may cite the book and movie about baseball, saying “build the stadium and they will come”, this tactic is likely to produce the opposite reaction. How could we leap into the full restoration of the order of deaconesses on our own and without first consulting the rest of the Orthodox Church, when we are fully aware that if we did so, the first reaction would be the vilification of those who are thus ordained, and along with them the bishops who do it ? Taking this attitude is too degrading towards anyone. It is the same as saying that we will give a child a scorpion to play with just because the child asked for it, and then say it is not our fault that the child got stung and nearly died.

Saint Silouan the Athonite wrote of Christ-like love : “No one can know of himself what is Divine love unless the Holy Spirit instructs him”. Archimandrite Sophrony wrote that “the meaning of Christ’s word ‘love’ will remain a mystery for the philologist to the end of time”. And Saint Seraphim of Sarov said : “God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart”, and that, contrary to popular Western beliefs, “the devil is cold”. How would you describe Christ-like love to those as yet unfamiliar with these works, and how can we achieve it ?

Christ-like love is fundamentally self-emptying, selfless love. Christ-like love is without self-interest : no strings attached ; no conditions. I suppose you could say that Christ-like love expects love in return, but does not demand it and does not force it. Christ-like love is characterised by service, because it is self-emptying love. It is all concerned with service. This cannot help but be so. How you achieve this, is to open yourself to the Lord and to ask Him to give this Christ-like love. It is not something that you can manage to do by any acquired technique. Christ-like love is a gift of the Holy Spirit ; and as far as I can see, the only way that you can come to this love, is to put yourself in His Presence, and to wait for Him. At least that is what I understand that Archimandrite Sophrony, in his writings, tells people to do. He shows how it has been for him in his own life, and the sorts of struggles that you have to face, not only in opening yourself and asking for the Lord to give you this love, but once you have been given this love, then to live in it.

Your Grace, ours is the oldest and true Church, and some people heavily emphasise that many are not members. But His Grace, Bishop Kallistos (Ware) has pointed out that there exist people who are part of the Church – the Kingdom – in an “invisible” manner, noting : “We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not”, and the theologian Alexis Khomiakov said that in mankind there are those who are “united to her [the Church] by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her”. If these brethren are unknown to us, what more can we, as Orthodox Christians, do to reach out and connect with our “invisible” brothers and sisters ?

The way of Orthodox hospitality has always been with a view to try to see Christ in the other person, without asking for his or her passport. There are numerous cases in the lives of saints. The one that I remember always is Saint Bishoy of Egypt. He was always – in the traditional way of his day – washing the feet of anyone who came into his cell. He would receive beggars, and the other monks were criticising him for how many people he would let in and see. On one of those occasions, he was washing the feet of some really dirty person, and was about to feed him, when someone sharply criticised him. While he was washing the feet of this person, the brethren who were criticising him were immediately silenced, because it was then revealed to them that it was Christ whose feet he was washing. As soon as they saw that it was Christ, He disappeared.

On another occasion with the same Saint Bishoy, the brethren were suffering from the same weakness. One of the brothers had a dream in which Christ said that He was going to appear to the brotherhood in the church, and that they should all go. So word went out, and the brothers started towards the church. Saint Bishoy was the last of them. Sitting beside the road was a paralysed beggar, who asked the monks where they were going. They said where and why, and he asked them to carry him so that he could see Christ too. They all replied that they were in too big a hurry to accommodate him. Saint Bishoy came last, and he picked up the beggar and carried him on his back into the church. As he entered, all the brethren immediately saw that it was Christ he was carrying.

That is the attitude which we must have towards people. The Lord created all human beings. Just because they are not Orthodox, people are not therefore sub-human, and we ought not ever to have such a wrong attitude towards any human being. If persons can see Christ’s love in us and in how we treat them, it makes it easier for them to come to the Church. However, if we treat people as though they had to have some sort of special passport before we are going to talk to them or have anything to do with them, then the Church appears to them as an exclusive club which is difficult to get into, if at all.

What would you say is the most important role for our youth today ? How can children and adolescents, who are faced with so many dangers and temptations, find and maintain Grace and freedom in Christ ?

It is difficult for them to do that all by themselves. It is the responsibility of adults to help them. It is important for the youth to understand that their calling (vocation) and their relationship with Christ is the same as that of everyone else. Age has nothing to do with it. Love is love. Notice the Apostle Paul’s exhortations and instructions regarding the Apostle Timothy, who was quite young, and yet he was given a very great responsibility. The Apostle John was quite young, and he had a special responsibility given to him. This was, amongst other things, to care for the Mother of God as though she were his own mother, for the rest of her life. Youth is an advantage, because young people are less distracted and congested with worldly cares or other concerns than are most older adults. Youth is the most opportune time to be offered an understanding of what riches and strength are found in Christ. The time of youth is the best time to bring Christ the Truth to the fore, in order to counter inexperience in true Christian love, and also to counter dependence on thoughts and emotions. The time of youth is the best time to be helped to encounter Christ in His pure love. If a person can have experience in Christ’s love when still young, and can understand how love motivates a person in life and in every other way, then this experience can make the rest of that person’s life – later – make more sense, impacting positively in the context of all the difficulties of relationships. That is the way in which any human being, regardless of age, survives the difficulties of life – always keeping one’s focus on Christ, one’s sense of direction on Christ, one’s hope on Christ. Young people should read the Scriptures in order to know Who is Jesus Christ, and to be able to keep remembering Christ. An important factor, too, is that young people have much more energy than do we older guys ! As a result, they are often better able to sustain service to people who have particular needs. There are all sorts of people, I think, who would benefit from the loving ministrations of a young person.

There is a lot of fear and despair today because of terrorism, war, and environmental disasters taking place everywhere, but the Scriptures teach us to fear nothing. Father Lawrence Farley once said of Christ : “He was Heaven’s amnesty to the children of men”, and Archbishop Lazar said : “It is a wondrous mystery of God’s Grace that we can become co-workers with Christ in the salvation of mankind”. Now, we all know about the need for charitable works, but what can be done to comfort and strengthen the hurting in their faith ?

I do not think that you can separate charitable works from comforting. Charitable works are not just something to do. Charitable works are the works that spring up from selfless love. By definition, charity is a conscious decision to love. That is how this English word “charity” needs to be used – as selfless love. If you are going to do something good for people, to comfort and help them in a practical or a verbal way, that is a charitable work. The comforting of people who need consolation has to be done in practical ways, on the basis of selfless Christian love, motivated by Christ in our heart. There is no programme for consoling people who are fearful, lonely, or grieving. When it comes to how you yourself are going to console someone, it has to be motivated by the Lord in your heart, who is giving you the words that are actually needed by that particular person, for that particular situation. It cannot be programmed, because each situation is unique, and every person is unique. You have to depend on God to teach your heart what to do and what to say. Of course, that means that we have to learn to pray, which is something we are generally not so good at these days, because we are so busy, and we think that we do not have time. We also think that prayer is only concerned with asking for things, instead of being at its very best a wordless communication in Divine Love.

Finally, Your Grace, you have been our bishop for nearly twenty years. With such experience, what do you feel is the ultimate future of the Orthodox Church between now and Eternity ? [To this question, His Grace replied incredulously : “Between now and Eternity ?” I said : “Yeah”, and we both just laughed. I’d hit him with another complicated question, but he graciously answered, nonetheless.]

Ah, well, the Church is the Body of Christ, and the future of the Church is to live in Christ, to reveal Christ, to serve Christ, and to preach Christ prophetically. That is it. That is our past, present and future. It is not possible for me to speak or write about the future in any concrete or detailed way. On the other hand, we do know that for our Lord, time is effectively irrelevant. All is now. We do have tastes of this timelessness ourselves occasionally when we might be attending the Divine Liturgy or some other service. It may be a very long service, but it feels to us at the time either as though it were altogether too short after several hours, or it feels as though time stood still. Our responsibility between now and Eternity must be to love our Lord Jesus Christ above everyone and everything else with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Our life is to live Christ, and to be identified with Him in His love in every way. Our life is to be yeast, and to be salt. Our life is to bear His life every moment of every day and every night, and to be shining with the light of Christ’s love. I am sorry that I cannot be more detailed about this. We have to be who we are. We have to live up to our calling.