Test thyself, who thou art; come to know thy nature; come to know that thy body is mortal, while thy soul is immortal, that our life is two-sided: one side, proper the flesh, is transitory, while the other, related to the soul, does not admit limitation. Therefore, take heed to thyself, do not dwell on the mortal as eternal, and do not disdain the eternal as transitory. Do not care about the flesh, because it passes away; take care for the soul, a thing immortal.
— Saint Basil the Great
Fr. Herman (Podmoshesky), sometime abbot of St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, died today after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes. While his wish was for his body to lie in the ground close to his friend and co-struggler in the monastic life, Fr. Seraphim Rose, his precious soul, which he poured out on behalf of so many, will still be alive in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him. He is one of the first Orthodox pastors to teach me the true place of beauty in the spiritual life and how important it is to feed one’s soul with truth, beauty, and goodness before ever aspiring to things of the spirit.
Fr. Herman used to love to tell this story often about the importance of feeding the soul:
Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.” Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said. “But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!” The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did-with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness-then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
I took this advice immediately to heart, for I grew up in a faith tradition that overemphasized spiritual ideals to the detriment of the soul and good cultural food. I began to read not only Dickens but other writers suggested by this good and loving pastor. Not only prose, but poetry, and especially the down to earth, yet ethereal nature of works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The good abbot was so inspired with the latter’s work, that he had some of his nuns set it to music. The stanzas of Psalm of Life especially still ring in my ears…
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul…
This and so much more was introduced to me and others by this great shepherd of souls. What my skills-based and content-thin American education had missed, this Russian monk was good enough to supply.
In talking to a friend several years ago in Russia, I discovered what I thought was Fr. Herman’s great impetus in introducing us Americans to long-forgotten 19th century poets like Longfellow. It seemed to me then that he was attempting to find an American version of the likes of A.S. Pushkin, who has rock star status in Russia. A friend in Russia more recently told me that this was almost true, but not quite on the money. It is just that Russians in general, and this one in particular, know and love American literature better than Americans. So he was not searching for Longfellow, and then discovered him, but he grew up with him right alongside Pushkin. Either way, it continues to be a balm to my needy soul, and I am glad for however the transmission came to me.
Memory eternal to you Fr. Herman! Thank you for sharing your refined Russian soul with us soul-craved and culturally starved Americans. We are eternally in your debt.