Archpriest Martin Person is the rector of the St Herman of Alaska Russian Orthodox Church in Sunnyvale, CA. He and his Matushka Sarah met in 1980 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where there was an active Orthodox Christian Fellowship of students. That OCF group was mentored and inspired by Archimandrite Anastassy (Newcombe) and by Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose).
Fr. Martin and Matushka Sarah were in Russia recently on a pilgrimage to the holy sites in and around St. Petersburg and Moscow. Among their group of pilgrims was Martha Nichols, who was a spiritual child of Fr. Seraphim. Martha’s reminiscences of Fr. Seraphim, offered at the pilgrimage in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of his repose, can be read in the article, “Vignettes of a Holy Life.”
I had the blessing of joining Fr. Martin, Matushka Sarah, Martha, and the rest of their pilgrimage group towards the end of their dinner one night at Georgian restaurant, and we had the chance to talk about a number of topics, including Fr. Martin’s memories of Fr. Seraphim and how he impacted his life.
Comments from Fr. Martin are introduced simply with “—,“ those from Matushka Sarah with “—(MS),” and those from Martha with “—(M).”
—I understand that you had a very interesting group of friends in college who were coming to Orthodoxy at roughly the same time.
—(MS): The Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) at the University in Santa Cruz was a really interesting confluence of people and events. We were blessed to be supported by several spiritual fathers: It wasn’t just Blessed Seraphim (Rose), but also Archimandrite Anastassy (Newcombe) and Protopresbyter Konstantine Tivetsky that helped to foster this group of young OCF students. Our group included Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen), Archimandrite Gerasim, formerly the abbot of St. Herman’s in Platina, Archimandrite James (Corazza), who serves at the old Russian cathedral in San Francisco, Abbot Damascene, Fr. Seraphim’s biographer and the current abbot of St. Herman’s, Deacon John Dibs, in the Antiochian Archdiocese, Monk Lazarus at Mar Saba Monastery in Jerusalem, and Mother Sophia at a monastery in Indiana… and there are more that I can’t remember right now.
—Were you all there when Fr. Seraphim gave the lecture at Santa Cruz that was recorded and later published as the book God’s Revelation to the Human Heart?
—(MS): I was not there. I helped to organize the lecture, but I had a class at the same time that I had to attend.
—I was still fairly resistant to Orthodoxy at that time. At that time I was into a Hindu teacher named Paramahansa Yogananda. Sarah and Fr. James sent Fr. Damascene to talk to me, because he had been into Buddhism, and they thought he would be able to get through to me. I liked John (his name before monasticism), and felt he was a good and sincere person.
I didn’t meet Fr. Seraphim until I graduated and took a trip around the western United States.
I was reading The Way of a Pilgrim and I really liked it, and I had a really interesting encounter in New Mexico. Shortly after finishing the book, I saw a man walking down the road. I pulled over and asked him if he wanted a ride. His name was Jim and he jumped in and we started a conversation. I still had The Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda on my dashboard and Jim had been involved with Yogananda’s group in the 1950s. So we started talking about Yogananda, Hinduism, and spiritualty, and he was a very intelligent guy. Then he started very systematically dissecting true Hinduism from true Christianity; really separating them out, showing the incompatibility of the two.
His parting shot when I dropped him off at the Grand Canyon still rings loudly in my ears. He leaned in and said “Listen, in every religion there’s some aspect of truth, and that’s what attracts us to it, but until you find Jesus Christ, Who is the Truth Himself, you will never find peace.” And he shut the door and walked off.
—(MS): He’d been traveling with just a bed roll and a Bible for years, and he’d converted from Hinduism to the Catholic faith.
—I was struck. This encounter was amazing and was just the right word at the right time. From there I decided to go visit Fr. Anastassy in Point Reyes, but he was busy with some pilgrims, so he gave me directions to Platina and said I needed to go talk to Fr. Seraphim. I knew Fr. Gerasim from Santa Cruz, so he greeted me when I drove up and took me into the monastery. He was a novice at that time.
I spent a week there and had incredible conversations with Fr. Seraphim. We took long walks, and sat on a log outside his cell, talking about life and spirituality. At one point, I said, “I want to know God as He is, not as I want Him to be. Even if I don’t like it, I want to know God as He is.” Fr. Seraphim said, “If you’re sincere, He’ll reveal Himself to you.”
At the end of that week he made me a catechumen and he sent me off with the Northern Thebaid and the Jordanville Prayer book. I immersed myself in those two books. Then I got a call from Fr. Gerasim about a month or two later, that Fr. Seraphim was in the hospital. I drove up to Redding, so the second time I saw him was in the hospital. He was in really bad shape. There was this one moment there in the ICU at his bedside, where we were praying a moleben, and they blessed him with the Gospel and he reached up through the pain to kiss the Gospel, and all of us were in absolute tears. That was it for me. Here was a faith that stood firm in the face of death.
The first time I met Fr. Seraphim, I saw how an Orthodox man should live. The second time I saw him, I saw how an Orthodox man should die.
—It’s amazing that in just two encounters with him you saw everything.
—I saw everything I needed. My encounter with him was very brief and I didn’t know him well. I only had those two encounters with him, but they changed my life.
—(MS): I had converted to Orthodoxy just before this. I told Fr. Martin to go see Fr. Anastassy, and I had given him The Way of a Pilgrim, and every night as an exchange student in Switzerland I was praying that he would convert and become a monk so I could go be a nun. You know—crazy converts. Then he wrote to me, saying, “Oh, I’ve had a wonderful time at the monastery, I spent a whole week, I want to go back.” I thought, “Wait a minute, be careful what you ask for” [laughs].
At this point, Matushka Sarah and the rest of their group returned to their hotel, while Fr. Martin, Martha Nichols, and I continued our discussion.
—Father, did you go to Jordanville, or to seminary at all?
—I didn’t go to seminary at all. I was simply blessed to have wonderful priests and teachers. I was baptized in 1983…
—Where did you end up getting baptized?
—In the Mad River, near Platina, by Fr. Herman, because Fr. Seraphim had reposed by that time. My parish was the Protection of the Holy Mother of God in Palo Alto, and I was being taught how to read in Slavonic. I started with the Six Psalms and doing a lot of the reading at the parish. Our parish priest Fr. Vladimir Derugin was preparing a couple of us to become deacons, and I was interested, but very hesitant. I am by nature on the far spectrum of being an introvert. I’m very quiet and tend to be shy. I was very resistant, and I also knew I was too immature in Orthodoxy to take that on too quickly.
I had a thirty-five-year career in software development. I was very busy with my work and with raising our family of three children. I continued being a reader in the Church, and I led the altar servers and taught Sunday school. The software business had its ups and downs and led me to move from Silicon Valley to the North Bay and then to Southern California.
So we moved down to Los Angeles and ended up going to the Holy Protection Church there. They had two altars there, for an early English Liturgy and a later Slavonic one, and they needed a deacon for the English Liturgy. By this time the kids were teenagers, and it just seemed right, so I agreed to become a deacon. I was a deacon for three years, and the whole time the priest there was telling me, “You need to become a priest.” I remained hesitant. Then in 2005, my son and I went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and I had an experience there at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I went upstairs to Golgotha, and I was standing in that church, and it was like some kind of wave came and hit me, and I just surrendered… Realizing that Christ did this for me, how dare I refuse anything He asks of me?
When I came back to LA, the priest there asked if I had a change of heart. I said I would no longer refuse if I was asked to become a priest. Things happened quickly after that. I was on a business trip with programmers in Munich, and I received an incoming email from my parish priest, saying “Life as you know it is O-V-E-R.” It said I was to report that Sunday to the cathedral in San Francisco for my ordination.
So I flew home from Munich on Friday, flew from LA to San Francisco on Saturday, and had my confession and was ordained on Sunday. It was one of those things where after I was ordained, it felt like that was what I was born for. Why was I resisting for so many years? Thank God.
—Was there a specific moment where it all clicked?
—It just all coalesced: serving the Liturgy, hearing confessions, the whole pastoral aspect of it—it felt like the breaking open of my heart to people. I’m not an eloquent speaker, but the heart-to-heart connection with people is so profound. I can’t imagine anything else in my life now.
—I think the fact that you were resisting at first is not a bad thing.
—I agree. It’s not a bad thing.
—Sometimes the Chrism is still wet on seminarians’ heads [laughs].
—I think it matters more how you are with people, than what you specifically can say sometimes. There’s a deep soul-to-soul resonance with people. If I can get over myself and my insecurities and open myself to people that way, it’s amazing the connections that unfold.
—You see that with Fr. Artemy Vladimirov here. People just love him.
—That man has so much heart. I know about him through the collection of interviews in the book Bright Faith, which is an amazing book that I think everyone should absolutely try to read.
—That is a great book. That was my first introduction to him. And of course, we have many articles from him on our site.
When we met at Sretensky Monastery, you mentioned about the woman buying a book about St. John (Maximovitch) at a church here in Moscow who you were able to give some oil from his lampada to—have there been any connections like that with Fr. Seraphim?
—There have been, but I’ve been more actively presenting St. John to people. It’s an interesting story – I went to the cathedral in San Francisco before we left to get maybe twenty bottles of oil from the lampada at St. John’s relics. I went in and prayed at his relics and asked his blessing on the trip, and they also have the relics of the Optina Elders, St. Xenia, and St. John of Kronstadt—all people I knew we would see, so I spent some time there.
Then I went out to the candle stand and I asked for as many bottles of St. John’s oil as I could get, but it turned out I could only get three. So I took 100 icon cards that I blessed on St. John’s relics. I figured if I can’t bring oil, I’ll at least bring the cards that have been placed on the relics. C’est la vie. Then I went to the old cathedral to Fr. James (Corazza). We’re old friends from college, and we had a wonderful visit, and I told him about the oil. Then he placed me under St. John’s mantia and prayed for me as a blessing for the trip. As I was leaving, he handed me a box of twenty bottles of oil. Thank you, St. John! Then the Saturday before we left, I had a Baptism, and Serge Loukianoff, the brother of our Archbishop Peter, was there. Afterwards he said to me, “I hear you’re going to Russia,” and he handed me seventy bottles of oil from St. John! So I ended up having about 100 bottles. It was definitely a blessing from St John!
The encounters with people when I offer them this oil have been priceless. Absolutely priceless.
—(M): Those are kind of the gems of the trip. We were at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra yesterday, and we went to the graves, to where Fr. Kirill (Pavlov) is buried. There was a woman there with severe cerebral palsy. Father gave her the bottle and she let out a huge “Spasibo! [Thank you!]”
—There have been a few cases where people had some connection to America and I asked if they knew Fr. Seraphim, and they said of course, so I would hand them some bottles of oil from the lampada at Fr. Seraphim’s grave, for which they are extremely grateful.
—I experienced this in Greece, including on Mt. Athos, and on Serbia. Anytime we said we were from America, they excitedly asked if we know Fr. Seraphim Rose! In Greece they ask first about Elder Ephraim, then also Fr. Seraphim. In Serbia, they just ask about Fr. Seraphim.
I was with a group waiting for a bus on Mt. Athos. We started talking to the guy sitting next to us, and Fr. Seraphim came up. I have a piece of Fr. Seraphim’s work cassock that Mary Mansur gave me, that I take with me when I go on pilgrimages. This guy said he loves Fr. Seraphim, so I gave him the piece of his cassock to venerate, and he was in shock. There’re thousands of Athonite saints, and this guy was blown away by Fr. Seraphim.
—(M): Like we said, there was a woman at the St. Nicholas Church that was buying a book about St. John, and when Fr. Martin noticed that and gave her a bottle of his oil, her eyes just came out of her head, saying, “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this.”
—It was incredible synchronicity. She was buying a book about St. John. I saw that and had to give her a bottle. A priest from San Francisco just happened to be there. How wonderful for her!
—(M): We had noticed that the church there has a large icon of him. We were very glad to find an icon of him.
—You know, there are icons of him all over the place. I was just in Cyprus and saw icons of him. I went to Aegina a few years ago to venerate St. Nektarios, and right there when you get off the boat there’s a chapel on the water, and there’s an icon of St. John there. St. John and St. Luke of Simferopol are everywhere.
—One of the nuns at one of the monasteries gave me a little folding triptych that has St. Luke with his relics. Thank God.
—It’s been a while since I read his life, but if I remember correctly, he praised Patriarch Sergius. He felt he did what he had to do to keep the Church going. It’s an interesting point of view, considering all the concern about Sergianism that was big in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and still is with some people.
—When I was first converting, St. Herman’s was serializing Russia’s Catacomb Saints, and I cut my teeth on that. In my first year of going up there, I was working with them on the printing press, putting the typeset for that book. So I had a very “healthy” disdain for the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarch Sergius.
There was a book that came out, A Long Walk to Church. It’s a very interesting book. It came out sometime in the 1990’s, but it was one of the first things that came out that had a lot of documentation that was just coming to light about that time. It had accounts of what Patriarch Sergius went through. He was put on a train to go to one of these camps, and he went through unbelievable suffering and persecution. It was a real eye opener for me. It gave me a much more sympathetic sense of the impossible situation that he and the rest of the people were in.
I remember Bishop Nektary (Kontzevitch) talking to us one summer, when they were putting Russia’s Catacomb Saints together, and, while he was one hundred percent behind the martyrs, I think he was saying this as sort of a balance—he said you cannot even imagine what these people went through. Until you can put yourselves in the shoes of a priest whose son is put in front of him with a gun to his head, don’t you dare judge these people for what they had to go through. I remember that very well.
—I remember someone else telling me that he had the same kind of anti-Moscow Patriciate feeling, until he ended up at a conference with a priest from Moscow, sometime in the early 1980s, if I recall correctly, and he was able to speak to him about what they were actually going through. This man realized how mistaken he’d been for how harshly he’d treated those people.
… It’s interesting for me that people think Fr. Seraphim was some kind of a fanatic like this.
—But if you read his biography, you find out that at the same time that there were people in ROCOR with this super anti-Moscow attitude, he and Fr. Herman were willing to be criticized for supporting Fr. Dmitry Dudko, and that Fr. Seraphim would never say there was no grace in Moscow. This is what I like about Fr. Seraphim—he was very balanced.
—He was an extremely balanced person.
—(M): Just to be around him was so peaceful.
—I remember one time speaking with a person who was really bashing Fr. Seraphim for supposedly being a narrow-minded zealot. There were a couple of us there that had met him and we just said that’s not him. Maybe he comes across that way in his texts, but if you heard him speak, and not even just hearing him speak, but just being in his presence—he absolutely was not that way. He was very loving, full of warmth.
—(M): He always met people at his level. He presented essential Christianity—the Gospel for whoever you were.
—He was definitely intense. That week that I was there when we had these walks and talks, the distinct thing I remember about him was that whatever subject we were talking about, he was almost impatient with me—he would say, “What’s the point? What was the point?” Not in an agitated way, but impatient. He wanted to cut to the chase. It was very instructive to me for him to keep pushing me to get to the bottom line. It made me think, “Well, what was the point?” He forced me to think about it. It was very interesting to have that kind of laser beam intensity.
—That’s my sense of it. He just cut through the fakery and fog. It may seem fanatic or zealous to some, but he just wasn’t playing around. He had a sense of how little time he had to live, I think.
—(M): He didn’t have time for that.
—He just wanted to get down to it. We have no time. His classic line is “It’s later than you think.” That’s very much how he was.
—Out of his writings, which would you say is the most important for you?
—Wow, that’s a great question. The one that springs to my mind is a completely obscure one—“In Step With Sts. Patrick and Gregory of Tours.” To me that just completely captured him.
—He talked about how our modern mentality looks back upon people of that era, who looked at celestial events and asked what they mean, as quaint or superstitious; but we just don’t get it, he said. They had an organic view of the world and of the cosmos, because God is always speaking to us.
There’s also a sequence where he talks about how you’re working at the printing press and you’re making these great articles that are going to speak to the world, and suddenly the press starts choking and spitting out papers and falling apart, and your reaction is to be very upset and completely lose your peace, because its ruining your missionary outreach. He says that if that’s your response, you’re completely losing the point. The point is to keep your peace and do what you can, but it’s all in God’s hands. If the whole batch is ruined, that’s how it is.
To me it just captures Fr. Seraphim. The other writing that I gain a lot from is the series he did about the Holy Fathers on illness, how to read the Scriptures, how not to read the Scriptures, and so on. Some of those from that series were very good.
—I have one of those little pamphlets, about how every question we have today can be answered by the Holy Fathers. That’s another one of my favorite things about him—I think of it in terms of his lack of originality.
—He just wanted to transmit. Just go to the Fathers. Of course, that mindset is ridiculous to the world and even to some Orthodox people. For some reason I’ve always been drawn to the creation-evolution question, and I’ve taken plenty of ridicule because I think Fr. Seraphim is totally correct.
The new edition of Genesis, Creation, and Early Man that Fr. Damascene put out has that appendix of all the other twentieth-century saints who say the exact same thing as Fr. Seraphim… I don’t know how there can still be a question about where the Church stands.
—I teach a class every Saturday, and one of the sources that I drew from for the class was Fr. Damascene’s encapsulation of this issue, ”Created in Incorruption,” which serves as an epilogue in the book. It’s so good and so important to understand that the dignity and nobility that God intended for us is in such contrast to the chaos of the whole modern idea of evolution. If you understand the intention and will of God for us, as human beings, you understand that it’s such a noble thing. There’s the notion of the ridiculous sense of self-esteem for self-esteem’s sake, but there’s also the proper Orthodox sense of self-respect and the nobility to which you are called. It’s so important for people to understand, because people just end up in despair at the human condition; but if they understood for what they are created, and that it’s such a high calling…
—In America we think of this as just a question of beginnings, and something the Evangelicals argue about. People don’t understand that it’s connected to the entire faith, especially with the question of death. Did God create death? That affects how you think of Christ, what you believe He is like. Even if you don’t explicitly confess a heresy because of this, if you were to pull out all the implications of it, you’re going to have a distorted thinking about the rest of the faith.
—I’ve been interested in this question for years, and by reading about Genesis, I’ve learned about the entire Orthodox faith. It’s not just commentary on Genesis. It’s everything. Of course Fr. Seraphim understood that.
—That’s really important.
—Speaking of twentieth-century saints, of course the question arises sometimes about whether Fr. Seraphim will be canonized, and I've seen people make the accusation that we don’t really know the truth about him, because Platina was supposedly just cashing in on his memory for so long. So what we read about him and know about him—is that the real Fr. Seraphim? If you read His Life and Works, does that seem to you like the real Fr. Seraphim? Or is there any legitimacy to this idea?
—(M): And there are his letters with Fr. Alexey Young. Whenever I feel kind of lost and out there and worried, I go back to His Life and Works and his letters, looking through my spiritual family album. We met Fr. Seraphim and became Orthodox at the end of his life, and I feel so humbled to have had that, and that that seed has gone very deep. I didn’t come in with any knowledge. I guess I was seeking but I didn’t know. I just walked into the church on Pentecost and the chapel was decorated with oak boughs, and Fr. Seraphim was reading the Gospel, and there was incense and candles and icons, and I knew I was all in. I was home. I didn’t understand the Theotokos or anything, but it just struck me. So when I go back to that… I remember the first time I read his biography, I realized how little time I knew him, and to be vouchsafed that was incredible.
—It’s a great blessing to have that foundation.
—Fr. Martin, you said that at the monastery you saw how a Christian man should live and at the hospital how a Christian man should die. Is there anything from those meetings that has helped you specifically as a priest, or anything from his writings, but specifically in the role of the priesthood?
—Sure. Fr. Seraphim was for me this incredible combination of sober fidelity to the faith and a warm pastoral heart. I don’t fulfill that, but I take him as a guiding light. I think it’s incredibly important to have that combination of fidelity to what has been handed to you and strictness in your adherence to that inheritance and to not know better—this is what has been given and this is what I have to give you—with that incredibly warm pastoral sense of Orthodoxy. He didn’t so much write specifically about this, but it certainly is evident in who he was… Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) is perhaps the main modern writer that talks about the therapy of Orthodoxy, but Fr. Seraphim definitely had the sense that this is all about the healing of the soul.
—Which he of course experienced himself in a big way. He had such an intense search for the truth. I’ve always been a Christian but I’ve never had that intensity about it. That’s why he’s so inspiring. That point in his life where he’s drunk and standing on his car and yelling at God to kill him just so he’ll at least know who God is… How many people do that? How many people feel it that intensely?
—I definitely resonate with that. I was baptized Episcopalian as a child. I had basic Sunday School training growing up but my family was not religious at all. My parents were good, moral people, but not religious. By the time I was seven, we stopped going to church, because my brother and I were involved in sports and that was enough reason to quit attending.
When I was twelve, my mother contracted cancer. Her death was pretty difficult; a lot of suffering. That year I started praying again. Initially I was praying very fervently for her health, and as she decayed, I prayed that God would take her away, because she really suffered. The loss of my mother sent me on a long road of searching… I wanted to figure out this whole realm of suffering and death and whether there is any existence after we die. That road led me through a brief but intense period of drugs and then in 1975 I had a Christian conversion experience that was deeply profound.
That initial encounter with Christ was reverent and holy and full of love. I spent the next years trying to make sense of it. The Christianity that was available and presented to me as a teenager was what we would call “Evangelical Christianity.” It was full of joy and gave me a great appreciation of the Bible and ignited a prayer life for me, but it did not address these deeper questions of suffering and death. It was all too much fun—and that was not what I was looking for.
By the time I got to college, I was becoming tired of this brand of spirituality. I soon met a fellow student who was a Buddhist, and that was much closer to what I had initially experienced, because it was quiet and reverent and had some sense of tradition. So I started getting into meditation, and when I went to Santa Cruz I was introduced to the writings of Yogananda and westernized Hinduism, which is also very deep. That’s where I was when I met my wife and Fr. Damascene and Fr. James and Fr. Gerasim and Met. Jonah. Through them I was introduced to Orthodoxy and had that experience meeting the pilgrim in New Mexico and going up to see Fr. Seraphim.
Orthodoxy not only addresses suffering and death, but it makes sense of them and taught me how Christ, through His suffering and death, had redeemed these experiences and opened up to us a new life. Fr Seraphim had united himself to Christ… He experienced suffering and courageously put to death all that was not of Christ in his life. And through that, the light of Christ’s resurrection shone in him. We were very blessed to have witnessed that light.