I suppose putting these two men together in an image is a bit of a curiosity. One was born a slave and became one of the world’s most famous scientist. The other was an academic with a promising future that he left behind and became one of Orthodoxy’s most heralded modern monks. As different as their backgrounds were, I can’t help but to believe they represent what it is to live in humble simplicity, renounce the aims of our modern world, and live completely devoted to the kingdom of God.
George Washington Carver had every strike against him, including the loss of both of his parents. His white master and mistress allowed and fueled his thirst for knowledge to a point where he earned a teaching position at Iowa State College. For a black man to teach at a white school during post-Reconstruction was unimaginable. Rather than be self serving, Carver gave up his post to take a lower salary and limited resources to teach at Tuskegee Institute to help his poor and oppressed fellow African-Americans. We tend to limit Carver to his successful scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. Yet, the most important and overlooked thing about Dr. Carver was that he sought God’s glory by his way of life.
Carver did not work solely for the sake of financial gain and the acquisition of material goods. Thomas Edison offered him a more than handsome salary if he would work beside him. The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin also offered to reward him for his services. But, Carver was happy to make do with his salary at Tuskegee. In fact, he sometimes did not cash his checks. He lived in a one room apartment and wore a couple of old suits. “The Lord charges me nothing for knowledge and I’ll charge you the same” was an answer he gave to those who wondered why he didn’t seek luxury and wealth. As his lifestyle would not be conducive to supporting a wife and children, Carver never married and lived as a celibate “monk.”
Carver’s monastic lifestyle was evident in his rule of prayer. He arose at 4:00 a.m. asking God to reveal to him new ways to feed the poor and clothe the naked. He did nothing without seeking and having a deep union with God and his words were not much different than an Egyptian desert father or an abbot at Valaam:
“Put off the finite, put away every material problem, and then you are given a glimpse into the Infinite and its secrets are revealed.”
“If we are going to talk to the Great Creator, we must tune in.”
By maintaining a rigorous rule of prayer and living to serve God and not mammon, people who knew and heard Carver saw him as a man of great faith as well as scientific knowledge. Without prayer, his ascetic lifestyle would have achieved little. Had he been self-serving, his prayers would have been hollow words. Had he not had such a devoutly Christian character, his achievements would have led him to ruin if the Lord had blessed him to make them in the first place.
Because he was not baptized and chrismated into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; Carver cannot be recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church worldwide. However, due to his lifestyle and the wonders God worked through him, Carver should be known and highly regarded by all Orthodox Christians in America. Had the Russians, Greeks, or Ethiopians evangelized to him, perhaps he would have been Orthodox. Indeed, the way he lived was that of a monk who would have been at home at any hermitage. There is no doubt that any Christian would do well to follow Carver’s example as he denied himself of the world’s gifts, took up his cross to serve his fellow suffering former slaves and all poor farmers, and follow Jesus Christ. And in this day and age where people are driven to get a lucrative career, attractive spouse (or sex partners), and flaunt and enjoy all of the luxuries one can afford; the saintly example of George Washington Carver needs to be promoted to and among African-Americans, all Americans, and the world.
Eugene Rose was born and raised under far better circumstances than Carver. He was on his way to living the American dream as an academic teaching and studying Chinese language and culture. In an effort to find spiritual truth, he turned to eastern religions. Thanks to the presence of Russians who fled the Communist takeover of their homeland, Rose was introduced to and fell in love with Orthodox Christianity. As a convert to the faith, he still had the promise of pursuing a career as a professor and marrying and starting a family with an attractive friend.
Yet, in early 1960’s California, Rose saw the seeds of a growing countercultural movement and how powerless the academic world was to stop it. Rather than give in to either the early bandwagon of the hippies or the dry standard of the “American dream,” Rose made the unheard of move to become a monk. He took the name of the heavenly creatures that flew around God’s throne. He lived in a one room shack that he named “Optima” after one of the great Russian monasteries. This is where he translated many of the works of Russian monks and saints into English. This made some of the most meaningful works of Orthodoxy more accessible to American converts to the faith.
As the countercultural movement crashed and the façade of academia proved to be a failure for spiritual fulfillment, Seraphim influenced a group of truth seekers and formed the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA. He was an in demand lecturer who spoke at churches, and college campuses. Pilgrims of various Orthodox jurisdictions and religious beliefs came to the monastery for his words of wisdom and prayer. Among many Russians, he knew the language and spirituality so well, they took him for one of their own.
Prophetically, Rose foresaw the dangers of what the sexual revolution would pose to male and female relationships and the institution of marriage:
“’Sexual freedom’ is the coupling of words that represent totally incompatable realities (since ‘sex’ practiced today is slavery) is but another instance of that modern incompetence to do anything but follow ones passions and accept whatever vulgar slogan justifies its aim.”
“How different is the face of the Christian astetic who by striving to master his passions rather than indulge them reveals an inwardness undreamed of by the moderns.”
“Pornography is the devil’s iconography.”
In a debate with the Roman Catholic cleric Fulton Sheen, Rose warned that the Civil Rights movement would one day rely more on government solutions rather than God. He also denounced the growing “Charismatic Renewal” as being of a spirit, “But not the Holy Spirit.”
It would be easy to say that Seraphim Rose wasted his intellect by living as a monastic. In our modern push for evangelism in the Orthodox Church, we may sometimes forget the valuable role monks and nuns play in the body of Christ. Yet years after his death, Fr. Seraphim’s writings attract many converts and strengthen the faith of monastics, clergy, and laity alike. Indeed, his life is a personification of what St. Seraphim of Sarov once taught:
“Acquire inner peace and the soul of thousands around you will be saved.”
George Washington Carver and Seraphim Rose demonstrate something that is sorely lacking in American Christianity today. We lack those humble souls who even when greatness is bestowed upon them, continue to live simply in a constant devotion to God and others. The model for Christian leadership is too often that of the TV “Bishop” with a mansion, fine car, private jet, and expensive clothes. If this model continues to grow as the standard, we will one day witness a backlash against Christianity not seen since the Bolsheviks imprisoned and killed the Russian clergy during the Soviet era. Already this model is turning off a great many of people away from Christianity. We need more men (and women) who are willing to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to pray in one bedroom apartments. We need more men to reject lucrative careers because they see the how spiritually empty a life of self pursuit is and how much greater is the pursuit of Christ. We need more Orthodox Christians like Fr. Seraphim Rose. And even if this is not possible, the Gospel would be well preached and the world made a better place if we had more Protestants like Dr. George Washington Carver.