19 January 2010

'The Momentary Problem of a Stuck Car'—Hieromonk Ambrose (Young)

I have just learned that Hieromonk Ambrose (Young) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease a few years ago. Many people in American Orthodoxy will be familiar with Fr Alexey Young, who, after the death of his matushka was tonsured and is now Hieromonk Ambrose. Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen) refers to him as one of the ‘closest spiritual children’ of Fr Seraphim (Rose). [1]

A convert from Roman Catholicism, Fr Ambrose was the founder and editor of an early periodical for converts called Nikodemos, which eventually became the periodical Orthodox America and Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, publisher of such books as Lubov Millar’s Life of St Elizabeth the New Martyr and Man of God: St John of Shanghai & San Francisco. Fr Ambrose’s own books include such titles as A Man Is His Faith: Ivan Kireyevsky & Orthodox Christianity [2], The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia: A History & Chronology [3], and, perhaps most importantly, Letters from Father Seraphim: The 12-Year Correspondence between Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & Fr Alexey Young [4], a volume of Fr Seraphim’s letters beautifully edited with Fr Ambrose’s explanatory notes and reminiscences. Fr Ambrose also wrote an important criticism [5] of the first version of Fr Seraphim’s biography, Not of This World: The Life & Teachings of Fr Seraphim (Rose), by Fr Damascene [6], and Fr Damascene offers him ‘special thanks . . . for his invaluable help and encouragement through the preparation’ [7] of the new version of Fr Seraphim’s Life, Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works [8].

Although he was originally ordained to the priesthood in the Russian Church Abroad, Fr Ambrose transferred for a time to the Antiochian Archdiocese, but was later released back into ROCOR and tonsured at Holy Cross Hermitage in West Virginia (a dependency of Holy Trinity at Jordanville). He eventually transferred to St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Hayesville, Ohio (GOA), and in 2004 was made chaplain to the women’s Skete of St Mary of Egypt in Cleveland (also GOA). He now resides as chaplain at the Entrance of the Theotokos Skete near Hayesville, where Mother Theadelphi of the Skete is his daily caregiver.

This heavy news came to my attention through a letter from Fr Ambrose himself posted (here) on the website of my sister’s former parish in Virginia, All Saints of North America (ROCOR) under Fr John Moses. I offer the letter, and Fr Moses’s introductory comments in full:

[Father Ambrose Young (Fr Alexey Young before his monastic tonsure) is a dearly loved spiritual friend, teacher, guide, and author. He is the God-son of Hieromonk Seraphim Rose, and among other books, published a book of Father Seraphim’s letters to him over the years, Letters From Father Seraphim. He also wrote The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia: A History and Chronology, Teachings of the Holy Fathers on the Body, Teachings of the Holy Fathers on the Passions, Teachings of the Holy Fathers on Illness, The Great Divide, The Rush to Embrace, and other works. Many of us have been blessed to know Fr Ambrose personally, to have heard him speak, to have sought his blessing and guidance. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease a few years ago, and when Father John wrote him, recently, Fr Ambrose sent him this reply, and he granted permission to post it here.

This is a copy of a message I sent to good friends here who were inquiring about the status of my Alzheimer’s Disease and were wondering if it is even even appropriate to ask. After I wrote it I though I would share it with you and a few others, and you may share it with anyone you think might also be interested. Here is the message, below:]

It’s quite all right for you to ask. I am very open about my illness, as is Gerondissa, and we do not hide anything or keep any secrets. And I have very little false pride about my limitations any more—I’ve already been through ‘that phase’ and have been able to embrace my disease in the shadow of the Cross. More than that, I have begun the slow process of climbing up onto the Cross with our Lord, and sharing now in His Passion. This is incredibly sanctifying; I don’t know how else to describe it. So although I don’t talk much about my illness, it’s not out of secrecy or pride or sensitivity, but only because I am keeping the Lord on the cross as close to my heart as I can. And He will get me through. It has frankly become as much a spiritual experience as a mental one.

So, I want to take this opportunity to share with you, since we haven’t really talked about it much. I have discussed it on several occasions with some friends, and they are wonderfully and appropriately sympathetic and helpful. They are more than relatives; they are good friends. I will talk more about it with my other siblings when we have a family reunion this summer. My children are completely on the same page with me already, but for them it is too painful to talk about much.

This illness is the oddest feeling of being somehow detached and experiencing a slow metamorphosis from being one person into another; not dramatic, but disconnected, and yet still able to pray, read, do email, recognize others (although my short term memory and my malapropisms have gotten worse over the last week). But at the same time it’s oddly not depressing. (I went through the depressing stage last year.) In fact, I woke up this morning with Finn having crawled up and curled into my left arm, and at the same time I had the most intense longing for heaven, which made me very happy.

The neurologist told me some time ago that there is a small percentage of AD victims who in some way consciously ‘know’, all the way through, what is happening to them, and he thinks I am one of them. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or not, but I do think it’s a blessing that I can share with others the various stages of this illness as long as possible. That sharing is helpful to me, and perhaps for others if they see that there is a spiritual way to ‘do’ something that is otherwise so awful.

As you know, Alzheimer’s is a long and slow process, for which reason it’s called ‘the long goodbye’. But I read Patty Davis’ fine book about her father, President Reagan, ‘The Long Goodbye’, and she said that he remained cheerful, happy and polite as a three year old, right to the end. And I also know about the Alzheimer’s of some great and holy Elders of our time, who were able to serve Liturgy and say the Jesus Prayer right to the end, even when they no longer recognized anyone else. So Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to be grueling and ugly, the way it is so often portrayed. I think that the perceived ‘terribleness’ of this disease is at least in part a reflection of our incredibly morally and spiritually bankrupt culture.

With drugs and medical help, and very good care from Mother Theadelphi, I have had three years of relatively slow deterioration, and I think that ‘slowness’ will continue yet for some years. Right now is a different phase, though. I am very blessed to be in monastic life and here with Mother and the Fathers and Brothers just down the road, who also stay in contact and are very affectionately supportive. I feel safe and well cared for. There are many in my condition who cannot say that. Mother is a good friend, caretaker, intellectual and spiritual companion, but you and Tim will have to help her to harden her heart as time goes on and my symptoms become worse. I have already spoken to her about this, too. She is very tender-hearted and quietly suffers over my illness, although she’s no drama-queen about it, as you can well believe. That’s not her style. She only quietly says, ‘I don’t like it’, and that, coming from her, actually says a great deal.

From a purely spiritual standpoint I want to share with you the insight I believe God gave me from the time of my diagnosis. My greatest and overriding sin—indeed, even vice—has always been pride. Pride of mind, of ‘knowing better’ and judging others inappropriately, sometimes thinking of them as being less than I am. This is a most grievous sin, and one that many people don’t even recognize in themselves, but it is the one sin that will, above all, consign us to hell if we don’t overcome it! It was the sin of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve.

I understand fully how I got this way. I have throughout my life been inordinately proud of my mind, my intellect, my ability to think clearly about difficult and complicated things, to speak and write well, understand, process, and explain difficult things, etc. Growing up, I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t attractive to the ladies, I couldn’t dance, I was an intellectual bookworm and loner, I had no other skill than my brain, and I used it and developed it as far as I possibly could, although actually I wasn’t particularly academically brilliant, as all of that just seemed like some kind of superficial ‘game’ to me. But that was my path in life. And although I have put these gifts to the service of Christ and the Church, as best I could, the pride has still been there.

Now the Lord has offered me a chance to mortify and humble down that pride, by accepting without complaint the slow crumbling of my mind. And I do accept this, with my whole heart, even if with the occasional tear, as a gift from Him for my salvation. So it sometimes ‘feels’ as though this dying of various parts of my mind is also a dying of self, a dying of ego, a dying to pride. And isn’t that the purpose of spiritual life, after all, anyway? The Lord looked down and saw that I wasn’t going to do it any other way, and so, because He loves me very much (unworthy as I am) and wants me to be with Him forever, He offered me this incredible opportunity to die to self. I see this as a great, if sometimes painful, blessing!

Well, these are my few thoughts about it. Never hesitate to ask me how I’m doing. I will tell you honestly. But never feel sorry for me, or pity, as I do not for myself, but rather rejoice for me that I am on a sure path to the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe this with all my heart. —Fr A

In conclusion, I offer a passage from Fr Ambrose’s reminiscences about Fr Seraphim [9] in Letters, which Fr Damascene quotes in his review as ‘one of this reviewer’s favorite parts of the book’. Fr Damascene introduces the passage thusly, ‘Describing the end of his first visit to the St Herman Monastery in 1970, at which time his car got stuck in the mud halfway up the mountains, Fr Alexey writes:’ [10]

After a few hours of conversation on my first visit, Fr Seraphim announced that they would walk back down the mountain with me to my car and see what could be done about rescuing it from the mud. On the walk he sang hymns, troparia to various saints, which softly echoed through the forest and mingled with the sounds of birds. When we arrived at the car there was much pushing and shoving and groaning, but the car did not budge. Finally we had to walk into town and call for a tow truck. While we waited back at the car, Fr Seraphim saw that I was frustrated and anxious about the vehicle. Suddenly he said, gesturing to the beautiful mountains and forests around us, ‘Do you see all of this beauty? And those mountains over there—they’ve been here for so long, and it seems they’ll be here forever, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. Even those mountains will one day pass away.’ His point was clear: why get annoyed about the momentary problem of a stuck car, which in any case will shortly be solved, when even the substantial mountains will one day dissolve? It was the first of many times that Fr Seraphim’s own stillness of heart was momentarily communicated to me. I felt suddenly at peace, at rest, all agitation banished, as was so often to happen in his presence over the years to come. [11]

Judging by the letter to Fr Moses above, it looks as though Fr Ambrose learned the lesson well indeed.

[1] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Review of Letters from Father Seraphim, The Orthodox Word #228 (2003), p. 46.

[2] Fr Alexey Young, A Man Is His Faith: Ivan Kireevsky & Orthodox Christianity (London: St George Information Service, 1980).

[3] Fr Alexey Young, The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia: A History & Chronology (San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1993).

[4] Letters from Father Seraphim: The 12-Year Correspondence between Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & Fr Alexey Young (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 2001).

[5] Fr Alexey Young, ‘From the Bookshelf—Not of This World: the Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose’, Orthodox America, Issue 126-127, XIV.2-3 (September—October, 1993) (here).

[6] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Not of This World: The Life & Teachings of Fr Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1993).

[7] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), ‘New from St Herman Press—Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works’, Orthodox Word #228, p. 5.

[8] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life & Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003).

[9] For more of these, see Fr Ambrose’s talk at the celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of Fr Seraphim’s repose, here.

[10] Fr Damascene, Review, p. 47.

[11] Letters, p. 16.


  1. Aaron--
    Thanks for sharing this as widely as your blog accomplishes. It is indeed a touching and compelling letter. It causes me to reflect on two primary themes: 1) the Spirit of Christ which is so manifestly at work in H. Ambrose during the present circumstances; and 2)the part that remembering plays in such much we Orthodox do and say. As my mother deteriorated with AD, I often thought about our services which echo with "Remember also, O Lord...." As we com-memorate the saints we do that Godly thing which He does so perfectly--remembering us in His Kingdom. My own belief is that while the individuals with AD gradually lose the capacity to remember, it is our happy, Christian duty to remember on their behalf, and to remember them.

  2. Pardon my typo at: "2) the part that remembering plays in much we . . . ."

  3. Thank you so much for this. I had no idea. i am bowled over by the manner in which he is able to accept this and incorporate it into his faith and understanding of himself and his place in the world and in relation to the Saviour. It's actually quite humbling.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this. I passed it on to my family. My mother's father is suffering a slow decline from dementia and Parkinson's in a way very similar to Alzheimer's. They found it very comforting and a true testament to his faith.

    Thanks, too, for the notice as to where Fr. Ambrose is. I knew he was no longer at St. Gregory Palamas Monastery, but I had no idea where he was. I certainly had no idea he was also suffering from Alzheimer's. I don't get anywhere near Cleveland often, but I hope I can visit him before he reposes. (Same with Fr. Roman Braga in MI - we're going to a wedding near Rives Junction this June, so...).

  5. ...while the individuals with AD gradually lose the capacity to remember, it is our happy, Christian duty to remember on their behalf, and to remember them.

    My priest had once described chronic/terminal illnesses as opportunities for the sick and their family and friends to consciously begin the process of preparing for eternity. A woman in our parish died just before I joined. Most of her family was Orthodox, but she had delayed converting until she was sick. She wholeheartedly converted. In preparation for her death, she fasted fully for 40 days and died peacefully with the rest of her family converting, too.

    I have thought of this quite a lot as my grandfather began losing his mind and memory. There was a sort of sloughing off of the hard and passionate edges of his personality revealing a very tender and caring, patient and kind man - he was there, but obscured. He has also become that much more faithful, simple, prayerful; he reads his Bible and devotions regularly. He is truly preparing.

    This easing into repose over time dovetails nicely with your thoughts regarding "our happy, Christian duty". Just as we are to remember and pray for the reposed, so, too, are such stealing diseases as AD and dementia opportunities for us to begin remembering them, for them, just as we will when they can no longer pray and give alms and repent for themselves after their repose.

    As I was reading your comment, I also thought about Who the prayer "Remember also, O Lord...." is addressed to and what we are asking for. We are asking God to remember them, for them, and for us. We can be assured that He remembers us all - even when we forget ourselves, each other and Him.

  6. Please correct a serious error in your introduction to my letter. I am not at the St. Mary of Egypt Community in Cleveland, Ohio, but at the Entrance of the Theotokos Skete, near Hayesville, which is quite different. Gerondissa Theadelphi is the abbess, and we are just down the road from St. Gregory's Monastery, of which I am still a member, but serving as chaplain to the Entrance Skete.

    For purposes of information, the St. Mary of Egypt Community is a social outreach to battered women, whereas the Skete of the Entrance is a quiet monastic community. --Hiero-schemamonk Ambrose Young

  7. Fr. Ambrose, bless!

    A friend will be ordained by Met. Maximos at St Gregory Palamas Monastery later this Spring. If I am able to attend, are you accepting visitors?

    orrologion at gmail dot com

  8. Bless, Father,

    My apologies for the mistake, which has now been corrected--thank you for pointing this out. I hope you didn't mind this little tribute, and I ask that you please remember me in your prayers.

    Kissing Your Right Hand,
    Aaron Taylor

    PS: You might not be aware of this, but I used to be neighbours in Thessaloniki with (now Fr) Jesse & Elizabeth Philo, whom I believe you know well. My wife & I were at Fr Jesse's ordination to the priesthood in Walla Walla last Fall.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Ms Olsen> I don't believe I at any time offered my opinion or that of anyone else on Fr Ambrose himself or his 'pastoral gifts'. I merely described his career (largely concentrating on his literary efforts), and quoted his own words without comment. I am sorry for whatever personal issues you may have had, but I'm afraid they are not for public airing, and certainly not on my blog. So because your comments are both impertinent and, I believe, of a private nature, I am deleting your comment. I wish you all the best.

  11. God bless!

    My name is Marina and I am from Romania. I worship the memory of Father Seraphim and I found out from my spiritual father, Hieromonk Ambrose (what a coincidence of names!) that Father Alexei Young, Hieromonk Ambrose is alive. Please forgive me the lack of knowledge, since I believed he joined Father Seraphim. So, I decided to search the Internet to see if I can find the latest signs from him and thanks to God I did. So, please allow me in my humbliness to translate this letter of Father Ambrose into Romanian and share it with my Romanian compatriots on my blog simplyxpress.wordpress.com. I also have translated other orthodox texts from English into Romanian, some of them being provided by my spiritual father.

    God bless Hieromonk Ambrose and his works!

    Thank you.

  12. May the Lord bless you as well, Marina. I'm glad you were able to find this post and the answer to your question. I'm sure you are perfectly welcome to translate it to help spread the word among Romanian-speakers.

    In Christ,

  13. Forgive my comment so long after the fact, but thank you so much for posting this! I haven't seen Fr. Ambrose in years and reading his beautiful letter here was a great blessing.

  14. I just came across this blog entry, and am very saddened. I met Fr. Ambrose for the first and only time in 2005, when I spent a few days at the monastery. He was kind, gentle, always had a warm smile. My hope at the time was to become a part of that monastic community, which wasn't to be. But I've never forgotten Fr. Ambrose, and I offer my prayers for him.