Tag Archives: recommended reading

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

41qVC5gNqmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, 349 pp

reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality is a collection of essays compiled to introduce readers “to the background, motifs, authors, and relevance for contemporary life and thought” of the Philokalia. It is an easy to read work of scholarship that can help make the challenging spiritual insights of the Philokalia more accessible to the average Christian, while also serving as a serious textbook for seminarians.

A work by and for scholars, the book is apparently long overdue on academic shelves. Many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that the editors created it while doing their own Philokalic research and discovering that “a large lacuna exists in scholarly literature on the Philokalia.” To begin to fill that gap, Bingaman and Nassif produced an anthology on the “History, Theological implications, and Spiritual Practices of the ” by leading scholars of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. And the list of authors makes compelling bait! The Orthodox among them include Kallistos Ware (who also wrote the introduction), John McGuckin, Andrew Louth, John Chryssavgis, and Bradley Nassif.

The Philokalia: a Classic Text is also an aid for the rest of us. If the Philokalia itself is like a field manual for spiritual boot camp, Bingaman and Nassif’s book is like the Field Manual for Dummies. Anybody familiar with the Dummies series knows that it takes an expert to make a difficult subject easy to read. While the Philokalia is considered by many Orthodox to be an indispensable guide to spiritual growth, it often seems impenetrable to the newly initiated . The essayists in A Classic Text succeed in unpacking the various themes of the Philokalia in a way that invites one in to begin the work of making it personal.

Likewise, nobody would ever take reading about fox holes as a substitute for digging one and spending the night in it. While The Philokalia: a Classic Text should prove to be an enticement to opening up the Philokalia for anyone pursuing Orthodox spiritual growth, there are no shortcuts. Before reading either book, any notions of finishing with an easy certificate in Philokalic studies should be dispensed with.

While exploring themes like the Jesus Prayer, asceticism, theology, and others––those one would expect a book like this to examine––Bingaman and Nassif included essays on more mundane but necessary topics, like the history of the Philokalia, and a few surprising ones as well, like the last chapter: Women in the Philokalia?

Other expected areas are examined through lenses that make fundamental concepts in the Philokalia understandable and useful in a modern context. A chapter by Christopher C. H. Cook, Healing, Psychotherapy, and the Philokalia, looks at “the nature of the pathologies that the Philokalia diagnoses,” what Orthodox call the passions, from the perspective of a mental-health physician. Reading again some of St. Maximos’ texts on virtue and the lengthy list of vices found in Peter of Damascus through the lens of modern psychology only made their insight more relevant to my life in a modern context.

As I read through The Philokalia: a Classic Text, skipping from section to section, I realized I was also, unexpectedly, having fun. I was treating it as if it were not the manual it is but also a travel guide. You’ll see what I mean if you pick it up: the essayists are all familiar with a beautiful place they have visited—“philokalia” means “love of the beautiful”—and write to tell about it. The best travel books don’t simply tell you where to eat, how to catch a cab, or about local customs—they make you want to go and find all those things out for yourself. This book is no different. Its authors seem to know the Philokalia and entice others to get to know it as they do. John Chryssavgis’ insights on Silence, Stillness, and Solitude, something I’m currently exploring, are like photographs from a beautiful land.

For all that, the book isn’t exhaustive, and one is left hoping for a follow-on book. Until then, this book will serve well and word of it should spread quickly as it finds its way into homes and studies.

Recommended Reading Spring 2009

A Palestinian Christian

Cry for Reconciliation

By Naim Stifan Ateek

Orbis Books, 224 pp, $24

Fr. Naim Ateek has played a major role in promoting Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Rejecting the misuse of scripture by both Jewish and Christian Zionists, his book offers helpful insights to biblical texts that help sustain Palestinian Christians, descendants of the first Christians.

The book may be even more important for Christians in the West, however, who often have little knowledge of scripture’s rejection of domination and the violence of empires.

The author applies his knowledge of history and culture to stories and parables with such simplicity that they can be told to children. Writing about the Book of Jonah, for example, he shows how literalism and the lack of historical knowledge robs great literature of its power and meaning. He asks if readers today understand the revolutionary nature of the story or its implications for modern-day Israel and its relationship with Palestinians?”

Ateek founded of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem as a means of taking the Gospel beyond scholarship to discipleship and witness, to checkpoints, demolished houses, refugee camps, barrier walls and prisons.

Franz Jäggerstätter:

Letters and Writings from Prison

edited by Erna Putz

Orbis Books, $25, 260 pages

Franz Jäggerstätter, an Austrian farmer, devoted husband and father, was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand, Jäggerstätter had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law.

For years Jäggerstätter’s solitary witness was honored by the Christian peace movement, while viewed with discomfort by many of his fellow Austrians. Now, with his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2007, he has become better known a martyr as challenging to Orthodox Christians as he has been to Catholics.

Here is an extract from his last letter: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

How could a humble farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? We find in Franz Jägerstätter a living answer to such questions.

Jim Forest

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Synaxis Press, 135 pages

 

In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Archbishop Lazar moves with ease from specific topics in Orthodox theology to corresponding topics in physics, demonstrating that (in contrast to fundamentalist Christian religions) the Orthodox faith and modern physics are compatible.

Lazar distinguishes between facts and meaning. In a physical experiment, one can take very accurate measurements, but without interpretation they have no meaning. Lazar points out that an early astronomer, Brahe, took accurate astronomical measurements, but still ended up with an incorrect theory of cosmology. His facts were useless until they were correctly interpreted after his death by Kepler, his assistant.

Similarly the creation narrative, from the beginning up to the time of Abraham and Sarah, condenses enormous time and vast prehistoric oral tradition into a simple narrative. This narrative is about meaning, not historical or scientific detail. We are reminded that we derive our theology from meaning, not from supposed “facts.”

In comparing modern microphysics to Orthodox theology, Lazar points out that there is no separation between the observer and the observed. The observer in both instances is not extraneous to the observed, but is a participant at different levels of experience, being part of the process by seeking to understand and quantify it. In theology, the observer has intentionally involved himself, hoping to become part of it the living theology of Orthodoxy whereas in quantum physics the observer unavoidably impacts directly on the observation, becoming a part of the process being observed.

One of Lazar’s key points is that almost all apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of “models of reality” rather than of reality itself. When we become rigid and frozen in our models by, for example, using a journalistic understanding of scripture, we deprive ourselves of reality itself. As an historical example, Lazar goes to the year 1500 when the general model of reality for our universe placed a stationary earth at the center of the universe, around which the sun and other heavenly bodies were rotating. The great philosophers as well as the Scripture agreed that this was reality rather than a model of reality, so concrete as to be a dogma of faith.

But the observations of the heavens by Galileo proved the old model was wrong. Galileo came up with the more accurate model of reality in which the earth and the planets rotate around the stationary sun, which caused a conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Galileo’s doctrine was condemned by Rome and Galileo was forced to recant. But even Galileo’s model of reality was not the last word. The sun is no longer seen as a stationary object but a star racing through space as part of a spiral arm of a galaxy a better model, but one which may need to be modified as more discoveries are made.

“Orthodox Christianity is not an arbiter of facts,” writes Archbishop Lazar, “but the healer of humanity, the source of meaning, the path to the authenticity of life and the doorway to eternity and immortality.”

Dr. John Mavroides

The Healing Word

by Bishop Basil of Amphipolis

Darton, Longman & Todd, 13

It is not just the case that much of the universe is not seen; it cannot be seen. This was well known in patristic times, and it is consonant with biblical revelation and the tradition of the Church. In his sensitive and illuminating reading of scripture and the Fathers, Bishop Basil encourages us to look afresh at the creation by acquiring the mind of Christ through word and sacrament and membership of the Church. He is concerned to show that “the universe is ultimately a single integrated whole and in God each part of it is linked with every other.”

In “Healing in the Life of the Individual,” Basil helps us to see new truths in familiar texts by a kind of running exegesis, which assumes without laboring the insights of modern scholarship.

There follow chapters on baptism, forgiveness, the mystery of the Church and the Eucharist, ecumenism and the royal priesthood of the Church.

Bishop Basil breaks new ground in the third section, “Becoming a Healing Presence in the World,” in his use of the work of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and of Maximus the Confessor.

Here are real treasures. I found myself putting ticks against every illuminating quotation from Maximus, just as I was putting question marks against much of Dionysius. But then so does Bishop Basil, who frequently has to fill out gaps in the Dionysian arguments himself.

“We cannot today ignore the development of science,” writes Bishop Basil, “if we are to present our case as Christians in the world in which we live.”

Dr. John ArnoldOne day, a man who was visiting Mount Athos asked several wise elders the following question: “What is the most important thing in your life?” Each time he was answered like this: “It is divine love; to love God and to love one’s neighbor.” He said: “I don’t have love, either for prayer, or for God, or for other people. What must I do?” And then he decided by himself: “I will act as if I had this love.” Thirty years later, the Holy Spirit gave him the grace of love.

Archimandrite Sophrony

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

Bookmark and Share

Recommended Reading: Fall 2008

Dimitri’s Cross:

The Life of St. Dimitri Klepinin

by Hèléne Arjkovsky-Klepinine

Conciliar Press, 189 pages, $17

In February of 1943, Father Dimitri Klepinin, a 39-year-old Orthodox priest, was arrested by the German occupiers of Paris for issuing false baptismal certificates to Jews, an action he had performed time and again without hesitation, though well aware of the dangers involved. A year later he died at Dora, a German concentration camp known as “the Man-Eater.” His final action, done with the help of another prisoner as he was too weak to do himself, was to make the sign of the cross.

Before his arrest Fr. Dimitri worked side-by-side with Mother Maria Skobtsova at the house of hospitality she had founded in 1933. After the German occupation began, the community turned much of its attention to Jews and all others who were in danger.

While undergoing interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Fr. Dimitri was asked, “How dare you talk of helping those swine [the Jews] as being a Christian duty!” Fr. Dimitri responded by holding up the cross hanging over his cassock. “Do you know this Jew?” The Gestapo officer instantly struck Fr. Dimitri on the face. “Your priest did himself in,” he said afterward. “He insists that if he were to be freed, he would act exactly as before.”

Fr. Dimitri along with Mother Maria, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fundaminsky were glorified by the Orthodox Church in 2004. Their icons are now found in many churches, but only now has a detailed account of Fr. Dimitri’s life become available to the English-speaking world.

Some of the most memorable stories concerns small moments of family life for example how Fr. Dimitri was so distressed when his daughter banged her head on a corner of the kitchen table that he nearly sawed off all four corners of the table in order to prevent future injuries. Only his wife’s intervention saved the table from ruin.

Hèléne Arjkovsky-Klepinine last saw her father when she was a child of six. In preparing this account of his life, from childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia (he was born in 1904) to his martyrdom 40 years later, she has sought out many who knew him well and even found a few witnesses who were with him at the Dora concentration camp. It is a story of remarkable constancy in caring for others, from his wife and children to each stranger at the door. Fr. Dimitri is among those saints who can be described as “a man for all seasons.”

The final section of the book consists of Fr. Dimitri s letters to his wife from his initial confinement until no more letters were allowed. In them, the reader meets a priest whose reliance on Christ was absolute and love for his neighbor excluded no one. His humility was profound and his courage never wavered. JF

The Life of Saint Martin

text by Verena Smith

color illustrations by Emile Probst

Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 24 pages

There are quite different ways of looking at history. The dominant one is to regard it in terms of wars and warriors and the clash of civilizations. Another is to focus on the lives of the saints, who, by living Christ-revealing lives, help us to better understand what it means to follow Christ. The one route centers on power and bloodshed, the other on conversion. For those of us trying to follow Christ, one of the ways the Church helps us is by remembering the great saints and retelling their stories.

Would that there were more children’s few books about saints, but here is one of them a life about a saint of the fourth century, Martin of Tours.

So important was Martin’s role in the conversion of Europe to Christianity that to this day, in several European countries, the eve of his feast day, November 12, is still the occasion of festivities, especially processions of children carrying lanterns as they go from door-to-door singing St. Martin songs in exchange for gifts of fruit or candy. The idea behind the tradition is that St. Martin should make all of us more generous.

In some towns and cities, a man dressed in a Roman officer’s uniform and riding a white horse leads a parade of lantern-bearing children and their parents. The man of horseback represents, of course, St. Martin, dressed as he was in the period before his baptism. The great event in his early life was to notice a freezing beggar at a city gateway and to cut his officer’s cape in two, giving half it to the man in need. It’s a scene represented in countless carvings, paintings and stained glass windows, especially in churches and monasteries bearing Martin’s name. That same night, Martin had a vision in which he realized that the man he helped was none other than Christ.

The other important story from Martin’s younger life occurred soon afterward, when he refused to take part in a great battle that was due to begin the next day. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he told Caesar. “To fight is not permissible for me.” Accused of cowardice, Martin offered to stand before the opposing army unarmed, but instead was put in chains for his disobedience. When the opposing army instead chose not to enter into battle, Caesar saw this as a heavenly sign, freeing Martin and granting him a discharge.

Martin was still a catechumen at the time, but soon afterward was baptized, became a monk, and eventually was conscripted by local believers to become the bishop of Tours in France. It was a fate Martin tried to avoid, regarding himself as unworthy. He went into hiding, but the noisy geese with which he took shelter gave him away. (Poor geese! In Austria, Germany and France, many of goose are roasted on St. Martin’s feast day.)

While this brief account of St. Martin’s life leaves out some of my favorite details of his life (the reason Martin left the army is not made clear), nonetheless the book will open a door for any family in which it is read. The illustrations are excellent and the story told in an engaging way. JF

The Hermit, the Icon, and the Emperor: The Holy Virgin Comes to Cyprus

by Chrissi Hart, illustrated by Niko Chocheli

Conciliar Press, $17

Chrissi Hart tells the story of how an icon of the Mother of God, painted by the Evangelist Luke, journeyed from a palace in Constantinople to a remote hilltop in Cyprus, where it remains to this day as part of the iconostasis of the monastery church of Kykkos. It’s a tale that begins with the song of a cuckoo and involves a resolute hermit, a governor stricken with paralysis, a princess close to death, and an emperor whose greatest treasure is the icon painted by St. Luke. Niko Chocheli’s vibrant illustrations bring the story to life and will give many young readers their first glimpse of Byzantium. The story also introduces the realization that some dreams are God-given.

It’s a book that will engage both children and their parents and no doubt will inspire more than a few readers to make their way as pilgrims to the Kykkos monastery on Cyprus. -JF

The Uncreated Light

by Solrunn Nes

Eerdmans, 187 pages, $25

The Uncreated Light is centered on the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, as rendered in four representative portrayals spanning the 6th through the 15th centuries, and supplemented by four other works.

The book is also a statement about the human person in his relation to God. One can find the key to Nes’s thesis in this: “Theosis [deification] does not imply that the difference between the divine and the human is erased. On the contrary, greater likeness with God will make man more human since the deified man has developed his God-given potential. … Iron which is heated by fire is still iron, but is different from cold iron in that it can be formed.” The point is that the human person is not made to vanish in his encounter with God. Nothing of the truly human, including personal identity, is left behind, but is taken up and made more fully itself in communion with the deifying Christ human iron infused with divine fire.

While Nes does what most art historians do, her book is theological in a way that art history books rarely are. She interprets her examples through two theological controversies: 8th-century iconoclasm and the 14th-century hesychasm. Without a grasp of the relevant theology, one misses so much that is vital to the iconography itself.

The three-part structure of the book ascent, vision, and descent assumes the shape of the Transfiguration accounts and, by extension, the eastern-patristic path of the mystical journey. Nes shows how the various depictions themselves elucidate the Incarnation, the glory of the Cross, eschatology, and human deification.

The highest compliment I can pay Solrunn Nes’s book is that it induces one to pray and to conceive a desire for the True Beauty objectively reflected there.

Fr. Addison Hart

Violence and Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Conversation

by Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis

Foreword by Patriarch Bartholomew I

ISBN: 9782825415054

WCC Publications, 329 pages, 35 francs

For those who wished they might have attended the conference on violence and spirituality held in 2005 at the Hellenic College and Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology, it’s not too late to at least listen in. Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Holy Cross, has gathered together all the papers that were presented and also included transcripts of a panel discussion on domestic violence. The topics include Christian witness in overcoming violence, religious freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation, the saints as models of Christ’s peace, and nonviolence in the Orthodox tradition.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51