Good reading

Touching Heaven

Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam

by John Oliver

Conciliar Press, $13.95, pp 179

The author, ordained a priest this month, recounts his own remarkable journey to Orthodoxy while at the same time sharing his experience of Orthodox spiritual life as witnessed at the island monastery of Valaam in the Karelian region of northwestern Russia. "Lyrically, eloquently, and with great wisdom, this book speaks to the soul," writes Fr. John Breck. "John Oliver's words evoke a longing for God, at once fierce and tender."

The Saints' Guide to Happiness

by Robert Ellsberg

North Point Press, $23, pp 221

Among countless self-help books that promise the reader a key “ even the key “ to happiness, here is a book about happiness that draws on the wisdom of Christian saints, a happiness that is God's gift rather than our potential achievement.

"The Greek-writing authors of the New Testament did not use Aristotle's word for happiness," Robert Ellsberg notes in the preface. "They drew on another word, makarios, which refers to the happiness of the gods in Elysium. In the Gospel of Matthew this is the word that Jesus uses to introduce his Sermon on the Mount: 'Happy are the poor in spirit... Happy are the meek... Happy are they who mourn...' St. Jerome, who prepared the Latin translation in the fourth century, used beatus, a word that combines the connotations of being happy and blessed. Hence, these verses are known as the Beatitudes. Forced to choose, most English translators have opted “ probably wisely “ for the more familiar 'Blessed are...' The Beatitudes, after all, are not about 'smiley faces' or feeling happy. They are not about feelings at all. They are about sharing in the life and spirit “ the happiness “ of God. In that spirit a disciple (like Jesus himself) could experience mourning, suffering, and loss, while remaining 'blessed' “ happy, that is, in the most fundamental sense."

Casting a wide net, Ellsberg writes with modesty and grace about the crucial challenges in life. His book may well prove to be a classic.

Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses

translated by Vera Bouteneff

St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, pp 244

Father Arseny, a man both of profound meekness and absolute courage, is among the uncanonized saints of 20th century Russia. During many years spent as a prisoner in the Gulag, he brought many to belief, not only fellow captives but guards and wardens. It is a miracle he survived that long ordeal, but still more a miracle that he did it without becoming a prisoner of bitterness. An earlier book about his life has gone through numerous printings in Russian and English and has come out in a revised, expanded edition. Now there is a second volume with still more stories of his life that richly reveal him as a spiritual father to a wide range of people who sought him out. Once again we are in debt to the translator, Vera Bouteneff.

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

by Orlando Figes

Penguin; £8.99; pp 729

The book's title refers to a passage in Tolstoy's War and Peace in which the young, aristocratic heroine, Natasha Rostov, enters a rural hut and spontaneously breaks into a peasant dance “ a haunting image of European Russia and Asian Russia meeting seamlessly in one life. Tolstoy's peasants tended to be idealized figures, a fashionable attitude at the time. It was something of a scandal, Figes recounts, when Chekhov published a short story in which the peasant was presented as a coarse and brutal drunk.

For anyone who has had the slightest curiosity about Russia, Natasha's Dance is not to be missed. Figes not only knows his subject but is a master storyteller. As Serge Schmemann noted in reviewing this book, "It draws much of its material directly from original Russian sources, giving a firsthand taste of the richness and variety of Russian art that scholarly works often exclude."

Orthodox Prayer Life

by Matthew the Poor

Orbis, pp 292

The author (also known as Matta El-Meskeen) is a monk of the Egyptian desert whose few possessions include a Bible, a volume with the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian, and some blank note books. His vocation is to pray, to teach prayer, and to receive guests. His own prayer life was formed especially under the direction of the Russian Fathers, with other influences to come later. This, his second book from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, provides a course in the life of prayer. Each chapter includes a selection of writings from patristic sources and the Desert Fathers.

Tradition Alive

by Michael Plekon

foreword by John H. Erickson

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

cloth $75, paper $29.95; pp 288

Ranging from the thought of the first generation of Russian émigrés to contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, the essays in Tradition Alive point toward a positive theology that is convinced of the immanence of the Holy Spirit despite a world torn apart by revolution, violence, and despair. The contributors profess their faith in the transforming presence of Christ and the divine dimensions of the church by looking to the meaning and power of tradition in the practices of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. By focusing on the Orthodox Church's ecclesial and liturgical character, the authors emphasize the living character of the Christian tradition. With many contributions difficult, if not impossible, to access until now, Tradition Alive presents a brave and distinctive effort to enliven Western theology by looking to the theology of the East.

from the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the yearly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship