In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006
Silence and Honey Cakes
by Rowan Williams
Lion Hudson, 125 pp, €7
Once known mainly in the Orthodox Church, the desert saints of the early church are increasingly being discovered by Christians in the West.
Helen Waddell's classic, The Desert Fathers, published in 1936, was perhaps the first book on the subject to reach a wide ecumenical readership.
Four decades ago, there was Thomas Merton's still popular collection of "words" of the desert monks: Wisdom of the Desert.
Over the past thirty years Sr. Benedicta Ward has published English translations of the principal collections that come down to us from the early centuries of desert monasticism.
Now there is this fine new addition by Rowan Williams: Silence and Honey Cakes.
Williams begins with one of the sayings of St. Anthony the Great, : "Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against God."
It is advice, as Williams points out, that comes from the heart of the primitive monastic witness - "the impossibility," as he says, "of thinking about contemplation or meditation or 'spiritual life' in abstraction from the actual business of living in the Body of Christ, living in concrete community....
"The desert monastics have an uncompromising message for us: a relationship with eternal truth and love simply doesn't happen unless we mend our relations with Tom, Dick and Harriet."
One need not be a monk or feel a call to desolate places to find these meditations on wilderness voices become an oasis in the desert of modern life.
Christ at Work:
Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Vocation
edited by Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 230 pp, $20
It is a common task for teenage students to be asked to write a paper on their future "careers." The English word "career," if you check your dictionary, has its roots in the Latin word carrus, a kind of Gallic wagon. Interesting. A career is indeed a kind of wagon that we purchase with our education and hope will provide not only for our future economic needs but also give us some actual satisfaction, though in fact oftentimes the chosen career turns out to be a this-life experience of purgatory. The money may come, but there is often very little real satisfaction or sense of being blessed.
"Vocation" is a word that also has a Latin root: vox, voice. The voice referred to in this case is God's. To have a sense of vocation means to be continually exploring in the theater of one's own life what God has in mind for each of us.
One of the book's author, Deborah Malacky Belonick, sees Mary as a primary image of vocation. "Though not called to be the mother of God," she writes, "we are called to a life that is lived in relation to God, a life that is hidden with Christ in God."
For Paul Meyendorff, the recovery of a sense of vocation is the recovery of the priesthood of all believers. Christianity sees priesthood not only in terns of the few who are called to preside at the altar. It refers to a vocation belonging to all baptized people: "to offer sacrifices and to serve as the intermediary between God and humanity."
Thus he writes: "We are called to live out our priesthood in day to day life" for it is precisely in the world and not only ion church that "the priestly role of the laity is most important."
Among the Dead Cities
by A.C. Grayling
Bloomsbury, 384 pp, €20
The book's subtitle is "Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?" While looking closely at the arguments pro and con, the author (professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London) concludes that the massive intentional bombing of civilians was indeed a war crime.
The Allied bombing of Axis cities made smoking ruins of Dresden, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Grayling concentrates on Britain's "area bombing" of entire German cities, a strategy adopted initially because bombers couldn't hit smaller sites, and then continued as a deliberate attack. Grayling carefully considers the justifications for area bombing (it would shorten the conflict by destroying Germany's economy, it would undermine civilian morale, civilian workers were also combatants, etc.) and finds each of them wanting. British bombing, he finds, in fact did little damage to the German war effort while in the process killing and maiming vast numbers of people. In contrast, American pinpoint bombing of industrial and military targets succeeded in paralyzing the German economy with few civilian casualties, yet in the last months of the war American also resorted to area bombing in its devastating air campaign against Japanese cities.
Grayling is thorough in his research and provides the reader with a flowing, lucid narrative. Drawing on firsthand accounts by professional soldiers, strategists, architects, victims and opponents of area bombing, he places historical data within a rigorous philosophical framework. Black-and-white photos show the effects of the campaign.
In the book's final section, Grayling laments the failure of Allied airmen to refuse to obey orders to bomb civilian targets.
On Human Being: Spiritual Anthropology
by Olivier Clment
New City Press, 155 pp, $15
Rooted in the experience and writings of the early Christian centuries, Olivier Clment (professor of patristic studies at St. Serge Theological Institute in Paris) reflects on human nature, its challenges, its wounded nature, its joys and fulfillments.
He begins by exploring a response to the dysfunctional aspects of human nature, and then looks at how we are persons made in the image of the divine and in communion with one another. In the light of what emerges, the author discovers fresh understandings of sexuality, politics, the role of humanity in the cosmos and the power of beauty.
Clment challenges all Christians not only to be open to the treasures of the Orthodox Christian East but also to recover these traditions, which Clment expresses in existential terms, and through them enrich and revitalize Christianity in the West.
"Before love is even mentioned, the first thing is humility, and what humility becomes when it is exercised towards another person is respect," Clment writes in the chapter "Persons in Communion." The author's own humility, no less than his respect for the reader, illuminates each page.
Denys the Areopagite
by Andrew Louth
Continuum, 133 pp, $30
The writings of Denys - or Dionysius - the Areopagite (his actual identity remains a mystery) appeared in the sixth century and ever since have been deeply influential on Christian thinking in both East and West. Fr. Andrew Louth examines all the traditions on which Denys's work draws: the fourth century Greek theologians, pagan philosophy and Syrian Christian thought. He also documents and comments on Denys's compelling vision of the beauty of God's world and his revelation, together with his profound awareness of the ultimate mystery of the unknowable God who utterly transcends all being.
Fr Alexander provides valuable insights into the thought of a mystical theologian whose insights played a major role in the development of liturgical theology. The voice of Denys remains as fresh today as when he was putting pen to paper fifteen hundred years ago.
by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Darton Longman & Todd, 317 pp, €10
Until his death three years ago, the late Metropolitan Anthony not only led the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, but for many years was one of the most persuasive Christian voices of the late twentieth century. Via his weekly BBC Russian Service broadcasts, he was the most important spokesman for Christianity in what was then the Soviet Union. His books on prayer, in numerous translations, continue to be widely read by Christians of many traditions.
Encounter between God and man, person and person, is the golden thread running through this collection of essays, sermons and interviews. "If you examine the Gospels anew," he writes, "if you read them with new eyes, if you look at how they are constructed, you will see that apart from encounter there is nothing else in the Gospels. Every tale in an encounter."
Meeting Metropolitan Anthony was an unforgettable encounter for all who had the good fortune to do so. He is one of those rare people whose presence, faith and wisdom survive in the printed word. This makes his few books an important part of any library, large or small.