The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian
by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Cistercian Publications, 320 pages, $16.50
In these days, when so many seek ever harsher punishments for those in trouble with the law, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has given us a valuable, delightful and crucial work, rich with quotations, on the life and writings of St. Isaac the Syrian. St. Isaac takes us back to love. St. Isaac puts the love of God, as expressed supremely in the Incarnation of Christ, squarely front and center.
In a short review, the best way to recommend such a book is to provide a few examples from Isaac's own pen:
"When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. …When we hear Jesus say, "Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom," what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a person."
"Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy."
"Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God's invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart."
"If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?"
"O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of him, was drawn by his love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all."
St. Isaac's ever-timely writings are redolent of Christ Himself. The author ties it all together with background and historical information to help the reader understand the issues and times in which Isaac lived and wrote. Not to be missed!
– Matthew R. Brown
Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia:
The Diaconate Yesterday and Today
by Dn. John Chryssavgis
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 190 pages, $23
This book recalls days gone by when the diaconate meant far more than functions of deacons in Church services. Using illustrations from our contemporary world to invite readers from all walks of life, Chryssavgis makes a case to reclaim the fullness of service that deacons are meant to provide.
This book breaks critical ground about the office of deacon in Church history and lays a solid theological foundation for the diaconate with superb interpretation of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. In addition to engaging remarks about deacons working among the poor and extensive discussion of women deacons, some of the author's most compelling reflections appear in discussions of the deacon as related to the local community.
In his foreword, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon emphasizes the personal touch provided by Chryssavgis, himself a deacon since 1984.
– Ioannis Freeman
Holistic Healing in Byzantium
John Chirban, editor
foreword by Jaroslav Pelikan
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 326 pages, $25
This book claims the historical precedence of holistic healing in ancient and medieval Byzantium. Contributors address how historical inquiry might illumine contemporary healing practices of Orthodox believers who have been limited by academic disciplines and professional codes that have been set by healing specialties.
Chapters that focus on healing environments will be of particular interest to IC readers. For example, Chapters 3 and 4: Timothy Miller's essay (Chapter 3), "Byzantine Hospitals and Holistic Medicine," and Andrew Crislip's, "Monastic Health Care and the Late Antique Hospital" (Chapter 4), explore ancient ways to create healing environments that strike me as very modern. In particular, these chapters illustrate practical approaches to resolving modern dilemmas caused by health-care economics and limited access to care in industrialized nations.
Taking the stigma out of illness of body and soul is a theme that runs throughout the 12 chapters. Pelikan mentions this fact in his foreword where he grounds the theme in the "Basiliados," which were hospitals that institutionalized St. Basil's Christian anthropology.
Remember Thy First Love:
Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony
by Archimandrite Zacharias
Mount Thabor Publishing, 464 pages, $28
Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John the Baptist Monastery (Essex, UK) provides a third volume in a series of transcribed verbal teachings by his spiritual father, Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), who was the spiritual son of St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1933). The foreword by Bishop Basil notes that Archimandrite Zacharias serves as "one of the sponsors of my monastic tonsure." Four generations of spiritual fathers [and sons] are evident in this third volume.
The book presents three stages to the spiritual life: (1) God reaches out to every person, which enables the forming of a covenant between God and the person; (2) a long and difficult period of faith when God removes His grace from a person; and concludes with (3) God's grace flowing again to each person, which results in what Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan called "charismatic humility."
An appendix with questions and answers amplifies the content that Elder Sophrony shared with Archimandrite Zacharias. For example, a question appears concerning why Zacharias often quotes from the Apocalypse of St. John, whether that was his own preference or else something that he learned from his Elder Sophrony. Zacharias answers with characteristic humility that is borne of love for his spiritual father, Sophrony.
Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus
by Daniel Fanous
Orthodox Research Institute, 260 pages, $15
This book shakes the Pharisees and consoles the seekers among its readers. Faith emerges with understanding as the author explores such difficult narratives in the Gospels as "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," and "My God, why have You forsaken Me."
Fanous links understanding to faith by providing just enough rabbinic background to show how Christ employed ideas in order to raise exciting questions that carry not only a punch, but also an answer. Orthodox readers need not leave their thinking caps at the door when reading this book, and they need not bring any more background in biblical exegesis than the interest of an average adult with faith in Christ who asks "What in the world did Christ mean by this or that?"
Fanous sees Christ's encounter with the Canaanite woman (Mt 5: 21-28) as illustrating a spiritual and economic border between the people of Israel and the Gentiles. The woman asks Christ to exorcize her daughter, and persists despite Christ's response about not throwing bread for the children to dogs. Fanous explores the narrative according to an imbalance in riches, whereby the Canaanite woman is the affluent representative of people around Tyre. Yet she conveys no such pride in her rank and prestige, but instead humbles herself in response. Comparing us with the woman, Fanous concludes: "Though we were content to sit even at His feet and receive these glorious remnants, it was not enough for Him."
The Legend of the Valentine
by Katherine Grace Bond
illustrated by Don Tate
A child in school, his father in jail. The child is Marcus, a nine-year-old African-American boy living in Alabama in the sixties. His father's "crime" is that, along with Martin Luther King, he has been in a march against racism. A bully at school named Travis makes life hard for Marcus, first demanding a "skin-colored" crayon, then dumping Marcus' lunch in his lap. Back at home, Marcus resists telling his mother and grandmother what has happened, but finally he confesses that he hates Travis.
It so happens that the story is set on the eve of Valentine's Day. Grandma suggests to Marcus that they make valentine cards together and uses the occasion to tell the story of St. Valentine and how, when he refused to worship the emperor, he was beaten and thrown in jail. His prayers for the daughter of his jailer led to her being healed of her blindness.
Finally Marcus is moved to make a valentine card for Travis with the message, "Let's be friends." Travis tears up the card but then other students take up the message. The story ends with Marcus extending his hand to Travis. How does Travis respond? Is there is a happy ending? The reader has to decide.
Katherine Grace Bond tells the story with a sure hand and without a wasted word, bringing to life one of the most difficult aspects of Christian life – the love of enemies.
– Jim Forest
From the Pascha 2011 issue of “In Communion” (issue 60)
❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha / Spring 2011 / Issue 60