Recommended Reading – Winter 2005

The Feast of Friendship

by Fr. Paul D O’Callaghan

Eighth Day Books, ISBN 0971748306, 151 pp., $13.95

For Fr. Paul, an Orthodox priest, friendship is deeply revelatory of the relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and thus precious, of inherent worth. The pastoral reflections on the pitfalls and potentials of such a crucial aspect of our lives are among the most valuable aspects of this study. The author shows that this overlooked dimension of our experience is a crucible of moral development, infused with the possibility of being a foretaste of the Kingdom. Among the book’s admirers is Bishop Kallistos Ware, who commented: “‘A friend is a loving companion at all times’ (Prov. 17:17). Within Scripture and Tradition there is found a rich and varied theology of friendship: how sad that it is frequently neglected! This is a perceptive and imaginative book, which has taught me many things.”

The Wormwood File: E-Mail From Hell

by Jim Forest

Orbis, 115 pp, ISBN 157075554X, $14

The archives of extant correspondence from Hell is growing. Besides the letters of the most infernally eloquent Screwtape, we have seen caches discovered and reported by such as William Griffin and Peter Kreeft, who in the past fifteen years have joined C.S. Lewis as Heaven’s Fifth Columnists. Now they have a new member, Jim Forest, who has discovered not a collection of sizzling ink – or even toner – on paper, but consonant with our times an e-mail file. Not only has the medium changed (and how much more potentially infernal a medium!) but in many ways so have the times: Wormwood, whose future looked bleak at the end of The Screwtape Letters, has managed to outmaneuver his Uncle and become a senior Devil, and now his enemy territory has become much easier to exploit. Families were generally intact in 1942, now they teeter on the edge of a precipice; television and the internet, then the stuff of science fiction, now are omnipresent and generally Godforsaken; eros rather than being language for a Love has become Newspeak for pornography. But Wormwood also has a few new obstacles that weren’t on Screwtape’s “screen.” Whereas Screwtape worried primarily about “Bibles laid open, a million surprises,” Wormwood has to contend also with icons given as gifts, the Enemy’s warring followers speaking peaceably about such things as liturgy and sacrament and symbol. Wormwood & Co. seem to be winning the culture, but their Enemy keeps opening new fronts all the time.

The Wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian

edited by Sebastian Brock

SLG Press, ISBN 0728301458, $8.95

A collection of 153 short, epigrammatic sayings of St. Isaac the Syrian (died ca. 700), heretofore untranslated into English. One sentence from this holy father can offer spiritual sustenance and exercise for a day, indeed, rightly considered, for a lifetime. Despite St. Isaac’s enormous influence on Orthodox spirituality, few writers are so difficult to find in English, especially since the disappearance from print of his Ascetical Homilies. This publication, despite its brevity, contains a valuable survey of the textual history of St. Isaac’s works and a listing of main translations.

The Heart of Salvation: The Life & Teachings of St. Theophan the Recluse

translated by Esther Williams

Element Books, ISBN 187229202X,

183 pgs., $24.95

Interesting that a book about an exceptional life should begin with a story of a rather unexceptional death. Saint Theophan the Recluse died alone in his cell at the age of seventy-nine. He died some time between dinner and afternoon tea. He died with his left hand on his chest and his right hand making the sign of the bishop’s blessing. Yet all these ordinary facts still manage to convey a sense of the extraordinary way in which Saint Theophan spent his life. As the editor’s introduction astutely puts it, Theophan lived a life that “retained a real sense of the Christianity of those early Fathers of the third and fourth centuries… and, as a result, knew the things about himself that they knew about themselves – and so knew a great deal about man.”

The Heart of Salvation tells the story of this “doctor of souls” by examining Theophan’s life in light of the ideas that led to his eventual reclusion, his detailed studies of the human being as body, soul and Spirit, and his teachings on prayer and repentance. We are advised to prepare for the spiritual struggle Saint Theophan’s teachings may incur and told that the discomfort they create is “proof of their power, a reminder of another world of powerful feelings and even more powerful events, from both of which we normally protect ourselves.”

In the Heart of the Desert: The spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

by John Chryssavgis

World Wisdom, 163 pp,

ISBN 0941532518, $17.95

Why another book on the spirituality of the desert monastics? Maybe because, as the preface states, “The Desert Fathers possess the imprint of eternity,” which implies not only longevity but also the comprehension of truth and beauty and goodness. These desert fathers and mothers continue to birth and nurture spiritual children who need their honesty and compassion, their austerity and their humility. Fr. John Chryssavgis believes “the hermits who lived in that desert tested and studied what it means to be human – with all the tensions and temptations, all of the struggle beyond survival, all of the contacts with good and the conflicts with evil.” He’s compiled an excellent introduction to their lives and their sayings with commentary that preserves the freshness of their strange but vital way of life. Chryssavgis has also translated the Reflections of Abba Zosimas, for the first time in English, and includes a helpful introduction to the work. To the reader he offers these words: Be neither “overly impressed nor even greatly distressed … the reader is supposed to catch alight, to catch afire. It is critical to remain open enough to be sufficiently vulnerable to their austere yet suggestive counsel.”

The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality

by Kyriacos Markides

Image, 256 pp, ISBN 0385500920, $12.95

A strange book reflecting an extraordinary spiritual pilgrimage. The author was raised nominally Greek Orthodox, abandoned his faith in college and the initial years of an academic career as a university instructor in sociology, then began in turn to move away from agnosticism. This book marks another stage along the way: an encounter with a young elder, Father Maximos, from the very center of traditional Orthodox spirituality, Mt. Athos. Returning to Cyprus after many years, Markides becomes a spiritual son of Father Maximos, and in his determination to return to his Orthodox roots in an authentic way, Markides transmits his instruction from Father Maximos in the form of this book. His teaching rings true – it is cohesive and consistent with the essentials of Orthodox spirituality. The Mountain of Silence has all the attractions of a personal, impressionistic narrative, coupled with a synthesis of the treasures of scripture, the Desert Fathers, and the Philokalia, thoroughly traditional, yet in touch with the temper of the children of modernity.

Note: These reviews come from the occasional catalogues edited by Warren Farha and published by Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas. Free copies of the catalogue can be ordered via the web at: www.eighthdaybooks.com/contact.html.