Recommended Reading: Winter 2008

Mountains Beyond Mountains

by Tracy Kidder

Random House, 2003. 317 pp.

Paul Farmer graduated from Harvard University with degrees in medicine and anthropology. Instead of following the usual paths expected of hyper-achievers, he and a few colleagues founded a clinic in central Haiti, where Farmer still spends half of his year, practicing medicine among some of the world’s poorest. In recent years he has written and spoken with disturbing clarity about the connections between the ailments of his Haitian patients and the worldwide maldistribution of wealth, medicine and power.

Tracy Kidder has written a profile of Farmer and his work that is by turns inspiring and daunting. For the first time in any of his books, Kidder inserts himself into the narrative, recording his conversations as he accompanies Farmer on housecalls in Haitian villages and flights to Peru or Russia to aid world campaigns against the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, a deadly and increasingly common companion of poverty. Mountains Beyond Mountains is deeply heartening in its portrayal of a few people’s power to make a profound difference.

The Haitian clinic has changed the lives of people throughout much of Haiti; Farmer’s campaigns have changed attitudes toward health care for the poor throughout the world.

Paul Farmer is not portrayed as a saint: he can be sarcastically critical even of those who share his concerns but disagree with him on small points of implementation. Often, though, his acerbic words can go to the heart of an issue, as when he dismisses popular talk of “appropriate technology” as a polite way of reserving the best technology for the wealthy.

Farmer is relentless in his insistence that the poor are as entitled to medical care of the same quality as those of us who live in the wealthy world.

His own willingness to live out the implications of this view – in Haiti he lives in a house not much different from that of the average peasant – make his words hard to dismiss.

As Farmer’s and ways of speaking is deeply influenced by Liberation Theology, I was frustrated by the book’s near silence about Farmer’s faith. Does he pray? Is he a practicing Catholic? Either Kidder or Farmer himself are reticent about these matters – odd given Farmer’s free use of religious language and his strong association with some Catholic institutions.

One of the most important, but least visible, characters in the story is Tom White, a Bostonian who made a large fortune in the construction business, then devoted himself to giving it away to the poor, mostly through his funding of Farmer’s work. At the end of the book, White’s fortune is almost spent, and the reader wonders how the clinic in Haiti will survive.

I would have liked to learn more about White, whom Tracy Kidder could have made the subject of another excellent book. White’s willing renunciation of privilege parallels Farmer’s own in interesting ways, and hints at a response to Christ’s difficult words “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Mountains Beyond Mountains will inspire, fluster and challenge any of us who hear its call to look squarely at world poverty and to resist the demonic voices telling us that there is nothing one person can do.

- John Brady

Freedom to Believe: Personhood and Freedom

in Orthodox Christian Ontology

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Synaxis Press, second edition, 2007, $10

Archbishop Lazar has ventured, faithfully and steadfastly, into intellectual and political terrain that few Orthodox theologians in North America have dared enter. The journey into such deep and demanding places has done much to reveal the splendor of the Orthodox tradition.

Many Orthodox theologians have been rather shy about addressing the existential tradition of philosophy. Existentialism, for some, has a bad name, and should be shunned and avoided at all costs. But should it?

Freedom to Believe ponders how and why existentialism has been knocked, and yet, true to thoughtful form, why the existential tradition has much truth to it that should not be avoided or missed. In fact, Freedom to Believe makes it more than obvious that the Orthodox Tradition, in both thought and deed, is the true fount and foundation of existentialism.

Freedom is a sacred word for the Western tradition, but the meaning of freedom often lacks meaningful content. It is often used as a justification for all sorts of behavior. The rights of the individual are, also, front and center for most in the midst of the culture wars of our time.

Freedom to Believe walks the extra mile to clarify the differences between “personhood” and “individualism,” and how freedom can be distorted and abused if the language of individualism dominates the day, but, if the notion of “personhood” is properly understood, the deeper meaning of freedom will emerge.

- Ron Dart

Many American Christians demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon?

- Kurt Vonnegut

The Rublev Trinity

by Gabriel Bunge

translation by Andrew Louth

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $27

An important event in the renewal of iconography occurred in Russia in 1904. This was the year that a commission was created to restore Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” icon, then nearly four hundred years old. As was the case with many old icons, over time the smoke of candles had been absorbed by the varnish, gradually hiding the image beneath the varnish. In the centuries when no safe method existed for removing the varnish without harming the image, the cure for blackened images was the repainting of icons. Thus a similar, often cruder, image was painted over the older one. In many cases, ancient icons bear several icons layered one on top of the other.

Often a more permanent solution was to place an oklad over the icon: a relief image in metal – silver or gold – that covered everything but the faces and hands. In 1904, the restoration commission carefully removed the oklad covering the Trinity icon. Then began the slow and painstaking removal of the layers of overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. It took years, but what their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon (now in the care of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow). The uncovering of the icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography, and the restoration of a great many other old icons.

The author of this handsomely published book, the Benedictine monk Gabriel Bunge, has undertaken a parallel work of restoration, exploring many earlier images of the three angels who were the guests of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality by the oaks of Mamre, a story related in Genesis.

In this work of profound theological examination, the reader discovers how many centuries of meditation, biblical reflection and earlier artistic effort lie behind the icon painted by Rublev in the 16th century.

The book is also a presentation of one of the most loved but least known Russian saints, Sergii of Radonezh. As the author writes in a chapter analyzing the Rublev image: “Father Pavel Florensky was not completely wrong when he maintained that St. Sergii was, alongside Andrei Rublev, the true creator of [the icon]. One may even go a step further and suggest that this icon, painted in ‘the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity’ built by Sergii, is intended to depict this mystery of the grace of the Holy Spirit… The attributes that Rublev used to make visible his interpretation are the postures and gestures of the three angels.”

For anyone who seeks a deeper appreciation of icons in general, or of the Trinity icon in particular, this fine book, with its many color illustrations, is a treasure.

- Jim Forest

Mystic Street

by Steve Georgiou

Novalis Press, $25

OPF member Steve Georgiou’s new book invites readers to discover that they live not only at a certain postal address known to the postman but (more significantly) on Mystic Street – a street that begins at one’s front door and stretches to wherever you happen to be going on a given day, whether to the supermarket or a mountain top.

Mystic Street is not a line on the map but a way of life in which the main project is to be fully present wherever you happen to be, and thus to be continually rescued from boredom and be snapped awake in a state of surprise. Steve presents his invitation autobiographically, recalling particular experiences he has had while traveling his own Mystic Street.

Yet this is less a book about his own life than an invitation to the reader to be more attentive, to live a more contemplative life, to discover beauty in unexpected places. The book’s many photos add another level to the text. The cover photo – light shining on wet cobblestones – might have been taken on one of the Greek islands, perhaps Patmos, where parts of the book are located.

Altogether a refreshing read!

- Jim Forest

Greek East & Latin West:

The Church AD 681-1071

by Andrew Louth

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $22

In the series “The Church in History,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has now added a volume that starts with the Sixth Ecumenical Synod and ends with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. This is the tragic period in which what had once been only a language border, no more than a thin line in the sand, steadily grew into a wall of division, until finally Christians East and West were no longer in communion with each other.

At the same time it was also a period of Byzantine growth, with Byzantium once again the most powerful Christian empire, if not the empire it had been in Justinian’s day.

Fr. Andrew, professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, carefully follows many of the crucial events of this four-century period, including the two periods of iconoclasm in the East, the rise of the Carolingians in the West, the monastic reforms that reshaped Christian life and civilization in both East and West, the mission activities that brought Christianity to the north and east of Europe, and the crisis in relations between Rome and Constantinople that culminated in the break of communion between the two patriarchates.

Yet, as Fr. Andrew points out, the break was far from complete in 1054:

“To contemporaries of the event, and for many years after, it did not seem that anything had changed in 1054. Tensions between East and West were long-standing, and they occasionally flared up, but for the most part Christians of East and West acted as it they belonged to a common cumene. This was particularly true … among the monks…”

One of the chief issues of division in the early eleventh century was the question of whether the eucharistic bread should be leavened or unleavened. Other points of dispute included the celibacy that had been imposed on priests in the West, and the West’s introduction of the Filioque into the Creed. Might patient dialogue have restored unity? No doubt. But it has yet to happen. In both East and West today, there are many who would rather die than see the Great Schism ended.

For any Christian reader who wishes to better understand the divisions we still live with, but also the possibility of finding common ground that might at last restore our shattered unity, this is an essential book.

- Jim Forest

The Book of Pastoral Rule

by St. Gregory the Great

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press

St. Gregory the Great (also known as Gregory the Dialogist because of the Dialogues he wrote) was the first Bishop of Rome to come from a monastic background. Born in 540, he died in 604 after fourteen years as pope.

Born into a wealthy Roman family, he was the great-great-grandson of Pope FelixIII. Following his father’s death, Gregory converted the family home into a monastery dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew, which he entered as an ordinary monk. Later, after being ordained deacon by Pope Pelagius II, he was delegated to heal a schism in northern Italy.

In 579, Pelagius chose Gregory as his representative to Constantinople, where Gregory gained attention by opposing the view advanced by Patriarch Eutychius that the risen bodies of the elect would be “impalpable, more light than air.” Gregory argued that the physical actuality of Christ’s risen body made clear that the elect were to rise, not only spiritually, but physically.

The controversy was so intense that finally the emperor intervened. After a hearing in which both sides presented their views, the matter was decided in favor of Gregory’s position. Both disputants fell ill due to the strain of their controversy. Gregory recovered, but the patriarch succumbed, recanting his errors on his deathbed.

After nearly seven years in Constantinople, Gregory returned to Rome to serve Pelagius as secretary. After Pelagius’ death, Gregory was elected to succeed him. It was Gregory who first described the role of the Bishop of Rome as being “servant of the servants of God.”

Among his deeds as bishop was arranging for the daily feeding of the poor of Rome. He carried on an extensive correspondence, much of which survives, with Christians in both East and West, and wrote essays on a many topics, including a biography of St. Benedict. He is remembered for compiling the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

It was Gregory who said, “Non Angli, sed Angeli” (they are not Angles, but angels) when he happened to see blue-eyed, blond-haired Anglo-Saxon boys being sold at a slave market in Rome. This led to his dispatching St. Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon tribes.

Once in Canterbury, Augustine wrote Gregory to ask whether to use Roman or Gallican customs in the liturgy in England. Gregory advised that it was best to do whatever would best advance the Christian Faith, for “things are not to be loved for the sake of a place, but places are to be loved for the sake of their good things.”

George Demacopoulos has chosen to translate St. Gregory’s Book of Pastoral Rule, which addresses with wisdom and sobriety a wide range of questions that remain relevant not only to bishops, priests and monks, but are of value to anyone bearing a pastoral responsibility. A significant part of the book provides practical advice to anyone witnessing confessions or providing spiritual guidance.

- Jim Forest

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48