Archive for the ‘recommended reading’ Category

Recommended Reading – Summer 2010

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The Compassion of the Father
by Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $15

The book is a collection of essays arranged around three themes. The first is that of facing evil and suffering. Here Bobrinskoy addresses the reality of sin, the challenge of loving one’s enemies and the mystery of forgiveness. This is clearly no cheap Gospel, but neither is it a set of abstract moral demands that leave us wallowing in our powerlessness to respond, for healing and forgiveness become possible by entering into the life of the Trinity, into a life of repentance.

This leads into the second theme, that of the liturgy of the heart, in which entering into the depths of our heart becomes the only way in which we can respond to suffering without becoming hardened or embittered by it.

Here we encounter the invocation of the Name, not simply as a technique, but as a theological and ecclesial reality that links us to the earliest Christian invocation and longing. It is an inner Eucharist that remains inseparable from the Liturgy of the Church and which, like that Liturgy, has cosmic implications.

The third theme, on our knowledge of God, includes essays on the relationship between theology and spirituality, on the relationship between theology and language, and on tradition. These essays help to ground the book in a rigor that is not only theological but also spiritual. There is no escaping the centrality of dogma, of the Church and of the tradition, but if these are merely abstract realities then it is too easy for them to become tools for our hardened hearts. Instead our intellects need to be baptized and the ascetical life and the life of the theologian are deeply connected, for everything converges “in the one crucible of holiness.”

– Macrina Walker

Tall Grass
by Carlos Rodriguez Soto
300 pages, $30

Carlos Rodriguez Soto, a Catholic from Spain, worked in Uganda from 1984 to 1987, then again from 1991 to 2008. In the northern part of Uganda he witnessed a horrific civil war which he describes in Tall Grass. (The book is published by Fountain Publishers in Kampala, Uganda. It is distributed in North America by Michigan State University Press and in Europe by the African Books Collective in Oxford, UK.)

These are stories of the effects of war on ordinary people, forgotten by the charismatic leader who led the insurrection, the government and military of Uganda, most of the leaders and diplomats of other nations, and most of the media. The rebels killed and mutilated many, also abducting boys to make them soldiers and girls to make them sex slaves. The economy was ruined. Families that once owned droves of cattle were driven into poverty and had to live in camps.

Fr. Carlos remarks that the sound of war is not explosions but a deep silence, pregnant with fear, waiting for shots and shouts to ring out somewhere not far away. He relates stories of great courage. Fr. Carlos himself displayed it, driven as he was by love for God and for suffering people. He is also brave enough to talk about the consequences that he suffered because of his work for others. But he was not the only person of great heart in this struggle – he tells of many others, some of whom sacrificed their lives in the service of peace.

These are also stories of a resilient and beautiful people. Before suffering these most recent crimes, the people of northern Uganda had long been bought and sold as slaves both in the Americas and Muslim nations. The people who remain there now know suffering and poverty – but also faith, hope and joy. The book tells of one man who defined peace. He said, “Peace is when a man fears only snakes.”

Many lessons are to be gained from this deeply moving book, but I think one is especially important: theology matters. On the one hand, the war that exists in northern Uganda today would never have happened if the people had had a deeper understanding of the Ten Commandments and the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the reconstruction and peace in northern Uganda now would never have happened if the people had lacked the fundamental attitudes of love and forgiveness that they do in fact have. Western Christians might profit from a study of people who are poor both in possessions and in spirit. They give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.

– David Holden

Hidden & Triumphant:
The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography
by Irina Yazykova
Paraclete Press, 196 pages, $27

Irina Yazykova, an Orthodox art historian teaching in Russia, relates ancient and medieval episodes of iconoclasm leading up to 20th-century Russia. The modern part of her story happens more than a thousand years after St. Maximos the Confessor and St. John Damascene defended the veneration of icons.

Bridging a millennium by exploring the theme of iconoclasm is reason enough to read this book – namely, to glean how the author draws simple but poignant links between Byzantine and Marxist iconoclasts.

In addition to historical links, Yazykova writes superb stories of personal and collective sacrifice. Each story is long on details and short on platitudes. The stories make this book a gem for families to read aloud. Even a middle-school child can identify with characters and situations, while adults can plumb complex details likely to encourage re-reading and discussing the book.
Hidden and Triumphant answers a general question: What broke the yoke of Soviet suppression of icons and iconography? Her answer unfolds across 196 pages. Beauty triumphed over totalitarian oppressors.

– Ioannis Freeman

Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook
for Combating Demons
by Evagrius of Pontus (Evagrius Ponticus)
Cistercian Publications, $16.50

Professor David Brakke translates Antirhetikos, a work authored by the fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus, as “Talking Back.” To whom is Evagrius talking back? To demons. Indeed, his book has been a staple for Christian combat with demons ever since.

The benefits of identifying demonic thoughts and dismissing them are many. Talking back to demons with scripture “cuts off” any chance for the seeds of proto-passions to take root in the soul. The demons under attack are gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory and pride. In every case, Evagrius proposes using passages from scripture as weapons of self defense. By quoting biblical passages aloud, we don’t let the demons get as far as a tempting thought – a simple method but one that works.
– Ioannis Freeman

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: Essential Writings
Gillian Crow, editor
Orbis Books, 188 pages, $18

As a young physician working with the Resistance in France during the German occupation, Anthony Bloom decided that, should he survive the war, he would become a monk. He did so and went on to become a priest and later a bishop. For half a century, he led the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. Thanks to his frequent BBC broadcasts, he became one of the major voices of Christianity in both the English and Russian-speaking worlds, making a difference in many people’s lives, both Christian and non-Christian.

It often seemed to me that, in being with him, I was meeting one of the original Apostles gathered together by Christ. He spoke not as an expert on Christ, but as someone who knew him personally and had been among the first witnesses of the resurrection.
This is well-edited anthology gathered from his principal writings plus a selection of talks and sermons. An excellent introduction is provided by his biographer and the book’s editor, Gillian Crow.
– Jim Forest

Toward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
by Olga Lossky
University of Notre Dame, 344 pages, $35

Elizabeth Behr-SigelElisabeth Behr-Sigel was one of the most challenging – often controversial – Orthodox theologians of the last century. For decades, until her death in 2005, she was a key participant in building up an Orthodox presence in France in a process that integrated both refugees from Eastern Europe and converts from the West.

Born in 1907 in Alsace, France, to a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, she received a master’s degree in theology from the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Strasbourg and began a pastoral ministry, but it lasted only one year. Attracted by the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy as well as its spirituality and theology, at age 24 she embraced the Orthodox faith.

Her many friends and mentors included Sergius Bulgakov, Mother Maria Skobtsova (St. Maria of Paris), Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, Lev Gillet, John Meyendorff, Olivier Clément, and Kallistos Ware.

During most of World War II, with her husband André Behr and their children, she lived in Nancy, France, where she taught in public schools. Living under military occupation was her apprenticeship in ecumenism, when people of different Christian traditions came together in the Behr-Sigel home for religious dialogue, at the same time finding the inner strength to oppose Nazism, hide Jews, and provide escape routes.

The book includes many extracts from the prophetic letters Elisabeth wrote during a year spent in Berlin shortly before Hitler came to power. No less remarkable is the diary she kept during the war. In the midst of falling bombs, the Jesus Prayer became vitally important to her – “a cry of the heart, a cry of despair and of hope, an irresistible and never-ending need to call upon Christ to help us in our powerlessness.”

After the war she studied at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, later joining the school’s illustrious faculty. She wrote and published essays and books on Orthodox theology, spirituality, and the role of women in the Church. When at last the role of the deaconate of women is restored in the Church, it will be in part thanks to the labors of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

During the last year of her life, she met weekly with Olga Lossky, discussing her life and providing access to her journals and letters, thus giving this biography a climate of intimacy.

I only regret the biography does not include attention to Elisabeth’s engagement with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. She was a member of its advisory board, wrote for this journal, and took an active part in several OPF conferences.

– Jim Forest

* * *

Peacemaking and the love of enemies

One of the greatest dangers that face peacemakers: that peacemakers themselves become the victims of the evil forces they are trying to overcome. The same fear of “the enemy” that leads warmakers to war can begin to affect the peacemaker who sees the warmaker as “the enemy.” Words of anger and hostility can gradually enter into the language of the peacemaker. Even the sense of urgency and emergency that motivates the arms race can become the driving force behind the peacemaker. Then indeed the strategy of war and the strategy of peace have become the same, and peacemaking has lost its heart.

One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about.

The words of Jesus go right to the heart of our struggle: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” (Luke 6: 27-28)  The more I reflect on these words, the more I consider them to be the test for peacemakers. What my enemies need is not my anger, rejection, resentment, or disdain, but my love. Spiritual guides throughout history have said that love for the enemy is the cornerstone of the message of Jesus and the core of holiness.

— Henri J. M. Nouwen

in Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community (Orbis Books)

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57

Recommended Reading (Pascha 2010)

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010


The Saint and the Sultan:
The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace

by Paul Moses
Doubleday, 320 pages, $26

Paul Moses presents us with a thorough examination of a singular 13th century incident that had enormous implications for Christian life, then and now: the meeting between Sultan al-Kamil and St. Francis of Assisi in the summer of 1219. Regarding this event as not simply a remote historical event, the author is convinced “that Francis and the Sultan have something important to say to us today: we can find common ground despite our differences.”

Moses paints well the historical context. The Fifth Crusade was raging. Both sides had committed horrendous atrocities against the other – a city of 80,000 people was being destroyed just a few miles from the place where Francis and the Muslim leader were in conversation. The stakes included control of Egypt, the holy city of Jerusalem, and more.

“The greatest Christian saint since the time of the apostles … opposed the crusades and peacefully approached Muslims.” Meanwhile, Moses writes, “a great sultan of Egypt, and a nephew of Saladin, was so tolerant of Christians that he allowed one of them to preach to him in the midst of a Crusade.”

The story of Francis and al Kamil suggests that “there is a better way than resentment, suspicion and warfare. It opens the door to respect, trust, and peace.”

The author show us that Francis “had discovered that peaceful submissiveness was his best weapon when dealing with a more powerful force, whether it was his aggressive father, assorted street bullies and robbers, or the papal court.” It was this realization that he took with him ‘into the valley of the shadow of death.”

Moses reminds us that “there was a tradition in medieval times that demanded repentance from those who killed in combat” and that even a “lover of chivalry and the privileged son of a wealthy merchant,” as Francis was, could be “reborn as a peacemaker.”

This is a book that calls into question the demonizing of Muslims, as well as the standard Christian response to external threats.

Christians have often chosen to be war-makers rather than peacemakers. Everything that Francis had hoped to accomplish “by going peacefully into the Muslim world was subverted, even within his own Franciscan order, to serve the politics of the day.”

– Alexander Patico

The Prayer of St Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary
by Fr. William C. Mills
Orthodox Research Institute, $11

This book will help Christians learn to pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian with deepened understanding and motivation. The layout of the book follows sections of the Prayer, called petitions.

A chapter for each of three petitions groups similar ideas together, making it possible to get to know one petition well before moving on to the next. This structure fits the rhythm of the Prayer itself.

In his introduction, Father William comments on the importance of doing prostrations at designated points in the Prayer – an integration of spiritual and physical action that encourages humility and understanding.
Mills writes in a clear and accessible voice. When he uses unfamiliar words, he explains what they mean.

A “Food for Thought” section with appropriate questions at the end of each chapter provides a practical aid when the book is used for group discussion in parishes. One example: “Do you find yourself gossiping about other people? If so, try to identify some ways in which you refrain from gossip and idle talk.”

Again and again, Mills focuses attention on the virtue of love. Recommended for readers from early-teens upward.

– Ioannis Freeman

The Triumphant Church:
A Daily Synaxarion of the Eastern Orthodox Church

by D.H. Stamatisremote
Orthodox Research Institute, 718 p, $37

This is a vibrant and substantial collection of lives of the saints written by a respected Orthodox educator and chanter in the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

His synaxarion is not limited to the Greek saints. Instead, the volume includes descriptions of about a thousand saints from across Greece, Persia, Arabia, Romania, Serbia, Russia, among others. Many entries inspire the reader with examples of a saint’s perseverance in seeking to make peace – to love God, one’s neighbor and the Church with intensity. The author’s engaging style of writing helps make the saints he writes about both appealing and challenging.

This is a book that lends itself to daily reading, something to be read not only for private devotion but during a family meal or parish event.

– Ioannis Freeman

The Life of Saint Brigid
by Jane G. Meyer
Conciliar Press, $13

Jane Meyer’s life of Saint Brigid is a wonderful addition to anyone’s library of saints’ lives told for young people.

Brigid is one of the great figures of western Christianity, loved not only in her native Ireland but around the world. The daughter of a pagan chieftain and an enslaved Christian mother, she grew up to become a nun and abbess. A special stress is put on the saint’s eager hospitality, a trait that revealed itself early in life. “Brigid saw Christ in everyone she met, and had a particular love for those less fortunate than herself. When the poor came knocking at the kitchen doors, Brigid handed out loaves of bread and jugs of milk.”

One of the stories Meyer relates is Brigid’s modest request to a king for a piece of land no bigger than her cloak – but when she shook out the garment, it spread across a huge area of fertile land until it had covered “the rolling green Curragh itself.”

The book ends with the Irish rune of hospitality, which includes the words “often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”

Meyer’s telling of her life is a pleasure to read aloud. The colorful artwork by Zachary Lynch is inspired by the Celtic tradition.

– Jim Forest

Christ the Conqueror of Hell
Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 232 p, $18

4562775246_129c844ff9The primary Paschal icon portrays Christ in the mysterious space between his burial and resurrection. He has destroyed the gates of hell and is freeing Adam and Eve from their tombs along with all the other righteous ones who have awaited their liberator. It is an icon which explains, via visual metaphors, an event we might otherwise not be capable of imaging.
In this exceptionally engaging book, Archbishop Hilarion explores texts – biblical, apocryphal and liturgical poetry – that stand behind the “harrowing of hell” icon. His sources are numerous, beginning with Peter’s speech on Pentecost, recorded in Acts, in which he stated that Christ “was not abandoned to Hades nor did his flesh see corruption.” Again, it was Peter who said that, after his execution, Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-21)

It is a theme developed in a second century text known as “The Epistle of the Apostles”: “I went down into the place of Lazarus and preached unto the righteous and the prophets … that they might come up into that which is above…” (p 24)

Hilarion lucidly explores text after text (many of which were new to me) that will assist anyone who has ever been fascinated by the icon to better understand its meaning. Hades, the author shows, is not to be understood as the hell of everlasting, inescapable torment, but as a place of the divine presence where the fate of any person may change. Those who long to be rescued by Christ from death will indeed, like Adam and Eve, be pulled into resurrected life by his strong hands out of their tombs.

The book was first published in Russia in 2001. As no translator’s name is given, presumably it was done by the author himself, who speaks English fluently.

– Jim Forest

Spring Issue IC 56/ PASCHA  2010

Recommended Reading: Fall 2009

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Hidden Holiness

by Michael Plekon

University of Notre Dame Press, $25

A poem by Matthew Brown that introduces the first chapter to Fr. Michael’s text reveals a “bottom-up” approach to holiness, which understands that the kenosis of Christ altered forever the fabric of the creation and raised humanity into God. In like manner, Brown’s poem portrays faithful people as clinging “to the roots of the saints, growing up from the ground.

Fr. Michael draws the title for his latest book from the widespread misperception that holiness is associated only with extraordinary feats. On the contrary, he argues, holiness often remains hidden from the eyes of those seeking miracles and who define the miraculous in narrow terms, in the process failing to recognize many saints. But for the author, holiness is in itself the miracle of ordinary people clinging to the roots of the saints, “growing up from the ground.”

Most striking in Plekon’s view of ordinary holiness is identifying holiness as a fully human characteristic. For example, Plekon quotes from Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation, in which Merton considers “the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He delivers a counter-factual definition by reflection: [The false selves that we create] “are evanescent, imaginary, alienated from others and from our true being and meaning” (pp. 51-2).

While he focused on the Orthodox Church in Living Icons, his new book reaches across Christian communions in his search for “ordinary” saints among all of Abraham’s children, including Simone Weil and Iqbal Mahsi, a Pakistani child.

Introducing the book, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams anchors readers in the common ground of the sacred, refuting those who seek to confine holiness within their own boundaries. Yet, by the same token, Plekon adheres to authentic Orthodoxy, for he is equally unwilling to distill the Gospel of Christ by homogenizing scared histories.

The book includes 16 pages illustrating ordinary holiness in photographs and icons, many in which are seldom seen images.

Ioannis Freeman

That Your Joy May Be Full

by Stephen Ritter

Regina Orthodox Press

288 pp, $28

One of the many strengths of Fr. Stephen Ritter’s book is that again and again he challenges the idea of God as a stern judge from whom salvation can only be purchased by various strategies of proving ourselves worthy.

Western theology, he writes, has spent centuries “trying to devise ways to propitiate God’s anger, and has even created laws to which He must subordinate Himself. Is it any coincidence that such thought is the driving influence behind so much destructive fundamentalism in the world today, whether Christian or non-Christian? A God above that must be constantly appeased inevitably leads to a series of rules and regulations that must be followed below  or to atheism. Along with this comes the lessening of the value of human life, the trampling of the rights of any human being.”

In a section on peacemaking, Fr. Stephen remarks on the futility of pursuing peace when we do everything we can to prevent peace in our own hearts. The nations seek peace by deals and treaties, often backed up by threats of mass murder. Those who live by the Beatitudes threaten no one. The words “blessed are the peacemakers” do not refer “to those trying to force a ‘peace’ that is artificial and unsteady [but] refers to those who have acquired the spirit of the Lord through prayer, ascetic discipline, and genuine piety.”

This is a book to read slowly and return to again and again.

Jim Forest

❖ ❖ ❖ ❖

Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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Recommended Reading: Winter 2009

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

The Living Body of Christ

by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Darton, Longman & Todd, 235pp. 10.95

Metropolitan Anthony does not offer a systematic treatise on the nature of the Church. Instead, we see multifaceted views of the Church, as if through a kaleidoscope. The book is a compilation of talks, lectures and letters which required consideration of different aspects of the Church according to their particular circumstances.

He reminds us that the Church, though a society of repentant sinners, is, nevertheless, the body of Him who is both God and Man. This theandric “extension of the incarnation” transcends our abilities to understand and explain. It should come as no surprise, then, that the book reflects the multifaceted perception of this mystery that Christians have had from the earliest times.

He warns us of the perils of a “godless approach to divine things.” Theology “is not to God what ornithology is to birds.” It is, rather, “an increasing knowledge of God through communion.” There is a primacy of experience which means that the Church can only be truly known from within.

I was struck by his teachings about hierarchy, authority and power. “Power consists in the ability of a given person or persons to enforce their will and decisions upon others. Authority is something quite different. In a sense authority has no power; it is the persuasiveness of truth that is authority.”

In practical terms, this is expressed  or should be expressed by the Church’s structure as a genuine hierarchy of service. “If in the Church we are simply a hierarchy of power because we have different titles and ranks, that is a negation of the very substance and life of the Church.”

We may also draw some comfort from Metropolitan Anthony’s observation on “the vision of the Church as the Holy Trinity mirrored: alive, dynamic, living.” This can only be demonstrated in small dioceses where everyone is known to the bishop.

The Living Body of Christ is characterized by an attitude of openness to the world beyond the canonical boundaries of the Church. This includes willingness for the Church to engage in dialogue with other Christian communities and with the broader cultural life of society.

Metropolitan Anthony teaches us that the Church betrays its vocation if it adopts the characteristics of any kind of ethnic, cultural or social ghetto. It even does so if it defines itself exhaustively as a gathered Eucharistic community. This is not to demean the liturgical life of the Church in any way or to suggest that we should become woolly minded in matters of doctrine or ethics. The Church is a prophetic body. This should not, however, be seen only, or even chiefly, in negative or censorious terms.

Metropolitan Anthony teaches that we are called to receive truth and acknowledge holiness wherever we discern them. The temptation to retreat into a “safe,” unchallenged religiosity, which can be locked away in some hermetically sealed part of our brains, is to be rejected.

Metropolitan Anthony does not stand alone in calling for this spirit of openness. It is a theme which runs through the teaching of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. It is also writ large in the works and lives of Fr. Alexander Menn and St. Maria of Paris. Given such a unified witness from people such as these, how can we fail to conclude that it is a vital message for our time? Ian Page

The Peace Church and the Ecumenical Community

by Fernando Enns

Pandora Press and WCC Publications, 360 pp., $28.81

The “historic peace churches” include the Quakers, Church of the Brethren and Mennonites. Enns is a Mennonite theologian who heads the Institute for Peace Church Theology in Hamburg. The book clarifies these churches’ emphasis on ethics as a core part of their identity, and a basis for providing an example to other Christian denominations. He alludes to “the urgent need for the Christian traditions to present nonviolence, peace-building and reconciliation as axioms of their theology.”

Enns acknowledges that Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism contribute a greater appreciation of mystery and apostolic continuity, but asserts that “it is not enough to preserve the church’s attributes in doctrine. … There must be a comprehensive connection between those attributes and the life of the church.” The book points out the dichotomy of “the believed church” (the ideal Body of Christ) and “the experienced church” (that which actually exists). He quotes another writer who says, “Ecclesiology and Christian ethics must stay in close dialogue, each honoring and learning from the distinctive language and thought-forms of the other.”

“In a free church understanding, Christian faith is expressed in terms of experiential religion. The life of faith is known through first-hand experience, with no room for a second-hand or substitute faith. Dogmas, confessions, rational theology, and office bearers could at best offer supportive help for personal faith.” Yet, Enns says, “the koinonia of the church is a unity within a continuous plurality…” “Diversity as well as unity is a gift of God,” states a 1993 WCC paper. He goes further when he states: “Christ is present outside the church as well, for the Spirit ‘blows where it will’ and works in many areas.” Alex Patico

Not by Bread Alone

Homilies on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Dewdney: Synaxis Press, 2008

There is a variety of scholarly and devotional books on the Gospel of Matthew, and there is a long debate between the devotional and scholarly world about how to interpret and exegete such a text. The academic is often more concerned about intellectual rigor and the insights of historic criticism. The devotional tradition tends to be more interested in the significance of the text for the heart and personal life journey.

It is from within the wisdom tradition of Orthodoxy that a more contemplative reading of biblical texts has emerged that avoids both approaches. Not by Bread Alone stands very much within the classical Orthodox tradition of contemplative exegesis.

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is certainly one of the wisest and most insightful theologians of our day. The verses and chapters that are interpreted go straight to the pure gold of Matthew, then present such distilled wisdom to the listening ear, heart and head. Needless to say, this book deserves many a meditative reading.

Not by Bread Alone is a must for anyone interested in how to read, interpret and internalize sacred texts in a way that leads to transformation and deification.

Ron Dart

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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Recommended Reading: Fall 2008

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Dimitri’s Cross:

The Life of St. Dimitri Klepinin

by Hèléne Arjkovsky-Klepinine

Conciliar Press, 189 pages, $17

In February of 1943, Father Dimitri Klepinin, a 39-year-old Orthodox priest, was arrested by the German occupiers of Paris for issuing false baptismal certificates to Jews, an action he had performed time and again without hesitation, though well aware of the dangers involved. A year later he died at Dora, a German concentration camp known as “the Man-Eater.” His final action, done with the help of another prisoner as he was too weak to do himself, was to make the sign of the cross.

Before his arrest Fr. Dimitri worked side-by-side with Mother Maria Skobtsova at the house of hospitality she had founded in 1933. After the German occupation began, the community turned much of its attention to Jews and all others who were in danger.

While undergoing interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Fr. Dimitri was asked, “How dare you talk of helping those swine [the Jews] as being a Christian duty!” Fr. Dimitri responded by holding up the cross hanging over his cassock. “Do you know this Jew?” The Gestapo officer instantly struck Fr. Dimitri on the face. “Your priest did himself in,” he said afterward. “He insists that if he were to be freed, he would act exactly as before.”

Fr. Dimitri along with Mother Maria, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fundaminsky were glorified by the Orthodox Church in 2004. Their icons are now found in many churches, but only now has a detailed account of Fr. Dimitri’s life become available to the English-speaking world.

Some of the most memorable stories concerns small moments of family life for example how Fr. Dimitri was so distressed when his daughter banged her head on a corner of the kitchen table that he nearly sawed off all four corners of the table in order to prevent future injuries. Only his wife’s intervention saved the table from ruin.

Hèléne Arjkovsky-Klepinine last saw her father when she was a child of six. In preparing this account of his life, from childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia (he was born in 1904) to his martyrdom 40 years later, she has sought out many who knew him well and even found a few witnesses who were with him at the Dora concentration camp. It is a story of remarkable constancy in caring for others, from his wife and children to each stranger at the door. Fr. Dimitri is among those saints who can be described as “a man for all seasons.”

The final section of the book consists of Fr. Dimitri s letters to his wife from his initial confinement until no more letters were allowed. In them, the reader meets a priest whose reliance on Christ was absolute and love for his neighbor excluded no one. His humility was profound and his courage never wavered. JF

The Life of Saint Martin

text by Verena Smith

color illustrations by Emile Probst

Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 24 pages

There are quite different ways of looking at history. The dominant one is to regard it in terms of wars and warriors and the clash of civilizations. Another is to focus on the lives of the saints, who, by living Christ-revealing lives, help us to better understand what it means to follow Christ. The one route centers on power and bloodshed, the other on conversion. For those of us trying to follow Christ, one of the ways the Church helps us is by remembering the great saints and retelling their stories.

Would that there were more children’s few books about saints, but here is one of them a life about a saint of the fourth century, Martin of Tours.

So important was Martin’s role in the conversion of Europe to Christianity that to this day, in several European countries, the eve of his feast day, November 12, is still the occasion of festivities, especially processions of children carrying lanterns as they go from door-to-door singing St. Martin songs in exchange for gifts of fruit or candy. The idea behind the tradition is that St. Martin should make all of us more generous.

In some towns and cities, a man dressed in a Roman officer’s uniform and riding a white horse leads a parade of lantern-bearing children and their parents. The man of horseback represents, of course, St. Martin, dressed as he was in the period before his baptism. The great event in his early life was to notice a freezing beggar at a city gateway and to cut his officer’s cape in two, giving half it to the man in need. It’s a scene represented in countless carvings, paintings and stained glass windows, especially in churches and monasteries bearing Martin’s name. That same night, Martin had a vision in which he realized that the man he helped was none other than Christ.

The other important story from Martin’s younger life occurred soon afterward, when he refused to take part in a great battle that was due to begin the next day. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he told Caesar. “To fight is not permissible for me.” Accused of cowardice, Martin offered to stand before the opposing army unarmed, but instead was put in chains for his disobedience. When the opposing army instead chose not to enter into battle, Caesar saw this as a heavenly sign, freeing Martin and granting him a discharge.

Martin was still a catechumen at the time, but soon afterward was baptized, became a monk, and eventually was conscripted by local believers to become the bishop of Tours in France. It was a fate Martin tried to avoid, regarding himself as unworthy. He went into hiding, but the noisy geese with which he took shelter gave him away. (Poor geese! In Austria, Germany and France, many of goose are roasted on St. Martin’s feast day.)

While this brief account of St. Martin’s life leaves out some of my favorite details of his life (the reason Martin left the army is not made clear), nonetheless the book will open a door for any family in which it is read. The illustrations are excellent and the story told in an engaging way. JF

The Hermit, the Icon, and the Emperor: The Holy Virgin Comes to Cyprus

by Chrissi Hart, illustrated by Niko Chocheli

Conciliar Press, $17

Chrissi Hart tells the story of how an icon of the Mother of God, painted by the Evangelist Luke, journeyed from a palace in Constantinople to a remote hilltop in Cyprus, where it remains to this day as part of the iconostasis of the monastery church of Kykkos. It’s a tale that begins with the song of a cuckoo and involves a resolute hermit, a governor stricken with paralysis, a princess close to death, and an emperor whose greatest treasure is the icon painted by St. Luke. Niko Chocheli’s vibrant illustrations bring the story to life and will give many young readers their first glimpse of Byzantium. The story also introduces the realization that some dreams are God-given.

It’s a book that will engage both children and their parents and no doubt will inspire more than a few readers to make their way as pilgrims to the Kykkos monastery on Cyprus. -JF

The Uncreated Light

by Solrunn Nes

Eerdmans, 187 pages, $25

The Uncreated Light is centered on the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, as rendered in four representative portrayals spanning the 6th through the 15th centuries, and supplemented by four other works.

The book is also a statement about the human person in his relation to God. One can find the key to Nes’s thesis in this: “Theosis [deification] does not imply that the difference between the divine and the human is erased. On the contrary, greater likeness with God will make man more human since the deified man has developed his God-given potential. … Iron which is heated by fire is still iron, but is different from cold iron in that it can be formed.” The point is that the human person is not made to vanish in his encounter with God. Nothing of the truly human, including personal identity, is left behind, but is taken up and made more fully itself in communion with the deifying Christ human iron infused with divine fire.

While Nes does what most art historians do, her book is theological in a way that art history books rarely are. She interprets her examples through two theological controversies: 8th-century iconoclasm and the 14th-century hesychasm. Without a grasp of the relevant theology, one misses so much that is vital to the iconography itself.

The three-part structure of the book ascent, vision, and descent assumes the shape of the Transfiguration accounts and, by extension, the eastern-patristic path of the mystical journey. Nes shows how the various depictions themselves elucidate the Incarnation, the glory of the Cross, eschatology, and human deification.

The highest compliment I can pay Solrunn Nes’s book is that it induces one to pray and to conceive a desire for the True Beauty objectively reflected there.

Fr. Addison Hart

Violence and Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Conversation

by Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis

Foreword by Patriarch Bartholomew I

ISBN: 9782825415054

WCC Publications, 329 pages, 35 francs

For those who wished they might have attended the conference on violence and spirituality held in 2005 at the Hellenic College and Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology, it’s not too late to at least listen in. Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Holy Cross, has gathered together all the papers that were presented and also included transcripts of a panel discussion on domestic violence. The topics include Christian witness in overcoming violence, religious freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation, the saints as models of Christ’s peace, and nonviolence in the Orthodox tradition.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51