Archive for the ‘recommended reading’ Category

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