14 July 2009

Eighth Day Review Books

Something recently pushed me over the edge, and I decided I must finally read Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, reprint ed. (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007). I had seen references to it at the Ochlophobist and biblicalia, plus some of Sr Macrina Walker’s series of posts about it (she mentions in a later post, ‘I tell everyone who will listen to read Discerning the Mystery!’). But it seems like it may have been Felix Culpa who closed the sale when I reread his statement about it: ‘Quite simply, required reading for anyone who is concerned with the study of theology as an academic field. Bears continual rereading’ (Felix Culpa also posted a wonderful excerpt from the book here). If that’s not enough, here is one of Eighth Day’s famous catalogue blurbs describing this publication:

Published twenty-five years ago, this book is still the finest critique of the Enlightenment’s ways of knowing, coupled with a winsome description of a distinctly Christian alternative. Responding to what he sees as a ‘division and fragmentation’ both in theology and the larger culture due to ‘the one-sided way we have come to seek and recognize truth…manifest in the way in which all concern with truth has been relinquished to the sciences’, Louth sets out to describe the source of that fragmentation and to challenge the notion that we must ‘accept the lot bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment’. He carefully reviews central themes of several precursors who have already forged a critique of the epistemological imperialism of the Enlightenment, principally Giambattista Vico, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, who in distinct ways demonstrated the legitimacy of the humanities’ unique apprehension of truth. Further relativizing Enlightenment claims, Michael Polanyi proposed that science itself depends on non-empirical elements of investigation for its method to function, what he termed ‘the tacit dimension’. It is here that Louth sees a ‘pattern underlying the apprehension of truth’ that is strikingly similar to that of the Fathers of the Church, who set forth an approach to knowing and experiencing truth that ultimately can be ‘seen and heard and handled’ (1 John 1:1-3), but only by those who reside in the bosom of the Church’s tradition and avail themselves of ways of knowing unique to it. Louth’s rather brilliant rehabilitation of the Fathers’ use of allegory in scriptural interpretation, which interweaves Scripture and tradition seamlessly, illustrates this approach. The matrix of allegory requires and manifests the ‘tacit dimension’ of the guidance of the Spirit, and underlines the theologian’s need to hear Him. Or as Evagrios of Pontus might put it, ‘Knowledge of God—the breast of the Lord. To recline there—the making of a theologian.’

Well, at any rate, I finally asked Eighth Day for a review copy. Imagine my joy when I received the reply that not only would they send the copy of Fr Louth’s book, but also another book that I’d managed completely to forget about somehow: Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008). For those who missed it or have forgotten, I have already posted on Fr Placide in the most glowing of terms, and I really cannot express how impressed I was when I first read it 8 years ago with his conversion story, ‘Stages of a Pilgrimage’, The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos, ed. and trans. Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) (South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1999), pp. 63-93. Ever since that fateful day, I have been quite ready to read anything by Fr Placide that was available in a language I could read, which unfortunately excludes his own Gallic tongue. So couple the fact that this is truly his first book to appear in English (although I have read some of his essays in Greek), with the fact that this is one of the few studies that I know of the Philokalia as a unified collection, and you have a must-read. Here in turn is the catalogue blurb for Fr Placide’s book:

The Philokalia is unrivaled in importance among Orthodox ascetical writings. Yet like the Scriptures themselves, it is a collection of texts complex in origin and transmission, written over a period of a thousand years and assuming of its readers an intimate familiarity with its vocabulary and presuppositions. Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia is perhaps the only book entirely devoted to describing the essential elements of the tradition that gave birth to the Philokalia and then nourished its teaching generation after generation. It is a work—the first to appear in English by Placide Deseille—of profound scholarship and devotion, historical narrative and topical anthology. The historical sections begin and end the book, offering a succinct outline of Orthodox spirituality as it relates to what Deseille calls ‘the philocalic tradition’, from St Anthony the Great up to the present day. The concluding discussion highlights the fragmented but fascinating presence of that tradition in the Christian West. The centerpiece of Deseille’s work is the anthology with commentary, arranged according to themes such as deification (related to both Christology and anthropology), the sacraments, hesychastic prayer, mercy and charity, spiritual warfare, purity of heart and contemplation. Deseille, a Cistercian priest become Orthodox monk, offers here the fruit of a lifetime’s scholarship and existential pursuit of what it means to live as a contemporary of the Fathers, a fellow pilgrim with them in the journey ‘toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.

So expect to see reviews of these books (as soon as I’ve finished Papadiamandis’s The Boundless Garden and Yannaras’s Orthodoxy and the West). They both arrived yesterday in pristine condition—two handsome volumes just begging to be read and written about. Of course, I also have Eighth Day’s The Feast of Friendship, 2nd ed., by Fr Paul D. O’Callaghan (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), which I still need to read. (I feel as though I am finally more adequately prepared now that I’ve read Aristotle, Cicero, St Cassian, and Aelred of Rievaulx on the subject.) Oh, and incidentally, it was Fr O’Callaghan who, in a lecture in Wichita, first convinced me to read Yannaras’s Freedom of Morality.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Thanks for the tip on the Archimandrite Placide book!

Now I want to re-read Discerning the Mystery!

Papa John said...


How funny! Just last week a member of the parish asked me if she could buy me some books and I asked for just these two. I look forward to your comments as I read them along with you.

In Christ,
Fr John Wehling

aaronandbrighid said...

What a funny coincidence, Father! Unfortunately, you'll probably get to these books long before I will...

Papa John said...


I doubt it, honestly. On my desk as I type are: Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity; The Boundless Garden; May God Give You Wisdom!; and a good little book, though not well known, by Fr Joseph Woodill titled The Fellowship of Life. So many books...you know the rest.


frphoti said...

A wee bit off topic...sorta: Are they ever going to print the fifth volume of the Philokalia??!!
I know Mr. Cavarnos was starting his own translation and if you ask me, he could make a load of cash by just skipping the first four which everyone already has, and print the fifth.