20 March 2013

Brief Reviews of Books Received

So, I just discovered this essentially complete post written during Christmas break 2012-13 and entirely forgotten within hours of its writing. It is now radically out of date as any kind of recent ‘book update’, but it does document a few titles I received gratis and for which I therefore owe thanks. 

Well, as has become obvious, I am quite incapable of blogging while keeping up with school duties. I had a good run last summer, after I finished revising and editing my now-published C.S. Lewis paper and before school preparation began, but after that the best I could manage was this brief post about my ordination to the diaconate. So, I promised a Facebook friend that I would try to complete at least one post over the Christmas break, and I am now attempting to keep that promise. 

If memory serves me, in the last several months I have received four books of which I need to make mention. First, a kind fellow at Jordanville sent a copy of the new edition (2012) of Fr Lazarus’s translation of The Arena, by St Ignatius (Brianchaninov). [1] I have compared it rather carefully with my old copy of the third printing (1991) of the first edition (which I shall call 1.3), [2] and while the translation is the same and the foreword by (then Archimandrite) Kallistos (Ware) has been retained, [3] the differences are interesting. Most obviously, where 1.3 has a very textured, brown-paper-bag-looking cover with a very simple monochrome image of the Roman colosseum, and is subtitled, ‘An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism’, the 2nd ed. features a slick and glossy full-colour cover with sunbeams peaking through a tower of a church and the subtitle, ‘Guidelines for Spiritual & Monastic Life’. The contrast between the old homespun Jordanville publications and the new computerised look is readily apparent in the printing as well. Whereas the printing in 1.3 is uneven, with the occasional poorly struck letter and with a persistently high lower-case ‘o’, the 2nd ed. is a model of computerised evenness. The result of course is that Jordanville publications look much more professional, but have sadly lost their peculiar charm. C’est la vie

There are of course a number of less superficial differences. The brief summary of St Ignatius’s life on the back cover of 1.3 has been replaced by a description of the book’s contents and a longer bio appended to the text. The footnotes of 1.3 have become endnotes, and there are occasionally new ones. The glossary at the back has been slightly expanded (‘Ekos’, ‘Hesychasm’, and ‘Hesychast’ are the new entries). Although I cannot at the moment identify the translation used in the Scriptural quotations of 1.3, the 2nd ed. appears to use the NKJV for NT and most OT, the OSB for Deutero-canonical books, and David James’s Psalter for Prayer for the Psalms. Perhaps most exciting, however, is the addition of Subject and Scripture Indexes! In my own opinion, these alone make it worthwhile to acquire the new edition. 

Next, as an ordination gift my kind friend, Met. Savas of Pittsburgh, sent a copy of the oddly named, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, edited by Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif (and also featuring a foreword by Met. Kallistos, I’ve just realised!). [4] No, this is not another translation of the Philokalia, as the title might misleadingly suggest, but a collection of fine scholarly papers on one of my favourite subjects. Highlights include: ‘St Nikodimos & the Philokalia’ by Met. Kallistos, ‘The Making of the Philokalia: A Tale of Monks & Manuscripts’ by Fr John McGuckin, ‘The Influence of the Philokalia in the Orthodox World’ by Fr Andrew Louth, ‘The Luminous Word: Scripture in the Philokalia’ by Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘The Theological World of the Philokalia’ by Rowan Williams, and ‘Hope for the Passible Self: The Use & Transformation of the Human Passions in the Fathers of the Philokalia’ by Paul M. Blowers. It seems that all that is missing is my own paper on ‘The Teaching on the Senses of the Fathers of the Philokalia’! Still, even without that important study, this promises to be an important resource.
That said, I do have one complaint: the introduction. It seems to me that this would have been the place for some overview of the scholarly literature, scarce though it admittedly is, on the Philokalia as a whole, and the attention to the individual authors as it has developed over the last century or so. Instead, while there is a brief paragraph on the attempt of the editors to fill a lacuna in this regard – a lacuna they apparently only discovered a few years ago during Bingaman’s preparation for comprehensive doctoral exams – we have, essentially, a paragraph reassuring readers that the Philokalia is really an ‘ecumenical’ spiritual resource; we have two paragraphs apparently reassuring Protestants that the Philokalia does not teach some sort of ‘works righteousness’; and we have a long section arguing that while the Philokalia if misinterpreted by Orthodox could inspire a kind of Orthodox fundamentalism, it’s still a good thing for the modern reader in ‘a world of massive technological, social, economic, and intellectual forces that are in conflict, and interaction, with each other’ to joyfully rediscover it and uncover the forgotten ‘spiritual treasures of the Christian East’. [5] In other words, it almost sounds as though it is more dangerous for Orthodox Christians to read the Philokalia than for yahoos to read it who have no experience of the whole liturgical, exegetical, ascetical, and spiritual context presupposed by every author from St Anthony to Ss Kallistos and Ignatius. I set aside my irritation only because so many of the contributors really are so terribly top-notch. 


Thirdly, I had been feeling guilty about a continued failure to acquire a copy of a newly published book by my delightful British Cypriot friend, Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou: Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy & Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. [6] But without warning, I discovered in the mail one day a package from Paraclete Press containing an unsolicited review copy of the book. Included was a hand-written note which read: 

Aaron, I have read your blog & think you would be interested in our new release ‘Journey to the Kingdom’ by Fr Papavassiliou. 
If you do mention the book would you be willing to e-mail me a link. 
Blessings, 
Sr Madeleine 

Spared the trouble of placing an order against my always harried bank account, I began looking into the book. At its basis a simple yet very profound commentary on the Divine Liturgy, I have been quite impressed so far with what I have read of Fr Vassilios’s book. There is an accessible eloquence to the prose that, I daresay, actually reminds me occasionally of C.S. Lewis. The style, coupled with frequent reference to the Scriptures and the many photographs illustrating the various parts of the Liturgy, make this an ideal introduction to the Liturgy for (particularly Protestant) converts and inquirers. For some Orthodox, there may seem to be rather little reference to the Holy Fathers, though references to them are in fact scattered throughout the text. But I can personally testify that Fr Vassilios knows the Fathers quite well, and the book is certainly patristic in spirit. 


My one little quibble is that I believe Fr Vassilios has overstated the problem of what he calls ‘obstacles to coming to Holy Communion’, by which he means the requirement of Confession, the Prayers of Preparation, and the practice, common among Greeks, of requiring a day or more of fasting before receiving Communion. [7] Although I was always willing to practice the last according to the ‘When in Rome’ principle, and it makes sense as a measure for those who do not regularly attend church or keep the fasts, I can see how it can be a bit excessive as a requirement for faithful who are regular attendants and communicants and who make every effort to keep the canonical fasts. Ditto for the requirement of Confession and, I suppose, the Prayers of Preparation. But where these are established customs, taught by pastors who have at least some degree of pastoral wisdom and condescension, I think it can be unhealthy to rail against them before a lay audience. I know of at least one convert who left a perfectly healthy parish led by a wise priest, simply because he had read Fr Alexander Schmemann saying that clergy shouldn’t insist on Confession before every Communion, and who ended by later leaving the Faith altogether and becoming a ‘Buddhist’. Anyway, as I have said, I do not exactly disagree with Fr Vassilios here, but would at the same time urge the faithful to accept with humility (within reason of course) the ‘rules’ that their pastors and spiritual fathers impose. Otherwise, it seems to me that we are not really Orthodox but Protestants. 

Finally, my kind friend, Stacy Shipman, sent me a book she is helping to promote called Place Your Hope in the Lord: The Poetic Spiritual Life of Father Lazar. [8] I had never heard of Fr Lazar (Adžić) before, but it seems he was the abbot of the Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro (having previously been formed in monasticism at Hilandar on the Holy Mountain, as well as by St Justin (Popovich) at Ćelje) and has been revered in Serbia as a holy elder. Despite an unattractive title font (used for titles throughout the text as well), the volume is in appearance a bit like a St Herman Brotherhood publication and is quite pleasing to the eye. But the text itself is unique. While there are brief accounts of Fr Lazar’s life in Met. Amfilohije’s forward (pp. 17-21) and sermon at Fr Lazar’s funeral (pp. 23-7), as well as on pp. 33-8 of Abbess Jelena’s text, the bulk of the content is not made up of linear biographical narrative at all, but of brief anecdotes and sayings arranged in no discernible order. As Professor Lidija Tomić writes in her foreword (a review that was printed with the original Serbian text): 
The book about Father is not a typical hagiography and does not belong to the canon of hagiographical literature. It has a hagiographic aura because it deals with the life of a man of God, i.e., the biography of his worldly and priestly paths.... 
...
The variety of topics of the personal and spiritual existence of Father Lazar conditioned a synchronized structure of numerous anecdotes, occasions, and events, which, without chronological gradualness, actualized the author’s notion that, even without an overwhelming narrator’s attitude, with a choice of various fragments she managed to depict Father Lazar in his faith and his experience of Christ, i.e., in different situations and states of worldly and spiritual existence. 
... The book varies from the perspective of narration and confession, the spiritual and religious perspective of human deeds and unlawfulness, to the perspective of God’s mercy, faith, and love. The author chose fragmentary narrative composition to be able to show light from different angles to uncover the layers of Father Lazar’s personality. [9] 

The sayings and anecdotes do indeed appear to be rather marvellous, and while the excerpts above from Tomić’s foreward might suggest a disappointing translation such prosaic problems appear to be confined to the rendering of Tomić. From what a random selection of passages can reveal, the translation of Abbess Jelena’s own text seems to be perfectly good English. 


[1] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual & Monastic Life, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity, 2012). 

[2] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity, 1991). 

[3] It always warmed my heart to see the name of perhaps the foremost representative of ‘world Orthodoxy’ to converts on the title page of a ROCOR publication. Of course, Met. Kallistos has always spoken rather frankly of his close relationship with the Russian Church Abroad as a young convert, and don’t forget that His Eminence has actually recommended Fr Seraphim (Rose) as a ‘good discussion’ of St Ignatius’s teaching on ‘the traditional Orthodox teaching on the twenty “toll-houses”’ (see p. 142, n. 10, to the comment on p. xvi). 

[4] Brock Bingaman & Bradley Nassif, eds., The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford U, 2012). 

[5] Ibid., p. 5. 

[6] Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou, Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy & Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2012). 

[7] These requirements seemed to have become a pet peeve of Fr Vassilios while we were studying together in Greece, where there were indeed many examples of excessively zealous clergy and faithful, who could often be quite off-putting in their attitudes and practices. 

[8] Abbess Jelena (Stanišić), Place Your Hope in the Lord: The Poetic Spiritual Life of Father Lazar, tr. Milena Taylor (Memphis, TN: Orthodox Christian Translation Society, 2012). 

[9] Ibid., pp. 13-4.

1 comment:

Gregory Manning said...

I have heard others refer to the requirement of confession for communion as an undue hardship. Are you kidding me?! Give me the opportunity and I will persuade other congregants that confession twice a year is an undue hardship. And we will get our way because we will brow beat the church into giving us what we want. Go ahead; give us an inch.
John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote "The world and the Church cannot meet without either the world rising or the Church descending. And the world claims necessity and says it cannot rise and deems the Church unreasonable when she will not descend instead."
The western churches have made one concession after another to a people who say they cannot rise and look what it has resulted in. As a lay Orthodox who hates having to participate in a ritual which forces me to face up to the fact that I am continuing to commit the same sins over and over again which are ENTIRELY my fault, I should welcome this oh-so-sensitive "new" idea on the part of the clergy. The problem is that I left western christianity because I saw what happens when the church starts making concessiions. Go ahead. Give us an inch.