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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

51wy9gzguql-_sx321_bo1204203200_Abbess Thaisia of Leushino: An Autobiography of a Spiritual Daughter of St. John of Kronstadt: How could I read anything written by this uncanonized saint and not absolutely love it, especially her own autobiography? I first read this while Fr. John and I spent four weeks at a women’s monastery in Canada one summer. Reading it again brought back a lot of good memories; it was also really nice to become reacquainted with the incredible person of Abbess Thaisia in such intimate detail.

0b2351d9-c59d-11e1-a7b0-889ffadf43f7_40892163-920b-11e2-b998-0015174458e8-resize1Instructions for the Immortal: Or, What to do if You Still Die by Fr. Daniel Sysoev: Readers of this blog know how much I love and admire Fr. Daniel. This book, with its witty title, is wonderful. It’s very small, almost like a long pamphlet but bound like a tiny hard-cover book. And yet, Fr. Daniel manages to go into detail concerning death, life after death, and the aerial toll-houses. The topic of aerial toll-houses is often labeled “controversial” but anyone who reads the Fathers of the Church know they are an accurate image of a spiritual reality experienced by all who have and will repose.

homilies-revelation-large-1Homilies on the Book of Revelation (Vol. 1) by Archimandrite Athanasius: I only have a few more pages to go in this book and I have high praise for it. It is jam-packed with information. It not only offers incredible insight into the Book of the Revelation, but gives detailed accounts of the geographical and social histories of the seven churches to whom Christ has St. John the Theologian address an epistle. Translated by Costas Zalalas, this book should be read by all Orthodox Christians, not merely those who are inclined toward reading commentaries on Scripture. It is very informative and yet also manages to challenge the reader to become a more authentic Christian.

nopnikona-01Letters to Spiritual Children by Abbott Nikon: The small size of this book is deceiving for great spiritual grandeur is contained within its few pages. I literally have nearly as many sticky notes attached to the pages as it has paragraphs. The book is a composition of the elder’s letters to his spiritual children. Reading it gives you the impression that he has condensed into these select letters all that is necessary for an Orthodox Christian to find and remain on the straight and narrow path that leads to life. If you only read one book from this list, let it be this one. But, please don’t just read it, struggle to put the Abbot’s words into practice!

41pjjqruu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_1Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by Elder Thaddeus: Elder Thaddeus’ well known work is a joy to read. This text is very applicable to modern man: it both admonishes and inspires the reader to lead a proper Christian life. Having lived and reposed in our times, Elder Thaddeus shares wonderful personal insight, insight into his own character and development. This allows the reader to not only learn more about this holy person but to see his own character and development in light of the elder’s inspired words.

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The Art of Salvation by Archimandrite Ephraim: This is an English translation of a collection of 33 homilies by Elder Ephraim of Arizona. Every homily is rich in wisdom and yet the spiritual depth of each is conveyed in a simple and applicable way. Although likely delivered to his monastic brotherhoods, I believe there is not one sentence in the book that does not apply to the modern layman who wishes to also taste of God’s grace and goodness.

51ro95u4rbl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Life of the Virgin Mary by St. Maximos the Confessor: Fr. John gave this book to me Christmas, 2014. I read it just before Christmas 2015 and loved it. The information is predominately drawn from the Proto-evangelium, the same primary source the book The Life of the Theotokos – published by Holy Apostle’s Convent – draws from. While much of what it contains was not something unfamiliar to me as I’ve read The Life of the Theotokos, it was very beautiful to read St. Maximos the Confessor’s description of the events and person of the Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos. It’s a more condensed version of her life and I highly recommend it. We can never read enough insights into this all-holy person who was made worthy to contain the Uncontainable God in her holy womb.

1068192Shepherd of Souls: Life and Teachings of Elder Cleopa: I bought this book while in Boston, MA at Holy Apostle’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church during a retreat I was invited to speak at. I started reading it while waiting for my plane back to Newfoundland and finished it rather quickly. I was incredibly impressed by the person of Elder Cleopa. In particular I found the description of his childhood and his early inclination toward asceticism very beautiful. I loved this book and already feel like re-reading it.

What good books have you read lately?

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unnamedA Review of Metropolitan Augustinos N. Kantiotes: A Short Biography

by Rev Dr John Palmer

For years I have read with great pleasure the works of the ever-memorable Metropolitan of Florina Augustinos (Kantiotes) and have drawn enormous benefit from them. In fact, since my ordination to the holy priesthood, hardly a week passes when I do not consult his books when preparing for my Sunday homily. Moreover, while reading Greek editions of his writings, I have often found material so spiritually helpful that my conscience has compelled me to render an English translation for circulation among the faithful in my parish. Even before my ordination, however, while I was yet a doctoral student in Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Augoustinos’ writings greatly impacted me. Not a single text left me indifferent: each and every time I read something His Eminence wrote, I felt moved to labour more diligently in the vineyard of my own soul in order to draw closer to Christ. His simple manner, born of great spiritual depth; his unswerving adherence to, and unflinching belief in the tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church; his bold and fearless proclamation that all that matters in this life is that we keep Christ and our soul. These qualities drew me towards this great personality of the modern Church. The pull was so strong, in fact, that I remember deciding in the Spring of 2010 that I needed to make a pilgrimage to Florina and take the blessing of the then-aged Metropolitan. When I returned to Greece following summer vacation in late August, however, I was greeted with the news that His Eminence had just reposed and was thus deprived the opportunity for a personal meeting. Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes: A Short Biography has proved a great consolation in the face of this missed opportunity, allowing me – and all who read it – an important and intimate encounter with this pillar of the modern Church.

As one might expect from a biography, Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes generally follows the course of His Eminence’s life chronologically. The first section, covering from his birth on the island of Paros in 1907 up to the end of his theological studies in 1929, offers a valuable example of the importance of surrounding children with good spiritual influences, proving that pious parents and teachers, an experienced spiritual father, and exposure to the monastic life, are instrumental in the formation of future saints.

After charting the course of his studies, and demonstrating himself to be more than capable in academic spheres, the book arrives at the beginning of his public life following his monastic tonsure and ordination by the Metropolitan of Aitolia in 1935. This first period of public ministry (1935-1967) was deeply impacted by the German and Italian occupations of Greece during the Second World War, as well as the Greek Civil War. The out-spoken Fr Augustinos, who refused to tolerate any encroachment on Church’s spiritual life or injustice, was seldom able to remain anywhere for very long, passing from Aitolia to Ioninna, to Macedonia, to Kozani, to Gravenna, and finally to Athens where he remained for roughly fifteen years between 1951 to 1967. He undertook similar work in each of these places: he published soul-profiting periodicals and catechetical materials to be distributed free of charge, he untook Modern Greek translations of the writings of the Holy Fathers and articles promoting the teachings of the Philokalia (something the biography’s author rightly points out was rare at the time, this treasure having largely been forgotten outside of monasteries). He also established soup kitchens, orphanages, and boarding houses, he promoted confession and repentance, and he preached tirelessly, “…with admonitions and censuring evil” (p.31). This practice often endangered his very life when his voice turned against secular forces, but Fr Augustinos faced such threats bravely and as a true Christian. Characteristic is his response to the future Metropolitan of Nafpaktos upon being informed that the latter had uncovered and negotiated the cancellation of a German order for his execution: “My life is not worth a penny…Let me die serving and defending our martyric and completely abandoned nation. If I don’t see you again, farewell unto eternity!” (p.44). He proved equally firm and fearless with regard to unfitting practices within the Church. He once resigned from his position as secretary in a Metropolis because the bishop tried a priest on the testimony of one sole witness, rather than on the testimony of three as is required by the Scriptures and the Holy Canons.

In post-war Athens, “His voice [continued to be] that of the healthy conscience of the Church which he objectively raised against kings, patriarchs, hierarchs, monks, political figures, clergy, and laity, often incurring the wrath of the corrupt and the powerful” (p.74). There are a number of stories highlighting this last point recounted in the book but here I will mention only one which is particularly indicative of the sharpness of his Christian conscience. When beauty pageants were first introduced in Greece, “…and became a lure to relinquish the virtue of modesty in young Greek men and women, while everyone else remained silent on the subject, Fr Augustinos wrote a whole article in Christianike Spitha. This was followed by protests that were organized by religious associations as well as people in positions of power; rallies; all-night prayer vigils; night processions. The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece condemned beauty pageants. Hierarchs personally supported Fr Augustinos. The conscience of the people rejected the pageants. The newspapers who organized the events withdrew, one after the other. The participation of young Greek women in these events decreased dramatically…This protest [initiated by Fr Augustinos] was characterized by one of the biggest newspapers in America as, ‘the most unique reaction in the whole world against profligate beauty pageants'” (p. 69-70). Sadly we in our age look upon things a thousand times more corrupting than these pageants in our use of television and the internet and yet we manage to silence our consciences and remain unbothered: not Fr Augustinos! Not only did he avoid such things himself, but he laboured to preserve countless others from this spiritual pitfall at the risk of exposing himself to the criticism of the world.

Moving on from this Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes next details Fr Augustinos’ election to the Metropolitan See of Florina in 1967 and the years of his episcopal ministry. Greatly valuable here is the book’s reproduction of a significant section of the homily he preached at his enthronement. Although at the time this homily represented a presentation of ideals and aspirations, in retrospect it paints an exact picture of all that he did during his years as Metropolitan. There is perhaps no better testimony to His Eminence’s spiritual character: what he said, he did with God’s help. Here the book breaks slightly from chronological order, dealing with his particular accomplishments one at a time. No summary can do these accomplishments justice; here I will simply mention the most notable. His episcopacy was marked by the building of monasteries, churches, orphanages, nursing homes, boarding houses, and the erection of crosses. He was also deeply concerned with the cultivation of priestly vocations and their proper training: when he inherited the widowed Metropolis it had 140 parishes and only 50 priests; by the time of his retirement he had ordained 184 candidates to the priesthood, most of who passed through ecclesiastical schools he himself had founded. He openly and boldly taught against the use of birth control, opposed abortion, and rightly denied sacraments to those who were not married in the Orthodox Church but were illicitly cohabitating. He was again a tireless teacher, preaching 5,629 homilies which furnished a large portion of the contents of his 82 published books. He opposed the political regime fearlessly whenever it impeded the spiritual life of the Church and Christians.

His concern that the word of truth be rightly divided, that the Orthodox Faith be proclaimed without adulteration, and thus that the faithful be not mislead and fall away from Christ, was further manifested when he took a stand against Athenagoras of Constantinople for his uncanonical statements and actions within the context of the Ecumenical ‘dialogue’ with the Roman Catholics. Along with Metropolitan Amvrosios of Eleutheropolis, Metropolitan Paul of Paramythia, and the fathers of the Holy Mountain, Metropolitan Augustinos canonically ceased commemoration of Athenagoras, invoking the 15th Canon of the 1st-2nd Council which states: “As for those persons who on account of some heresy condemned by holy Councils, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it barehead in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodal verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudo-bishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions.” God alone knows how many souls he saved by openly demonstrating his disapproval of the Patriarch’s activities.

Three brief sections follow and are devoted to the outcome of his labours, a brief account of the persecutions he suffered gladly for Christ’s sake, and to his co-struggles who laboured with him in Christ’s vineyard. The final section deals with his life after his resignation, tendered to the Holy Synod in September 1999 and accepted as of January 2000 when he was an astonishing 93 years old. In retirement, Metropolitan Augustinos continued to labour until he suffered a stroke and reposed in August 2010, “…after hundreds, if not thousands, of admirers and spiritual children came from all over Greece to receive their final blessing from him, ask for forgiveness, and say goodbye” (p.147).

As should be easily ascertainable from the brief summary of the work above, Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes is extremely didactic, though unobtrusively so. His Eminence’s life is presented in a way that lessons for modern Orthodox Christians are easily drawn – for example, how children ought to be raised, the importance of and the spiritual pitfalls associated with education, the fearlessness with which we ought to stand before the forces of secularity both within and outside of the Church, and so on – but not in such a manner that feels like the author is editorializing. Also notable is the fact that large sections of the text are taken directly from Metropolitan Augustinos’ own writings, giving the book a sort of autobiographical flavour and adding spiritual depth. One notable instance of this occurs early in the book when discussing the success he enjoyed throughout his education and the spiritual problems this caused him early in life: “These highest honors that I continued to receive, from my early years of elementary education up until I finished college, harmed me spiritually,” he writes. “I confess it publically. Some sort of conceit possessed me because of my theological knowledge. And God humbled me for my arrogance” (p.26). The book is full of such edifying, self-reflective looks into His Eminence’s inner spiritual life which betray his spiritual sensitivity.

It bears mentioning that Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes is a translation of a Greek work bearing the same title. Unfortunately, a number of treasures of Greek Orthodox literature have been poorly translated in recent times and as a consequence these important works have so far failed to mark English-speaking Orthodox culture as deeply as they perhaps should have. Happily no such problem exists here: Alexander Filip has rendered a smooth translation which reads easily and enjoyably.

Turning attention to the physical aspects of the book, the reader will find himself greeted with a nice, roughly 150-page volume, well-bound, with glossy pages – important since the book is filled with beautiful photographs of His Eminence and those persons referred to throughout the course of the narration. My only complaint – if it can be called that! – is that the cover is a little plain by North American standards. Given the value of the book, I would suggest a more eye-catching cover for the second edition.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend Metropolitan Augoustinos N. Kantiotes: A Short Biography highly enough. We live in an age – and sadly within an ecclesiastical environment – permeated by luke-warmness. Far too often we let ourselves get drug along with those trends which prevail in our culture and run contrary to the Gospel of our Lord when we should be rebelling against them by word and by our manner of life so as to become leaven for the world around us. Far too often we show ourselves indifferent towards the faith, ignoring violations of the spirit-inspired traditions of Orthodoxy simply because it may result in drawing the ire of some of those around us; by doing this we leave our brethren within the Church prey to the noetic wolf. Far too often we take the easy route in our own spiritual lives, avoiding the narrow path of the Gospel. An age like ours stands in dire need of a reminder of the Apostolic zeal characteristic of true Christians: such a reminder is Metropolitan Augustinos. May we have his blessing!

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fr danielby Rev Dr John Palmer

Admittedly, it was with great expectation that I first opened the English-language translation of Fr Daniel Sysoev’s book, Catechetical Talks. Around the time of his martyrdom in 2009, I began hearing reports from colleagues concerning Fr Daniel’s missionary work in Russia, praising it not only for its incredible results, but also for the fact that its achievements were born of a strict adherence to the Orthodox tradition. Shortly thereafter, brief excerpts of his writings began to circulate on the internet; then a podcast on his catechetical method; then a short book in Greek. All of these served to confirm the truth of the reports which had been circulating concerning Fr Daniel’s work, and further stoked my desire to read his more extended works for myself. Having now received a copy of his Catechetical Talks and having read it cover to cover, I am left to observe that the book has not only met, but greatly exceeded my every expectation. Before us stands no generic, academic, ‘Introduction to Orthodoxy’, but rather an authentic work of Patristic theology, flowing with words of eternal life.

Fr Daniel’s book is composed of a series of transcribed catechetical talks designed to set forth the most essential elements of the Orthodox Christian faith, aimed specifically at catechumens being prepared for Holy Baptism. He begins his series speaking about the divine attributes, exploring what we mean when we call God ‘good’ or ‘just’ in accordance with his revelation, as well as how these appellations are reconciled with the seeming evils which permeate the world around us, and with the belief that there will be a final judgement over which the just and good God will preside. Fittingly, he crowns this discussion with the apex of the Church’s dogmas concerning God: an exposition of the dogma of the Trinity. Fr Daniel dedicates his second talk to the Christian doctrine of Creation, particularly emphasizing the creation of the angels, the subsequent fall of Lucifer, and, of course, the creation of man and his fall. Naturally, this sets the table for the third talk to discuss the Incarnation of the Word of God, the key moments in Christ’s earthly ministry, the significance of his death on the Cross, his resurrection, and his ascension into the heavens to be seated at the right hand of the Father. The fourth talk is dedicated to a discussion of the birth of the Church at Pentecost and its mission in the world, that is, to unite men to Christ, specifically emphasizing the role of each of the sacraments in the fulfillment of this mission. The fifth and final talk offers a detailed discussion of the commandments of God which situates Christian morality within the broader context of morality in general, demonstrating that Christian morals differ from the ‘morals’ of the world both with regard to their foundation and their end.

Appended to these five talks are three helpful essays. The first two explore both the historical and canonical practices surrounding Holy Baptism (a topic surrounding which there is much confusion in our times on account of our ignorance of Orthodox tradition). Here, for example, we find discussions concerning the selection of godparents, whether children of the non-Orthodox may be baptized and under what circumstances this is permissible, as well as the absolute necessity that Holy Baptism be preceded by Catechism. Particularly noteworthy is his lengthy examination and critique of contemporary baptismal practice, which concludes in his affirming the absolute obligation of priests to immerse, and not sprinkle or effuse, those being baptized except under the most dire of circumstances. The final essay is a brief but useful summary of how Fr Daniel himself approached preparing candidates for the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

There is a temptation to think that because Fr. Daniel is addressing himself to catechumens, his book will only be useful for those who are new to the Orthodox faith. Any such temptation ought to be immediately alleviated by a moment of honest self-reflection. Let us ask ourselves: who among us is capable of giving even the most basic account of our faith if asked? As Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain writes in his work Christian Morality, “Many Christians if asked about Greek, Jewish, or Pagan myths, are ready to respond openly. But if one asks them to give an account of what they believe, how many articles of faith there are, how many are the Mysteries of the Church, how many commandments there are… if, I repeat, one asks them these and similar questions, which every Christian who desires to be saved ought to know how to answer, then they are silent, dumbstruck, and totally incapable of giving any reply” (p. 188). A refresher course in the fundamentals of our Holy Orthodox Faith – a sort of spiritual return to the catechumenate – is something each and every one of us needs.

frdanielIn terms of the book’s ethos, it becomes immediately clear that Fr Daniel has avoided producing yet another dry, textbook-style introduction to Orthodoxy. He avoids this first by frequently indulging a clear desire to be contextual. He is not contextual in the sense of renovating the theology of the God-inspired tradition in order to make it conform to, and justify the passions, but rather contextual in the true sense, in the Patristic sense, whereby he directly engages modern culture, answering its questions and challenges on the basis of the Church’s tradition. We see examples of this in his treatment of the questions surrounding the theory of evolution and practice of abortion, but also in his treatment of Islam, where he pays special attention to situate its claims with the context of the Patristic tradition. Second, Fr Daniel carefully interweaves the dogmatic and moral throughout the whole of his text: nothing is treated purely abstractly. Last, because the book is a series of transcribes talks as mentioned above, the work is very conversational in tone. Fr Daniel asks many rhetorical questions, takes comments and questions from his audience, and recounts personal stories, all of which give the reader the sense of being present in a parish hall, hearing Fr Daniel himself speak.

The translation of the book is near-flawless: it reads like a work originally written in English. I noted only two or three typographical errors in the course of my initial reading. In addition it is solidly-bound and typeset in such a way that it reads very comfortably.

Beyond all that has been said above, what is most encouraging about the Catechetical Talks is how uncompromisingly Orthodox it is. In Fr Daniel, we find one who is at once sensitive, yet firm in his presentation of the Orthodox Faith. A prime example of this is his completely unadulterated, unqualified presentation of the Orthodox Church’s claim to be the, “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church,” through which saving grace flows, and outside of which those in heresy are found. He also unapologetically presents the extensions of this belief: that non-Orthodox cannot be commemorated in the Church’s liturgical prayers, that they must depart at the exclamation, “As many as are catechumens, depart” during the Divine Liturgy, and that they cannot be given antidoron, truths which are shocking to many because they have never been taught authentic ecclesiology. The book’s final chapter tells us that Fr Daniel ultimately baptized only about 60-70% of those who attended his catechetical school: “There have been cases,” he writes, “when people consciously refused to receive baptism, once they learned the faith of the Church because Christianity goes against their convictions. I think their separation only benefited the Church, and even those who refused to be baptized for they realized that their views contradict the Word of God. When they come to their senses they will be able to consciously accept the faith.” (p. 341) Spiritually speaking, this is the safest method for all involved. What is deeply impressive, and what should give us courage, is that despite his strict adherence to tradition, he yet baptized over 100 individuals per year during the course of his priestly service, a service which was ultimately crowned with martyrdom.

Contrary to Fr Daniel, we are taking an almost Jesuitical approach to presenting the Orthodox Faith to inquirers. Rather than tempering our honesty with an appropriate sensitivity to inquirers’ backgrounds and experiences, we instead lightly skim over, or even hide difficult truths from them, hoping to simply ‘get them in the door’. This approach bears bad fruit. Individuals who are catechized in this way not only unintentionally harm other faithful, spreading their uncorrected, unorthodox beliefs to those around them, causing scandal and confusion, but they often become scandalized themselves when they encounter authentic Orthodox teaching at a later stage in their spiritual journey. In some cases such individuals even wind up leaving the Orthodox Church altogether.

At a time when increasingly silly things about our holy Orthodox faith are gaining wide circulation (see, for example, George Demacopoulos’ recent piece entitled, ‘Orthodox Fundamentalism’), it is greatly refreshing to find a book which is entirely free of this spirit, and which from cover-to-cover deserves commendation. Fr Daniel has left us a great inheritance. I can only hope that more of his work will be shared with us in the future. May we have his blessing!

You can find a list of Fr Daniel’s translated works here.

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Coincidentally, this photo was taken in Ferryland, the place Fr. Matthew speaks about at the end of the interview.

Coincidentally, this photo was taken in Ferryland, the place Fr. Matthew speaks about at the end of the interview.

Check out Ancient Faith Presents’ interview with Fr. Matthew Penney, authour of Voyage to the Rock and co-founder of the Orthodox fiction press Lumination Press. Tune in here.

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A Few Good Books

Books I’ve read (or finished) thus far in 2014.

My_Elder_Joseph_lgMy Elder: Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Ephraim of Philotheou: I don’t think my feeble words will do justice to this great book and I know they won’t do justice to the person of Elder Joseph.

I read this book (over 700 pages) in just one month because I couldn’t put it down. I had read the Greek version years ago, but the English version has much more detail. I am at a loss for words to describe it. Elder Joseph is clearly a great saint of the Church; his asceticism, prayer, fasting, vigils are all described in the book but so are his love, his tears, his wisdom, his suffering on behalf of others. His spiritual counsel is so enlightening that, in my opinion, it confirms that he was in perfect communication with Christ because his words are not just for monastics, but laypeople too. The Gospel was written for all Christians, not just monastics, and I believe Elder Joseph’s spiritual advice is as applicable to laymen as it is to monks. If you don’t own a copy of this book order one as soon as you can.

May we have the Elder’s blessing!

communityCommunity of Grace by Mary Alice Cook: This book tells the story of a community centered in Eagle River, Alaska, made up of individuals who, despite setting out on many and various paths in life, somehow manage to come together as one in St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Cathedral. The writing and story-weaving were great, but I was left wanting to know more about the Orthodox elements of life in Alaska rather than the conversion stories of the members of St. John’s.

image1Λόγια Καρδίας (Words from the Heart) by Gertonissa Macrina: Since it takes me about ten times as long to read a book in Greek as it does to read it in English, this book has been on my nightstand for about a year, but I finally finished it. I have posted a number of my amateur translations of this work on the blog and even given a talk based on the biographical information of Gerontissa Macrina provided in this book.

Reading of Gerontissa’s continual trials and yet her great commitment to follow Christ produced a healthy dose of self-loathing in me at times. The life and words of a saint, such as Abbess Macrina, can at times inspire us to try harder, while at other times they make us want to crawl under a rock and admit: “My soul’s dignity I have enslaved to the passions; I am become like the beasts and have no power to lift mine eyes unto the Most High” (Stichera, Holy Friday).

The lives of the saints not only reveal to us that it is possible to become holy, they can also reveal to us what we are lacking, and this isn’t a bad thing, in fact it can be very helpful. When we compare ourselves to the holiness of the saints, especially in regards to how they conduct themselves in the midst of trials and tribulations, we can challenge ourselves to act in similar ways, to imitate their courage and conviction, and perhaps most importantly of all, we can be humbled enough to bow our heads and say, “with my head bowed low, O Christ, I pray to Thee as did the Publican, O God be merciful to me and save me” (Stichera, Holy Friday).

This book is currently being translated into English.

mollyClose to Home by Molly Sabourin: I had wanted to read this book for some time and am so pleased I finally got my hands on it. It’s a delightful book, targeted to mothers or expectant mothers, but its insights and thought-provoking commentary on a life with children are enough to intrigue any reader regardless of whether one has children. Molly’s honest description of her struggles, worries, and concerns provoke the reader into reflecting on his or her own battles and it’s encouraging to know these struggles are common. Close to Home reminds us we’re striving together to attain sanctity through the ups and downs of everyday life, and so I highly recommend this book.

curiousThe Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime by Mark Haddon: I chose to read this book as a part of a project I did for school and I really enjoyed it. It is very enlightening and gives the reader an intimate look into the world of a young man who could be labeled, on the one hand, as having asperger’s syndrome, and on the other as being a genius. It also offers insight into the complex emotions a person goes through, and how social isolation can result when someone experiences difficulties connecting emotionally.

Follow Me  by Bishop Augoustinos of Florina: I posted a few excerpts from this excellent book in the past few months. Although it is written as an aid to missionaries (those who share the Gospel at home and abroad), I consider it an incredibly resourceful Gospel commentary. I learned so much and was so inspired I can honestly say it was hard for me to put the book down some nights and go to bed.

In this book, Bishop Augoustinos – not only wise on spiritual matters – demonstrates his knowledge of influential historical and political figures as well. Along with lots of quotations from the Holy Fathers, Bishop Augoustinos quotes such people as Gandhi, Dante, and Napoleon (this latter figure quite a bit, actually).

It just so happened that during Holy Week the section of Follow Me I was reading corresponded to each theme of the day. When we were remembering Christ’s betrayal by Judas in the church services, I was reading Bishop Augoustinos contemporary on him. When we were singing about St. Peter’s denials, I was reading about them in the book. Although the hymns always bring the events of Holy Week to life, reading Bishop Augoutinos’ commentary enhanced their reality by filling out the details.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

mcgunnegalThe McGunnegal Chronciles: Into a Strange Land (Book I) by Ben Anderson: I heard an interview with the authour on Ancient Faith Radio and I was immediately intrigued. A few weeks later I saw that the kindle version was on sale for 1 dollar and I snatched it up; I’ve always loved fantasy books.

(Fun fact: After my BA I was planning on doing a MA in Literature and Theology to study the fantasy genre and it’s connection to Christianity, like the Inklings & co (back then studies on the Inklings weren’t as prominent as today). I was hoping to focus on George MacDonald because he is my favourite fantasy authour. We moved to South Korea to teach English instead…)

ασκητέςΑσκητές Mέσα στον Kόσμο (Ascetics in the World) complied by an athonite monk: I am currently reading this book. It is volume one of two volumes of stories about holy, ascetical people who not only lived in the world but lived within the last one hundred years or so. I am really enjoying this book and hope to post a few amateur translations now and again. To my knowledge this book is not translated into English, but it should be.

Elder_AmbroseElder Ambrose: Optina Elders Series by Fr. Sergius Chetverikov: I am also reading this book currently. I’m over hundred pages in or so and it’s great. The only complaint I have thus far is that the authour will break off writing about St. Ambrose now and again to speak at length about St. Macarius and St. Leonid (the elders before Elder Ambrose). The information is all wonderful but I would prefer to read about them in their own books and read about St. Ambrose in his. With the exception of Elder Barsaniphius, I have not yet read the Optina Elders, but we have four of the seven books in the series so I will hopefully get a number of them read in the near future. I’ve had them recommended to me many times but they weren’t available in Thessaloniki (in English, at least) so we waited to get them once we were back to Canada.

voyage to the rockVoyage to the Rock by Fr. Matthew Penney: (I saved the best for last). Although I read this book in its various stages of development once I had my very own paperback copy I opened it up one Saturday afternoon and couldn’t put it down until I finished it once again (I think it was like a day or two later).

The book’s target audience is middle to young adult but it is possibly the best mystery/ adventure I’ve ever read. The writing is excellent, the characters are real and genuine, the plot is enthralling, and best of all it presupposes an Orthodox worldview – illustrating that all the magic, miracles and adventure we dreamed of as children really do exist in Orthodoxy. No matter your age you will definitely love this book. You can visit the website here and read views on here on Amazon and here on Goodreads.

What have you been reading?

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Fr MThe following is from the Holy Trinity Bookstore (Jordanville, NY) website Writer’s Corner. The post features Fr. Matthew Penney (my brother and the co-founder of Lumination Press).

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Motivations and inspirations for writing are tricky things. Sometimes a story is a small seed that grows in the back of your mind, which you occasionally water and prune, and you just know when it’s ready to bloom onto the page. At other times, it’s an idea, or a feeling, or a person, so irresistible that it impresses itself on your mind and sweeps you along with it, like a leaf on a river’s current.

When I first became Orthodox, I was dazzled by the brightness of a whole new reality. It was like the sun bursting from behind dark clouds to illumine a landscape that I had only ever seen in grays and shadows. One of the things that struck me was just how supernatural, miraculous, and alive this new world was. I remember thinking: Orthodoxy has all the mystery and wonder and “magic” that any modern fantastical story has – except it’s true. I remember thinking of all the times as a youth that I had longed for the stories and the worlds and the characters I’d loved to be true – but they never were. And so I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great to write stories that people could fall in love with, a world they could yearn to live in, only to find out this world does exist and you can live in it?” This became my over-arching motivation for wanting to write fiction – not writing to justify Orthodox belief or make an apology for it, but presupposing it. What does the world look like when God exists, when miracles occur, when saints do superhuman things, when the invisible spiritual warfare is perceptible? And how do the human beings involved in this world react, how do they struggle to come to terms with such a world, and what does it teach us about living in the brightness of awareness, rather than in the grays and shadows? Particularly, I wanted to do this for our young people – to give them something to be inspired by, to delve into, to be surprised by, and in a way that meets them where they already are.

voyage to the rockMartin, Brigid, and Ashley’s story in Voyage to the Rock is meant to be just that. Real kids, real situations, but with a sudden glimpse of a deeper world where they never expected one. The story is written for Orthodox youth so that they can become excited about their faith and their history, and so that they can begin to approach the ‘Lives of the Saints’ in a way that is initially a bit more accessible. But my hope is that it is not so ‘in your face Orthodox’ that others couldn’t enjoy or benefit from reading it.

From what I’ve seen and heard, there is a general lack of good stories written from an Orthodox perspective – again not necessarily preaching it, but embodying it. So I wrote this quite intentionally to help fill that gap. Our young people are going to read; we’re constantly encouraging (and forcing) them to, whether for school or for fun. So why shouldn’t we offer them a chance to drink deeply from the well of our Holy Orthodox faith and to retreat into the mystery and wonder of the life in Christ, rather than into that of imaginary fantasies, or even – in worst case scenarios – into spiritual and moral poison? And why don’t we strive to do it in a way that isn’t pedantic or preachy or poorly written (forgive me for the times that my writing crosses these lines!). Our faith promotes itself when we present it authentically – because it’s true and because it’s beautiful.

I hope my small offering of Voyage to the Rock encourages our writers out there to do what they can toward producing great works. I intend to keep writing with these goals in mind. I am presently working on a sequel to Voyage, and have other stories slowly growing in the back of my mind. With God’s help and your prayers, those of us at our new Lumination Press, will continue to offer more of these stories.

Check us out at http://luminationpress.webs.com, and the website for the novel at http://voyagetotherock.webs.com.

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In Community of Grace: An Orthodox Christian Year in Alaska Mary Alice Cook tells the story of a community centered in Eagle River, Alaska, made up of individuals who, despite setting out on many and various paths in life, somehow manage to come together as one in St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Cathedral.

The book is very well written. Cook’s writing style is perfect for weaving various stories into one narrative and this made for a pleasant and entertaining read. Her ability to demonstrate the interconnected lives of the community with the Alaskan lifestyle of fishing, long winters, and collecting road-kill was especially fun and interesting.

Although sold as a story of an intentional Orthodox community and the individuals who make it up, I found the book’s predominate focus to be on the interesting and unique aspects of community members’ lives before becoming Orthodox. I think it would have made for a much more interesting and edifying read if the reader were invited into the everyday life of the community and its members.

Somewhere around 300 people were simultaneously received into the Orthodox Church at St. John’s. It’s a shame we don’t hear about these Orthodox experiences in Community of Grace. We hear very little about St. John’s Orthodox school, catechism classes, or other programs run by the Cathedral. Although the stories of individuals coming to Orthodoxy are in and of themselves fascinating, as is the history surrounding St. John’s, the noted lack of stories about St. John’s as an Orthodox community diminished my interest in Community of Grace.

If you’re looking for a book about the history of a group of American converts to Orthodoxy in Alaska, as well as stories of how different members came to live in the intentional community of St. John’s in Eagle River then you will enjoy Community of Grace.

Community of Grace: An Orthodox Christian Year in Alaska is published by Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press). You can purchase it here.

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