Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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).


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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Sweet Song is a sweet children’s story which tells the story of a young St. Romanos in the days before he was miraculously given the gift of song. Published by Ancient Faith Publishing (previously Conciliar Press), written by Jane G. Meyer and illustrated by Dorrie Papademetriou, the story is set in the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople, long before the invasion of the Ottomans.

We first encounter the young Romanos when he awakes early in the morning and hurries off to tend to the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), as he is the sacristan. The story follows St. Romanos as he tends to the needs of the church, is ridiculed by the cathedral’s readers for his miserable singing voice, supplicates the Mother of God with tears and is finally given the gift of song on Christmas Eve. The story ends with the debut of St. Romanos’ divinely-inspired Nativity hymn “On this day” and his reconciliation with one of the previously-ridiculing readers.

The prose is accompanied with full-page illustrations in Byzantine hues which, I must confess, are the real attraction of Sweet Song for this artist. The images of Hagia Sophia are particularly striking and precise. Having visited Hagia Sophia myself I recognized many aspects of the cathedral in Papademetriou’s illustrations. My only complaint concerns the many-winged Seraphim on pages 5 and 6 which are illustrated without faces. The original Seraphim on the four corners located just below the dome in Hagia Sophia had faces but the Ottomans painted over them when Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque since Islam forbids the depiction of human beings. It was an oversight for the illustrator not to have included the faces on the many-winged Seraphim in her rendition of the cathedral in the days before the Ottoman take-over.

Further information on St. Romanos, Hagia Sophia and the Hodigitria icon of the Mother of God in front of which St. Romanos prayed to the Holy Lady is provided on the last page of the book. I like the addition of this information, not only because the publisher included an image of the icon I personally painted of the Hodigitria icon, but because I think it is good to show children the true story of St. Romanos contains many elements of our faith that can be further explored (like the city of Constantinople and the countless hymns St. Romanos went on to compose).

Sweet Song is a delightful retelling of St. Romanos’ struggles and ultimate victory through the grace of God. It is a great story for children (and the child-like), a true story that once again brings the words of the Theotokos’ magnificat to life and reminds us that God exalts those of low degree and that “His mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations”.

To order your copy of Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist go here.

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Joyce E. Salisbury’s Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman examines the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and her five companions. There is no doubt that Salisbury wrote a very interesting, extraordinarily well researched and well organized book on the six African martyrs. However, I found her inability to allow the text of St. Perpetua’s Passion to speak for itself insufferable. So insufferable in fact that I will describe the negative aspect of her work first as it overwhelms the praise-worthy elements.

While dedicating much space to criticizing Augustine in her final chapter entitled “Aftermath” for supposedly re-interpreting “the text to make it relevant to the fourth-century audience” (Salisbury, 1997, p. 178) she seems to completely overlook the fact that she re-interprets the visions St. Perpetua records in her autobiography. Instead of allowing the visions to speak for themselves, Salisbury attempts to offer alternate interpretations of spiritual realities at every turn, for example: “[Perpetua] may well have been familiar with such dream interpretations that have shaped the images her mind created” (Salisbury, p. 101). Where in St. Perpetua’s text was it stated that her mind created any of the images she saw? It doesn’t say anything of the sort. But for the carnal minded (and I mean here simply those who think only from the point of view of a body, not a soul) such spiritual matters are well beyond their realm of understanding. This statement: “we know [Perpetua] sought after the prophetic dreams and visions that marked divine presence or she would not have recorded her own dreams so carefully” (Salisbury, p. 32) reveals unfounded claims in Salisbury’s text.

And not only does Salisbury attempt to offer rational explanations for St. Perpetua’s divine visions, she makes ignorant commentary on a host of matters of the Christian Church which she also fails to understand: “Obedience to authority would become the way to control charismatics in the church, but that was not to be fully implemented until well after Perpetua’s death” (Salisbury, p. 68). It is telling that in a book that has over 600 footnotes this and similarly ignorant statements are not cited, revealing a lack of historical evidence and an obvious bias regarding such matters of the Christian faith.

All of this is very unfortunate because once I was able to push myself to read past all the subjective, shallow attempts at interpretation of spiritual matters, I found Perpetua’s Passion to be an incredible resource. It is full of interesting information about Carthage at that time and its role in the Roman Empire. I found the research on Septimius Severus, Carthagian history and art, the geographic locations of important places and Roman paganism to be extremely fascinating. I even appreciated the fact that she did not end her book with the death of the martyrs but offered us a look at the subsequent centuries of the Church of Northern Africa.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in that time period and the historical events surrounding the martyrdom of Saints Saturus, Saturnius, Revocatus, Secundulus, Perpetua and Felicity if – and that is a big if – the reader were to completely disregard Salisbury’s weak attempt to suck the spirit out of St. Perpetua’s spiritual experiences. Salisbury should have stuck to the historical aspects of her text and allowed St. Perpetua’s Passion to speak for itself.

You can find Perpetua’s Passion here on amazon.

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I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but somehow I had never heard of this book until receiving it in the mail as a gift – and I’m so grateful I did! Come Follow Me is a collection of entries, chronicling Mother Casiana’s year spent living in the Holy Monastery of Varatec in Moldavia, Romania in 1984. Similar to my own book, The Scent of Holiness, in some ways, it offers us a glimpse into the everyday life, work and prayer regime of the sisterhood of Varatec Monastery (a sisterhood that numbered 350 individual nuns).

In the pages of Come Follow Me Mother Casiana not only invites us to take a look at the monastic way of life in Varatec Monastery, but she also takes us with her own pilgrimages to various monasteries and celebration of feast days in Moldavia. The book is, although short in length (just shy of 200 pages), is full of details concerning the life of the sisters at this particular monastery in Romania.

I appreciated getting to know the cycle of work and prayer at the monastery as the seasons come and go. And I especially liked getting to know some of the sisters and Abbess Nazaria – to the extent we are able to know her person through reading about her. Here is one of my favourite insights into her character:  

“‘It’s impossible. We simply cannot have snow on the ground for Pascha!’

“When Mother Abbess Nazaria said this at the end of March I smiled to myself thinking that, after all, there is not much one can do about the snow if God continues to send it to us. It seemed that almost every day, we were shoveling newly fallen snow off the pathways. There were even several areas within the monastery courtyard where it was piled higher than the buildings themselves.

“The day after Mother Abbess had firmly stated that the snow must be gone before the Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, it began to melt.” (Come Follow Me, p. 34)

One of the most prominent differences I noticed between monasticism in this particular monastery and what I experienced in Greece was that at Varatec Monastery some nuns have different spiritual mothers depending on whether they live in a skete outside the main monastery with one or more sisters, or whether they live at the staretia (the cenobium if I understood correctly) with the Abbess. In Greece sisterhoods function as one family, with one mother (for the most part). The practice of having various sketes, each with a spiritual mother and one or more disciples, is not commonly practiced in Greece – or at least not in the places I visited. This aspect of monasticism in Moldavia was unique to me and reminiscent of the monastic way of life on Mount Athos, where various sketes are attached to larger cenobiums but each has a spiritual father independent of the abbot.

One of the greatest similarities between monasticism in Moldavia and monasticism in Greece was the mutual love and support shared between monasteries: “It was clear that there was no sense of rivalry between the monasteries; in fact, I found the exact opposite to be the case. Each monastery does all it can to help the other: this help is expressed in various forms: domestic help as in cooking and serving food on special occasions; sending a choir of monastics to sing at a service; priest-monks serving for another monastery; offering of whatever other talents and gifts are available… The monasteries continually support, help, and encourage each other in a true spirit of Christian brotherhood. When one community suffers, all the other monasteries feel the pain as well; when one community experiences a great joy, the others join in that spiritual exultation.” (Come Follow Me, p. 92).

There are many interesting, as well as uplifting, passages and stories found in this little book. Some stories are reminiscent of those found in The Scent of Holiness and some are different. My book was from the perspective of a layperson, and although I received endless amounts of love and attention from the sisters, I was – at the end of the day – only a guest. Mother Casiana, on the other hand, was a member of the sisterhood, having been tonsured a nun at Varatec. Her stories are told with a unique perspective from within the community. I’m grateful she shared her experiences with us, so that those of us who have never traveled to Moldavia can have the opportunity to taste of the holy waters of monasticism in Orthodox Romania.   

Whether it is Greece or Romania, or some other far off – or not so far off – place, we all have churches and/or monasteries we consider to be our spiritual homes. But it is also nice to be given a glimpse of the place someone else calls “home”. In her closing paragraph Mother Casiana, who, after one year in Moldavia returned to America and now lives in a monastery in Colorado, writes: “God has given us holy places throughout the world which we can visit and toward which we can direct our thoughts and our hearts… Like St. Peter on Tabor, we, too, long to remain in those holy places… Though I was prevented from doing so, I echo the words of Saint Peter at the Transfiguration, ‘Lord, it was good for me to be there.’” (Come Follow Me, p.181) And it was good for us to “be there” through Mother Casiana’s detailed descriptions in her book.

Come Follow Me: Orthodox Monasticism in Moldavia by Mother Casiana is published by Light and Life Publishing (1991) and is available for purchase on Amazon.

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a story of redemption and liberation through suffering – an extreme form of suffering generated by the protagonist’s destructive thoughts. Through an at-times comical, at other times heart-wrenching novel Dostoyevsky explores the human soul’s susceptibility to sin and regret (not to be confused with repentance) and the unfortunate, if extreme, consequences that result from accepting prideful thoughts.

From the very first pages we understand that Raskolnikov (the protagonist) is being tormented by disturbing thoughts. We don’t, however, find out the precise thought that led to such turmoil until nearly halfway through the novel, at which point the subject of an article Raskolnikov had published a few months prior is brought up by the character Porfiry Petrovich. We learn that Rasolnikov posited a theory in the aforementioned article. He theorized that extraordinary men were free to commit crime on account of their greatness. And so, what was the driving force behind Raskolnikov’s temptation to commit a horrendous crime resulting in his unhinged mental state? Pride. He thought he might be one such “extraordinary man” and felt the only way to prove to himself as such – to prove himself a “Napoleon” so to speak – was to commit a crime and see whether or not his conscience was extraordinary, namely, whether or not he could get away with such a crime not by law, but by conscience. For an “extrodinary man” – according to Raskolnikov’s understanding – would be free to commit crime. And so he not only believed himself to be a great man, he was eager to prove himself as such. He confesses as much when he tells Sonya, “I was ambitious to become another Napoleon; that was why I committed a murder.”

It is not Raskolnikov’s realization that he is not a great man that plunges him into honest redemption, but what seems to me to be his acceptance, his embrace, of his unworthiness. His redemption comes at the moment he reconciles himself with his shame, his nothingness and his reliance on another, on Sonya. Through suffering condemnation for his crime, and in a sense death, he gains new life.   

Ultimately Crime and Punishment takes the reader on one man’s long and difficult journey from fantasizing he is great to accepting he is unworthy – a state of mind which Dostoyevsky presents as a true means of acquiring God’s great mercy.  

While drinking himself drunk, the character Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov the antidote to his twisted prideful thoughts before he even acts on them. That is, he tells him that God pities those who know their own unworthiness, not those who are glorious upon the earth. Marmeladov says: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge… He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, ye weak ones, come forth ye children of shame!’ And we shall come forth, without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise one and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this[emphasis mine]. And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him… Lord, Thy kingdom come!” (Dostoyovsky, Crime and Punishment, pp. 24-25).  But it wasn’t until the last pages of the novel, finding Raskolnikov recovering from illness in a Siberian prison camp, that we see he is finally able to believe himself unworthy and therefore be resurrected from his own willful corruption when he throws himself at Sonya’s feet.

Crime and Punishment: a genius story about the crucifixion the human soul suffers when it cannot accept, refuses to accept, its complete and utter “ordinariness,” and the redemption that is brought to life when one is able to humble himself enough to accept the love offered by another.    

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Despite the small amount of information compiled about the life of the Athonite ascetic Hadfi-Georgis, a Pontian Greek from Cappadocia, he was a great beacon of light shining in the darkness of our world. And through this little book, written by Elder Paisios the Athonite, he continues to shine.

He had great difficulties in school and was not able to learn to read and write. Distressed by this, and being naturally disposed to ascetic struggle, the little child fasted for three days and made countless prostrations for hours. After which he went to the parish church by night to pray since it held a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God. Since the doors to the nave were locked he prostrated himself outside the church and with tears begged the Panagia to help him learn. Suddenly the doors to the church were opened and the Mother of God took the child by hand and led him to the icon of her Son. Asking Christ to grant the child’s desire to learn, she then blessed him and embraced him and entered the holy sanctuary by the north door. After this incident Hadji-Georgis’ illiteracy became only a memory.

At the age of eighteen he left the world for Mount Athos, the garden of the Panagia, and became a novice at the Monastery of Gregoriou but stayed only two years, after which he retreated to a skete to learn the ascetic life from an experienced spiritual father. After living with this small brotherhood for a good number of years, the spiritual father left Elder Hadji-Georgis in charge as the spiritual father of the brotherhood.

He was known as a great faster, in fact when someone wanted to stress how strictly someone fasted they would say, “He’s a Hadji-Georgis”. The elder’s great spiritual charisma attracted many men searching for a true spiritual guide. Of this Elder Paisios writes: “Hadji-Georigs advised each person accordingly with discernment, consoling their souls and helping them with his heartfelt prayer. His face was radiant because of his holy life, and he radiated Divine Grace to afflicted souls. The holy Elder’s fame had reached everywhere, and people flocked from all around to be spiritually benefited. From morning until night he took the pain of the afflicited upon himself, and he warmed their hearts with his spiritual love, which was like  spring sunshine” (p. 50).

Through his great fasting and spiritual striving he managed to tame wild beasts. There is a story about a wild boar that would come into the brotherhood’s garden and destroy the few vegetables the fathers had grown. Hadji-Georgis went out and took the boar by the ear, scolded him, and told him never to do that again, and the boar was submissive to his command.

Due to the evil one’s hatred, and the weakness in some monks prone to jealousy, the elder was greatly slandered and after moving around the Holy Mountain, in obedience to the Synod he was ultimately exiled from Athos and returned to Constantinople. Many were the souls he helped, and unfortunately much of his help was repaid with slander, gossip, and jealousy. But the good Lord sees and understands all. No amount of slander would change the fact that the elder was a saint. So that even in Constantinople he continued to comfort the lonely, heal the sick, advise those in need of counsel, and fast like the great ascetic he was. Indeed, even a great deal of Turks loved and admired the old monk, calling him in their native tongue “bizim baba,” that is, our father. Although the elder struggled to live in obsecurity, a lamp cannot be put under a bushel, and so the light of Christ shone through him, and continues to shine even in our times.

In closing, we will share Elder Paisios’ reason for recording the life and works of this great ascetic elder: “Descendants always have a sacred duty to write down the divine achievements of the holy Fathers of their times and the struggle they undertook out of philotimo in order to draw closer to God. Naturally, by writing about our saints, we too benefit, because in this way we remember and try to imitate them;  then the saints are moved even more to help us draw closer to them” (p. 19).

Books like this, even though short in length, are great in content and worthy of our time and contemplation. For, as Elder Paisios says, we need to compare ourselves to saints not to those who lead worldly lives, and in this way we see our passions, are humbled, struggle harder.

May we be found worthy to receive Hadji-Georgis’ blessing!

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