Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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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Elder%2525252520Paisios%2525252520Book%2525252520SMAlthough I can read Modern Greek, and could have read the Greek version of this amazing book, I waited years to read the English translation. And it was well worth the wait! The book is made up of two parts. The first part is an extensive biography of the elder, and the second part is broken up into themes, teachings really.

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos was written by Hieromonk Isaac (a disciple of Elder Paisios), it is translated by Hieromonk Alexis Trader and Fr. Peter Heers; it is edited by Hiermonk Alexis, Fr. Evdokimos Goranitis and Philip Navarro. The translation and editing in this book are almost as beautiful as the content. It is clear that great care was given to keeping the spirit of the elder in this translation – the elder’s well-known humour and interesting play on words were conveyed with equivalent English anecdotes and intermittent additional notes only when necessary. In terms of editing Part One was nearly flawless. Part Two on the other hand had a small number of typos – a natural oversight in a book of this length (over 700 pages).

The real pearl though, of course, is the complete life and teachings of Elder Paisios of blessed memory offered to an English audience for the first time. The book begins with the elder’s life in Farasa, located in Cappadocia – a territory of Turkey since the population exchange in 1923. It takes us through his childhood, military service, and into his monastic life in various communities and forms of monasticism (idiorrhythmic, cenobitic, and hermit life). Also included are numerous accounts by laypeople, monastics, and clerics of their personal encounters and conversations with the elder. These accounts are dispersed throughout the book – both in the biography as well as in the section on his teachings. Such stories give even more credence to what Hieromonk Isaac tells us about the spiritual life of the elder and his great influence on the faithful. They testify to the person of Elder Paisios as a true shepherd, one of few labourers in the midst of a great harvest (Luke 10:2).

This book offers a deep look into how to become a saint as this elder has done. Through great sacrifice, self-denial and complete, unfaltering dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ and His commandments, Elder Paisios acquired the Holy Spirit. He had a particular personality and a certain upbringing but this is not what made him a miracle-worker. The many stories and information that make up this book, although varied, all seem to testify to the same principle: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). Elder Paisios of Mount Athos loved Christ, kept His word, and so became a dwelling place of the Most High and this is the reason thousands of people flock to him even after death as they did during his life.

The line to venerate the elder's grave on a regular Sunday evening. (This was taken September 2011).

The line to venerate the elder’s grave on a regular Sunday evening after vespers. (This was taken September 2011 – you can see my husband, mother, brother and sister-in-law at the end of the line).

To offer a small taste of the treasures found in the person of Elder Paisios, as described in this book, I will share the following. This is from Part One: His Life, the section is entitled Obedience, pg. 356:

The elder underwent the most difficult trials in obedience when blindly obeying elder John [an older monk of the monastery], who… assigned him difficult jobs and strictly censured him, without the abbot’s knowledge. Father Paisios, as a good, obedient monk, endured all of this silently and with self-reproach. He never criticized elder John, not even in his thoughts, and he believed that everything that happened took place on account of his own sins… he gave thanks and prayed for elder John, because he had benefited him. ‘He beat me like an octopus,’ the elder recalled, ‘but he got the ink out of me’.” [Note: The traditional Greek method of removing ink from and tenderizing a freshly-killed octopus is to beat it against a rock.]

This passage portrays the long-suffering character of the elder, his good disposition, and his dedication to humble self-abasement, all of which are repeatedly seen in the elder’s words and actions throughout the book.

A minor critique of the book: A few of the statements and stories in Part Two (Themes) are repetitive. Although interesting, some information had already been shared in Part One. Now, of course we can always benefit from reading something twice, however, given the length of the book avoiding repeat material is a practical means of keeping readers engaged.

To buy this most worthwhile book see here. To watch a video of Fr. Peter Heers giving a lecture on the book go here.

Something to look forward to: a translation (with over-voice) of the DVD of Elder Paisios’ life is in the works. The Greek version displays all sorts of photos from the life of the elder and the places he has lived. It will be a great treasure for the English-speaking world, just as this book is.

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Today is the anniversary of the death of Blessed Fr. Cosmas of Grigoriou Monastery on Mt. Athos. He lived and worked for Christ in Zaire until his tragic death in 1989. May we have his prayers and blessing!

An excerpt from the Introduction to Apostle to Zaire: The Life and Legacy of Blessed Fr. Cosmas of Grigoriou (Source)

In every generation there are those few exceptional souls who rise out of the conventionality of social life to become pathfinders to the catholicity and otherworldliness of Christianity. Heroic and uncompromising, they imitate Abraham and become exiles and martyrs for Christ, following Him with loving exactness and mountain-moving faith. They “hate their life in this world” in order to keep it—and that of their neighbor’s—for eternity; and to successive generations they become models to imitate, witnessing, long after their departure, to the honour the Father bestows on those who serve Him.

Such a one was blessed Father Cosmas of Grigoriou, enlightener of Zaire.

A Model of Mission Work in this Age of Antichrist

From as early as eighteen years of age [Fr. Cosmas] received from God the call to work in His mission field. Possessed of a dynamic personality that “was inspired by a burning love for Christ, he did not want to live a conventional Christian life nor to be limited to some usual ecclesiastical career and service. He longed to offer himself entirely to God and his fellow man.” He sought not honors, for “his chief concern was with the salvation of men and the upbuilding of Orthodoxy in Zaire.” The beloved Cosmas was, in the words of the former Metropolitan Avgoustinos of Florina, “the trailblazer of a beautiful journey for our race.” He made Christ’s departing directive to “teach all nations” his point of departure from a life of compromise and port of entry for Orthodoxy in the sub-Saharan and the hearts of countless souls. Unlike the missionaries of heterodox confessions, he laid stress on both the first and second part of the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” His success, or rather faithfulness, in carrying out the first half of the Great Commission, was a direct result of his faithfulness and resolute determination to observe the second half, that is, to be exact in teaching them “to observe all things” that Christ has commanded us.

It could not be otherwise, for the African is neither as the contemporary European, worn out by centuries of dizzying ideologies and spent on a myriad of humanistic philosophies, nor as the typical American, quick to compromise and moderate things in order to achieve outward success. His noble, humble soul still inclines toward the other world and his simple, intuitive mind still has a healthy disposition for the noetic realm. A few months before his departure from this life, Father Cosmas visited the monastery of his repentance and spoke to the pilgrims there of this African nobility and their desire for authentic, ascetic Orthodoxy. Bishop Athanasios Yievtich, a close disciple of the great contemporary Church Father, Archimandrite Justin Popovich, was present and relates what Fr. Cosmas had to say:

They are people with a sensitivity and awareness of the inner world. Europeans usually underestimate them, but they are very mistaken. The soul of the African inclines toward mysticism and for this reason Orthodoxy has something to say to them and something to offer, but only authentic Orthodoxy— monastic, hagiorite Orthodoxy. For among the brethren of Africa, witchcraft and magic holds great sway, a real demonocracy. In Africa, I saw how true the Gospel of Christ is! Everything that He said about the possession of men by the demons, I saw first hand. However, the Living and True God is more powerful than Satan and all his servants. Let it be understood, however, that true missionary-apostolic work cannot be carried out in Africa if one does not decide to leave his bones there.”

And so in teaching the native Africans the entire Gospel of Christ and revealing to them the undistorted Image of the God-man and His Church, it was only to be expected that his self-offering would likewise be complete and unqualified. In his “unique, genuine and very useful” study on mission work, entitled Thoughts about Missionary Work from Experience, he lays out the cornerstone principle for all who would follow his example:

The missionary’s beginning is significant, however it is not the sum of the matter . . . The outset might be blessed or might become blessed at the end. What’s important is that the giving be true and total, without holding back, with a disposition to self-sacrifice and self-denial, and with the aim of leaving our bones among the natives . . .”

Fr. Cosmas’ grave. Located in Zaire, Africa.

Long before one leaves his bones on the mission field, however, he must have discarded his pride and vainglory first, if he wants the final offering to be fruitful. Thus, for Fr. Cosmas the true missionary, in order to attain the blessed end, must leave no room for jealousy or vainglory, but rather must understand all to be shared: “common the struggle, common the pain, and common the glory of the Church.” He must “offer an open heart, love and communicate with others, concern himself with his own problems without adding more, being attentive to what others are doing, without turning to the devil and causing division.” And carrying out his duty in humility, “the true missionary does not seek recognition for his work, neither from the natives nor from those abroad, for the testimony of his sound conscience and the witness of his spiritual father and co-workers is sufficient for him.”

About the Book

Apostle to Zaire is the story of the life and legacy of a man who was chosen by God from the young age of 18 to be the Enlightener of Zaire. In the first part of the book, we encounter the life, last days, letters and the writings of Fr. Cosmas–an Athonite ascetic, a modern model of mission, an apostle to the heart of Africa. In part two, we read accounts of miracles and the battle with magic, interventions of the Saints and conversions of sinners, missionary adventures and baptismal testimonies. This a unique biography of a contemporary missionary and a practical introduction to Orthodox mission work.

To read excerpts from the book featuring Fr. Cosmas’ letters, see here.

You can purchase the book through Amazon or from St. Anthony’s Monastery.

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Merry Christmas!

Just wanted to draw your attention to a new page on this blog: “Reviews of My Book” is a tab at the top of the page and it features excerpts from various customer reviews of The Scent of Holiness (which is currently out of stock on Amazon!), like this one:


Five-star rating and review by Dr. D. L. Whitman on Barnes and Noble’s website:

Regardless of the tradition of faith you may be a part of, The Scent of Holiness exudes a sweet fragrance worthy of contemplation. Spend some time with this book. I found it speaking of the Holy Spirit’s presence ever yet in the monastic orders. After reading this, you may want to visit a monastery near you and pray.”

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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Dedication in The Scent of Holiness

I have a request for all you Scent of Holiness readers. If any of you have accounts with Amazon and/or Goodreads, or even just your own blogs or websites, would you be so kind as to write a review for the book? Reviews not only help inquirers to have a better idea about the content and writing style found in The Scent of Holiness, it is also nice for the authour to read the thoughts and reactions of the reader. So far I’ve been surprised by which stories people have connected to. My personal favourites have differed than the ones others have written to tell me they like best.

I know most of you are shy and some don’t have the ability to comment on wordpress, but if you are willing I’d love to hear from you. I’m going to go out on a limb here and ask some discussion questions. I would love for this to open up a conversation about your thoughts and reactions to the book, and your own experiences at monasteries. Answer as many or as few as you wish.

1.Which story(ies) do you like best?

2. Which virtues – if any – do you find stand out the most in the monastic community you encounter in the book?

3. Was there any story in the book that challenged you: your thoughts, beliefs, feelings? How did you react initially, and ultimately were you changed by it?

4. Have you applied anything to your own life that you encountered in the pages of The Scent of Holiness, ie. praying the Akathist hymn regularly, saying the Jesus Prayer more often, wishing forgiveness of sins rather than “thanks”?

5. Were you surprised and/or inspired by any of the monastic practices described in the book?

My answers:

1. My favourite stories are: Great-Schema Nun Markella; He Shall Crush the Serpent’s Skull; Inherent Spirituality in an Orthodox Country; An Unexpected Prophecy; Taking a Spiritual Inventory; and probably my all-time favourite, Prophesy, O Son of Man, to These Dry Bones.

2. I guess I would say the greatest virtue I encountered in the sisters was endurance, on all levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. They just don’t give up. They keep going now matter what obstacles or difficulties present themselves. If they fall down, they get back up. If they are tired, they keep going.

3. As I describe in the book, I found it initially difficult to believe that someone could be harmed if someone else’s words or thoughts were not entirely pure. This is called the “evil eye” (the story has the same name). It is an ill will we exhibit toward someone knowingly or unknowingly. When our thoughts, words or feelings are mingled with envy, harm can and does come to those who are the object of our envy.  Although at first it was difficult for me to believe negativity could physically manifest itself, once I heard enough stories from those I know and trust, I was quite convinced that we need to be careful of our “secret sins” (Psalm 18:12).

mosaic4. I try as much as possible to say “Through your prayers” or “Through so-and-so’s prayers” when speaking about an accomplishment. When it’s not appropriate to say out loud I try to at least think it.

5. I was surprised by the way the sisters approach their spiritual lives with a healthy balance of hope and despair, if that makes sense. They often put themselves down, blaming themselves for things that go wrong, thinking they accomplish nothing, attributing all their success to the prayers of their spiritual father, abbess, patron saint, etc. But at the same time they seem to really believe with all their heart and soul in the great mercy of Christ, that He truly is made perfect in weakness. They seem to perpetually see their fragility but at the same time Christ’s goodness, His desire and willingness to forgive sinners. And so this comes across as a perfect balance between knowing that we are not yet saved, since tomorrow we could deny Christ, but also believing fully that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” and He can and will save those who are called “according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Okay, discuss!

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