Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Although as Christians we know that the aim of this life is preparation for the next, and although we go to great extents to plan weddings, showers, baptisms, and birthday parties, we are reluctant to plan – or even speak at length – about our burials, let alone death itself.  Deacon Mark and Matushka Elizabeth Barna’s A Christian Ending eases its reader into an important conversation concerning Christian death and burial.

The book is split into two parts, what I would call a theoretical part and a practical part. The first five chapters make up part one and consist of a discussion on different burial customs – both ancient and modern – as well as the Christian view of death and the body. The remaining eight chapters make up part two and involve a detailed description of the how and why of natural, or “ancient”, burial, as well as the necessary forms and prayers. Both parts are equally full of well-researched information on a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of burial. From information about the importance of avoiding embalming, “it is imperative that the funeral director be informed immediately, preferably in writing, that the body is not to be embalmed. Standard Operating Procedure is to embalm” (p. 60) to traditionally worn headbands on the deceased, “another tradition is a headband bearing an inscription based on the thrice holy hymn… ‘Holy God, Holy Might, Holy Immortal’” (p. 78), the book is full of interesting and helpful facts.

The text as a whole is uncomplicated; the instructions are clear and concise. The reader is given a good understanding of the method and work entailed in natural burial. It explains what exactly to expect when considering taking on such a task. It is a true handbook, an indispensable resource to have at one’s side during the burial process. While I found the book as a whole quite interesting, I found the description of how exactly to prepare the body very interesting. A Christian Ending makes a strong case for the need for such customs to be introduced to our North American Orthodox culture.

Yet, at the same time, natural burial does not come across as a light and easy task. In fact, the book reveals this type of burial to be more intense than perhaps one would initially think. The Barnas are right to stress the need for multiple volunteers; it is not something one can accomplish alone. It is a wonderful (and necessary) act of love to offer our community, and I would like to believe that this book will encourage many Orthodox parishes to rise to the occasion when those in our Orthodox family need help with the last of life’s important transitions.

The most impressive aspect of A Christian Ending, more impressive than the vast amount of reading and research that went into writing the handbook, is the great reverence with which death and the body are treated. The piety with which they write about such things never comes across as contrived, rather as something completely natural. The same can be said of the many poetic yet very real descriptions of death, “We know that the dissolution of the corpse is not the end of the body but the end of corruption. The seed in the ground has dissolved and is the beginning of the future harvest” (p. 93).

A Christian Ending is filled with practical advice for how to handle, clean, anoint, and dress the body, but it also offers a fair bit of insight into how we ought to approach death, the grieving family, and how we can help the deceased person’s eternal soul: “A proper memorial for the dead, besides our own amended and virtuous life, would be alms to the poor or in an anonymous gift to the church. Perhaps one of the best memorials to all those who have gone before and all of us yet here, is to redeem the time, to practice virtue and recapture our own tradition; the act of mercy, the preparation and burial of the dead” (p. 95). In short, A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition is a necessary book for all those who desire to help revive this respectful, Christian manner of burial.

To purchase your copy go here.

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I’m pleased to inform you that Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville has copies of The Saint of the Prisons: Notes on the Life of Valeriu Gafencu by Monk Moses in their bookstore and they are available for purchase here on their online bookstore. I have written about Blessed Valeriu – in my opinion, St. Valeriu – in the past, and shared excerpts from this book. You can read those excerpts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

“I have no doubt that he is a saint. He lived the word of God to such a level that it was incomprehensible for us,” wrote Father George Calciu about his fellow countryman and co-sufferer at the hands of communist oppression, Valeriu Gafencu.


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(Byzantine Texas conducted the following interview)

What prompted you to write this book?

A couple years ago a few monasteries caught on fire. They were separate incidents but all happened around the same time. I saw videos on the internet of one of the fires at a monastery my husband and I had visited and the images of the poor monastics crying and praying and making the sign of the cross while watching their monastery burn was what prompted me to write the book. I started thinking about how horrible it would be if for some reason the monasteries I frequently visit here in Greece were destroyed.

At first I just thought I’d compile all the wonderful experiences I had for myself. So I began making a list of the various stories and anecdotes I wanted to include, and the sheer size of the list was enough to prompt the idea of publication. I made a joke to my brother about publishing them as a collection in a book and he matter-of-factly said, “Of course you should publish them.” So that is how it began. The more I wrote, the more came to mind and the book is now made up of over 100 stories and has grown to almost 300 hundred pages in length.

There’s an idea of “women’s spirituality” presented in the book. Could you explain that a bit?

Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that women have one type of spirituality, and men another. Rather a woman’s approach to spirituality may differ slightly from a man’s approach, and so the environment of a women’s monastery will mirror this.

The best way I can explain this is to share, as I do in the Introduction to my book, what an abbess once told me about the difference between men and women: “Men try to cut the rope with an axe in one blow, while women slowly work away at severing it. In other words, men usually try to cut off their passions with violence right from the beginning, while women try to fight their passions consistently, but gradually.” The approach is different, not the resulting spirituality.

An abbot rules as a father does, an abbess as a mother would. It’s difficult to put into words how exactly mothers differ from fathers, and yet we seem to have a common understanding of this difference. Of course, there are abbots who are more like nurturing mothers, and abbesses who are more like strict fathers. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a generality. And so, women’s monasticism isn’t a condescension of men’s monasticism, rather it simply reflects the natural characteristics which typically pertain to women.

What sort of material makes up this book? Is it a series of stories? Are the chapters separated by concept or chronologically?

The chapters are neither separated by concept nor chronologically. The chapters are separated into 33 “Knots” to symbolize the 33 knots of the small prayer rope worn on one’s wrist. Within each Knot there are a series of 2-4 vignettes. So, while most stories are independent from those around it, there is a common thread. This way the ebb and flow of the everyday life in a monastery is represented and there is a natural balance, intertwining the more serious spiritual stories with humorous, light-hearted ones.

Though the following categories are not clearly stated in the book, the stories reflect these five themes (some of which overlap, of course):

  1. Personally meaningful and memorable experiences
  2. Examples of monastic life, mindset, work and prayer
  3. Spiritual stories told to me by the sisters or fellow pilgrims
  4. Encounters with contemporary saints and short biographies
  5. Stories of humorous cultural and/or language barriers

Ultimately the book is reminiscent of a Gerontikon in that it is made up of a variety of stories. The main differences being that a Gerontikon is almost always ordered according to theme, and written by a monastic (generally) for monastics. While The Scent of Holiness is written from my perspective as a layperson looking in on monasticism and hoping to take what I see there and apply it to my life in the world.

Could you speak to how different monasticism is in Greece than it is in the US or Canada?

The biggest difference between monasticism in Greece and monasticism in the US or Canada is that monasticism has existed in Greece for some 1,500 years. Thus, the monastic mindset and way of life is firmly established. While in North America monasticism is still relatively young.

This does not mean that there are no monasteries in North America that embody the true monastic spirit. On the contrary, there are quite a few, considering how large North America is. But it does mean that there are more anomalies in the US and Canada than there may be in an Orthodox country. However, this shouldn’t spoil our view of Orthodox monasticism in general.

While my younger sister was staying at a monastery for a few months some years ago the abbess shared something with her that I think we can apply to Orthodox monasteries at large: “If you see something in a monastery, someone who talks or acts differently than the other sisters, know that that is not monasticism. What the sisters do and say in common is monasticism, not what comes from one individual.” If a particular monastery does not reflect Orthodox monasticism worldwide, then it is not monasticism.

Orthodox monasteries, despite differences in language, habit, work, or typikon, share certain universal qualities: obedience, chastity, and poverty – to name a few. On top of those basic precepts, there is a monastic spirit that permeates monasteries that is perceivable even when one monastery seems to differ entirely in outward ways from another. That is, provided the community upholds the above mentioned qualities of monasticism. If the community is healthy, if it keeps the fasts of the Church, struggles to uphold Christ’s commandments, and adheres to a regime of prayer than it will flourish over time, even if the country it is in is entirely secular or at very least non-Orthodox.

What we need to do is pray for our monastics in the US and Canada, pray that they maintain the spirit of authentic monasticism, and that God would grant them the strength to allow Christ to work through them, through their prayers for the world. Over time Christ will grant our request, so long as we keep knocking at the door. Then North America can become the second Egyptian desert, or the second Irish islands (both of which are famous for their monasticism).
Is there anything that surprised you about Greek women’s monasteries when you first visited them or that might be surprising to an American visitor?

For me, some things came across as superstitious or over-the-top, while at other times it was (and still is to an extent) difficult for me to not be personally offended by the sisters’ bluntness in the way they may speak. Very few of the stories in my book reflect this conflict, but I do make a point to mention negative experiences in my Introduction. It is easy for us – whether because of our own sins and passions, or external factors – to be scandalized, offended, embittered, etc, while visiting monasteries. This is for a variety of reasons, most notably that a monastery is a spiritual battleground and therefore we’re not immune to being pulled into the fight (ie. tempted) while we are there.

But, if we are even a little bit aware of our ego, if we try to check it at the door, then we will be able to receive a lot of benefit. Things may surprise or even scandalize us at a monastery, but so long as we at least try to approach the situation with an appropriate mindset, ie. with thoughts like “I don’t know everything,” and “I may not understand or like something the first time I encounter it, but it doesn’t make it wrong,” then we can come out better for having had the experience. At least that’s how I see it. My advice to others who want to visit monasteries is don’t be surprised if things surprise you. Just try not to judge (since we’re almost always at fault when we pass judgement); try to keep an open heart and a humble mindset.

Many so-called “cradle” Orthodox in North America have never visited a monastery and at the same time new coverts often find their way to monasteries quite early in their journey into Orthodoxy. A. What do you think it is that calls people new to the Faith to our monasteries B. and at the same time why do many of our faithful experience little of the Church beyond their own parish? C. What are people seeking when they visit and what should they be seeking after when they enter the confines of our monastic communities? 

A. I don’t believe in distinguishing Orthodox Christians into convert and cradle groups. I think all those drawn to monasticism are drawn because monasticism is the heart of Orthodoxy. St. John Climacus says, “Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world”. St. Synclektike says monastics are the seeds which fell on good ground and brought forth fruit “one-hundred fold”. And so, it’s only naturally that serious Orthodox Christians – full of zeal to live Christianity to the best of their ability – seek out those whose lifestyles most emulate the Gospel precepts.

B. As for those who have not and do not visit monasteries (putting aside the possibility that some are unable to travel to one), there is a minority of people who have an anti-monastic spirit and do not believe in the role of monasticism, despite our Church’s long history showing monasticism as the core of our faith. But I think for most who do not visit monasteries, it is simply that they either know little of the great role Orthodox monasticism has in our faith, or they are lukewarm and do not desire to grow beyond their current spiritual level.

It is easy for us to become complacent, and we also often don’t like change. And so, “I never went to a monastery before, why should I start now?” is a common, if unfortunate, mindset. But when people begin looking deeper into their faith, when they begin to have many difficulties in their lives, they often turn to monasteries for comfort and support, and this is a wonderful thing.

C. I don’t claim to know why everyone visits monasteries. However, I know some visit out of curiosity; others naively think that they are going to a place that houses passionless saints, while still others go seeking advice. In my opinion, those who continually visit monasteries have an earnest desire to deepen their spiritual lives, and to learn how exactly to uphold the commandments. Visiting monasteries won’t necessarily make us holy, but it certainly helps us on the long and difficult path to holiness.

St. Arsenios’ Monastery, Halkidiki

Monasteries, even those established by the same founder, vary in schedules, liturgical practices, strictness to rules on demeanor, dress, and talking. Beyond the basic rules of modest dress and general comportment, things are done that might be confusing to a visitor. As examples: Before departing from a morning service each monk might bow in multiple directions. During the Divine Liturgy monks might prostrate themselves unexpectedly on the ground. On some days no of them will come up for Communion. Should a visitor try to mimic their practices? Is there an expectation of any sort about things like that?

I can only speak about my experiences at Greek monasteries, what I say may not apply to other monasteries. In my experience, Greeks have no expectations of pilgrims or parishioners, in terms of the above. You know, whether you make three prostrations, one, or none, that kind of thing.

When you see a whole monastic community not receiving Holy Communion, it is because in some traditions, or under some spiritual fathers, the faithful keep a lenten fast the day before communing. So, if the monastics didn’t fast (and they usually follow a schedule of when they fast for Holy Communion, and when they don’t), then they won’t approach the chalice. But if we (as visitors) have a blessing from our spiritual father to commune, as long as we follow our personal rules, we should commune as often as we can whether or not others are communing.

I can almost guarantee that other than following the basic rules the monastic community has laid out, monastics do not expect visitors to mimic their actions. If a pilgrim wants to follow the monastics and do what they are doing (ie. prostrating during services), by all means they should. We just need to be careful not to hasten to do things out of a desire to appear pious; but equally, neither should we hesitate to do something for fear of being judged by others for looking pious. And we can always ask the monks or nuns why they do certain things and when or if it is appropriate for us to follow suit.

Have you spoken to many of the nuns about how they were called to enter the monastery? How did they express hearing the call?

I try not to make a habit of asking monastics many personal questions. However, the ones who have told me about being called to monasticism have all expressed one thing in common: they all felt they couldn’t do anything else. Some knew from childhood that they wanted to be nuns. Others never had the thought cross their minds until they visited a monastery and couldn’t bring themselves to leave. Still others played with the idea of marriage or monasticism until suddenly they just knew they should be a monastic.

A friend of mine had a dream that she was a nun and the next day ran to her spiritual father crying and saying she didn’t want to become a nun. She’s been a nun for about fifteen years now. Despite her strong will to resist monasticism, she surrendered because she knew that was the right fit for her.

Another friend of mine told me that while speaking with a nun she confided she was thinking about getting married, but then also thought she wanted to be a nun. The nun cut her off and said: “Get married. The monastic life is far too hard if you are not entirely certain that this is what you want to do.”

At the end of the day, all the nuns I know, at some time or other, felt they weren’t able to do anything else but become a monastic. Then of course, you become a monastic and dry spells come and go and at times you may feel like fleeing… but that’s another story.

What are your hopes for this book? What do you hope people take away from the experience of reading it?

I hope that people are inspired by reading the book, that they are filled with zeal to take aspects from the stories and discreetly apply them to their own lives in the world. My whole purpose in compiling the stories and having them published was to share with others the great blessings I received from visiting monasteries. If only one person benefits from reading the book than I will have considered my one “talent” to have at least collected interest for the Master (Matt. 25:27).

Thanks for being so generous with your time by answering all these questions. I look forward to reading it when it comes out next month!

Thank you for being so kind to conduct the interview and come up with such interesting questions! I hope you like the book.

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1. Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios by Elder Porphyrios

What can I say about a book that so completely transformed my mindset? I bought this book in Toronto during a seven hour stop over my husband and I had on our way to Seoul, South Korea in 2006. The flight from Toronto to Japan was something like seventeen hours. I didn’t sleep at all. I just read this book. This book is a prime example of how much one can learn from a saint’s intense devotion to Christ. The Elder’s simple but wise words and stories, his own simple manner and lifestyle transform the reader’s mindset toward hardships, illnesses, relationships, and all things in between. By reading this book I think I caught a glimpse of what it really means to be “wounded” by His love.

2. Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Joseph

In his Confessions St. Augustine says, “Late have I loved You, Beauty so ancient and so new,”  and I came to understand just how late I had come to loving the True Christ through reading this book. I received it as a Christmas gift in 2005. This book, or rather the words of this elder, are the reason I became Orthodox. I had wanted to be Orthodox for a while before reading this, but once I read it I could no longer deny what my heart was so strongly yearning for. The height of the Elder’s intense love conveyed in his letters is only matched by the strictness with which he dealt with himself and his synodia; knowing his reputation for extreme austerity lends a hint at his great love.

3. The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos compiled and edited by Holy Apostles Convent

I always say this is my favourite book and I think that is because I love the subject matter so much – the Mother of our God. This book is a composition of various writings by the Holy Fathers on the Mother of God, the information – edited so as to read in chronological order – is taken from the hymnography of the Church, treaties, homilies, and other sources. I bought it Pascha, 2006. It’s a whole life of the Theotokos, beginning from before she was born and ending with the story of how Mount Athos came to be known as her “garden”. For anyone wanting to know more about our beloved Mother, or anyone who knows most of her biography but would just love to occupy their thoughts and time with stories of her, this is for you.

4. The Purple Mantle by Aliki Kafetzopoulou

Although I’m in the process of re-reading this book in the hopes of writing a proper book review, I must include it here as I found it one of the greatest books for being able to completely capture your senses and draw you into a time and place very far away from our modern world. It also kindles a fire in your heart for struggling harder to love Christ more than mother, father, husband, etc. Truly, we are not worthy of Him if we are not willing to give up everything and everyone for His sake. This book brings this difficult teaching to life and presents it in such a way that it inspires you to strive for that goal, rather than feel discouraged you haven’t yet reached it.

5. Abbess Thaisia of Leushino: An Autobiography of a Spiritual Daughter of St. John of Kronstadt by Abbess Thaisia

I read this last summer while we were home in Canada. The sisters lent me their monastery’s library copy. The book offers a realistic insight into the unseemly state of certain aspects of Russian monasticism at that time in history, but also an incredible, intimate look at the life of a great female saint of our century. Abbess Thaisia describes miraculous events in her life, beginning at an early age, offering us a foundation for understanding just how high this saint’s spirituality soared. Her advice to her nuns to remain humble and simple, and all the other wonderful things she taught and wrote, are just as applicable to the layman’s life in our modern world as they were to the nun’s life in nineteenth century Russia.

6. Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters by Elder Paisios the Athonite

This book is a wonderful collection of stories about different holy fathers Elder Paisios the Athonite either knew personally or heard of who lived and struggled in the “Garden of the Panagia,” Mount Athos. Most stories are incredibly inspiring, while some offer firm warnings on the dangers of delusion and disobedience. This is the book I hope my book, The Scent of Holiness, resembles most. Although my book is told from my worldly perspective, I would like to believe the quality of stories, the lessons and holy individuals I describe, will be at least one tenth as inspiring as the Elder’s stories are in this book.

I love reading about what books others like to read almost as much as I love reading books. So, I’d love to hear your favourites.

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The author of Basil’s Search for Miracles, pens yet another interesting middle grade novel. This time Zydek’s novel focuses on a wider circle of friends all trying to cope with various personal problems, as well as their common enemies: the means girls from school. I found the storyline fascinating, it drew me in, and I waited with anticipation each week for Chrissy Hart’s next installment. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed by the anticlimactic ending.

The story is told through the voice of 12 year old Gaia. She spends her summer seeking a glimpse of what she believes to be her only connection to her deceased mother, a lunar moth. Her circle of friends (and enemies for that matter) make up some interesting characters, all of which represent the varying types of family situations modern America is filled with. Their goal of the summer is to spend time together at their tree house and plot to take revenge on their common enemies “the Emmas”. They encounter a stranger in the woods, who happens to hold the key to the perfect revenge against their enemies, but things don’t work out the way they are expected to. In the end, we are led to believe that this mysterious person helps Gaia far more than she could anticipate.

Throughout the book Zydek successfully weaves an interesting story with strong, realistic characters. She does a great job with imagery, illustrating her obvious talent for writing. Her strength lays in representing the difficulties of youth and the emotions and confusion that surround those difficulties. She constructs a great character-driven plot. Some of the minor literary flaws, however, occur when Zydek breaks the narrative voice at some points and “tells” instead of “shows”.

Although I was quite captivated by the storyline and really enjoyed Zydek’s characters, I was left wanting to know more about everyone in the story. The storyline is promising, but it seems to fizzle out by the end. There is a bit too much repetition which filled up space that could have been used to describe action. I happened to like the addition of information about insects. However, more often than not this also seemed to take the place of describing action.

In a great twist, we see that Gaia’s issues are resolved, but I felt that, besides Gaia, none of the other children developed or even seemed to benefit from the events of their summer. Moreover, I felt that the way the stranger exits the story did not provide enough closure for the characters influenced by her. I was also disappointed that we only hear what happens to the characters as an epilogue, and not direct action. Again, this element of “telling” instead of “showing” left a lot to be desired.

I think some of the flawed elements in the novel could have easily been corrected, and the good aspects could have been strengthened to make a near flawless story. More attention to the ending of the novel, and describing action throughout, could have yielded a better version of a promising Stranger Moon.

I encourage you all to read it (or listen to it) and see for yourselves.

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This is a photo I took in 2011. It is Elder Porphyrios' bed, in his own cell at Holy Transfiguration women's monastery in Athens, where he was the spiritual father.

Christ is Risen!

Speaking on the monastic life, Elder Porphyrios said: “For a monk to live [the monastic] life properly… he needs to have a monastic consciousness. He gains the consciousness by turning with all his being towards God and towards the aim he has set himself. He lives in silence, with prayer of the heart, with asceticism and in obedience. He must die to everything in order to live in Christ. He wakes up full of zeal, completes his rule of prayer and runs eagerly to the church services ad to his various duties. He has one object alone in mind – how to be pleasing to God, how to serve God and how to become an occasion for God’s name to be glorified” (pg. 158).

Now, despite the fact that the Elder is speaking about monastics we should not think this description excludes us in the world. We should struggle to be just as zealous, just as prayerful, just as silent (to the extent that we are able) as the monk or nun does. God doesn’t judge the quantity of our struggle, but the quality. And He certainly is not a “respecter of persons”. God wants the layperson to live for Him just as much, and just as purposefully as He wants the monk and nun to.

Only two pages after the above passage the Elder says: “In the eyes of God, the married and the unmarried person are the same, provided they live in accordance with the commandments of God and provided they live the life of God. Chastity, lack of possessions and poverty, which at the virtues of the monk, are to be found in a person’s heart… Someone may own a dozen houses and yet in his soul be liberated from material things and live like someone who owns nothing. On the other hand, someone may be poor in an external sense, but not be free of possessions internally. It is not the quantity of possessions that makes someone propertied or unpropertied, but the attachment of the heart” (pg. 160).

I firmly believe the Elder when he says there is no difference between monk and layman (except perhaps in the intensity level of one’s struggle). And so, I wrote a collection of stories from my experiences among those who strive to “become an occasion for God’s name to be glorified” that in reflecting on all they have taught me, I might imitate them.

Orthodox nuns holding talatons. A talaton is hit with a pallet to the beat of a rhythm, calling all to prayer.(Photo by Nektarios, used with permission)

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(i·co·nol·o·gy- n. The branch of art history that deals with the description, analysis, and interpretation of icons or iconic representations.)

You can read Part I here. Part II is here.

Iconography Trivia: Persons depicted in holy icons are neither depicted straight on, for they are not portraits, nor in profile, for that indicates they are not in communion with the onlooker. Animals, however, are often depicted in profile, as in this icon.

The icons of the Church express the reality of salvation. As educational tools they serve the faithful in the direction of the work of salvation, through the interpretation which they provide regarding the content of the faith and the life of the Church. By seeing the icons, the believers are able to keep continually in mind the prototypes who are depicted. Within the perspective of the memory of the Church, iconography express the union of the heavenly with the earthly Church. The iconographic depiction of Christ and of the saints is anthropologically based and has as its cause the intense love of the faithful towards the depicted persons. The love inspires the believers to increase their zeal for the faith, and to imitate the acts of the depicted prototypes.

Icons also serve as a means of sanctification within the Church, since the presence of the grace of the Holy Spirit is not restricted merely to the depicted prototypes, but extends also to their iconographic representations. The faithful partake of this grace when they view and venerate the icons. The faithful partake of this grace when they view and venerate icons. In the icons, the faithful encounter the expression of the completion of the human person, which is composed of the unconfused union of human nature with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the miracles which occur by means of icons confirm not only the relationship of the icons with their prototypes as well as the personal relationship of the faithful with those who are depicted, but also reveal the grace of God which is found in the icons and which acts through them.

If we were to summarize the most important points of the dogmatic teaching about the Church about the icon and its anthropological significance, we would conclude that the theology of the “artificial” icons is not in any way autonomous or independent – it is not separated, that is, from the rest of the theological teaching of the Church. Rather, it is based on the triadological significance of the icon and on its relationship with its prototype within the Holy Trinity. Thus, it would be possible to say that the “artificial” icon within the Orthodox Church is an image of man renewed “according to the image”, just as, by analogy, man renewed “according to the image” is an image of the natural icon of God the Father – the Divine Word. It is exactly this successive connection of the “artificial” icon with its prototype within the Trinity, but also provides the theological basis for the expression of this relationship of the renewal within the Church. Finally, we might say that the theological basis of the dogmatic teaching about the “artificial” icon is not only anthropological and christological, but also triadological. And it was exactly this truth which the Iconoclasts could not understand.

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Iconography Trivia: Although in the presence of an Archangel this icon depicts the Virgin Mary in a seated position. Naturally one would stand (or prostrate) in the presence of an angel, but this illustrates for us that she is "more honourable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim".

Today we celebrate the awe-inspiring and entirely life-altering Incarnation of God the Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Next to Pascha proper, it is my favorite ecclesiastical feast day; it has been since I was a teenager. The reason why I say “Pascha proper” is because the feast of the Annunciation is considered to be like a second Pascha. The greatest celebration of the feast of the Annunciation would be for it to fall on Pascha itself, in which case it is called Kyriopascha, Great Pascha.

An interesting aspect of the feast of the Annunciation: although we commemorate the taking on of flesh by God the Word, the feast is not named after Him. Instead it is named in honour of the good news the Archangel Gabriel proclaimed to the young maiden, Mariam (as she was called). In her humble obedience she accepted the charge to carry within her, raise, and watch die, God Almighty.

The whole history of the Jewish nation was a preparation for this divine moment. The Jews lived such strict, pure lives (think Deuteronomy: a man can’t sit on the same couch as a woman during her menstrual cycle because she is unclean… etc.) in order to prepare for the birth of the Virgin Mary. The purity of the Virgin Mary was not disconnected to her ancestors who, although not always successful, adhered to very strict rules concerning purity of faith, action, and worship. And so two very righteous people, Sts. Joachim and Anna, who were also molded by the faithfulness of their ancestors, gave birth to a very pure child.

Tradition tells us this child lived in a very protected and pure environment while still in the home of her parents. She lived in an even purer environment in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple from the age of three on. She was accustomed to seeing, speaking with, and even being fed by angels. If I’m not mistaken, the Archangel Gabriel himself was the one who brought her food while she lived in the Temple.

And so, while at her home in Nazareth, the Virgin Mary was not surprised by the presence of the Archangel, but rather by his salutation, “Hail, thou who art full of grace…” for she was not accustomed to hearing such a greeting. And so the angel tells her, “Fear not…” not because she feared him, but rather his words. Then he tells her she shall bring forth a son. At this she questions him, asking how that will happen since she, “knows not a man”.

Here, we ought to mention that the Fathers point out that she was not doubting the possibility of bearing a child, but rather asked how she would bear a child when she had previously vowed never to marry. So her question is as if to say, “How will this happen since I vowed to remain a virgin?”  St. Zachariah, however, was punished for questioning the angel because, unlike the Virgin Mary, he did doubt the power of God.  On hearing that it will be a divine conception, she accepts, saying: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word,” thus bringing about the beginning of our salvation!

(Listen to a beautiful rendition of the Virgin Mary’s magnificant here: Magnificant)

If I was a great poet I would write rimes of hymns in honour of this day, in honour of the Mother of God, from whom we can learn so much, to whom we should continually supplicate, and with whom we can magnify her Son and our God by emulating her humility, her obedience, and her purity.

May we celebrate this secondary “feast of feasts” with joy and thanksgiving! Many years to all the Evangelis, Evangelias, and Mariams who celebrate their name’s days today.

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. Tradition teaches that she was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. It is my favorite icon of Panagia.

Today is the beginning of our salvation,

And the revelation of the eternal mystery!

The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin

As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.

Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:

“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”

(To read more about the life of the All-Holy Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary,  and to find sources for the above information – most of which I wrote from memory, since I don’t have the book with me – order a copy of the Holy Apostle’s Convent’s The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. It is hands-down the greatest compilation of the Fathers of the Church on the life of the Theotokos, and my all-time favorite book. Read a review of the book by Fr. Alexy (now Ambrose) Young here.) 

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(i·co·nol·o·gy- n. The branch of art history that deals with the description, analysis, and interpretation of icons or iconic representations.)

You can read Part I here.

Iconography Trivia: Notice that both Adam and Eve are depicted with azure-blue sleeves only on the arms that are being pulled upward by Christ. This is to illustrate that through Christ we are brought into transcendency.

Professor Demetrios Tselingidis

The Church’s iconography has theological presuppositions. It is a means and instrument for the expression of its dogma and spiritual experience; because it summarizes Orthodox beliefs and the life of the Church, it constitutes the expression par excellence of Orthodoxy. The icons of the Orthodox Church are symbols (symbola) with the meaning that they contribute (symballoun) to the understanding of the reality which they express. As “symbols of Faith”, they de-objectify the faith and thus contribute to the preservation of its transcendental character.

The iconography of Christ is founded on the reality of the Incarnation. Thus, the icon of Christ verifies and proclaims his becoming a human being. Christ is represented hypostatically; that is, his human body is not depicted separately from the hypostasis of the Divine Word which is united with it. By representing Christ as He appeared after the Resurrection, the Church verifies that His human nature did not thereby become uncreated, but remained within the bounds of creation. The visible character of Christ in His icon leads the faithful to the experience of the presence of His unseen Divinity.

The portrayal of Christ in icons provides the Christological foundation for the iconographic depiction of the saints. Through the icons of the saints, the truth of the Church about man and his salvation is imparted, the new man in Christ is made manifest, and saving work of Jesus Christ is verified empirically to those persons who remain living members of His sacramental Body.

The Church rejects the iconoclastic belief that the relationship of the faithful with God is exclusively spiritual-intellectual (noetic). The whole of its teaching about the icons is connected with the Incarnation, which imparts worth to the entire human being, in both his sensible and spiritual aspects. Within the Church its icons reflect the psychosomatic unity of the human person, makes its glorified members present to our senses, and lead the faithful through familiarization with the depicted prototypes to the adoption of their sanctified way of life.

To be continued…

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(i·co·nol·o·gy- n. The branch of art history that deals with the description, analysis, and interpretation of icons or iconic representations.)

Iconography Trivia: the oval that surrounds Christ is painted with dark colours in order to represent the "Divine darkness" as explained by St. Dionysius the Areopagite in his work Mystical Theology.

Below is the English summary of the book Εικονολογικές Μελέτες (Iconological Works). It was written by my thesis adviser, Professor Demetrios Tselingidis, professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The following English summary is included in the book, which was his PhD dissertation. This is the first post in a series of three. After reading it you will see just how blessed I am to study the theology of icons, the presuppositions of the iconographer in particular, with such a wise professor.

And now, without further ado…

The Church’s theology of the icon, or holy image, and its antropological significance was developed by the Fathers within the context of the struggle of the Church against the Iconoclasts.

According to this theology the knowledge of the Trinitarian God is granted to the faithful through the revelation first by the Holy Spirit of the divinity of Christ, because the Holy Spirit is the natural image of the Divine Word; the Divine Word, in turn, makes known God the Father, because He is the Father’s natural image. The theology of the natural image best expresses the dogma that the persons of the Holy Trinity are of the same essence (homoousion) and makes clear the way in which they are successively known.

Professor D. Tselingidis

That which is represented in an “artificial” (ie. created or man-made) or in a “natural” (ie. innertrinitarion) image is not the nature but the hypostasis (person) of the original. The referral of the image to the prototype constitutes the basis for understanding the enter doctrinal teaching of the Church about icons. Without such a relationship, the icon would take on a life of its own, and become an object of idolatry. Such an event would signify an essential distortion of the Orthodox faith. Through an “artificial” image, the invisible prototype becomes tangibly present; the worshiper “sees” the original with his spiritually-transformed eyes.

Man as a an “artificial” and created icon of the Trinitarian God constitutes a living and animate reality, which has the ability to communicate directly and personally with its prototype. The concept of the creation of man “according to the image” is the basis of the Church’s anthropological teachings, which are also connected to Christology. Through the renewal in Christ of that image, man can once again begin to move or act within the original potential of his creation “according to the image”. This motion consists of an unceasing referral to his prototype, and leads to his gaining the likeness of the original as well. This renewal of the image forms the basic content of Orthodox iconography.

To be continued…

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