Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

fr danielby Rev Dr John Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Few Good Books

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

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

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

May we have the Elder’s blessing!

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

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

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

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

This book is currently being translated into English.

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot recommend this book enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been reading?

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


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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