Friday, February 27, 2009

Four Great Books (Part One)

Like most Orthodox Christians that I know, I read quite a few books each year--though not as many as some folks, and certainly not as many as I would like. I am very picky about what I read, and because of this I normally only read books that are recommended as must-reads by others whose judgments I trust. Sometimes I will also read books that no one has recommended to me, but which are written by authors whom I know to be good.

In spite of my selectivity, I still find that many of the books I read are just so-so, at least for me. This is why I am always so delighted to find a really wonderful book. Recently, I have found four such books, and I wanted to plug them for you. I wholeheartedly recommend each of these to you, and I believe that you will be blessed by reading them.

1. Way of the Ascetics, by Tito Colliander. Colliander was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a devout Orthodox family. When the Russian revolution broke out, his family fled to Finland (Tito was a young boy a the time). Colliander grew up in a Swedish-speaking region of Finland, and he made his living as a writer, with several novels published. Way of the Ascetics was his only major work on spirituality, and IMHO, he hit a home run in his first at bat!

In Way, Colliander gives a concise but powerful summary of the teachings of the great ascetical Fathers of the Church, from St. Anthony all the way down to the great nineteenth century Fathers. The chapters are short and the prose muscular. In fact, Way is the best brief summary of Orthodox spirituality that I have yet read.

In the adult Sunday School class that I teach at St. Joseph's, we will be studying this gem during Lent. I plan to publish daily (or near-daily) excerpts from the book, along with a few of my own comments. I guarantee that you will enjoy and profit from them. (If not, I'll refund all the money that you have spent on reading this blog!)

2. The Mountain of Silence, by Kyricos Markides. Markides, a sociology professor at the University of Maine, grew up in Cyprus as part of a devout Orthodox family. After moving to the United States to pursue his university studies, however, he gradually lost interest in the Church and its teachings. While a graduate student, Markides began to explore Transcendental Meditation and other types of non-Christian Eastern mysticism.

Several years later, after he had become a professor, Markides began to work on a writing project about international terrorism. His research took him to his home country of Cyprus. While there, he met a quasi-Christian shamanistic healer, with whom he became fascinated. Markides decided to write about the healer rather than terrorism. Later, a practicing Orthodox friend suggested that if he wanted to learn about true spirituality, he should go with him to Mount Athos. Markides accepted the challenge.

While at Mt. Athos, Markides met a young elder named Father Maximos. Fr. Maximos introduced him to the Athonite spiritual tradition, and Markides’ life was changed. Soon afterward, Fr. Maximos was sent to Cyprus, to renew a dying monastery there. Over the next few years, Markides visited Fr. Maximos several times, sitting at his feet and learning the essentials of Orthodox spirituality. He returned wholeheartedly to the Church and became a new man.

The Mountain of Silence
is the story of Markides’ visits with Fr. Maximos (now a bishop in the Church of Cyprus), and what he learned from them. The majority of the book is a recounting of Fr. Maximos taught Markides, in a question-and-answer form. Also included are vivid descriptions of Cypus and Mt. Athos, and just enough historical background to provide some context. Like Way of the Ascetics, The Mountain of Silence provides an excellent and very readable summary of the spiritual teaching of the ascetical Church Fathers. It is probably the easiest-to-read book on the subject that I am aware of.

The only downside to the book is Markides’ incessant comparisons of Orthodox monastic teachings and practices to those of Buddhism and Hinduism. However, these only take up a small amount of total space, and they are easily skipped over (unless you find them interesting, in which case they may be helpful for you).

The Mountain of Silence is a book I can see myself reading over and over again.

Tomorrow, I’ll review the other two books.


Katrina said...

The Mountain of Silence was one of the books I read as I came back to Orthodoxy.

I could not believe my eyes when I got to the chapter on logismoi. I distinctly remember thinking "Dear God, there is a name for this nightmare! Glory to God there is help for them!"

This book is one of those books that I lend out and never get back.

J. Rohrmann said...

I read this book several years ago, when I was a brand new Orthodox Christian. I was furious, as the first 200 pages dealt with the author's various New Age meanderings. Having been heavily involved in the New Age Movement myself for 16 years, I wanted no part of it. I wanted the true meaning of Christianity and did not find it here. I felt I had been duped by the Orthodox publisher that sold me the book. As a result I do not want to read any more of Markides' works. They have no significant value to followers of Orthodox Christianity.

Fr. James Early said...

J. Rohrmann,

The value of the book is in Fr. Maximos' teaching, not in Markides' (often inane) comments, as I alluded to in the review.

Anonymous said...

Whenever Markides recounted his conversations with the priest/monk who later became a Limassol Bishop Athanasios, it was excellent. But Markides’ “Gifts of the Desert” last book's conclusion after he finished seeing the bishop was ridiculous. How could anyone spend that much time with an apparently obviously holy man and then dissect and dismantle everything he said? The author is Greek and attended services during his time in Cyprus but I don't remember ever reading that he took the Euchrist. His wife, Emily Markides was a flake with her "peace village" nonsense. There will be no peace without God. Markides books only shows how ignorance can remain even when you are constantly confronted with holiness.