Book Review Wednesday: Orthodoxy and Hermits

11 October 2006

I don’t think this will become a regular Wednesday feature, but I’ve been reading a few related books lately, and should you be interested in the topics of the Orthodox Church and Hermits, I’d love to share my thoughts on these particular books.

At the Corner of East and Now, Frederica Mathewes-Green
*Frederica Matthews-Greene notes that her autographed copies of her books can also be purchased from her parish bookstore.

The liturgy is at the center of Orthodox life, and the liturgy is at the center of this book.  Every other chapter describes and discusses some part of a typical Divine Liturgy at Mathewes-Green’s church, while the other chapters describe some aspect of her life and its relation to her life and Orthodoxy.

Mathewes-Green’s writing style is quick and direct, although sometimes my jaded and skeptical mind wonders whether or not some of her descriptions of people, their enthusiasms, or the reality of Orthodox life are accurate.  My impression, having been to Orthodox churches myself, is that Orthodox are people, too: sometimes they’re into church, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re faithful to the prescribed practices of the faith, and at others not.  The impression I get from Mathewes-Green’s description is that Orthodox, at her parish at least, are always certain, happy, and enthusiastically engaged in the liturgy and their faith.  Occasionally the writing fell flat, but the book was quite engaging all the same.
Overall, I found this book informative and enjoyable.  This is a great book for someone who wants a straightforward introduction to Orthodox Christianity in contemporary America.

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, Peter France.

This book takes a stab at charting a progression of the eremetical life from the pre-Christian Greek Cynics and Chinese hermits to modern day hermits like Charles de Foucauld, Thomas Merton, and Robert Lax.  This book’s most important insight is that hermits don’t necessarily retreat from the world never to return.  Many hermits —Abba Anthony of the Desert, the Russian elders of Optina, Charles de Foucauld— embrace solitude in order that they may engage the world more fully and fruitfully, sharing the fruits of prayer, contemplation, and solitude with others.

France’s method often involves biography complemented by extensive quotation from various hermits’ writings and contemporary accounts of their lives.  I’m a fairly social person not prone to desiring solitude, but France’s book helped me get a sense of the social aspect of hermits, and that one can live in solitude even amongst the modern world.

The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware (aka Kallistos Ware, aka Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia).

This book begins with a quote: “All Protestants are crypto-Papists,” which might be a stumbling block to Protestant readers and a foolishness to Catholics, but uncharacteristic of the book as a whole.  Initially, the book seemed almost antagonistic to Western Christianity as a whole, but it is not so.  Timothy Ware is a diligent author who, I’ve read elsewhere, might be considered to be a little on the liberal side of the Orthodox spectrum.

Ware (who took the name Kallistos in the Orthodox Church, in which he is now a Bishop under the Ecumenical Patriarchate) describes historical, theological, liturgical, as well as ecumenical aspects of the Orthodox Church.  If you enjoy history or theology, this might be a better fit for you than the Mathewes-Green book reviewed above.  It has, among other things, a very fair and balanced account of the Great Schism and an excellent explanation of the filioque controversy.  Highly recommended, although a bit dry.

I read a first edition of this book, which has since been revised.  The first edition spends some time discussing the difficulties of Orthodox life in communist countries, presumably the second edition, published in 1993, may lack some of these sections.

The Mountain of Silence: In Search for Orthodox Spirituality, Kyriacos C. Markides.

Markides, a sociologist from the University of Maine, spends several months at the Panagia on Cyprus talking with Father Maximos, a charismatic elder (i.e., spiritual director) and monk.  Much of this book is in the form of transcribed conversations that Father Maximos has with the author and others.

This is not a particularly well written book, but it is filled with insights, some of them quite surprising coming from an Orthodox monk.  The discussions of logismoi, which is word that means “thoughts,” but might be closer to “temptations,” although they are not necessarily related to sins, are particularly fruitful.

Someone interested in Orthodox mysticism or monasticism would enjoy this book, although it is not particularly intellectual nor rigorous in its scholarship.  And although Father Maximos is unquestionably Orthodox, some of his understandings and explanations might be considered unconventional, even by non-Orthodox.


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