The Brothers Karamazov (F. Dostoevsky)

“… we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature- capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”

The first time I had heard of this literary classic was from the leader of my college small group when I was going to a protestant church. Having read it, I am a little surprised at the wide appeal of the Brothers Karamazov- I thought it was a thoroughly Orthodox Christian book, and a lot of its themes resonate most deeply to someone fully immersed in Orthodox life. It speaks to the author’s skill that this book has become an enduring favorite nevertheless, even for people completely unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Brothers Karamazov is a story set in late 19th century Russia, centered around the dysfunctions of the titular Karamazov family.  The main driver of the plot is a dispute between the father, Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, a tussle that escalates quickly into tragedy.

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I enjoyed greatly the strong characterization in this book. In particular, the four Karamazovs are very different people, and Dostoyevsky fleshes them all out beautifully. The patriarch, Fyodor is an amoral old rascal. His eldest son, Dmitri, is a hot-tempered and passionate young man bound by a quixotic sense of honour. The middle child, Ivan is a reserved, cynical intellectual coping with some deep neuroses. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is a sensitive, thoughtful novice at the local monastery. The interactions between these four thoroughly different people create some delightfully memorable scenes.

Alyosha Karamazov is the main character of the story, and we see the events of the story mostly through his eyes. This works a little strangely, since he is the Karamazov brother least directly involved with the central conflict of the book. He influences the story in subtle but decisive ways, and his interactions with the elderly monk Zosima form the spiritual heart of the novel.

The scenes at Alyosha’s monastery are based on Dostoevsky’s visits to the real-life Optina monastery, and Elder Zosima is based loosely on Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. My favorite passages in the book are Elder Zosima’s homilies, which delve rather deeply into Orthodox thought and theology. These, at the surface rather unrelated to the principal plot of the book, but we see later how they drive Alysoha’s actions in important ways. The monastery scenes contain beautiful discourses on love, forgiveness, refraining from judging others. These discourses are ever more beautiful and necessary given how dark other parts of the book can be.

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…”

“Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.”

There are other very strong philosophical discourses in the book.  A chapter where Ivan Karamazov explains his objections to Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor, is prominent enough to get its own Wikipedia page. It is a credit to the author that he is able to articulate compellingly both Ivan’s arguments against the existence of a benevolent God, and Zosima’s stirring homilies on the necessity of Christian faith.

The story itself feels a little incomplete however, and most of the character arcs seem unfinished.  Apparently people think that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that Dostoevsky was unable to continue before he died. But this is not to say that the novel ends without resolution. We are treated to a wonderful epilogue at the end, at the funeral of a young child, where Alyosha and the dead boy’s friends talk of the hope that they will see him again in the resurrection. This hopeful ending, rather unrelated to the main events of the book, nevertheless ties all the themes of the book together.

This novel is a classic, with a very profound portrayal of Orthodox thinking, and of Christian lives lived well. I think Orthodox Christians especially would get a lot out of the Brothers Karamazov.

 

 

 

 

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Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)

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Anthony Bloom (also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh) is a prominent and prolific Christian writer and broadcaster with a fascinating life story. He was a Russian émigré,, whose family fled during the horrors of the communist revolution. They escaped to France, where he became a medical doctor, and participated in the French Resistance when the Germans invaded. He ended up becoming the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland.

His book, Beginning to Pray  starts with an interview where he explains this life story. The rest of the book consists of short essays containing reflections on prayer, or more specifically, on learning how to pray. The focus of the book is pastoral rather than theological.

Beginning to Pray is a brisk read: around 120 pages or so, and the language is clear and lively. There were multiple times, when reading Anthony Bloom’s books that I had to turn back  to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up something by C.S. Lewis instead. I felt that their writing styles were very similar, in that both have an uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts with simple and engaging language.

“You remember how you were taught to write when you were small.  Your mother put a pencil in your hand, took your hand in hers, and began to move it.  Since you did not know at all what she meant to do, you left your hand completely free in hers.  This is what I mean by the power of God being manifest in weakness.  You could think of that also in the terms of a sail.  A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail.  If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.  The same is true of the gauntlet and the surgical glove.  How strong is the gauntlet, how frail is the glove, yet in intelligent hands it can work miracles because it is so frail.  So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hands of God.”

The essays are organized around addressing practical obstacles that Christians face in prayer. For instance, the first essay is about the challenge of praying when God feels absent, another is about being “in the moment” and avoiding the impulse to rush through prayer. He relies heavily on example to explain his points: stories from the Bible, from church history, from folklore- he even makes reference to The Little Prince.

There is an emphasis throughout the book on the importance of humility in prayer. When we pray we are encountering God, in all his transcendence and power. A lot of the obstacles to prayer that the Beginning to Pray deals with are a result of regarding this encounter too flippantly. There is also a sense of humility on the part of the author. I did not get the sense that I was getting a lecture on prayer from someone who has figured it all out, but rather that I was reading reflections from someone who has spent his life trying to learn how to pray better himself.
I would add that while the ideas in Beginning to Pray are firmly Orthodox, I think Christians of all denominations would enjoy and appreciate it. As evidence, note that the book is currently being published by Paulist Press, a Roman Catholic publisher. Thus to everyone who struggles with the idea or the practice of prayer, this is a book I would highly recommend.

Becoming Orthodox (P. Gillquist)

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Father Peter Gillquist is a name familiar to many Orthodox Christians in the United States. He was one of the leaders of a house church movement that, in 1987, chose to enter en masse the Antiochian Orthodox Church, bringing 2,000 Protestants into canonical Orthodoxy.

Becoming Orthodox (Ancient Faith Publishing) is the first-person account of their remarkable journey. The book begins in the late 50’s, as Father Gillquist “finds Jesus” in a through Campus Crusade, a protestant organization that ministers to college students in the United States. Gillquist eventually becomes a Campus Crusade staffer. In the early parts of the story Gillquist struggles with finding the proper place of his campus ministry within the Christian church. He talks about how lifeless the institutional  church seemed to him, in contrast to the vibrancy and authenticity of his campus community. And yet his Campus Crusade group was not, and could not be the Christian church.

Gillquist develops a vision of what the true New Testament church “should” be. In 1968 he leaves Campus Crusade, and together with a group of like-minded friends forms a network of house churches that bring about this vision.

In the middle parts of this book Gillquist and his group go into an in-depth study to figure out what the Christian church of the first few centuries really believed. The middle chapters contain a lot of explanation of basic Orthodox Christian theology, as he and his friends discover that the historical church worshiped and believed just as today’s Orthodox Christians do.

There is a surprising amount of suspense at the end, as Gillquist’s movement (who now call themselves the “Evangelical Orthodox”) decide they want to join the Orthodox church.  Gillquist writes candidly about the resistance they encounter both within their movement and in the Orthodox church leadership both in America and abroad. Eventually, most of the leaders of the Gillquist’s movement agree to take their churches under the Antiochian Orthodox church, and the book ends with the joyous account of these mass conversions.

I spent several years working with a bunch of different campus protestant Christian organizations in the United States (including a spell with Campus Crusade) and so I found Gillquist’s account very relatable. I definitely felt a similar tension in that the work I was doing seemed like a blessing to other college students, but the campus ministry also felt unhealthy in that, for some of our members, involvement in our group was “replacing” the church, and that as a consequence we were propagating a form of Christianity that was watered down and incomplete.

Fittingly for a former Campus Crusade staffer, Gillquist’s book reads like a good “personal testimony” of a man finding God. His anecdotes are very engaging, the language is lively, and the conclusion is incredibly satisfying.  It feels like the intended audience for his book is protestant Christians unfamiliar with Orthodoxy,  since large portions of the book give a basic explanation of Orthodox theology and worship. Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile and edifying book even for Orthodox Christians, and a compelling account of a man trying to follow God the best he can.

 

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors, and his is a very fascinating life story. He was a missionary in Peru, had an illustrious career as an academic theologian, with stints at Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, before giving that up to work at the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he developed an interest in ancient Christian iconography, which culminated in this book.

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons is a collection of four essays on four famous Russian icons: the Savior of Zvenigorod, Rublev’s Trinity, the Theotokos of Vladimir, and the Pentecost Icon, displayed in order below:

The book contains beautiful glossy removable pages of all four icons, and I think Nouwen intends for the reader to contemplate them while reading the corresponding chapter of the book.

 

Nouwen makes the point that what we receive into our lives visually is as important as what what we receive verbally, through reading or listening:

“But what do we really choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videocassettes, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories…

For you who will read these meditations it is important to gaze at the icons with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern church.

Nouwen explains the features of the four icons in expert detail, and ties them into the devotional life of the praying Christian. He does not neglect the historical and liturgical contexts where these icons appear. Despite not being an Orthodox Christian himself, it is clear that Nouwen has taken the time to understand well the eastern Christian perspective on prayer and iconography.

This is a very worthwhile read, especially for the reader unfamiliar with the history and importance of iconography in the early church.  For me, as one emerging from protestant traditions that have suppressed the visual aspect of Christian discipleship in favor of just reading and lecturing, it was incredibly helpful to learn how the Holy Spirit works in us visually. As goes one of the Orthodox communion hymns, oh taste and see how good the Lord is.

 

Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.

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Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) was a Godsend of a book. My first encounters with Orthodox lenten practice were rather challenging. There were all these dietary rules, new services,  new prayers, and new church music, and I did not know how to make head or tail of it. This book does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the traditional lenten elements, and brought their beauty to life.

The book covers with great detail and clarity both the theological and practical aspects of doing Lent well. There are thorough explanations of the liturgical practices, line-by-line analyses of some of the prayers,  and down-to-earth advice on maintaining a correct attitude toward lent. Deep theological concepts are explained with remarkable simplicity. A layperson or a  non-Orthodox Christian will have no difficulty understanding most of the text.

This book should be compulsory reading for Orthodox Christians during this season. I also think it has some benefit for non-Orthodox who wish to understand the significance of traditional Lenten practice a little better. I will not talk at length about it, because the Antiochian Orthdox Archdiocese of North America has made long sections of the book available on their website for free.

May this “bright sadness” be kindled within your hearts in this season of Great Lent.

Christ is in our Midst: Letters from a Russian Monk

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“By a Russian monk?” my priest comments as he glances on the cover of my book. “It is probably very practical.”

Father John (Ivan Alekseyevich Alekseyev) was a Russian monk who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. This book (Christ is in our midst, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press)  is a collection of his letters to a wide variety people who have sought his advice on various matters. His pen-pals comprise a rather eclectic mix. There are writings to monks, nuns, and laypeople, to devout Christians, wavering doubters, and hostile atheists, to the elderly and the young.

As my priest predicted, the contents of this book are very pragmatic. Father John is squarely concerned about the struggle of living the Christian life well. The letters address questions of handling anxious, hateful, or guilty feelings, of dealing with difficult people, of coping with various physical and spiritual infirmities. He seldom writes in terms of abstract theology. Even when explaining Christian doctrine he draws on Jesus’ actions in the gospels, the lives of the saints, or anecdotes of his own experiences to demonstrate his points.

I suppose some might find his writings unsophisticated as a result.  But I really enjoyed how down-to-earth they were. The book served as a good counterweight for my own natural tendencies: I was raised as a protestant, and work in a profession that requires a lot of abstract thinking. I am used to thinking of salvation in terms of just holding to the correct doctrines. The Orthodox point of view is a lot more holistic, with a lot less separation between belief and action. “I will show you my faith by what I do” as it says in James 2:18.

The topics Father John addresses in his letters vary widely, but there are overarching themes about the importance of faithful repentance, even as we repeatedly fail:

You do not want to sin, yet you sin gravely. What can you do? We are human beings, bearers of the flesh, and are tempted by devils. Do not tremble and do not be depressed like that, even when a virtue is tottering. Stand up, straighten yourself and go forward again. Know that stability in virtue depends not on us, but on the grace of God.

…and to avoid judging the sins of others:

We sinners are so used to judging others. It has become a real habit, and we do not remember God’s injunction and the gravity of this sin.

Our judgment is always erroneous, for we do not know the reasons which prompted the sinner to act that way. We see only the sin of our neighbour, but not his repentance. Lord, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.

Christ is in our midst is a wonderfully curated collection of wisdom, as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.  This is one that I will gladly recommend.