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.

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.

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios

 

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  The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis is an autobiographical account of a restless,skeptical young  man in 1970’s Greece, sampling from a variety of mystical and occult influences. His story is anchored by a close relationship with Elder (now Saint) Paisios, a monk from Mount Athos. Dionysios’ explorations exposed him to a great deal of spiritual dangers, including literal attacks from demons. Saint Paisios’ prayers and influence protected Dionysios from the worst dangers. Nevertheless, Dionysios’ stubborn determination to test for himself the claims of the occult practitioners led him to India, where he sought out the tutelage of prominent gurus and cult leaders.

The bulk of the book is a brutally honest account of Dionysios’ time in India  as he seeks out various spiritualists around the country. The author and his traveling companions encounter a great deal of misery and exploitation, but all that pales in comparison to the otherworldly dangers they encounter. This part of the book contains vivid and unsettling accounts of demonic possession and spiritual bondage, as the author foolishly submits himself to the authority of the gurus. Dionysios eventually manages to escape India, and the book ends with Saint Paisios guiding him, slowly nursing him back to spiritual health.

The bizarre and startling episodes where Dionysios finds himself in the thrall of dark forces are gripping and well-written. The author is completely honest about his foolishness and naiveté, and as a character he is very relatable- simply a man wanting to find out the truth for himself.

Nevertheless, I thought that the most rewarding parts of the book were the gentle encounters with Saint Paisios during the author’s frequent visits. We get glimpses of the great man’s character as he counsels and cares for Dionysios. Saint Paisios finds himself in a position that many of us struggle in, showing love for someone who persists in foolish and self-destructive behavior. Young Dionysios ignores Saint Paisios’ warnings again and again to his own detriment, and yet the the saint continually demonstrates a deep compassion without judgment. The encounters between Dionysios and Paisios are filled with an intimate warmth and good humor, even as they occur in seasons where Dionysios’ life is in shambles. The monk’s faithful prayers for Dionysios serve also as a continual backdrop to the events in the book. In the darkest episodes of Dionysios’ journey in India, we see how Paisios’ intercessions from thousands of miles away are a decisive in warding off the worst of the dangers.

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Father Paisios of Mount Athos by Pietro Chiaranz

Thus I think it would be a mistake to approach this book focusing on Dionysios’ occult misadventures in India, as titillating as those accounts may be . Pay attention instead to the Christlike person of Saint Paisios, his humility,  patience, and joy. Inspired by his example of prayerful compassion, I have had to do a lot of fruitful reflection about what it means to love someone who is stubborn and wayward, to truly work for his best interests without succumbing to the temptation to judge him or to control him.

Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the excellent work that the translators did for the English version of this book. I cannot testify to its accuracy, since I don’t know Greek. However, the language is at once stirring and profound, especially in the parts where Dionysios is engaged in spiritual reflection after a visit with the saint. I will end this post with a passage from the end of the book that both demonstrates the effectiveness of the language, and serves as a celebration of the patient, unfailing love of Christ displayed through the works and life of Saint Paisios.

“Man takes one step, and God responds with a thousand in order to bridge the gap. Nevertheless, man’s small and insignificant step in God’s direction is absolutely crucial, because it reveals man’s intention and good disposition, giving God the ‘right’ to approach him, without infringing his spiritual freedom. Unlike the hate-filled, tyrannical devil, God deeply respects human freedom and never violates it. He desires a relationship of love with man, and love can exist only when people are free.”

Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon

The only canonical Orthodox church in Malaysia today is a Russian mission in downtown Kuala Lumpur, practically under the shadow of the Petronas twin towers. The Moscow patriarchate gave us the building, sent us a priest-monk and a few nuns to help run the services, and supports us in many other ways.

I am very grateful that our small community receives this help, and very grateful that the Russian church is in a position to support Orthodox Christians all around the globe. Things were very different a few decades ago.

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Chosen for His People (by Jane  Swan) is a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the communist revolution. This is the only complete biography of St. Tikhon written in the English language. I found this fact very surprising, as St. Tikhon was of great importance in 20th century Russian history, as the man who led the Russian Orthodox Church through the first persecutions of the Soviet communist regime.

The book is short- 117 pages, not including the very extensive endnotes and bibliography. It is more than just a hagiography, rather, Swan makes a good effort at historical rigor, and a lot of the statements and stories in the book are sourced.

Given the short length of the book, St. Tikhon’s early life and ministry are covered very briefly. The focus is on his Patriarchate from 1917 to 1925, a time of great turmoil and transition in Russia. The communist revolution deposed a devoutly Christian Tsar and installed an atheist government that was hostile toward the church, and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. The book chronicles with great detail St. Tikhon’s struggles against the enemies of the church, both within and without. St. Tikhon had to deal with the state’s slander, the murders of clergy and the confiscation of church property, but also with collaborationists in the church, opportunist clergymen who sought to empower and enrich themselves by siding with the Soviets.

The book paints a very humanizing picture of a simple, humble man, called to an impossible task in the most trying of circumstances. We see St. Tikhon’s courage in the face of great  adversity, and deep compassion for his country and its people. We see his great faithfulness and prayerful perseverance despite deteriorating conditions and physical frailty.  At its core, his is a story of a man refusing to give up, refusing to be cowed, standing up for Christ and His church in its darkest hour.

As with a lot of stories set in Russia, this is a depressing read. The Soviets eventually get St. Tikhon deposed as Patriarch,  and at his death Christianity  in Russia remained under grievous threat.  Nevertheless, the church survived and endured, and has now outlasted the Soviet regime. We see Christ’s words fulfilled- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

I am grateful that I can read this book 100 years after the events transpired, so I can see now that St. Tikhon’s sacrifice, and the martyrdoms of countless thousands of bishops,priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople like him in the past century were not in vain. Half the people who worship with me in our Kuala Lumpur church are ethnic Russians- those around my age are the first generation for whom the Soviets are but a faded memory. I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in building our little Russian Orthodox mission, and in some small way honoring the legacy of St. Tikhon and all those who suffered with him.

The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (M. Ford)

There are plenty of amusing stories about creative misinterpretations of the Bible. I know a Houston pastor who occasionally talks about a strange conversation he had over email. A stranger  contacted him, asserting that the Bible was clearly telling him to smoke weed. This person was sincerely convinced that several passages in scripture were thinly-veiled references to the benefits of marijuana use. After all, what else could the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 mean?

We also recall the account of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, where in Matthew 4:5-7 we see the devil deceptively using scripture. In verse 6 the devil is quoting from Psalm 91.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

I was raised in a protestant tradition that strongly emphasized sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is the source of truth. I gladly accepted this as a central tenet of the Christian faith, but it didn’t take me long to come across problems with this idea. A lot of passages in the Bible were confusing and vague, and I found that different people could have vastly different interpretations of the same passage of scripture. I was developing a strong interest in mathematics at the same time, and I could not help but notice the stark contrast between mathematical writing and scripture. The mathematical texts I read contained truths that were clear, precise and unambiguous, and I could not help but wonder why God instead chose to give us a Bible that was a mish-mash of poetry, allegory, history, rhetoric, and so on, so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted.

When I asked this question, the answer I was given was that I need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly. While this answer is true, it is also unsatisfying. I have met devout Christians who interpret the Bible in ways that are completely different, even though they both felt their interpretation was guided by the Holy Spirit. The reason that most protestant denominations exist is because different groups of people interpret the Bible in contradictory ways, although each group believed they were guided by the Holy Spirit.  I have in the past interpreted the Bible in ways that I now know to be incorrect, even though I believed I was guided by the Holy Spirit at that time.

As an aspiring scientist, I was also drawn toward “scholarly” approaches to interpreting the Bible. Perhaps the correct way to read the Bible was to apply some of the techniques of textual analysis I learned in college. If we avoided presuppositions and arrived at a text as an objective observer, and made sure to understand the historical and textual context of a passage, maybe we could glean the real message that God intended to convey.

I was involved with a campus group called InterVarsity when I was in grad school that used a very rigorous method (called Inductive Bible Study) to systematically and carefully study the Bible. The composition of this group consisted of PhD and Masters students from an elite private university. It was also incredibly diverse in terms of denominational affiliation. Our membership was drawn from all over the protestant spectrum, plus the occasional Roman Catholic. It was an incredibly wonderful community to be a part of, and some of my closest friends are drawn from this group. But it did strike me that this group of incredibly devout, intelligent people, using sophisticated techniques in textual analysis to study the Bible, still disagreed on the correct interpretation of so many passages of scripture. As valuable as careful textual analysis is, it seemed pretty clear to me that you could not necessarily find the true interpretation of the Bible this way.

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I wish I had encountered Mary Ford’s The Soul’s Longing (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press) in this time of my life. The book is partly a historical overview of the use and misuse of the Bible over the past 2,000 years, and partly an argument for a traditional, orthodox understanding of how to interpret scripture.

Ford argues that the role of the church is indispensable for interpreting the Bible correctly. In other words, to understand a passage we have to take into account historically what the Christian church, especially the early Christian church believed about that scripture. We do this by, for example, reading the writings of the early Christian saints. Insisting on an individual, rather than a communal understanding of Biblical interpretation is a rather new development in the history of Christianity, and one that leads to a lot of error. The Holy Spirit works in the entire body of Christ, and not just in individual believers.

This book isn’t written as a scholarly work. It is a surprisingly light read given the subject matter, with casual language and frequent use of anecdotes. There are footnotes sprinkled through many pages, but it clearly isn’t intended to be an airtight historical argument. It is however an excellent introduction to different perspectives on Biblical interpretation, for someone who, like myself, was only familiar with protestant ideas on how to read the Bible.

The title- “The Soul’s Longing” comes from an urging in this book to view the Bible not simply as a list of theological ideas to be argued about, but rather as an instrument for fallen humanity to return to God, and receive the fulfillment that can only be found in God’s presence. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn a historical perspective on Biblical interpretation. May you find what your soul longs for.

Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers (Y. Nomura and H. Nouwen)

I had sensed early on in my Christian life that the ascetic virtues of simplicity, charity, solitude and so on were supposed to be very important, even though they were largely ignored in my early Christian education. Monasticism is practically non-existent in protestant Malaysia, even in the high church Anglicanism I grew up with. This is a huge shame. I feel now that it was very difficult for me to grasp fully the love, sacrifice and suffering of Christ without the witness and example of monastics who have renounced the world to live in as Christ-like a manner as possible.

My first introduction to monasticism was through Buddhist monasticism. Buddhist monks and nuns are fairly common in urban Malaysia, and as a child I found their way of life fascinating. Even today, when I have frequent contact with Russian Orthodox monks and nuns, when I think of a monastic I imagine first a shaven-headed Chinese person in a yellow robe.

I encountered the book Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura and Henri Nouwen in the library of my orthodox church in America not long after I started attending. This book was my first introduction not just to the desert fathers and mothers, but to Christian monasticism in general.

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The book is a compilation of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, who fled to the Egyptian desert starting in the 3rd century A.D. to form Christian communities where they could live lives of solitude, austerity and sacrifice, away from the creeping complacency of Christian life in the newly-Christianized Roman empire. The traditions of these desert fathers and mothers form the basis of all Christian monastic communities today.

Nomura includes beautiful illustrations to these short sayings and stories in a distinctively Asian manner. Monks are clean-shaven and bald, and the landscapes evoke China or Japan rather than Egypt. This stylistic choice works very well however, and emphasize how the sayings and stories often have themes similar to Asian mysticism. For me, this was an incredibly refreshing reminder that Christianity has Eastern, rather than Western origins, and that the chasm between “Western” Christian values and Chinese values, which is such a defining part of Christian life here, is not as stark when I cease looking at Christianity solely through an American or Western European lens.

I feel that Yomura’s artistic choices will be of value to a Western reader too. They emphasize that certain ideas in Asian philosophy and religion that have started to appeal to some young Westerners are not absent in Christianity. They are present in a fuller, perfected form in the early traditions of the church, and are in fact an essential part of those traditions and of the Christian faith.

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The illustrations are in black and white and delightfully simple, appropriate for the austere lives that these saints lived. I feel that the selections of the sayings are fairly representative of the original texts, and the themes range from the importance of fasting, prayer, and contemplation, to the dangers of judging others, to the need to let go of material goods and power over other people.

I suppose that the most complimentary criticism you can give a book is that it is too short. I finished the book wishing it was twice as long, and there were many, many sayings and stories that were not covered. But as an introduction to an important, yet often ignored part of the life of the church, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers is available on Amazon, and for Malaysians there is an entry for it on the MPH website, though they appear to be out of stock. The original sayings themselves are easily available online, for instance here.

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