Book recommendations that can help readers get a sense of the spirit and content of ancient Christianity as it is preserved in Russian Orthodoxy
For Russian Faith I offer a series of entries recommending books (long or short readings) that give readers a clear sense of the spirit and content of ancient Christianity as it is preserved in Russian Orthodoxy.
For over thirty years I have taught courses on Russian culture and religion, and in the process have thought a great deal about which works in the vast pantheon of Orthodox writings can best convey the meaning and fullness of this radiant spiritual tradition.
Thus this series identifies readings that are well-known and loved by Russian Orthodox believers, and which have attained a prominence among all Orthodox Christians. The readings in the series will be separated into the categories of the generally accessible and more advanced.
For Entry One I highly recommend three interrelated books on the twentieth-century Russian Elder Silouan, who was born in the province of Tambov and as a young man made his way to the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos to enter into the Orthodox ascetic life of struggle and joy.
The Elder was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1987. His wisdom inspired many Orthodox ascetics and hierarchs, among them the great, erudite St. Nikolai Velimirovich of Serbia.
These three books are generally accessible to all readers.
Two small companion volumes illuminate the teachings and life of Staretz [Elder] Silouan of Mount Athos, considered one of the most sacred places of the Orthodox faith:
Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938, by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. from the Russian by Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974, 1995), 127 pp.
The Monk of Mount Athos, by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. from the Russian by Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975, 1989), 124 pp.
These two books, modest in length, can be read in either order, but I would recommend starting with Wisdom from Mount Athos, for the singular reason that it can be appreciated by any reader whose heart is open to Christian spirituality.
Those who are Orthodox will immediately recognize the essence and the savor (as St. Seraphim Rose would put it) of the faith: humility, asceticism, love for God and for the beauty of His world, kindness and tenderness, and a simple yet profound appreciation for each moment of existence.
Those who are not Orthodox but who aspire to learn more about its mysteries will be gently taken by the hand and led into the inner world and stirrings of the soul of a monk who was thoroughly Russian and thoroughly Orthodox. The steadfastness of faith, perspicacity, and lovingkindness of Elder Silouan’s character emerge on every page—because they are the actual writings of the Elder, they provide a direct access to his most cherished exhortations for the people of the world.
The book is divided into twelve chapters on various topics that preoccupied the Elder. He made notes on scraps of paper, and after his death they were assembled into a whole. The topics include “Of the Knowledge of God,” “On Love,” “The Soul’s Yearning for God,” “On Prayer,” “On Humility,” and “Spiritual Warfare.” An elegant introduction by Archimandrite Sophrony precedes the chapters and provides historical context of the Holy Mountain of Athos.
The Archimandrite lived on Mt. Athos as a disciple of Elder Silouan, and as such conversed with the Elder on many matters essential for those on the spiritual journey to seek God. His is a personal and humble introduction:
“I am eternally thankful to Providence for allowing me the undeserved happiness of living among such ascetics for twenty-two years. But the most important event of my life was to meet with Staretz Silouan who, after Christ’s appearance to him, never ceased imploring God to grant to all mankind to know Him through the Holy Spirit” (10).
Two quotations from different chapters of the book illustrate the depth of the Elder’s spiritual journey:
From “On Love”:
O who shall sing me the song that I have loved since the days of my youth—the song of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, of His love for us, of the vigil He keeps for our coming? To this song would I hearken with tears, for my soul is weary on earth.
What has befallen me? How came I to lose joy, and shall I attain to joy again?
Weep with me, all ye wild beasts and birds. Weep with me, forest and desert. Weep with me, every creature created of God, and comfort me in my grief and sorrow.
O man, what a feeble creature thou art.
When grace dwells within us the spirit glows and reaches day and night towards the Lord, for grace constrains the soul to love God; and now that she has come to love Him she cannot tear herself away from Him: never can she have enough of the tenderness of the Holy Spirit.
And there is no end to the love of God.
. . . .
. . . . I love the earth, but above all I love Thee, my Creator, and my soul longs for Thee.
O my Creator, why have I, Thy little creature, grieved Thee so often? Yet hast Thou not remembered my sins.
From “The Soul’s Yearning for God”:
My soul yearns after the Lord.
How could I not seek Thee? For Thou didst first seek me. Thou gavest me to delight in Thy Holy Spirit, and my soul rejoices that Thou art my God and my Lord.
In the first year of my life in the monastery my soul apprehended God in the Holy Spirit.
The Lord loves us greatly: this I know by the Holy Spirit Whom the Lord gave me in His singular mercy.
I am an old man, preparing for death, and I write of truth for the sake of the people.
. . . . .
The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God.
As is abundantly evident, the Elder’s writings are highly poetic, emotional in an organized fashion (in the sense of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”), and humbly confident of God’s presence in his life and love for him.
The companion book to Wisdom from Mount Athos, The Monk of Mount Athos, recounts Elder Silouan’s life by Archimandrite Sophrony. It intertwines the youth and young adulthood of the Elder with reflections on the Orthodox faith and observations of the Elder’s spiritual growth and maturity. Its contents are somewhat more dense than those of Wisdom from Mount Athos, but they become more accessible if one has first read the intense and very personal meditations of the Elder in the Wisdom book.
For those who are fascinated and moved by the identity and inner world of Elder Silouan, a more complete volume of his life is available under the title of St. Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. from the Russian by Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 504 pp. The entirety of the contents of Wisdom from Mount Athos and The Monk of Mount Athos are contained in this volume, along with expanded sections on the Elder’s teachings.
Valeria Z. Nollan is a past president of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture. Her translation of Vladimir Solovyov’s The Philosophical Foundations of Integral Knowledge was published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in 2008. A lifelong Russian Orthodox Christian, she was the keynote speaker for the 62nd Commencement Exercises of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY in 2010.