Tuesday, March 18, 2008

BOOK REVIEW -- Mystic Street: Meditations on a Spiritual Path

By S.T. Georgiou
319 pages. Novalis. $24.95

Reviewed by Matt Karnes

A book critic faces a problem every time he begins to read a book for review; the problem of evaluating the book that is in his hands instead of the book he wishes had been written. An Orthodox Christian book critic has the added burden of 2,000 years of spiritual master pieces on the shelves above his writing desk; those books sitting in judgment of all new Christian writing. It is difficult to lay all of that aside when looking at this spiritual travel book which tells part of the story of a young Orthodox scholar living in San Francisco and attending the very ecumenical Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley.

Like all good travel books, Mystic Street is filled with quirky characters and events. And place is vitally important to the happenings recorded in the stories, as is the sense that the author is experiencing something new. But that is not the only way this is a travel book.

The author’s constant movement, almost vibration, is what makes spiritual travel book the best descriptor for this collection of living snapshots, for it seems that Georgiou receives his most interesting insights when he is walking through doorways, or riding on trains, or going up or down stairways. An angel talks to him in a hallway, he gains an understanding of the Light of God in a subway station, he wrestles with his vocation while walking on the beach. He can’t even sit still in a Buddhist retreat center, but busts up laughing at an apple and has to walk out to a hall way where he is told he is very Zen.

And, of course, we might wonder why an Orthodox Christian is in a Buddhist retreat center, attending Roman Catholic Masses, and divining the future with I Ching, why he seems averse to normative ways of Orthodox spiritual practice, and why he refers more to the writings of modern Roman Catholics than to the teachings of Orthodox Christians of any age. Several times I was tempted to put the book down and say “This isn’t Orthodox. It’s a load of Unitarian garbage.” But then the author tells us about visiting the island of Patmos, and experiencing there what might have been the Holy Spirit praying through him, or, perhaps, it was the hesycast’s much sought after prayer of the heart; prayer Ven. Alexander Schmemman would have recognized as the offering that fulfills the vocation given to Adam and to us.

This mixture of spiritual confusion and spiritual clarity is a constant in the book. One vignette (the book is a series of them) will make the author seem like a Protestant, or a Pagan, or a Roman Catholic, while another will make him seem very Orthodox. Only after rereading sections of it did I come to understand that the back and forth movement is the key to the book, to the story it tells. It moves in and out of Orthodoxy because it tells part of the story of a real human being. But not only his life is shown to us. Our lives, too, are reflected back to us from the pages of this book.

The stories Georgiou tells are all of our stories. We are all screwed up. We are all inconsistent. Even the best of us, the Saints, sometimes get it wrong. But God keeps revealing Himself to us, as much as we can tolerate, hoping that the love and beauty we receive from Him will draw us to Him. That is the most important message Georgiou put in this book. It is worth reading the way he has written it.

Stars : 3 of 5


Jim & Nancy Forest said...

Here's one other reader's brief take on Steve Georgious's recent book. This appeared in the winter issue of In Communion:

"Mystic Street invites his readers to discover that they live not only at a certain postal address known to the postman but also, and more significantly, on Mystic Street -- a street that begins at one's front door and stretches to wherever you happen to be going on a given day, whether to the supermarket or a mountain top. Mystic Street is not a line on the map but a way of life in which the main project is to be fully present wherever you happen to be, and thus to be continually rescued from boredom and be snapped awake in a state of surprise. Steve presents his invitation autobiographically, recalling particular experiences he has had while traveling his own Mystic Street. Yet this is less a book about his own life than an invitation to the reader to be more attentive, to live a more contemplative life, to discover beauty in unexpected places. The book's many photos add another level to the text. The cover photo -- light shining on wet cobblestones -- might have been taken on one of the Greek islands, most likely Patmos, where parts of the book are located. Altogether a refreshing read!

Pam S. said...

You giveth in the end, Mr. Karnes, but you had already taken too much away. I have rarely read a more mean spirited review. I have never met S.T. Georgiou, but I know that he is both a student and a teacher of Comparative Religion and the Philosophies of Religion. I think that adds context to his work that you have overlooked. This certainly explains attending a Catholic Mass (Pope Benedict prayed in a Mosque in Turkey and I don't think his faith is suffering for the experience). Why is interest in other religions so harshly judged. I still can't believe you used the phrase "Unitarian garbage." I myself have chided Unitarian's as being members of a social club rather than a religion owing to their "looseleaf-Bible," because when you can believe in anything, you can believe in nothing... but garbage??
I also need to call you on a bit of sloppiness: the Santa Sabina Retreat Center, run by the Dominican Order of Sisters, is Catholic, Christian, ecumenical in nature, and while it may have a whiff of Buddhism owing to it's affection for Merton, it is not a Buddhist Retreat Center.
So, why so harsh? Is it the ecumenicalism. I'm a "faithful to the magisterium" Catholic and I've been to Temple, Episcopal & Baptist services. I steer clear of communion because the Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity of Christ reside in the Tabernacle of the Catholic Church, but I am done no damage by experiencing the faith of my fellow man. Is it lessons learned about God outside the classroom? I confess I can't understand the tone or attitude, but I will say that I think you mishandled the review. This is a terrific book; we build each other up, using a expanded understanding of God, the God of love, through whom life can be better lived and understood. No "spiritual confusion" there, Mr. Karnes.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Matt Karnes,
Peace and all good.
The book Mystic Street is certainly written after the genere of Classical Literature Journals, Thomas Merton's "Sign of Jonah" and Imitation Of Christ by Thomas a Kempis are examples. The authors of these books skip around because they are trying to find God in the ordinary stuff of ordinary days. The contemplative life lends itself to finding God in places where most of us forget to look. This is one of the things of Georgiou's book that I liked. I have been living the contemplative cloistered life for 33 years and this book taught me to look and see God everywhere. This is no small feat.
Another aspect of the book is that Georgiou writes like a mystic and in order to understand him one has to open one's heart and view them in this light.
What I really wondered at in your review is how you closed off the traditions of other religions. When one reads other Religions it only makes one richer and doesn't take away from one's own faith. As one Hindu told me " We go to God by all roads- by hook or by crook. God is one.
Well, this may sound like rambling to you and I am skipping around but isn't it very hard to communicate on all levels without skipping around-a little thought here, a little thought there all wrapped up in the one Word.
As one country song by Allan Jackson(yes I even listen to country music because God speaks everywhere) says,"I know Jesus and I talk to God and this I learned when I was young,
Faith, Hope and Love are some of the good things he gave us and the Greatest is Love.
All that matters in the end is that we love.
May God be with you and may you always be with him
Sister Florence Vales OSC

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Helen Parker said...

Reading MYSTIC STREET made me feel as if I was, truly, walking in the shoes of ST Georgiou as he
traveled through his very personal spiritual, emotional, psychic, physical meanderings!
Steve expresses himself in a way that the reader can reach out and feel, gets inside one's soul, certainly brought me to tears at times. a BEAUTIFUL read, a BEAUTIFUL to own and cherish!

Helen Parker said...

Reading MYSTIC STREET made me feel as if I was, truly, walking in the shoes of ST Georgiou as he
traveled through his very personal spiritual, emotional, psychic, physical meanderings!
Steve expresses himself in a way that the reader can reach out and feel, gets inside one's soul, certainly brought me to tears at times. a BEAUTIFUL read, a BEAUTIFUL to own and cherish!