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