Monday, April 28, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Lives of the Georgian Saints

By Archpriest Zacharia Machitadze
Trans. David and Lauren Elizabeth Ninoshvili
St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2006

Reviewed by Stephen Ullstrom

I first heard of this book on a blog several months ago. I was immediately interested, partly because my home parish is named after St. Nina, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia, and partly because the book was highly recommended. But as a student I was a bit daunted by the price (US$29). Then, when I saw the number of pages (506), I also began imagining this to be a dense trade paperback-type book like some other similar books I had seen. So I put this book on my mental ‘maybe one-day’ list, and never got around to ordering it.

I was quite surprised, then, when I recently saw that someone had donated this book to our church library. Still being curious, I took the book off the shelf and opened it up. What I saw were glossy pages with large, well spaced text, chapters that were framed by colorful motifs, and on almost every page a beautiful reproduction of an icon or a photograph. Without having read a word, I was already very impressed with the beauty of this book, and was regretting my hasty judgments.

In reading the various lives detailed in the book, what has struck me the most is the great diversity of holy men and women. And not only that, but of how interconnected their lives were to each other, and to the history of the Georgian nation and people. Of course, this is something that I have known before, but these points were really re-emphasized for me in a tangible way due to the sheer number of lives I was reading all at once, and by the fact that they were all somehow tied to the same nation. For example, the saints detailed in this book are from almost every century since the ascension of Christ. Some were foreigners who settled in Georgia, and others were Georgians who settled abroad, and they include laymen, monastics, members of the nobility and the intelligentsia, and the list goes on.

That said, this book is not a scholarly book. Sources are not cited, and information on some saints are a little patchy. In many cases, this is probably due to a lack of available information. I also found myself wanting to know more the links between the different saints. An introduction, there is a brief history of Georgia which is helpful to a point, but I would have liked more information. Then again, perhaps that is material for another book. The stated purpose of this book, according to the author, is to bring together into one book information on all of the Georgian saints, events, and icons that are commemorated by the Georgian Church. And as an introduction to the Georgian saints, this book does a superb job. The only major oversight I can find is the lack of a pronunciation guide to assist with pronouncing the Georgian names.

For anyone interested in Georgia, or in saints, or in learning about another corner of Christendom, or in how Christianity can impact a nation and a people, this is an excellent book to start with. Even though it is not hot off the press, having been published in 2006, the information and stories are timeless. And the aesthetics are such that it will preserve well, to be savored for a long time to come.

Friday, April 18, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Life and Teaching of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

By N. Puretzki and the Monastery of Sarov
Translated by G. Kochibrolashvili and M. Tooneman
Gozalov Books, 2007

Reviewed by Stephen Ullstrom

I found this book difficult to review for a couple of reasons. One being that I hadn't read any of the other books about St. Seraphim of Sarov, and so I cannot offer any comparisons or contrasts. The second is that I am not an expert on ascetic literature or practices, which is what a lot of this book covers. On the contrary, after reading this book I had several questions of my own to ask my parish priest about. So keeping this in mind, here is my review.

The Life and Teaching of Saint Seraphim of Sarov is a translation of two different Russian texts that were originally printed and re-printed in 1903 and 1991, respectively. The book is slim, containing only 64 pages. Nineteen of these are a Life of St. Seraphim, with the remainder being his teachings. A short prayer to St. Seraphim is also included.

Overall the translation reads clearly and smoothly, with occasional grammar mistakes or stilted language. The main translation problem that I had was that scripture verses were translated directly from the Russian Bible, instead of being taken from an accepted English translation. This resulted in some verses being worded so differently from what I was used to that I failed to recognize them. The other main problem were a few words that I thought could have been translated better. For example, instead of using the word ‘anointed’, the word ‘oiled’ was used. A Russian speaking friend of mine told me that this is because the translators went for a literal translation, which in my opinion isn’t always the best choice.

In terms of content, I found the Life of St. Seraphim to be quite detailed for only being nineteen pages. Though I had certainly heard of St. Seraphim before I read this book, I now feel that I have a much more rounded understanding of his life and how he came to be so popular in the Church. The teachings of St. Seraphim are equally to the point. They are divided into thirty-one different topics, such as ‘On God,’ ‘On Hope,’ ‘On Illnesses.’ There are definitely some good teachings here that will be worth returning to again and again. But there are also parts that I didn’t understand, or I didn’t know what to take from it. A lot of this confusion is probably due to my inexperience with ascetical and monastic writings, and with Russian Orthodox spirituality. This is also my main caution about this book.

In their introduction, the translators state that they hope that this book will “stimulate interest in the Russian Orthodox spiritual tradition, which is, regretfully, so little known in the Western World.” This is a laudable goal, but I don’t think that this book does the job. The reason being that beyond the Life of St. Seraphim, no context is given for what is being taught. For someone already familiar with the ascetical teachings and writings of Orthodoxy, this is not a problem, but for someone who is hearing this for the first time, I think that this could be both intriguing and confusing.

So I would recommend this as a quick introduction to St. Seraphim and some of the teachings of Orthodoxy. It is a short read, and yet contains a lot of meat. But I would also recommend, especially if you are new to Orthodoxy or ascetical and monastic literature, to have a priest or other mature Orthodox Christian nearby whom you can ask questions of. Because believe me, you will have questions.

Currently, this book is only available in the UK, and is distributed by Gazelle Book Services. It can be ordered here, and at a few other UK book sellers.