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.

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