Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God …” – Heb. 13:7
Contemporary Classics of Orthodox Literature
It is my observation that today many Orthodox Christians are reading a good deal of contemporary Orthodox literature – books on spirituality, liturgy, theology and history. These are books that are read immediately upon publication and which are very well promoted – if not well “marketed.” A steady Orthodox reading discipline/program is essential in today’s world perhaps more than ever. We are so ideologically bombarded from so many disparate quarters, that we need to remember who we are and what we believe!
I am writing, though, with a particular concern in mind: Perhaps we are only – or mostly only – reading the most contemporary literature. Most of the Orthodox literature that I am now referring to can be accessed on Ancient Faith Radio. There is a circle of well-read authors there who are fairly prolific and have a wide Orthodox reading audience. I am not writing anything against those authors or their books.
However, because I am from an older generation, and have been an Orthodox priest for over forty years now, I want to make a heartfelt plea for the great writers who nurtured me, who nurtured an entire earlier generation or two, and who wrote the classics of twentieth century Orthodox literature. This is a great literature that placed Orthodoxy on the “map” both in America and in Europe and beyond – into Russia and other parts of the world.
I strongly believe that we need to read these classics of the twentieth century, because these are the very books that served as the foundation for others to build on. These were books that allowed Orthodoxy to emerge from its sheltered ethnic communities; books which revived an abiding and lasting focus on the Fathers of the Church; books which completely restored the apostolic vision of the Liturgy and the Eucharist; and books that penetrated deeply into our genuine spiritual Tradition with the insights and practices that lead us to lives of holiness.
I repeat: I am not claiming that our newer contemporary literature cannot do that, but our newer authors are standing on the shoulders of the “giants” who prepared the vision that may sustain them. For the sake of balance and wholeness, we must not neglect these classics. It would be a great loss if these books – and their authors – were more-or-less forgotten as the years pass. A further point is that the authors I am about to enumerate were steeped in a centuries-old Orthodox culture. They did not need to be overly defensive defensive, polemical or apologetic.
This is not a “nostalgia fest” on my part. Of that, I can assure you. I think that as clergy and laity, we need a broad a range of theological grounding as much possible, and again, the classics go a long way in assuring that. (I of course, assume that everyone is reading the Scriptures and Fathers with regularity).
There were four great writers from the Orthodox Tradition that wrote brilliant and compelling books for many decades throughout the twentieth century. I read their works over and over – and over. They have had a lasting effect on me, and I like to think that in my own very modest way, I have applied their vision in my own pastoral ministry, from liturgy to theology. With the exception of Lossky, the other three – especially Frs. Schmemann and Meyendorff – were the key “architects” in establishing the Orthodox Church in America. I had the great privilege of actually knowing, studying under and worshiping with, Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff while a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (1978-1981), as well as with Fr. Thomas Hopko. An unforgettable experience.
So, here are a few of the authors and books that I would like to highlight and bring to your attention:
+ George Florovsky (1893 – 1979)
His collected works have been published in 13 volumes, I believe, but I would single out:
Vol 1 – Bible, Church, Tradition – An Orthodox Perspective – A collection of essays that provide insight after insight into the meaning and relationship between Scripture and Tradition.
Vol. IV – Creation and Redemption – Another set of brilliant essays that incorporate the works of the Church Fathers in understanding the divine oikonomia from the Incarnation to the Resurrection.
There is a new volume of many never-before translated works, though it is quite expensive. Still, a worthwhile investment. Everything is simply brilliant that is contained in this volume, which also has a great Introduction:
The Patristic Witness of George Florovsky – The Essential Theological Writings
+ Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958)
The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church – This book is the Orthodox classic of the twentieth century, written in 1945. It takes some real concentration, but endlessly fascinating and insightful.
The Image and Likeness of God – Essays that cover the whole range of theological, anthropological and Mariological themes.
Orthodox Dogmatics – A comprehensive study of dogmatic subjects by a brilliant theologian who leans heavily on the Church Fathers.
+ Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)
For the Life of the World – An absolute “must read” classic.
Great Lent – Considered the best single volume on the subject in the English language by Met. Kallistos Ware.
The Eucharist – Fr. Schmemann’s final study of his life-long engagement with the meaning and practice of the Eucharist.
Church, World, Mission – A series of challenging essays about the Orthodox Church facing the challenges of the contemporary world.
John Meyendorff (1926-1993)
Byzantine Theology – Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes – A “classic” study of the Byzantine roots of our theological Tradition.
The Byzantine Legacy of the Orthodox Church – A great collection of essays that distinguish between the relative and eternal components of the Byzantine legacy.
Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions – A more detailed look at Church History from the 5th – 8th c. A brilliant work of historical synthesis.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (1934-2022)
We cannot fail to mention him! He comes from a background different than the “big four,” but he was a decisive figure in bringing Orthodox literature to the non-Orthodox Christian world.
The Orthodox Church – Still the best one-volume introduction to the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Way – a great supplement to The Orthodox Church focusing on what we call Orthodox spirituality. A real favorite!
Sacraments of Healing – Just published and a further supplement to the two other books by Met. Kallistos. To be read together in this year’s upcoming Fall Adult Education Class.
The Inner Kingdom – A collection of endlessly fascinating essays by Met. Kallistos, covering his conversion to Orthodoxy to profound insights into the last judgement – and beyond.
Other contemporary authors that are excellent and who have been writing for some time now, are: John Behr (Becoming Human), Andrew Louth (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology), Metropolitan Ilarion (The Orthodox Faith), Peter Bouteneff (How To Be a Sinner), Nona Verna Harrison (The Many–Splendored Image of God). Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (God and Man; Beginning to Pray); Metropolitan John Zizioulas (Being and Communion), and, of course, Fr. Thomas Hopko (The Orthodox Faith in four volumes), are writers who have rather recently “fallen asleep in the Lord.”
I fully realize that I could be “preaching to the choir,” and I apologize if it sounds as if I am implying that you have not read any/some/many of the books above. You may know this literature very well, indeed! And, I do not want to sound patronizing. But, I have been around and reading since the early 1970’s(!), so I thought to share some of my own experience with Orthodox literature with those of you who have not been Orthodox for as long. Please accept my advice in that spirit. If anyone would like to pursue this further, a group of us could have a zoom session on this or a related theme.