Monday, 1 December 2014

Here’s a First! A Book Review...

Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain – Spiritual Counsels Volume 1:
With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man.
Elder Paisios (1924-1994) was a Greek monk born in Cappadocia. He entered the monastic
life as soon as he could after finishing his military service in 1949, and spent his monastic
life on Mount Athos, and in the Holy Monastery of Stomion in Konitsa, and on Mount Sinai
in Egypt.
In the late 1960s Elder Paisios founded the Holy
Monastery of St John the Theologian in Souroti of
Thessaloniki, Greece. This women’s monastery was
under his spiritual guidance from 1967 to his death
in 1994.

It is from this relationship with the Monastery of St
John the Theologian that we get these ‘spiritual
counsels’. The nuns painstakingly wrote down their
conversations with the Elder, both private and
public, and collected and edited the material into
themed chapters. The style is conversational –
questions posed by a nun and the Elder’s response,
and the translation is lively, talkative and, for the
most part, realistically rendered without the clunky
phrasing you sometimes find in translated works of
this kind. Thus it is a very easy book to read (don’t
be put off by its dry and scholarly appearance!), if not always easy to assimilate.
What do I mean by that?
The themes are huge – for example a glance at the headings gives some idea what you’ll be
getting into:

Part I Sin and the Devil
Part II Modern Civilization
Part III The Spirit of God and the spirit of the world
Part IV The Church in our time
Each part is divided into between 4 and 6 themed chapters, though, which makes it an easy
book to dissect, and perfect for ‘dipping’.

Some might object that this is a book of teachings by a monastic for monastics, and can
only therefore have limited relevance to Orthodox living in the world. However, the vast
majority of the book is easily transferred from the monastic to the lay setting – indeed, in
many of his teachings he specifically speaks of laity and their struggles. For example, I was
tempted to skip the chapter (p197 and following) entitled ‘External Noise and Internal
Tranquillity’ – the first pages deal with the extreme importance of internal tranquillity if
cultivating the life of prayer: ‘Oh Yeah!’ I thought, listening as I was to my children singing
off key at the top of their voices, and the morning rush hour zooming past just feet from
where I sat: ‘Oh Yeah!’ But, a few pages on, a subsection entitled ‘Good Thoughts are the
Antidote to Noise Pollution’ describes the process of reclaiming ones ‘shattered thoughts’
and ends with the knockout claim, relevant, I would guess, to each one of us living in the
world: ‘Thinking good thoughts is the best form of ascesis; there is no greater help than
good thoughts’ (p209). He earlier advises: ‘bring good thoughts to mind and your heart will
be filled with a doxology to God’ (p207-8).

The simplicity of this advice – and its directness – exemplifies everything in the book, and
here’s the problem: it would be possible for us ‘cool intellectuals’ to be cynical about some
of his utterances, and write them off as under-educated: but the advice IS very simple,
rooted in, and springing from a lifetime of prayer and spiritual struggle, and if we can turn
off our sophistication and humbly accept these spiritual teachings we will find many
blessings and challenges in this book. But not if we think it’s beneath our dignity!
‘Everything that you observe or hear in this world, you should use to reach up to Heaven.
Let everything transport you on high. This is how one raises himself from creatures to the
Creator’ (p143).
Count me in! I’m looking forward to reading volume II. There are 4 in the series.

Imogen Maxfield