This book review ran in the Los Angeles Times this past Saturday. The first
volume, which came out in 1997, is one of my very favorite books; I tell
people, if you're only buying one book, don't get one of mine--get "Father
Arseny." There is more wisdom in that book than I can even process, much less
produce. Now a second volume has been translated, this one mostly
reminiscences from the last decade of Fr. Arseny's life, by people who knew
him after his release from prison.
Last Thurs I recorded my first commentary for the National Public Radio show,
"Morning Edition". Yay! I hope it will run soon, but it's on cloning and stem
cell research, and they may wait for a news hook. I'll send it out once its
broadcast. They said they will try to let me know ahead of time when its
going to run, but as a news show ME under production 24 hours a day, and
sometimes they change the lineup in the middle of the night. Hope it works
out that I can tune in to catch it--always a strange experience.
Free book a-comin: I mentioned last time that I've been working on a chapter
for a new book series on Christian history; the plan is to do something like
the Time-Life book series on World War II, with long chapters, lots of
illustrations, sidebars, etc, very approachable. THe first volume is at the
printer's now, and the plan is to give it away free and hope people will
subscribe to subsequent volumes. In a couple of weeks they should have things
set up to take orders, and I'll be able to pass on to you an 800 number or a
Have a very blessed Christmas and a joyous new year!
Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father (St. Vladimir's Seminary
Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001)
translated by Vera Bouteneff
Orthodox Christians like to tell each other that their church is the "best
kept secret" in America. That's one way to make sense of the puzzling fact
that, though membership estimates range from three to six million
(record-keeping is not the faith's strong suit), the church is mostly
invisible. Other Americans might recall going to a Greek wedding once, or
seeing Russians troop around their church with candles at midnight, but
otherwise have little awareness of this non-Protestant, non-Catholic,
Thus, when something big happens in the world of Orthodox publishing, it's
mostly unknown outside church circles. Something big happened four years ago,
with the publication of "Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father."
This was a translation of a book that had already sold 400,000 copies in
Russia, the first open publication of a battered manuscript which had
previously circulated only in carbon copy, underground.
American Orthodox immediately recognized "Father Arseny" as a spiritual
treasure. The book is a collection of memoirs assembled by someone who calls
himself "the servant of God Alexander." The essays describe a Russian priest
through the eyes of many who knew him, both during his years in a communist
concentration camp, and in the town where he lived till his death in 1975.
Father Arseny's radical compassion and humility embody the distinctive flavor
of Orthodox spirituality, and as such his story struck an immediate chord.
For example, the book opens with dawn in the sub-freezing gulag, as the
feeble, aging priest struggles to light a fire for the barracks. Clergy were
despised by everyone, even other prisoners; Christians were believed to be
stupid. Yet in the course of this typical day Fr. Arseny endures beatings and
abuse with patience, while caring for two sick prisoners and sharing with
them his rations. One invalid is a criminal, and the other a deposed official
who had signed Fr. Arseny's own sentence. Through the course of succeeding
chapters both become converts, and take the priest as their spiritual father.
The character of this kindly, long-suffering priest contrasts with the
American expectation of what a successful Christian leader would be like:
glib, brisk, upbeat, forceful. Fr. Arseny represents a different kind of
Christian spirituality, one associated more with the Desert Fathers and early
Fr. Arseny differs in another way: he has contact with the supernatural.
American Christian spokesmen live in an orderly, corporate sort of world, but
Fr. Arseny is frequently shown at crux of miraculous events. In one incident,
he and a young man are thrown into a punishment cell, a small metal cubicle
exposed to -22 degree temperatures. The guards expected to find both dead
when they unlocked the door 48 hours later. Instead, they found the prisoners
rested and radiant, with a thick coat of frost on their clothing. As the
young man described it later, when he collapsed in despair he saw the dark
cell flooded with light, and Fr. Arseny praying in priestly garments. The
young man, like most others who knew Fr. Arseny, was transformed by his
These distinctively Orthodox elements, of humble compassion and spiritual
power, are what made the first "Father Arseny" volume so beloved, and why the
new volume has been eagerly awaited. "Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses"
continues the story with essays by people who knew him in the years after
prison, and like the first includes many tales of personal transformation and
When asked if other, similar samizdat works are waiting to be published,
translator Vera Bouteneff says, "I wish, I wish. Everything I've found so far
was much too sweet." Her own parents fled Russia soon after the Revolution;
her father had been sentenced to be shot, but the order was commuted to
exile. Her practical turn of mind is evident in the straightforwardness of
the translation. Many other holy women and men lived during the communist
era, but Bouteneff has found those accounts to be overstated and saccharine.
"Fr. Arseny," which was written by many different people of different
educational levels, preserves a winning directness. Those who would like to
know more about Orthodox Christian spirituality can see it enacted in these
books, worked out in human lives rather than in theory.
Soon after the publication of the first volume a story went around the
internet: an Orthodox nun who had been reading the book one night turned out
her light to go to sleep, looked back toward the book–and it was glowing.
Though she hadn't heard the story, "I won't deny it," says Bouteneff. "I
believe in miracles."
--> missing mail advisory <--
Occasionally, mail sent to [EMAIL PROTECTED] never arrives. If you don't get
a reply in a few days, shake your fist helplessly at AOL and write again.