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 
Press, 1997)
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, 
Christian body.

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 
Christian spirituality. 

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."

Frederica Mathewes-Green
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