A few weeks ago, Gabriel asked me to contribute an article here on my essential must-read list of books from the Christian East. I’ve never tried putting together a click-baity top 10 list before and had no idea how hard it was going to be. Having been Orthodox for 20 years (and an admitted bibliophile), I’ve read a lot of books… I mean a lot, so while this list is by no means exhaustive, these books are great for diving into the Eastern mindset.
Life of Moses – Gregory of Nyssa
St. Gregory takes the life of Moses from the books of Exodus and Numbers and dives into the historical elements, giving it a literal reading, but also dives deeper into the spiritual meaning of Moses’ life. What we get is one of the best illustrations of apophaticism, the idea that we can’t know who God is in terms or concepts of human understanding because they inherently fall short. God’s nature or essence is unknowable; we know God through his energies. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Moses talks with God in the darkness, how he found God in that darkness and emerged from the darkness radiating with the uncreated light, the same light that would illumine Christ on Mount Tabor.
Notable quote: “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”
For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Fr. Schmemann wrote so much on liturgical theology, relating how the Mysteries or Sacraments center our orientation in the world. For the Live of the World is quite possibly his most approachable work, explaining our world and lives in relation to the liturgical life of the Church. We can align to our original purpose; they relate to God and those around us in a real and genuine way through the Church, her liturgy, and her Mysteries/Sacraments.
Notable quote – “The Church is not a society for escape-corporately or individually-from this world to taste of the mystical bliss of eternity. Communion is not a ‘mystical experience’: we drink of the chalice of Christ, and He gave Himself for the life of the world. The bread on the paten and the wine in the chalice are to remind us of the incarnation of the Son of God, of the cross and death. And thus, it is the very joy of the Kingdom that makes us remember the world and pray for it. It is the very communion with the Holy Spirit that enables us to love the world with the love of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view. Intercession begins here, in the glory of the messianic banquet, and this is the only true beginning of the Church’s mission. It is when, ‘having put aside all earthly care,’ we seem to have left this world, that we, in fact, recover it in all its reality.”
On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
On the Incarnation is the seminal work of St. Athanasius and encapsulates the Nicene teaching of Christ as both fully God and fully man and ties the Incarnation and Ressurection together to explain the redemptive work of Christ. The Incarnate Redeemer is also the Creator of all. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better discussion on Christ’s Incarnation in any of the thousands of works attempting to do what St. Athanasius did 1700 years ago. It’s a beautiful read and, if you’re looking for a good version, the one I use is the St. Vladimir’s version, edited by Fr. John Behr with a forward from CS Lewis.
Notable Quote: He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God
Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church by Metropolitan John Zizioulas
Being as Communion is a Christian classic for all. In this book, Zizioulas defines personhood, what it means to be human in terms of the relationship of the Holy Trinity. This book is one of the heaviest on my list, but it is absolutely worth it. There are times while reading that I had to go back and reread a page or two multiple times for it to sink in fully.
Notable quote: The person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The person is an identity that emerges through relationship; it is an ‘I’ that can exist only as long as it relates to a ‘thou’ which affirms it’s existence and it’s otherness. If we isolate the ‘I’ from the ‘thou’ we lose not only it’s otherness but also it’s very being; it simply cannot be without the other. Personhood is freedom. In its anthropological significance, personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. I hesitate to say ‘different’ instead of ‘other’, because ‘different’ can be understood in the sense of qualities (clever, beautiful, etc.), which is not what the person is about. Person implies not simply the freedom to have qualities, but mainly the freedom simply to be yourself. And yet because, as we have already observed, one person is no person, this freedom is not freedom from the other but freedom for the other. Freedom thus becomes identical with love. We can love only if we are persons, that is, if we allow the other to be truly other, and yet to be in communion with us. If we love the other not only in spite of his of her being different from us but because he or she is different from us, or rather other than ourselves, we live in freedom as love and in love as freedom .
The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides
As a student of Christian mysticism, Markides travels to Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain of Orthodox Christianity, an island community of monasteries to study Eastern Christain monasticism/mysticism known as hysechism. Following Fr. Maximos, we have our eyes opened to a beauty in Christian spirituality largely unknown in the West. I have given away so many copies of this book.
Notable quote: “We lost the knowledge of God,” [Father Maximos] went on to say, “at the moment when we transformed the Ecclesia from experience into theology, from a living reality into moralistic principles, good values, and high ideals. When that happened,” Father Maximos said humorously, “we became like tin cans with nothing inside.”
Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God by Fr. Meletios Ware
Here’s another contemporary book that looks at the sacramental reality of the Church and the nature of humans. Fr. Webber offers the world view of the Christian East as an answer to the problems we face today, namely altering how we view ourselves and the world around us to incorporate the Mysteries of the Christian faith as a true north, so to speak, for a more tangible, richer life in Christ.
Notable Quote – In fallen humanity, that would be ALL of us!, the mind and the heart have been alienated from each other. The mind has started to function on its own, separated from the heart. It actually has the audacity to set up shop on its own and start behaving as if it has a life on its own. This is where the problems start. The mind is very good and valuable as a tool, but it does not have strength of character to be independent.
The Scent of Holiness by Constantina Palmer
This book follows the journey of female monastics and how they practice and live our their Christian faith. It offers a unique perspective on the life of the Christian East from an ofter underrepresented voice within Orthodoxy. It highlights the sheer depths of asceticism in a concise, easy to relate to book.
Notable quote: “Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world.”
The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
This is the other dense book on the list. It was one of my favorite reads
when I was doing my Master’s work. Lossky starts out by saying, “The Eastern Tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church… to put it another way, we must live the dogma expressing, a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery.” This book aims to bring the reader closer to understanding what apophaticism or mystical theology” is, see the differences between God’s energies and essence, and accept that some things are just unknowable.
Notable quote: The perfection of man does not consist in that which assimilates him to the whole of creation, but in that which distinguishes him from the created order and assimilates him to his Creator. Revelation teaches us that man was made in the image and likeness of God.
Three Treaties On the Divine Images by St. John of Damascus
In the Christian East, the first millennia of Christiandom was a time not of the development of doctrine but its articulation. The faith is expressed in the canons and teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Seventh dealing with icons, or images, in the Church. One of the great voices of the time in defense of icons was St. John of Damascus, and his work On the Divine Images defends not only icons but also the Incarnational reality of Christ’s life and the difference between veneration and worship. We can now depict God in Christ because Christ took on a physical body and people could see him. He ascended as fully human and God, reunited the created with the Creator. I could go on and on because I love this book, but you should just read it for yourself.
Notable quote: “Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.”
Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac of Syria
St. Isaac of Syria was a 7th-century bishop known for his teaching. This collection of homilies focus on living a holy life and learning to find God in silence and stillness, a practice known as hesychasm. His homilies give an insight into the monastic life that influenced all of the Christian East and offers a unique glimpse into Eastern spirituality.
Notable quote: “Make peace with yourself, and both heaven and earth will make peace with you.”
Okay, I know I said 10, but that was just too hard, so I’m adding two more Eastern writers that are easy to approach I have to recommend:
St. Ephraim the Syrian
St. Ephraim was a 4th-century deacon who composed theological poetry, and you can get a good understanding of how the Christian East views the world, God, and humanity in a beautiful, poetic way. There are several books out there, but if you want an easy intro to St. Ephraim, check out his Nativity hymns online.
Notable quote: “Blessed be the Merciful One, who saw the weapon by Paradise, that closed the way to the Tree of Life; and came and took a Body which could suffer, that with the Door, that was in His side, He might open the way into Paradise.”
Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
Hailed as a book for those beginning to develop their prayer rule, this book is loved by many, both East and West. The title limits it, in my opinion; this is a great read for anyone. Met. Anthony encourages us to dive deeper into ourselves as we deepen our prayer life and draw closer to God. If I were to sum this up in one sentence, it is a book from a man who loves humanity and wants to help all draw closer to God.
Noatable Quote: “You cannot, having never prayed before, start with eighteen hours of dialogue and prayer with God continuously like this while you do other things. But you can easily single out one or two moments and put all your energy into them.”
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does give a little insight into some of the more influential books in my life from the Christian East.