With its liturgical rites, devotional practices, accent upon tradition, and exclusion of women from the priesthood, the Eastern Church has set itself apart from the modern world and other religions. In these ways, Orthodox Christians are similar to Hasidic Jews and the Amish. The author of this welcome work is Michael Plekon, an ordained priest in the Orthodox Church and a professor in the department of sociology/anthropology and the program in religion and culture at Baruch College, City University of New York.
Plekon profiles ten men and women whom he sees as members of the modern Russian theological renaissance. They have practiced hospitality and openness as a sign of their faithfulness to Orthodox tradition and consequently were labeled by hyper-conservative ecclesiastical authorities as liberals, innovators, Western contaminated, and heretics. Plekon calls them "living icons" who have demonstrated in word and deed the holiness that is at the heart of substantive faith in God and service of others.
The author begins with an ancient figure, Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759 - 1832), whose most quoted aphorism was "Acquiring the Holy Spirit is the whole point of the Christian life." The saints presented on these pages have all sought to fulfill that noble goal. One of the most roundly condemned of their number was Father Alexander Men (1935 - 1990), an advocate of church renewal who was close to the dissent movement in Russia and was assassinated. In one of his talks, he spoke out directly against an exaggerated emphasis upon the past: "Christ calls people to bring the divine ideal to reality. Only short-sighted people imagine that Christianity has already happened, that it took place, say in the thirteenth century, or the fourth, or some other time. I would say that it has only made the first hesitant steps in the history of the human race. Many words of Christ are incomprehensible to us even now, because we are still Neanderthals in spirit and morals; because the arrow of the Gospels is aimed at eternity; because the history of Christianity is only beginning. What has happened already, what we now call the history of Christianity, are the first half-clumsy, unsuccessful attempts to make it a reality."
Plekon also is impressed with the writings and work of Father Lev Gillet (1893 - 1980), a monk who emphasized God' s limitless love and who the author calls " one of the twentieth century's greatest spiritual teachers"; Paul Evdokimov (1901 - 1970), a lay theologian who said " It is not enough to say prayers; one must become, be prayer, prayer incarnate"; and Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 - 1945), a painter, poet, and political activist in Paris who was executed in a concentration camp for giving shelter to Jewish neighbors.
These courageous individuals, Plekon asserts, proclaimed that there are "innumerable points of contact with the Kingdom, many possibilities for acquiring the Holy Spirit, for doing the gospel every day, no matter who we are, no matter our work, our class status, even our place in the Church." This is an important resource for anyone interested in Orthodox tradition. The men and women profiled in these pages are saints in the understanding of those whose vocation is to be "very similar to God."