I find myself being asked the same question over and over, “What books should I start with to understand Orthodoxy?” This question is a logical one given that those in the West have been cut off from Orthodoxy for over a thousand years. The Traditions of our ancestors and the historical Church have been kept away from Westerners for too long, and now as the Vatican II Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations are falling over themselves to jump on the Modernism bandwagon and forgo Sacred Tradition for what is popular with the secular popular culture, we must work to reconnect ourselves to True Christianity that is found inside the walls of the Orthodox Church.The first step to understanding Orthodoxy is to understand the history of the first thousand years of Christianity. When one looks at the earliest records of Christian dogma and style of worship, it’s startling how little contemporary American Christianity has in common historical Christendom.
The heretical “Prosperity Gospel” of acquiring wealth as a way to salvation and the equally heretical “Christian Zionism” that are so popular within the Evangelical and low Church Protestant movement in America are found nowhere within the words of the Saints, pronouncements of the Councils, or Scripture. We must detoxify ourselves from American Christianity and instead find our way back to the path of the Faith of the glorious martyrs, confessors, and Saints of the Church.
Orthodoxy–meaning “Right Belief” in Greek–is the Faith that has been unchanged for over two thousand years. Throughout centuries of attack by both political and religious enemies, the rising of various heresies, and attempts at oppression and subversion by those who hate Truth, the Orthodox Church has stood firm in the dedication to following the Church of Christ and the principles, dogmas, and values of Christianity established by Christ and His Apostles from the earliest days of the Faith until the Second Coming of our Savior.
With all of this in mind, this is my “Top Five” list for those interested in Orthodoxy to reconnect with the living and Apostolic Church of our forefathers.
1. The Way of the Pilgrim
The Way of the Pilgrim is a book that all Christians should read because it answers the Biblical commandment found in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” As Christians we are called to always be connected to our Creator through the process known as prayer. St. Nikon of Optina wrote “Do not forget prayer─it is the life of the soul” and that is a true fact in the life of a Christian. We must aim to always be praying no matter if we are stuck in traffic, at work, with our friends and family, or laying down to sleep.
The Way of the Pilgrim tells the story of a widower who begins walking through Tsarist Russia to find the answer to his question of how to live a life that is continually filled with prayer. The Pilgrim finds that the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is a tool used by Tsars, Patriarchs and peasants alike to begin a life of humility, repentance and unending prayer.
The journey of the pilgrim is one that is both historical and timeless. The challenges faced by the pilgrim and those he meets throughout his journey are applicable to all of us. The desire for wealth, the influence of pride, the inability to forgive those who have wronged us are human problems regardless of when or where one is born. We must all journey on in our Christian walk to “run the race” as Scripture tells us. One of the best ways to run our race is to begin learning a life of constant prayer, and the Way of the Pilgrim is a great introduction to this lifestyle of true Orthodox humility.
- Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov
One aspect of the Orthodox Christian Faith that is generally unknown to Americans is the important role of monks and nuns to the community and Church. Monks and nuns are men and women who give themselves to a life of celibacy, simplicity, and prayer.
The monastic religious orders dedicate themselves to praying for those in need, running businesses to support not only their monastery but also the poor, crippled, and widows of the local area; and being spiritual guides for those interested in increasing their Faith. While not everyone is called to this life, for those that answer the call they follow the call of Saint Seraphim of Sarov who said “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” The legions of pious monks and nuns serve as a righteous beacon for Orthodox believers to imitate, calling us all to live lives dedicated to prayer, the Faith, charity and a spirit of sacrifice for our brethren.
Everyday Saints is written by an Archimandrite who grew up in the heart of the Soviet Union. Archimandrite Tikhon went to the Soviet university system as a model pupil. He grew up as an atheist and a believer in the Soviet system, but all of that changed when he first experienced the Orthodox Faith. Although the Soviet government indoctrinated Tikhon with forced lectures on atheism and the merits of communism, endless State propaganda and social controls to control access to religious materials all of this was nearly instantly undone when Tikhon experienced the beauty, majesty and love found within the Orthodox Faith.
Archimandrite Tikhon had every opportunity to live a comfortable life as a successful film director in the Soviet Union, all he had to do was deny his new found calling to follow Christ and he would have material comforts and social status. Just like the Apostles who threw down their nets and left their boats to follow Christ, Archimandrite Tikhon gave up everything in the material world to enter a monastery and become a monk.
The book tracks the growth of Archimandrite Tikhon and the other monks in the Pskov Caves Monastery over the course of several decades. Tikhon starts off as a confused youth yearning for Truth to making it to some of the highest levels of the Russian Orthodox Church. While you might think this book would be a dry tome, it brought me to laughter, tears, and spiritual joy. The stories of monks and priests who suffered profoundly for their Faith under the persecution of the Soviet authorities is an inspiring narrative.
Stories range from the recollections of World War II veterans who left the blood-soaked battlefields to find peace among the monastery life, to narratives about miraculous healings. One of the most powerful parts of the book tracks the recovery of the remains of Patriarch Tikhon, the last Patriarch of the Russian Church before the Bolshevik takeover and a martyr for the Faith, is especially powerful. The Patriarch’s body was found accidentally after a fire in a Church where devout Orthodox believers had hidden his body from the roving bands of Bolshevik forces who desired to desecrate and destroy the Patriarch’s body. After nearly a century in a drafty underground vault, the Patriarch was found to be incorrupt. While never being embalmed, the body was free from rot and decay. The power of God kept this servant of God free from desecration and the taste of death, a true miracle, just one of many found within Everyday Saints.
Following the collapse of the Soviet system, the growth of Faith in Russia is tracked throughout this book as well. To see the atheism of communism thrown away and the re-connection of the Russian people with their Faith and with the Church of Christ is an inspiring read to those of us who are facing down the barrel of encroaching government persecution of the Church and an ever advancing tide of atheism. Christ Himself told us that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail” against the Faith and Everyday Saints shows us that this message is true. While the Soviets killed tens of millions of Orthodox believers, the Faith remains strong and is undergoing an historic revival.
For those interested in learning about the lives of monks and what it means to be part of everyday monastery life, the story of growth of a youth finding his Faith and rejecting the passions of the world to follow Christ and stories of how the Church survived and thrived even under the worst persecutions, Everyday Saints is a great read to introduce you to monasticism and what it truly means to be an Everyday Saint.
3. Thirty Steps to Heaven by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou
The original Ladder of Divine Ascent was written by Saint John Climacus in the Seventh century while he was a monk at a Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. Saint John Climacus wrote his famous work to help monks under his charge to be able to conquer the passions of the world and “climb” to a pious life free from sin and towards eternal salvation.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a book that is geared specifically to those in the monastic life, but many if not all of the lessons within it are applicable to laypeople as well. Thirty Steps to Heaven was written by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou as a companion to the original Ladder of Divine Ascent for normal churchgoers in the modern age.
In our lives we are called to climb the ladder towards Heaven by conquering our sinful passions and lust. Saint John Climacus says at one point in the Ladder “War proves the Soldier’s love for his king; but the time and discipline of prayer show the monk’s love for God.” We as laypeople and members of the Church Militant must remember that we are called to be like both soldiers and monks, willing to fight and die to our Earthly homeland and God appointed King but also living every second of every day in prayer, service and charity to those in need. Prayer is one of the most powerful weapons to help us overcome the powers of demons and the temptations of sin that plague us every day of our lives.
To work towards our salvation with “fear and trembling,” we must work to individually conquer the various passions that afflict us. To do this, Thirty Steps to Heaven includes portions of the original Ladder while including a chapter on how this applies to the layperson’s life and how we can best implement these messages into our lives within the world. The book gives clear and thoughtful ways to improve our prayer lives and begin to live as Christ desires us to live, with Faith and humility.
Each step of the book is linked with one another and tackles such issues as physical lust, greed, pride, anger, judgment of others, and other passions that regardless of class or background all human beings struggle with. Thirty Steps to Heaven is easily accessible to all levels of the Faith and is a valuable tool for those interested in Orthodox spirituality and how to start climbing up the ladder towards salvation in your everyday life.
4. The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware
The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware is perhaps the best English language introduction to the historical timeline and growth of Orthodoxy. While, I have some quibbles with some mild modernist leanings found in some of Bishop Ware’s writings, but his research and accessible writing style tells the story of the two thousand years of the Orthodox Church in an engaging way. Bishop Kallistos Ware is one of the best educated bishops when it comes to the history of Orthodoxy and his book is more of an introductory historical review than a spiritual primer.
In The Orthodox Church we follow the founding of the Christian Faith that begins with Christ and His Apostles up until the modern day. The Great Schism of 1054 A.D is covered in some detail. Bishop Ware helps Western Christians understand the Orthodox perspective on the schism.
If you want to understand how the Church was originally founded, the style of worship and dogmatic beliefs of the early Christians, and how those Traditions are maintained in the modern day Orthodox Church, Bishop Ware’s book is a good starting point. For those interested in history, this book will be a first step on your research and journey, but it provides a good overview and gives you enough citations and links to other books and resources to keep you busy for some time as you grow in understanding and in your Faith.
- Unseen Warfare by Father Lorenzo Scupoli
The book Unseen Warfare may seem like a strange way to end my introduction to Orthodoxy reading list because it was not written by an Orthodox Saint or Orthodox clergyman, instead it was written by a Catholic priest in the 16th century. The book however is theologically and practically very useful for Orthodox believers. The book has become popular in both Western and Eastern Churches and speaks to a struggle that all Christian believers face.
St. Nicodemos who wrote an introduction to Unseen Warfare wrote:“This book teaches that the warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians; and their commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by His marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchies of angels and saints. The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner man. The time of battle is our Whole life.”
This sets up the reader to understand that the first battle for our souls begins within ourselves, a lifelong battle against Satan and the demonic forces that seek to destroy us spiritually and drag us down into the pits of Hell. Only through becoming loyal soldiers of Christ can we hope to serve our immortal God King and have our souls be saved.
Through living a Godly and spiritual life in which we conquer the passions can we be saved from ourselves and our human inclination to following the example of a fallen and sin-corrupted world that we live in.
Unseen Warfare chronicles what Christian perfection is through looking at and evaluating the life of the ultimate example, Christ Himself. If you wish to radically changed yourself to become an authentic Christian who lives everyday for the sake of Christ and His Church, Unseen Warfare is a good start to begin waging the inner crusade against the passions.
The war will not be easy brothers and sisters, but united together and through the power of Christ we will be victorious and be able to reach the Dread Judgment seat of Christ with our Lord welcoming us as Matthew 25:21 says by our Lord telling us ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!”
These books are just the beginning for those interested in becoming Orthodox Christians, but they will be lampposts of spiritual illumination, inspiration and information to help each and every one of us run the race of life as soldiers of Christ. The battle never ends, but the rewards are worth all of our sacrifices.
Take these books and use them to gain knowledge of the Faith and may they help grow your Faith. All I ask is that you pray for me, an unworthy sinner.