on April 25, 2013
This excellent, concise book is exactly what the title suggests - a highly practical guide to Christian spirituality, derived from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, ascetic hermits and monks who lived mainly in the Egyptian desert from the third century. It is based on a series of sermons given by Father Athanasius Iskander to young people, and it is exactly the book I was searching for - but, sadly, never found - twenty years ago, when I became a Christian. Though even now, twenty years later, I could find much to value.
That it is counter-cultural goes without saying. It will even grate against much church culture. Father Athanasius tells us the two most important characteristics of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers were discipleship - attachment to a "master" - and the total avoidance of relying on one's self. I belong to the evangelical tradition of Christianity. I wonder how many of our young people would wish to follow such counsel. And much of his guidance goes against current trends of living, even within the church. Certainly the opening words of Chapter One forced me to reflect - "If you wish to pursue Christian perfection, you have to protect your mind from information that is unprofitable to your soul. Unfortunately this is the age of information and information technology, and the world is offering it to us like never before...Today we have information junkies, people who seek information, not to improve their efficiency at work, but information for its own sake." Yes, that's me."
This book is full of many wonderful stories and examples. It is very well written and easy to read. It should be read more than once. I hope to read it regularly. Highly recommended.
on March 10, 2013
Abba Ammon was asked, 'What is the "narrow and hard way?" (Mt. 7.14) He replied, 'The "narrow and hard way" is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." (Mt. 19.27)
This book begins by discussing the nature of sin and man's fall, and how man's redemption takes placed through Christ's sacrifice and our renewal through Holy Baptism. Baptism and the grace which we receive therefrom becomes sullied through sin, and in light of this Father Athanasius discusses the means by which we are aided in overcoming our vices and building up virtues in light of the Tradition of our Holy Desert Fathers (the Abba's and Amma's).
Father Athanasius' book presents what can be described as a step-by-step `guide' (and I use the term very loosely), divided roughly into two parts - the vices and virtues. This assists the reader in understanding the nature of sin, and where they ought to begin (i.e. at the very bottom of the ladder) - breaking down the walls of sin first and then replacing these with virtues.
It all begins with the mind. Father Athanasius discusses how we should protect ourselves from `information overload' and useless information with which we are bombarded, especially by the media and the internet. Too much information leads us to become armchair judges and the Bible itself warns against this "But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters." This leads to gossip, and slander and of course anyone who slanders his brother is...a murderer. With this in mind Father Athanasius gives practical guidance on how we should only `overload' our mind with spiritual knowledge - through prayer. It is God who truly enlightens.
Humility and our relations with others through humility are also discussed. Prayer for those who persecute us is essential and Father Athanasius provides numerous examples of God's providence for those who do pray for their enemies. As Abba Zeno said, 'If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.'
Discipline of the will is also addressed - the power to say `no'. When a person is assailed by evil thoughts we should accustom ourselves to prayer - man is powerless without God, irrespective of how good his intentions may be, and it is only through God that man can ever gain victory over sin and the devil. Abba Macarius was asked, 'How should one pray?' The old man said 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, "Lord, as You will, and as You know, have mercy." And if the conflict grows fiercer say, "Lord, help!" He knows very well what we need and He shows us His mercy.'
Abba Xanthias said, 'The thief was on the cross and he was justified by a single word; and Judas who was counted in the number of the apostles lost all his labour in one single night and descended from heaven to hell. Therefore, let no-one boast of his good works, for all those who trust in themselves fall.' and in light of these words presumptuous sins i.e. self righteousness and legalism, false tears, and a false sense of humility are all addressed.
Discipline of the senses, and of the memory are important because it is through the senses that sin comes to dwell in the heart of man. Numerous examples from both the Scriptures and the examples of the lives of the Desert Fathers are put forth. Father Athanasius puts this into a modern context for us. He firstly explains what these sins are (and some may surprise you!) and then provides practical examples and advice on how we ought to overcome these.
The second part of the book discusses the virtues, and how once we have begun to destroy the `old man', we need to build up the virtues within us, which as Father Athanasius reiterates can only be accomplished through God's grace. Obedience, patience, meekness, and chastity are all discussed in great detail with practical advice provided in light of the Tradition of the Desert Fathers. "The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures." Abba Tithoes
This book is extremely well presented, and laid out. It provides so much assistance in the spiritual struggle, and is aimed at a modern audience; something which is badly needed in our modern times. People often use the excuse that our times are different from those of the Desert Fathers and therefore their advice no longer applies. Father Athanasius rubbishes that argument with his practical counsels based on the Traditions of the Desert Fathers. This book is an absolute gem. Highly recommended reading. May God bless Father Athanasius for the assistance he has provided on the rungs up the ladder to salvation.
on July 23, 2015
A bit dry and uninteresting. Felt a bit legalistic and dogmatic. I thought I was reading the writings of a Southern Baptist preacher not an Orthodox priest. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't dance, etc. While I appreciate that the author drew a lot from scripture, I was looking more from the sayings of the Desert Fathers. I don't like books that fill their pages with tons of Bible text. When I buy a book, I am looking for something new or additional to draw from, not duplicated Bible passages. The quotes from the Desert Fathers were few when compared to the excessive Bible text. And, it seemed the author himself injected a lot of his own thoughts rather than from the Desert Fathers. If you are looking for something from the Orthodox Desert Fathers, I really wouldn't recommend this book. Because what you will get is a lot of Bible and a lot of the authors own words, and very little from the Desert Fathers.
on August 11, 2013
Easy to read and well thought out. Not filled with references but day to day useful knowledge. Its a quick read, if you are Orthodox already, many of the themes will be familiar. If you are not Orthodox it may cause you to re-think some of your assumptions about spirituality, in a good way of course. I purchased this for my Kindle as an e-book. Started it, put it down, picked it up, never lost any time reading it. I highly recommend it for anyone. Its a valuable resource, that I will go back and forth to increase my understanding of my own spirituality.
on January 29, 2013
This book is a must have for all Orthodox Christians seeking to deepen their spirituality. This book is amazingly easy to read, but full of those "ah ha!" moments. The author, Abouna Athanasius, is able to take complex ideas and theology and translate them for every day people to understand. Practical Spirituality will help the reader deepen their spirituality and come closer to God. I absolutely love this book and recommend it to everyone!