Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: The Gurus, The Young Man, And Elder Paisios

I said in my first blog article that, since investing myself in the Orthodox Church, I have become as excited about reading as when I first invested in Christianity. Those first readings, years ago, included the Scriptures, C.S. Lewis, and material from my Catholic High School. By this time, I have read several Orthodox books, and have recently finished what I consider the best of them I have read next to Holy Scripture. I felt that this was something I should share at some point, so this July 12, 2015, the first annual feast day of the recently canonized Saint Paisios, I decided it is time to write a review of The Gurus, The Young Man, and Elder Paisios.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that much of society is looking for the "new man." Many look for it as the next stage of human evolution (like X-Men), or as a result of technological advancement (such as the recent movie, Chappie). Christians claim the new man is already here; he came with Christ. This was the reason the Word took on human nature through the Incarnation, in order to make a renewed humanity. There are already people who have been born and grown to maturity into the nature of the Second Adam, walking among us about the Earth. As recorded in Acts, the Apostles started to become like Christ. The woman with the blood condition touched the hem of Christ’s cloak as He walked by, and received healing. In a similar way, people touched Saint Paul with rags, and these rags were brought to the sick in order to heal them. Even Saint Peter’s shadow healed those whom he passed over. These saints exhibited an unearthly Christ-like love and unity with the Holy Spirit. Such people have advanced God’s Kingdom of love, healing, truth, and communion with God throughout the centuries. While I have been reading of the modern saints, such as St. John of San Francisco, or St. Paisios, I recall the exclamations of the Roheryns when they hear the story of the fellowship of the ring in The Two Towers- something along the lines of, “We have heard about such things in tales of old. They seemed so distant, and we wondered if they were even true. To hear and see such happenings in our time is truly strange!”

The book is a memoir by an author writing under a pseudonym. He is a Greek who grew up with the view that the Church and Christianity were superstitious and powerless. At the beginning of his story, he starts getting involved in psychological and spiritual exercises such as yoga and hypnotism. Frightening phenomenon start to occur and his life begins to fall apart in general. By a spontaneous decision, he and his friend take a trip to Mount Athos, a monastic area that is one of the holiest sites in Orthodox Christianity. There, he has a miraculous encounter with Elder Paisios. On this mountain, much of the theology of Orthodoxy, and true Christianity, comes to life through experience. Theology in Western Christianity has been conceived as a sort of science. A western theologian is a well-educated man who can argue about Scripture by using the arts of literary criticism, history, philosophy, etc. The author of this book discusses the scriptures and theological concepts as he encounters the Grace of the Holy Spirit on Mount Athos, and in Saint Paisios, who lives true Christian theology to its fullest. The miracles and supernatural experiences are not arbitrary phenomenon separate from the theological concepts, but a natural manifestation of theology. For a Scriptural example, the Lazarus incident was not just a random event to show the power of Christ, it was a foretaste of the Resurrection. The healings of Christ are a foretaste of the World to come, when Christ fully heals the cosmos.  Theology must always be an encounter with God, and that is what I found in this book. Having just graduated with a religion degree from Baylor University, I have read the best of non-Orthodox Christian material, some of it being pretty good. But none of that comes near to what I read here. It granted me confidence in Orthodoxy Christianity, as I found myself asking, “If this is not the truth of religion, then what could the truth possibly look like? How could it be more profound or reasonable than this?”

These encounters with the saint and other things on the holy mountain force the young man to recognize the value of the Christian faith. Yet, his overly reserved and skeptical nature is strong enough to make him want to give a fair chance to other spiritual teachers. Thanks to his research, and even experiences in the occult, he knows that there are people other than Christians who have spiritual power in the world. To find a possible alternative, he decides to go to India to find the greatest spiritual gurus he can. He even ends up in something of a Satanic counterpart to Mount Athos, where he says everything he knew from witchcraft, paganism, yoga, hypnotism, and more is culminated in its ultimate manifestation. The gurus he encounters do indeed have spiritual abilities, but nothing to the extent that the Elder has (not much different from comparing the pagan priests and sorcerers to the Apostles). They also lack love (though they sometimes have politeness), whereas the Elder radiated Christ-like love that was immeasurable in magnitude and universal in scope. The young man is in extreme danger, both physical and spiritual, and manages to escape the spiritual centers of India by the skin of his chin, much to the thanks of the prayers of his friend, the Elder. He then attempts, and eventually succeeds in, living as a Christian.

The author is quite the philosopher, and he records his thought process that he had during his experiences, as well as reflections after the fact. I took great pleasure in following his reasoning. This, combined with the incredible experiences he records, make this book an essential read for any person who is at least open to the possibility of the Christian faith being true. The book also serves as a reminder for those trying to live as Christians. Paul said to "Imitate me as I imitate Christ." We are all called to be Saints, and this book provides great encouragement by giving a modern example.