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"No one man, or group of men, can himself speak for the Church of Christ. It is nonetheless possible to speak from within the Church, in conformity with Orthodox tradition; and it is this that we shall attempt to do." Fr. Seraphim Rose Orthodox Word #1 Jan-Feb 1965 p. 17

Book Review: The Place Of The Heart

source: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/phronema/review_behr.pdf

Orthodox Tradition (Volume XI, Number 1 53)

ELISABETH BEHR-SIGEL, The Place of the Heart: An Introduction to Or-
thodox Spirituality. Trans. Father Stephen Bigham. Torrance, CA:
Oakwood Publications, 1992. Pp. 179.

The Abbot of the St. Gregory Palamas Monastery (located near
us, in Etna) some time ago visited our Skete on Mt. Athos, where he
was asked by one of the Fathers to accompany him to the “universi-
ty.” Father Akakios, perplexed, followed the monk. When they
reached the cemetery, the monk pointed at a grave and said:

“Here. This will teach you all that you need to know.”

Spiritual knowledge, indeed, lies hidden out of sight, in the dark caverns of spiritual asceticism. I am thus by very nature suspicious of a book which proposes to tell us about Orthodox spirituality, its roots, and its flower: hesychasm or prayer of the heart. Such books strike me as something similar to a layman’s introduction to neuro-surgery and usually have the
tone of those texts on psychology written by college and seminary
students who, having found a way to get an easy “A” by enrolling in
a course in group dynamics, later fancy themselves not only psychol-
ogists, but able critics of the “psychological sciences.”
This book is not amateurish. It discusses the history of Orthodox
spirituality with uneven accuracy, but with sophistication. The spirit
of the inchoate ruminations of “a monk of the Eastern Church,” so
humbly put forth in anonymity (read: “Father Lev Gillet”), but so
unwisely marked by idle talk about a profound subject, has too often
affected the author, while the careful observations of the like of St.
Ignaty (Brianchaninov) are given historical limitations which they do
not deserve. I am not impressed with references to Palamas, Paul,
and Maximos—they smack of the same familiarity by which the
New Skete nun who created the coverpiece for the book distorted an
important iconographic prototype of the Theotokos (so much have we
forgotten the creative power of imitation!)—, but certainly this book
tries to philosophize from, and not over and above, the Fathers about
prayer.
With specific regard to hesychasm, the book is fraught with dan-
ger. Hesychasm is not understood in the vague language of a philos-
ophy adapted to the rubrics of apophatic expressions or in cute (al-
beit ultimately blasphemous) phrases like “gnostic martyrdom”
applied to ascetic struggle. Hesychasm does not begin with contem-
plation, which neither the author nor the translator understands from
an Orthodox viewpoint: on p. 63, we learn that contemplation sup-
posedly involves a “sensible” experience of God! Not only does Or-
thodox spirituality contain no such idea, but the language used here
is so alien to the hesychastic lexicon that it conjures up visions of the
very spiritual distortions to which St. Gregory Palamas dedicated no
small part of his voluminous writings. Finally, prayer of the heart be-
gins with obedience and with an absolute, unwavering dedication to
Orthodoxy as the single way to enlightenment, the criterion of spiri-
tual growth, and the narrow gate. Such humility is impossible to the
man or woman of this age who thinks (using the word in its limited
contemporary sense) that exclusivity precludes tolerance, that humil-
Volume XI, Number 1 55
ity disallows righteous indignation, or that commitment to the truth
obviates the human desire to reach out and to correct those who are
wrong. In short, Orthodox spirituality begins with that kind of rup-
ture with things intellectual that would cause all but the most accom-
plished spiritual guides to shudder at the thought of writing about
“Orthodox spirituality.”
In his “Meditation,” The Power of the Holy Name, Bishop Kallistos
Ware tells us about hesychasm in Patristic language that is both ex-
alted and accurate. But he also tells us that Sufi mysticism and hesy-
chasm are very similar. And while he cautiously tells us that we
must not overstate similarities, we are left with that subtle bacterium
of Darwinian spirituality (a product of ecumenism) that makes us
wonder if monkey hands are not, in fact, just another, though per-
haps more primitive (at least for those of us who have not suc-
cumbed to the world of political correctness, in which social comparison and words like “primitive” have disappeared), form of human hands. Talk about Truth that begins with reflections on its derivatives and distortions seldom leads to a real experience of the unique Truth which lies beyond its derivatives and distortions. And so, Bishop Kallistos’ comments, like this book, take us high up on a distant mountain. Oh, we may see the truth in its splendor. We may see its mighty face. But standing high on that mountain, we fail to take the one important step in the flat desert below which transports us to a high place that is lowly in its loftiness and to a mountain that unfolds before us as a peaceful valley. As a recent Greek Saint once said, “Let us see where their words take them and where our sweat takes us.” Or, as a much older Orthodox Father once observed, not every tree with beautiful leaves bears fruit.

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to what it is that should not be written about in such a way and which one can learn well only from those whom the contemporary Church would relegate to the garbage-heaps of “fanaticism” and “extremism,” the hated zealots for the Faith. Lower your head, accept chastisement, come to know your ignorance, make yourself obedient, and then you can benefit from many of the Patristic passages quoted in Ms. Behr- Sigel’s book and protect yourself from much of its stale philosophy and high-sounding, poetic “beauty.”

MOTHER ELIZABETH
Convent of St. Elizabeth the
Grand Duchess of Russia

Comment from poster, Joanna Higginbotham: Anyone who has actually made it to the end of this review is somebody who I wonder if they are not repulsed by women using hyphenated names - (ELISABETH BEHR-SIGEL) and (MATHEWS-GREENE).