On a spiritual quest in today’s America

07 September 2012

Michael Bourdeaux admires a study by an Orthodox priest

Author's journey: the former Frater Simon O.Carm (Michael Plekon) in Carmelite habit on his first profession in 1966. From the book

Author's journey: the former Frater Simon O.Carm (Michael Plekon) in Carmelite habit on his first profession in 1966. From the book

Saints As They Really Are: Voices of holiness in our time
Michael Plekon
University of Notre Dame Press £26.95
Church Times Bookshop £24.25 (Use code CT976 )

MICHAEL PLEKON is a priest of the Orthodox Church of America, but he focuses his compelling study of contemporary American spirituality mainly on other traditions, especially the Episcopal Church. He writes: "I do not know why so many of the writers I selected are Episcopalian, but I would say that the Anglican tradition is a rich liturgical one that also is open to many cultural, ethnic, and intellectual perspectives."

So much of what we read about the Episcopal Church focuses on controversy that it is truly refreshing and, indeed, inspiring to read of the spiritual quest of many whose names may not be familiar to British readers. Plekon is a sympathetic guide to their varied experiences, and analyses their writings not only with sympathy, but also with a clarity of style and lack of jargon which is invigorating. This is the book of a born teacher, whose students at Baruch College, City University of New York, must count themselves privileged.

The "voices of holiness" emanate from people who are often in themselves far from holy, but he follows their inner - and sometimes outer - struggle as though he were a spiritual adviser to each of them. Indeed, he may be to some, as he belongs to a tradition that encourages spiritual directorship.

Any parish priest on the verge of burn-out would receive not only a warning, but consolation from many sections of this book, especially chapter three, "Dangerous Faith", in which the author describes religion as sometimes being "toxic, destructive, pathological".

The format of the book is like a triptych. Two wings recounting these encounters frame a mesmerising central section, by far the longest chapter, in which Plekon recounts his own education as a Carmelite, first at school, then seminary - but he left before ordination. His criticism of the order is sharp, yet constructive; and the spiritual journey is told in a detail that leaves an indelible impression. Even today, he retains many positives in assessing his spiritual formation for life.

His journey brought him to the Orthodox Church, which inspires him to many cross-references, such as to Mother Maria Skobtsova, Bulgakov, Schmemann (an especially strong influence), and - I am pleased to note - the martyr of 1990, Fr Alexander Men, whose theology and example are at last beginning to penetrate the world at large. The frame of reference is wide and rich.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.


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