I thought to compile a list of more-or-less Orthodox “lenten classics” upon which you may want to draw as Great Lent approaches. I have read and re-read these books through the years and they have all had an impact on my spiritual formation.
Each book is quite accessible—no dry theology, just a variety of lively approaches to God and the spiritual struggles that we all face, as well as deeply pondered wisdom to guide us in our journey not only toward our annual Pascha celebration, but in our life-long journey to the Kingdom of God. As we pray, fast and practice charity during Great Lent, a good book that deepens our understanding of God so that we can build our relationship with God is one more important component to a holistic lenten effort.
I have kept the list to an Orthodox “Top Ten”. Of course, any such list of good books presupposes that our primary reading source is always Holy Scripture. We begin with the Word of God—the prescribed Old Testament books perhaps, together with the Psalter. During Great Lent, we also read from the remarkable Epistle to the Hebrews and the austere Gospel According to Saint Mark. However, the books on this list are certainly more than mere supplementary reading. They are books written by teachers and guides who love God and who desire to awaken that same love of God in our own minds and hearts.
- Great Lent by Father Alexander Schmemann. Recommended by Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware] as the best single volume about Lent in English, this book has become a “classic” that should be read by one and all. After reading this book, you will never approach the lenten services in exactly the same way. In fact, you just may want to come to church more often during Great Lent. This book includes the great appendix chapter, “Taking Lent Seriously”, which you will do after reading this book!
- The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko. Already something of a “classic”, this book offers a series of 40 three-to-four page meditations on a variety of lenten themes. It features a wonderful use of the Scriptures and the Church’s lenten hymnography, together with Father Thomas’ endless stream of great insights.
- The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, a Finnish Orthodox lay theologian, is another “classic” offering short, insightful chapters about an “applied Orthodoxy” that are very challenging in today’s world.
- Prayer: An Encounter with the Living God by Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev]. A relatively new book by one of today’s most prolific and gifted theologians and spiritual directors, this work offers short, straightforward chapters that yield many insights into the practice of serious and effective prayer—very practical and quite helpful for that very reason.
- The Passion of Christ by Veselin Kesich. In this volume, Dr. Kesich offers a compact and clearly written account of the Lord’s death on the Cross, walking the reader through the Lord’s earthly ministry and all of the factors that led to His Passion. In only about a 100 pages, this book will illuminate a great deal for its readers as we move during Great Lent toward Holy Week.
- The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality by Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware] is certainly the best short introduction to the Jesus Prayer by a lifelong student and practitioner of the great “prayer of the heart”. Metropolitan Kallistos distills years of study and practice into an unforgettable 40-page treatise—yes, another classic!
- The Place of the Heart by Elizabeth Behr-Sigel. The author—a European lay theologian described as the “grandmother” of 20th century Orthodox writers—offers a far-ranging description of how our immensely rich spiritual tradition developed from the Scriptures to the present day. Metropolitan Kallistos’ essay, “The Power of the Name”, is included as an Appendix.
- Becoming Human by Archpriest John Behr is a marvelous and profound meditation, accompanied by iconographic images, on the Person of Christ and how Christ is the link toward our own true humanity. The volume includes many great new insights Father John has put into a short meditative form based on his other scholarly studies of the early Christian tradition. He provides a profound link between Christ – the one true human being – and our own emerging humanity after His image.
- God’s Many-Splendored Image by Nonna Verna Harrison. Verna Harrison is an Orthodox nun, known as Sister Nonna. She is also a highly respected patristic scholar and theologian. This book explores “theological anthropology for Christian formation”. While this may sound rather intimidating, prominent readers have said that “clarity, simplicity, beauty, and depth” characterize the content and style of her book. A truly wonderful exploration of what it means to be, as a human being, “God’s many-splendored image”, the book offers insightful observations about figures ranging from the Desert Fathers to Albert Einstein. Sister Nonna dedicated the book “to all people whom other people have thrown away. It shows that God does not throw away people.” Who would not want to read a book with a dedication like that?
- The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, edited and translated by Benedicta Ward. Here are the multitude of aphorisms, anecdotes and wisdom sayings of the great Desert Fathers arranged alphabetically (the Greek alphabet, that is) from the letters Alpha to Omega, and everything in between. These are the words of life from the great pioneers of Christian asceticism and the spiritual life. We read the words of Saints Anthony the Great, Arsenius, and Macarius the Great and a host of other spiritual guides in this endless source of wisdom that can be read through the years.