Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: Hidden Holiness by Michael Plekon

I was planning on reviewing this wonderful new book from my friend and author Michael Plekon, but I came across this following review in Commonweal Magazine by Lawrence S. Cunningham, who said what I wanted to say but much better! So here is Larry's review below. Believe me, Hidden Holiness is a great read and would make a great book for Lent or for a parish book club. Enjoy!

Michael Plekon Hidden Holiness (South Bend, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) $25.00, 224 pages with pictures.

Michael Plekon’s 2002 book Living Icons was a wonderful survey of saintly men and women—some too little known in the Western Church—who exemplified the deep spirituality of the Eastern Church. Hidden Holiness, drawing again on Orthodox spirituality, but with an ecumenical sweep, discusses the holiness that can be attained by doing ordinary things. In seven meaty chapters, including an ecumenical cast of characters, Plekon searches for the strategies and resources that bring people close to God, for, as he rightly understands, holiness is a fundamental characteristic of God, and everyone else is holy to the degree that he or she is drawn closer to God. Plekon is particularly interested in how this holiness is most frequently hidden, even if he must use sources that are quite well known.

The persons and stories on which he meditates are varied. He writes about the outstanding Orthodox theologians Sergius Bulgakov and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; about a Dutch victim of the Holocaust, Etty Hillesum; about the Episcopal servant of the poor Sara Miles in San Francisco; and about the wife of an Inuit Orthodox priest, Olga Arsamquq Michael. Of course, the usual suspects, such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, also feature in his pages.

What stands behind Plekon’s approach is his conviction, inspired by the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, that the church exists for the “life of the world.” Schmemann resisted the temptation (hardly peculiar to Orthodox believers) to sectarian inwardness. By framing much of his own analysis in terms drawn from the Orthodox tradition, especially from those great figures associated with the Russian Saint Sergius Institute in Paris, Plekon reinforces the judgment of the past two popes that the church must breathe “with two lungs.”

This book is especially recommended to those who are interested in solid work on spirituality but who have little knowledge of the Christian East in general or Russian thought in particular. The best of this thought roots itself in the deepest soil of the Christian life through an engagement with Scripture and the liturgy, while remaining aware of the larger world around it. Plekon helps the uninitiated into this thought with generous notes that highlight works in English.