Category Archives: Book Reviews

“Mysteries of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill’s book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is the fifth volume of his acclaimed Hinges of History series. The goal of this series is to “retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.”[1] Accordingly this book sought not so much to document historical events as to introduce the reader to the complex world of the Middle Ages and tell the story of how the “combined sources of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures”[2] shaped our modern culture.

            Rather than starting at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Cahill begins with a Prelude focused on late antique Alexandria, Egypt, before moving into an Introduction that bridged the gap between the antique and medieval periods. While this beginning seems odd and very circular, it helps the reader understand “by contrast: how different are the seeds from the soil that nourished them, how splendid will be the flowers compared with the seeds.”[3]

            Chapter one begins sixty-five pages into the volume with a focus on exploring the medieval fascination with female virginity. Using the life of St. Hildegard (1098-1179 C.E.) as an example, Cahill unpacks the “unassailable assumption…[that] the sacrificial virginity of exceptional religious figures…made them more Christ-like than the rest of us.”[4] Interestingly enough, Cahill follows this chapter with a chapter devoted to love and romantic desire as seen through the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 C.E.). Though it may sound strange, the fact remains that “the pious worship of the Virgin and the adulterous worship of the lady of the manor”[5] both flourished at the same time along with a general rise in status for all women.

            Following a short intermission about the rise of Islam, Cahill dives into the world of education as seen through two rival universities. Chapter three was focused on the rise of reason and scholastic theology at the University of Paris and its effect on the wider world. Chapter four looked at the “new scientific sensibility”[6] growing at the University of Oxford. Peter Abelard (1079-1142 C.E.) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) were the two gift-givers of scholastic theology at Paris while Roger Bacon (1214-1292 C.E.) lead the scientific charge at Oxford.

            In keeping with his tendency to utilize pairs, Cahill’s next two chapters explores the artistic side of the Middle Ages through art and poetry. Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337 C.E.) and his “nearly scientific quest to reproduce more exactingly in art the very things his eyes could see”[7] is the focus of chapter five. The poet of Florence, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 C.E.), is the gift-giver of chapter six with his desire to “get things straight, the things that really matter.”[8] Though Giotto and Dante used different mediums, they both sought to capture the real world.

            Cahill summarizes the material in the book in chapter seven along with a short selection about the emptiness within the political structure of the medieval period. There was “no Roman emperor, good or bad, to bend to” nor was there a pope “to whom we need pay the slightest heed.”[9] Following this chapter there is a brief Dantesque critique on the state of the modern Roman Catholic Church in which Cahill calls the church to “return to the practices of its apostolic foundations.”[10]

            On a personal level, I found this book very informative and interesting as it helped flesh out the impersonal events (e.g. battles, wars, political power struggles) I previously studied. As an heir to the dual tradition of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures, it is always interesting to learn about the values and philosophies that have shaped my worldview and influenced my actions. 


[1] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York City: Nan A. Talese, 2006), iv.

[2] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, v.

[3] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 3.

[4] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 100.

[5] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 121.

[6] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 221.

[7] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 264.

[8] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 291.

[9] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 310.

[10] Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, 316.

Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works

During the 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux was a major force of monastic reform and political intrigue. Known as ‘Doctor Mellifluous,’ Bernard was very active in the “many political and ecclesiastical disputes”[1] of his time including being a major supporter of the Second Crusade. At his core, however, Bernard was a mystic who longed to spend his time “meditating on the love of God” and the “humanity of Christ.”[2] It is this latter side of Bernard that comes out in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works which contains multiple sermons and letters by Bernard along with his treatise “On Loving God.”

The volume starts off with a transcript of Bernard’s sermon “On Conversion” delivered in Paris sometime during the year 1140 A.D.[3] Written – and most likely delivered – with a pastoral heart, Bernard tries hard to convince people that following God is a noble and worthy cause worth forsaking worldly fame and success. After walking through various points of arguments for and against the conversion of the heart, Bernard declares at the end of the sermon that no matter the cost “those whose treasure is in heaven have no reason to fear.”[4]

Bernard’s treatise “On Loving God” makes up the second part of the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book. This treatise was composed between 1125 and 1141 A.D. at the request of Aimeric, “cardinal deacon of the Church in Rome,”[5] who wished to know “why and how God ought to be loved.”[6] Bernard initially answers this question in eight words, “the cause of loving God is God himself”[7], before elaborating on this response in great length. The mystical tendencies of Bernard come to the front during this selection with him declaring that a person can become so “drunk with divine love”[8] that they “become like God”[9] and are freed from the “entanglements of the flesh.”[10]

The third part of the book is filled with the transcript of six sermons of Bernard on The Song of Songs originally delivered to the monks at Clairvaux between 1135 and 1153 A.D.[11] Following these sermons, the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book ends with three letters from Bernard to various people. The mystical heart of Bernard shines in his sermons while his pastoral heart and love for the monks under this guidance comes to the surface in his letters.

On a personal level I was struck by Bernard’s passion and love for Jesus. No matter the topic, Bernard’s passionate love for the Creator became the foundation on which everything else was based upon. It is no wonder that Bernard’s theology became known as one of love.[12] Sadly, though, Bernard’s rampant support for the Second Crusade stands in contradiction to his theology of love as he actively promoted the killing of innocent people for political gain. Granted it must be noted that Bernard’s promotion of the Crusade was fueled with a desire to support the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the mass extermination of Jews and Muslims as some preaching of the time taught.[13] Regardless of the reason, I feel that his support of the Second Crusade is a blight upon his otherwise excellent career in support of the Bride of Christ. If anything, the life and writings of Bernard of Clairvaux should serve as a warning not to separate the love of Jesus from the love of one’s fellow neighbor for both are needed as noted by the Messiah himself (e.g. Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:36-40).


[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009) 282.

[2] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 282.

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. Emilie Griffin and trans. G.R. Evans (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 2.

[4] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 46.

[5] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 48.

[6] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 49.

[7] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 49.

[8] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 78.

[9] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 91.

[10] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 91.

[11] Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, 96.

[12] “Bernard of Clairvaux, St. (1090–1153),” Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Encyclopedia.com, accessed January 2, 2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bernard-clairvaux-st-1090-1153.

[13] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 297.

“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

In the late-fourteenth century a young man from the village of Kempen named Thomas Haemerken joined a spiritual renewal movement started a few decades earlier by a Dutch scholar named Geert Groote.[1] The movement was centered around the life of Jesus of Nazareth with adherents devoting “their lives to study and to educating the world.”[2] After years of study, Haemerken, better known as Thomas à Kempis or Thomas of Kempen, would share the Christ-centered values of the movement with the everyone through one of the most famous and widely read devotional books in the world, The Imitation of Christ.[3] 

            Written in four parts, The Imitation of Christ invites the reader to “study the life of Jesus Christ” so that we may “imitate His life and habits.”[4] To that end, the first part seeks to provide the reader with instructions on how to renounce the values of the world (e.g. pride, material possessions, selfishness) in favor of spiritual soul care and formation. “The greatest wisdom,” Thomas writes, “[is] to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world.”[5] Though this is not an easy message to embrace, it is one worth pursuing as in doing so we “will find peace and will experience less hardship because of God’s grace and the love of virtue.”[6]

            The second part of the book focuses on the interior life of the reader through a look at the “deeper aspects of the spiritual life, in which God illuminates our hearts with His truth.”[7] It was this selection that really caught my attention as Thomas’ words on mediation, grace, humility, and the Cross were simply powerful. It is easy to try to force oneself to follow the way of Jesus instead of dealing with the internal struggles within our souls. We are not, however, to rely upon ourselves in this journey, but rather “it is the grace of Christ…which can and does bring it about.”[8]

            Thomas shifts his writing style in part three of the book from general prose to a conversational dialogue between Jesus and his ‘disciple’ with the text alternating between the voice of Jesus and his disciple. Because of this literary device, Thomas was able to address common questions and hesitations held by his readers in a loving and humble manner. Unfortunately, I found the style distracting and hard to follow. However, others throughout history have found the style helpful as noted in the preface to this volume.[9]

            The fourth part of the book continues with the conversational dialogue previously introduced. The focus on the conversation shifts from personal soul care to the “centrality of the sacrament of Eucharist”[10] which highlights the monastic and medieval culture in which Thomas was writing. Thomas, however, doesn’t forgo his overall focus on one’s personal life. Throughout this selection about the Eucharist he continues to encourage the reader to pursue the virtues of Jesus Christ. Writing in the voice of Christ, Thomas’s encourages readers not only to “prepare devoutly before Communion” but to “carefully keep [themselves] in devotion after receiving the Sacrament.”[11]

            Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas à Kempis’ Christ-centric devotional book, The Imitation of Christ. His message of spiritual formation based upon the study and imitation of Jesus of Nazareth is one that resonates within my heart. Though it is hard to look deeply inside and allow the Creator to ferret out the negative things within, it is a journey worth pursuing. Besides, as Thomas noted, “when Jesus is near, all is well and nothing seems difficult.”[12]


[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), xii-xiii.

[2] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xii.

[3] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[4] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.

[5] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.

[6] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 32.

[7] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[8] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 50.

[9] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[10] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, xiv.

[11] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 153.

[12] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 42.

“Francis of Assisi and His World” by Mark Galli

The book Francis of Assisi and His World is a relatively small book packed with full color pictures of relics, paintings, maps, and buildings from the time of Francis of Assisi. While this format is uncommon among theology/history books, it makes sense considering it was written by the Managing Editor of Christianity Today magazine, Mark Galli. Though different, the format does fit with Galli’s goal of helping the reader “understand the modern medieval Francis” by giving them a “glimpse of life in the Middle Ages.”[1]

            The textual style of the book built upon the graphical format of the book and helped tell the story of Francis. Though Galli consulted a “great deal of scholarship”[2] in researching the book, he chose to keep the text concise with a moving narrative. This choice worked incredibly well as I found myself fully engaged with the material while pictures of Assisi and Francis swirled around my head.

            Content wise, Galli divided the story of Francis into thirteen parts that follow the general time progression of the saint’s life. The first nine chapters dealt mostly with the more historical events of the saint – i.e. his time as a knight, when he disowned his father, the founding of the Franciscan order, etc. Chapters ten through twelve focused more on Francis teachings and life reflections though they still followed the basic timeline of his life, especially the time after he stepped down from leadership and was preparing to die. Galli uses the last chapter not only to give the reader a sense of what happened to the Franciscan order after Francis death, but also to summarize his conclusion on how the modern reader should respond to Francis’ message.[3]

            It is this later theme that was of interest to me for Galli goes to great pains to remind the reader that Francis was focused on calling people towards “simplicity and poverty.”[4] This was the great message of Francis of Assisi along with the call to forsake one’s sinful actions and embrace the way of Jesus of Nazareth.[5] Sadly this message has been divorced from the memory of Francis with his likeness being used to promote environmental stewardship or service to the poor with no mention of Jesus.[6] This, quite frankly, was the Francis I knew prior to reading Galli’s book.

            In reading this book, however, I have come to a new understanding of who Francis of Assisi was. His call towards simplicity is one that I have found myself embracing over the years in an effort to combat the hyper-materialism of modern American culture. I also enjoyed learning about Francis’ message of humility. His choice to submit to church leadership even though he knew they were incorrect in some things is truly remarkable. All too often, we humans allow pride to divide us rather than seeking to retain relationship with each other through humility and grace. Though Francis’ personal example of humility is one that seems out of reach for myself, I have to admit that it is encouraging and enlightening. To that end, I have a new respect for Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan order he founded.


[1] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 7-8.

[2] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 8.

[3] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 8, 182-183.

[4] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 183.

[5] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 56-57, 138, 179, 183.

[6] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 181.

Francis and Clare: The Complete Works

Saint Francis (1182-1226 C.E.) and Saint Clare (1193-1253 C.E.) are two of the most famous saints in the history of Christian Spirituality having “captured the hearts and imaginations of men and women of all nationalities and creeds through the centuries.”[1] Both saints grew up in the Italian city of Assisi around the same time though it is unclear if they knew each other before 1212 C.E. when Clare pledged herself to Christ in the presence of Francis and the bishop of Assisi.[2] In the years that followed this pledge, Clare and Francis became joined together in the minds of their followers as they lived out the ways of Lady Poverty.

            The volume in question contains all the known writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare. The first half of the book is focused on Francis displaying the twenty-eight works firmly established as written by Francis along with five dictated letters/blessings.[3] The most famous of these works is “The Earlier Rule” which help establish and guide the Order of Friars Minor (i.e. the Franciscans).[4] Saint Clare’s writings make up the latter half of the book. Included in this selection are her four letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague as well as “The Rule of Saint Clare” that guided the actions of the Order of Poor Ladies.[5]

            While the writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were interesting from a historical view point, I have to admit that I wasn’t personally impacted by their writings. Their radical dedication to Lady Poverty, while honorable, isn’t something that tugs on my spirit, though I do embrace material simplicity which could be called a sister to Lady Poverty. I did, however, connect, as a lot of people have, with Francis’ view on all of creation praising the Creator King.[6] Lastly, I admit that Francis’ overwhelming support for the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church was a surprise to me. Though he lived during a time when corruption ran deep throughout the hierarchy of the church, Francis taught his followers to respect and obey the priests and leaders of the church.[7] This doesn’t mean that he didn’t call out the sins of the church (for he did!), but rather it shows his deep conviction and love for the Bride of Christ.[8] This, if anything, is a message the modern church needs to hear.


[1] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York City: Paulist Press, 1982), xv.

[2] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 170.

[3] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 7.

[4] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 107-108.

[5] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 170.

[6] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 19-20.

[7] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 69.

[8] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 59, 182.

Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis

Born in a small town in central Italy, Saint Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order in 1243 C.E. at twenty-six years of age while studying at the University of Paris.[1] Fourteen years later he was elected as the Minister General of the Order, a position he would retain until his death on July 15, 1274 C.E.[2] Throughout his career, Bonaventure was a prolific writer whose writings covered multiple genres including sermons, administrative writings, scholastic treatises, spiritual works, and lecture series.[3] The volume currently under review contains three of Bonaventure’s spiritual writings (The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis), which, when taken together, “offer a comprehensive picture of Bonaventure’s Franciscan spirituality.”[4]

            Bonaventure’s mystical masterpiece The Soul’s Journey Into God is the first work offered in the volume. Drawing off St. Francis’ vision of a winged Seraph, Bonaventure develops six stages of illumination (one stage per wing of the Seraph) through which “the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevation of Christian wisdom.”[5] Written in seven chapters, the work serves a summa of mystical theology in that it brings together all the “major strands of Christian spirituality”[6] during the Middle Ages.

            The second work included in this volume is The Tree of Life, which is a “meditation on the life of Christ, based on the Gospel accounts of his birth, public ministry, passion, death, resurrection and glorification.”[7] The work is split into three parts focused on the mystery of Jesus’ origin, his passion, and his glorification. Within each of these parts, Bonaventure uses the image of a tree bearing twelve fruits (four fruits per part) that provide the reader with a view of the “varied states, excellence, powers, and works”[8] of Christ’s love. Taken together, these fruits will nourish the soul of the one who “meditates on them and diligently considers each one.”[9]

            The last work of Bonaventure included in this volume is his biography of St. Francis entitled The Life of St. Francis. This work was written at the “unanimous urging of the General Chapter”[10] of the Franciscan Order at their meeting in Narbonne in 1260 C.E.[11] A few years after it was completed, the General Chapter of Paris in 1266 C.E. declared it the official biography of St. Francis, cementing its position within the Order and expanding its readership.[12]  The work itself was written along a “thematic order”[13] with events placed within fifteen chapters that loosely follows Francis’ life. Within the thematic order of the book, one can detect a broad selection of nine chapters in the middle that follows the three stages of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination, and perfection.[14] While this order may conflict with the modern view of a biography, it fits within the norms of the Bonaventure day.

            Though each of the three works in this volume were interesting in their own way, I must admit that it was Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life that warmed my soul the most. I loved Bonaventure’s simple yet powerful way of waking the reader through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As I read through the meditations, I found myself being drawn afresh into the story of Jesus. Of all the writings within this book, it is this work that I see myself coming back to time and time again. It really is a “bundle of myrrh,”[15] as Bonaventure called it, that I can hold close to my heart.


[1] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York City: Paulist Press, 1978), 5.

[2] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 7-8.

[3] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 9.

[4] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xx.

[5] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 54.

[6] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 20.

[7] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xix.

[8] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 121.

[9] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 122.

[10] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 182.

[11] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 37.

[12] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 40.

[13] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 183.

[14] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 43-44.

[15] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 119.

“A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser

In the fall of 1991, Jerry Sittser’s life changed when his wife, mother, and four-year old daughter were killed in a car crash while he and his other three children survived. The accident, as Sittser noted later, forced him down a course “which [he] had to journey whether [he] wanted to or not.”[1] He had to find a way to adjust to his new life as “there was no way out but ahead, into the abyss.”[2] As Sittser walked into the abyss, he kept a journal of his reflections in an effort to help process what was happening in and around him. Friends would later encourage him to write a book on the subject of catastrophic loss, hence the origins of this book.[3]

While the book A Grace Disguised contains vignettes of Sittser’s personal experience, it is not about his experience per se. Rather it is about the “universal experience of loss”[4] and the “transformation that can occur in our lives”[5] through this loss. As Sittser found in his own journey, it isn’t the “experience of loss that becomes the defining moment” of life but the way in which we “respond to loss that matters.”[6] In a way, Sittser’s book is akin to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in that both writers focus on how people respond to suffering and loss rather than trying to avoid or deny pain altogether.[7] (Sittser is familiar with Frankl’s book as he references it as something that helped him on his journey through the pain.)[8]

Though the book is fairly short, I found myself struggling to make it through the pages due to the subject material. Losing my wife and/or children through a sudden catastrophic loss like Sittser is one of my secret fears that sometimes keeps me awake at night. Knowing that they could die at any moment though the sheer randomness of the universe brings all kinds of emotions to the surface. It is as Sittser comments in chapter eight, “suffering may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.”[9]

I, however, disagree with Sittser’s conclusion that God is in absolute control and that every event ultimately has a reason.[10] Instead I embrace the concept that humanity is engaged in a war between the spiritual forces of good and evil. When bad things happen, they do not happen due to the will or inaction of the Creator but rather because of the war around us. Jesus, who is in the trenches with us, promises to take the negative events in our lives and use them for good through the cruciform power of his love (Romans 8:18-39). Though this war motif may not encourage everyone, it helps me deal with the pain that comes from living in this world as it means my life is part of something bigger than what I see on the surface. Which, as it happens, is similar to the reason Sittser wants God to be in control.[11] Though we traveled different paths, in the end both Sittser and myself “choose to believe that there is a bigger picture”[12] in which our lives (the good and bad) play a part.


[1] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 29.

[2] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 29.

[3] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[4] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[5] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[6] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 80-81.

[8] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 46-48.

[9] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 111.

[10] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 149-161.

[11] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118-119.

[12] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118.

“Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

Born, raised, and trained in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl launched a neurology and psychiatry career in 1937 within the shadow of Nazi Germany. Five short years later Frankl and his family were sent to the concentration camps of War World Two wherein his father, mother, brother and wife would die. The next three years would be some of the most difficult years Frankl life; yet they also proved the launching pad for his later career as the founder of logotherapy.

Originally written over the course of nine successive days in 1945 soon after Frankl was liberated from a concentration camp, the book Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy is partly biographical and partly scholarly. The first part tells of Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps. The second part, which was added to the book in 1962, gives readers a basic introduction to logotherapy, a school of Psychotherapy founded by Frankl. The final section was added to Man’s Search for Meaning in 1984 and deals with how humanity continues to have hope in the face of pain, guilt and death.

The focus of the first section of the book was to let people know that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”[1] To this end, Frankl proceeded to tell the stories of the common prisoner and their “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself.”[2] In the midst of these stories, Frankl highlighted the ways in which the human psyche adapted and responded to the horrors around them. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”[3]

The second part of the book focused on introducing the reader to the world of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy developed by Frankl that focuses on the “meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”[4] In other words, it seeks to help each person discover the meaning of their lives though either accomplishing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or through the attitude one takes when experiencing suffering.[5] At its core logotherapy is built upon the thesis that humanity is “ultimately self-determining”[6] and is not bound by the conditions or genetics provided to them by fate. Humanity, therefore, has the freedom to change both the world and themselves for the better if they only choose to do so.

The third and last part of the book deals with the question of “can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?”[7] In answering this question, Frankl reminds the reader that “happiness cannot be pursued.”[8] Rather, it is something that one finds once they have a meaning to life. Happiness is a by-product of a meaningful life that comes naturally no matter the situations or conditions in which one finds themselves. Building upon this, Frankl explores how the different avenues of finding meaning in life help combat the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed Frankl’s view that humanity is free to make our own choices. I am saddened by the voices both within and outside the church who claim that the actions of humanity are predetermined by God, fate, genetics, and/or the environment in which we live. In the years since I originally read this book I have found myself returning to Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps of War World Two as proof that I can choose to act Christ-like even in the most difficult of situations. In fact, it is, as Frankl notes, in the tough parts of life that “people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”[9]


[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 12.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 18.

[3] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 84.

[4] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 104.

[5] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 115.

[6] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 133.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 139.

[8] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 140.

[9] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 145.

Being Missional

Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” No truer words can be spoken about Kingdom Theology and the three themes intertwined within that worldview. Our theology is to be lived out clearly for the world to see. Otherwise we fool ourselves into thinking that we are something we are not. James put it this way in his letter:

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

If we claim to be servants of the King, then we must focus on our lives and set our hearts on the King’s business. Everything we do must be centered around and lead to the promotion of the King’s mission. We are to be intentional and deliberate in declaring that the rule and reign of the Creator King has broken into human history and has provided humanity with a new way to live life. It is this deliberateness that causes one to become missional in everything. Our life no longer belongs to ourselves, but has become pledged to the King of Kings.

I cannot overstate the power of living on mission. All too often we think that following Jesus means praying a short prayer of salvation one day then spending the remaining decades sitting on a church pew each Sunday. During the week, we are free to pursue whatever dreams or desires we want as long as we read our Bible, pray occasionally, pay our tithes and don’t do this or that like all good little Christians. This view of the Christian life does not reflect the reality of what it means to follow Jesus and join with him on his mission. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for a country club; I signed up to change the world with Jesus and to defeat the forces of evil that destroy and enslave billions of people worldwide!

We, the people of God, need to change the stories that we are telling each other. We need to get rid of the “American Dream”, where we pursue the nice little house with the white picket fence, two cars, a boat, some kids and a steady job. Life is not about shopping, hunting, sports, parties, how many activities you do or how much stuff you own. Life isn’t even about how often you show up at church or what religious activities you perform. Jesus said life was about following him.

In the first century, disciples of a Jewish rabbi would leave their families, homes and communities with the single-minded focus of learning to live life like their rabbi. They didn’t just want to know what information their rabbi knew; they wanted to think, act and be like them. There are even stories of disciples following their rabbi into the bathroom in an effort to know everything about them, so that they could replicate it in their own lives. While slightly humorous, those stories tell us a lot about those disciples. They weren’t fooling around, adding on religious activities or mindless prayers to their daily schedules. They were serious about living life. They had a mission and nothing, not even a bathroom door, was going to stop them from their goal of being like their rabbi.

Shouldn’t we be that way towards our rabbi, the King of Kings? Perhaps, instead of simply going to church and doing all the “right” things, we should be intentional and deliberate in being like him. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that if they loved him, they would keep his commands (John 14:15–21). And what were his commands? To proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, heal the sick, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, love God the Father with their whole heart, body, mind and soul and love their neighbors as themselves. Seven things. That’s it. If we have bowed our knees to King Jesus, we are to daily crucify our own desires and pick up the cross of Jesus, committing to walk out these seven commandments of the King. And though we may fail – or rather, even though we will fail – we are to get back up and try again and again and again and again.

Paul told the church in Corinth that they were to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). How awesome would it be if the churches around the world were filled with people so dedicated to the King of Kings that they told their neighbors, co-workers, family members and strangers to follow their example as they followed the example of Jesus? If this happened, it would radically change the world in which we live. Religiosity would stop, people would be quick to ask for, and give, forgiveness, the hungry would be fed and people would know there was another way to live life. Sin, evil and death would lose their power as people embrace the rule and reign of the Creator King.

 

Excerpt from my book The Here and Not Yet (pages 219-221) published by Vineyard International Publishing. Available in paperback and ebook versions – click here to find out more.

“The Orthodox Way” by Bishop Kallistos Ware

I was first introduced to Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way on September 2, 2006 when it was given to me after a chance meeting with an Eastern Orthodox priest. This priest, whose name I do not know, gave me five books about the Eastern Orthodox Church after briefly taking to me in a hotel restaurant in Los Angeles. Of the five books the priest gave me, Ware’s The Orthodox Way stood out because of its spiritual depth and simple prose. Twelve years later I can honestly say that this book changed the course of my life by introducing me to the path of the mystic.

The book itself isn’t that long, just six short chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the “fundamental teachings of the Orthodox Church”[1] without being exhaustive or too technical. Rather, Ware lays out “some of the decisive signposts and milestones upon the spiritual Way.”[2] He does this by addressing six different facets of God as noted by the chapter titles: “God as Mystery,” “God as Trinity,” “God as Creator,” “God as Man,” “God as Spirit,” and “God as Prayer.”[3]

Though each of these chapters are packed with amazing gems, the first chapter, “God as Mystery,” was the one that had the most lasting impact on my life. The overall gist of this chapter is that God cannot be known strictly by intellectual reason or as the “conclusion to a process of reasoning.”[4] Rather, knowing God means knowing him as a person who loves and cares for us. Faith in God is, after all, “not logical certainty but a personal relationship”[5] that embraces the presence of doubt while still embarking on the journey.

At the time of my first reading of The Orthodox Way, I was an associate pastor of a small church and a graduate of Vineyard Leadership Institute (a two-year Bible and leadership training program). The temptation to logically figure out God was strong both because of my previous studies and the demands of the church. Through this book I was able to “embrace the mystery of God without having to understand everything.”[6] It gave me the freedom to embrace the unknown while still using my mind and intellect for the glory of God. As St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the great intellectual Church Fathers) said, “God’s name is not known; it is wondered at.”[7]

Another gem within Ware’s book is his liberal use of quotes from the Church Fathers and Orthodox service books.[8] Most of these quotes were placed before and after each chapter, though he does sprinkle them throughout the body of the chapters. It was through reading these quotes that I was introduced to the Desert Fathers, although it would be years later before I fully realized the spiritual wisdom of these passionate followers of Jesus.[9]

Time does not permit me to expound on the other gems lying within the pages of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way. For far too long the Protestant church in the United States of America has ignored our sisters and brothers in the East. The time has come for us to learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church for “they have a rich heritage of following God and seeing things that we have never seen.”[10]

 

Endnotes

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 9.

[2] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 9.

[3] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 5.

[4] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[5] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[6] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog), September 24, 2010, accessed February 19, 2018.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 14.

[8] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 10.

[9] Joshua S. Hopping, “Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers” (final paper, St. Stephen’s University, 2016), Wild Goose Chase (blog), released in three parts on November 9th, 11th, & 13th, 2016, accessed February 19, 2018.

[10] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog).