The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation
By St. Theophan the Recluse
Publisher: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (St. Paisius Abbey, 7777 Martinelli, Box 130, Forestville CA 95436)
Review Author: Mark E. Gintner
While we have all seen the recent bloodless revolution that brought an end to Communist Russia, few are alive who remember the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that brought an end to imperial Orthodox Russia. It was in this earlier era that Theophan, Bishop of Tambov and Shatsk (1815-1894), lived, preached, prayed, and wrote. This is one of several books he composed.
Theophan was glorified (canonized) by the “Tsarist” Russian Church outside of Russia in 1988. This Church is a successor to what was before the 1917 Revolution the Holy Synod of the Patriarch of Moscow. This Synodal Church, as it is commonly called today, has monasteries throughout the world. Fr. Seraphim Rose belonged to this jurisdiction, and he translated the first part of this book before his death a few years ago. Soon after his death, his St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, which finished the translation, went under an even more traditionalist jurisdiction, the Old-Calendar Greek Orthodox. Amid these ecclesiastical shifts, the Brotherhood has done a service to the Christian world by making available Theophan’s gem, The Path to Salvation.
This is not a Western, systematic treatment of spirituality, despite the word “manual” in the subtitle. In actuality, the author rejects any scholastic approach. This “manual” might be more accurately described as a bouquet of spiritual insights arranged in a flowing pattern from smaller flowers to larger ones. The former refer to infants, children, and youth, while the latter refer to maturing Christians.
Although written in the 19th century, it is steeped in the long tradition of Byzantine mystical and patristic thought. Several themes from that tradition arise frequently. One is the relationship between grace and freedom. Although a Western Christian might be inclined to interpret this discussion through the lens of the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy, he should refrain from doing so. Instead, he should simply understand that St. Theophan’s exhortations to perform good works are also exhortations to surrender to God’s grace.
Unlike Western theology, which divided into various specializations during the 18th century, Eastern theology experienced no rationalistic Enlightenment and has maintained a more “unified” perspective. Thus, where Catholic and Protestant theologians treat moral theology and spiritual theology as separate specializations, St. Theophan writes a treatise that treats the moral life as exactly the life in the Holy Spirit.
There are three parts to this book. The first part answers the question: How does the Christian life begin in us? Here his primary concern is the “church-centered life” of children. In the second part, he concentrates on repentance and the mystery of awakening (conversion) in the Christian who was baptized as an infant. For example, he writes, “From somewhere something enters within and the voice of the conscience distinctly utters: ‘Remember from where you have fallen,’ which totally overwhelms the person who has forgotten. One may attribute all conversions after youthful falls to this.”
The third part addresses those concerns that confront a maturing spiritual life. St. Theophan provides guidance on how to keep the Spirit of New Life developing. Here he invokes govenie, “the grace-filled means for educating and strengthening the spiritual life.” Govenie refers both to the ascetic practices in preparation for the reception of the Mysteries (Sacraments) and to the receiving of the Mysteries of Penance and Communion.
This book may nourish those who crave a more traditional Christian spirituality. The reader should be alerted, however, that delving seriously into this book will demand great commitment. It might best be read with the guidance of a spiritual director (or “spiritual father”) who has some familiarity with mystical spirituality.
If God is calling one to a deeper awakening to His grace in one’s life, this book could aid in that purification and illumination.
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