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Living Icons

Living Icons

Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church

Michael Plekon
Foreword by Lawrence S. Cunningham

“Western Christians, Protestant as well as Catholic, tend to think of the Eastern church as a tradition that has been frozen since the fall of Byzantium. In this book Michael Plekon demonstrates how Eastern spirituality is a living reality in our time, having produced the extraordinary individuals whose lives and thought he recounts.” — Peter L. Berger, Director, Institute on Religion and World Affairs, Boston University

“Christians of all traditions have reason to be grateful to Michael Plekon for his wise and eloquent reflections on these remarkable people of faith. These ‘living icons’ draw us closer to the mystery of God and remind us of the qualities of holiness most needed in our age.” — Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints

“In Living Icons Michael Plekon shows us how diverse, wide-ranging, and surprising the paths of Russian Orthodox faith and theology have been in modern times. Combining the virtues of a fine scholar and a good priest, he challenges simplifications and stereotypes about the meaning of Orthodoxy. Plekon’s portraits are as colorful, probing and alive in the Spirit as the icons on which he models them.” — Paul Valliere, McGregor Professor in the Humanities, Butler University

“‘The Church must again breathe with both its lungs, East and West,’ John Paul II has repeatedly said. In telling the stories of these remarkable lives, Michael Plekon invites us to breathe deeply the Spirit’s movement in living Orthodoxy. It is an invitation that should not be declined.” — Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief, First Things

“In this volume Michael Plekon shows us the lives of ten men and women who were translucent vessels of the light of Christ. If we are all called to be ‘living icons,’ this volume is a great encouragement that such a transformation is possible.” — Frederica Mathewes-Green, NPR commentator, Beliefnet.com columnist, and author of The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

Living Icons masterfully profiles figures that belong to a brilliant group of émigré Russians in Paris. This book makes a substantial and original contribution to cultural and social history. It will enormously enhance our still limited knowledge of what one may call ‘the modern Russian theological Renaissance.’ I found Living Icons richly rewarding, always enlightening, and occasionally moving.” — Anthony P. Gythiel, Wichita State University

Living Icons presents an intimate portrait of holiness as exemplified in the lives and thoughts of ten people of faith in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this inspiring volume, Michael Plekon introduces readers to a diverse and unusual group of men and women who strove to put the Gospel of Christ into action in their lives.

The “living icons” Plekon describes were, among other things, priests, theologians, writers, and caregivers to the homeless and poor. One was an artist who became the greatest icon painter in this century; another was assassinated for his teachings in post-Soviet Russia. These remarkable people of faith lived through times of great suffering: forced emigration, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Many of them were criticized, if not condemned, by ecclesiastical opponents and authorities. Yet each demonstrate a unique pattern for holiness, illustrating that the path to sainthood is open to all.

With the fall of state socialism, Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries are being reopened and receiving renewed interest from believers and nonbelievers alike. Plekon calls to our attention people like Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1832), a monk, mystic, counselor, healer, and visionary; Father Alexander Men (1935–1990), a Russian whose writings after Glasnost ultimately led to his tragic assassination; Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), a painter, poet, and political activist who was killed in a concentration camp for hiding her Jewish neighbors; and Father Lev Gillet (1893–1980), one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual teachers.

Living Icons, which includes a foreword by Lawrence S. Cunningham, brings to life the beautiful, and often unfamiliar, spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Church through some of its most remarkable members. It shows with simplicity and clarity that Christ and the Gospel are often manifested in extraordinary ways in the lives of ordinary people.

ISBN: 978-0-268-03350-7
368 pages
Publication Year: 2004

Michael Plekon is a professor in the department of sociology/anthropology and the program in religion and culture at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is also an ordained priest in the Orthodox Church in America.

“This gem of a book should be read by all. . . .I recommend without reserve this wonderful, well-written, spiritually enriching book: reading it is a like making a retreat. It shows how human goodness is the really interesting and exciting human story; it is evil that is dull.” — Orientalia Christiana Periodica

“Plekon offers a timely meditation on the state of Orthodoxy. . . . Thanks to the diversity of Plekon’s subjects and his own keen sense of ecumenical context, Living Icons would serve well as an introduction to the Russian religious renaissance and its heritage in the West.” — Slavic and East European Journal

“[Plekon] provides fetching profiles of ten Orthodox figures. Telling the story through these lives, Father Plekon also provides an inviting introduction to an Orthodox world of piety, reflection, and radical devotion that is too little known in the West.” — First Things

Living Icons offers profiles of ten Orthodox Christians, and there is a fearlessness that characterizes all of them, and an openness that contrasts refreshingly with the attitude of those we might call neotraditionalists.” — Commonweal

“Fascinating, uplifting, and evenhanded in its study of characters, foibles, and faith, as well as highly recommended for students of Orthodox Christian History, Living Icons is a profound testimony to the path set by just a few among many amidst constantly changing and conflicting headwaters of religious belief worldwide.” — Midwest Book Review

“This is an important resource for anyone interested in Orthodox tradition. The men and women profiled in these pages are saints in the understanding of those whose vocation is to be very similar to God.” — Spirituality & Health

“This work offers a precious treasure, a presentation of the lives, work and engagements of these [living icons] presented in a remarkable spirit of sympathy and synthesis. This is a beautiful and important book.” — Contacts

“His honest and open style is refreshing and reflective of many of the theologians he writes about. Catechists at all levels will be nourished by Living Icons and encouraged in their own struggles with people who are ‘literalists’ or exclusive in their understanding of Christ’s Gospel. Plekon’s Living Icons has a vision that is within its tradition yet beyond it. Those who believe that church unity is an important issue will find openness, willingness, and a creativity to find resolutions through dialogue about similarities.” — Living Light

“Timely” — The Catholic Hearld

“[A]n intimate portrait of ten Eastern Orthodox personalities. . . . The book is based on sound research of literary sources as well as numerous personal resources, such as conversations with those who knew or were familiar with these figures and visits to sites where these figures either lived or else are remembered.” — Pro Ecclesia

“[I]t is heartening to encounter a significant new study by an Orthodox scholar and priest that hearkens back to a time when Orthodoxy infused creativity and inspiration, to the whole of the Christian Church. Plekon reflects the profound and perennial relevance of Eastern Christianity by examining the life and thought of 10 individuals of the twentieth century whose lives, rooted in the Orthodox faith, reveal a vibrant, living faith that is catholic and orthodox in the best sense of those terms.” — Cistercian Studies Quarterly

“The author of this engaging book traces the spiritual journey of some of the most striking personalities of Orthodoxy of our time. . . . Through these witnesses, through their lives and work, this study reveals the true face of Orthodoxy and is at the same time an urgent appeal to today’s churches. . . [a] very beautiful book, full of spirit.” — Irenikon

“_Living Icons_ is a well-written, well-researched book that gives a moving portrayal of the lives of these ten people without sentimentalizing them. It is essential reading for Orthodox Christians. . . ." — The Russian Review

“Plekon’s . . . assessment of Russian theologians who have played a leading role on the American church stage is illuminating and challenging. Fr. Plekon’s aim is to show the relevance of Orthodoxy as a living faith in the west, as well as in Russia and in this he succeeds to an exciting degree. Here is a book which contains strong theological argument, presented in a readable and stimulating way.” — Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“What Plekon has written is of great value. It introduces the reader to some outstanding men and women of the Eastern Church who have had an impact on the Western Church as well. Each chapter contains a wealth of information and insight, a richness which can be fully appreciated only by reading the book." — American Benedictine Review

“Written in nontechnical language and composed of chapters that can be appreciated individually, the book is an excellent choice for use in undergraduate as well as graduate courses dealing with modern Orthodoxy and modern Christianity generally. Theologically Plekon’s book is a signal contribution to a broader vision of Orthodoxy.” — Slavic Review
“What he has to say is most always worth listening to, filled with anecdotes and pithy observations in which one catches something of his warm love for the church. And portraits of notable figures of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the twentieth century are interwoven with sage observations and insightful commentary on the state of Orthodoxy in the world and in America today. I think he has produced a splendid work.” — Theology Today

“Michael Plekon offers a selection of Orthodox lives-all but one near contemporaries of ours-which show forth the gospel in ways that are thoroughly consistent with Orthodox tradition and are at the same time distinctly modern forms of witness.” — St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly

P01303

Hidden Holiness

Michael Plekon
Foreword by Rowan Williams

P01555

Saints As They Really Are

Voices of Holiness in Our Time

Michael Plekon

P03249

Uncommon Prayer

Prayer in Everyday Experience

Michael Plekon

P03396

Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War


Edited by Perry T. Hamalis and Valerie A. Karras

P03322

Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

History and Significance


Edited by Edward Dennis O’Connor, C.S.C.

P03292

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education

Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections


Edited by Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou

Living Icons

Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church

Michael Plekon
Foreword by Lawrence S. Cunningham

 Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church
Cloth Edition
Paper Edition

“Western Christians, Protestant as well as Catholic, tend to think of the Eastern church as a tradition that has been frozen since the fall of Byzantium. In this book Michael Plekon demonstrates how Eastern spirituality is a living reality in our time, having produced the extraordinary individuals whose lives and thought he recounts.” — Peter L. Berger, Director, Institute on Religion and World Affairs, Boston University

“Christians of all traditions have reason to be grateful to Michael Plekon for his wise and eloquent reflections on these remarkable people of faith. These ‘living icons’ draw us closer to the mystery of God and remind us of the qualities of holiness most needed in our age.” — Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints

“In Living Icons Michael Plekon shows us how diverse, wide-ranging, and surprising the paths of Russian Orthodox faith and theology have been in modern times. Combining the virtues of a fine scholar and a good priest, he challenges simplifications and stereotypes about the meaning of Orthodoxy. Plekon’s portraits are as colorful, probing and alive in the Spirit as the icons on which he models them.” — Paul Valliere, McGregor Professor in the Humanities, Butler University

“‘The Church must again breathe with both its lungs, East and West,’ John Paul II has repeatedly said. In telling the stories of these remarkable lives, Michael Plekon invites us to breathe deeply the Spirit’s movement in living Orthodoxy. It is an invitation that should not be declined.” — Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief, First Things

“In this volume Michael Plekon shows us the lives of ten men and women who were translucent vessels of the light of Christ. If we are all called to be ‘living icons,’ this volume is a great encouragement that such a transformation is possible.” — Frederica Mathewes-Green, NPR commentator, Beliefnet.com columnist, and author of The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

Living Icons masterfully profiles figures that belong to a brilliant group of émigré Russians in Paris. This book makes a substantial and original contribution to cultural and social history. It will enormously enhance our still limited knowledge of what one may call ‘the modern Russian theological Renaissance.’ I found Living Icons richly rewarding, always enlightening, and occasionally moving.” — Anthony P. Gythiel, Wichita State University

Living Icons presents an intimate portrait of holiness as exemplified in the lives and thoughts of ten people of faith in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this inspiring volume, Michael Plekon introduces readers to a diverse and unusual group of men and women who strove to put the Gospel of Christ into action in their lives.

The “living icons” Plekon describes were, among other things, priests, theologians, writers, and caregivers to the homeless and poor. One was an artist who became the greatest icon painter in this century; another was assassinated for his teachings in post-Soviet Russia. These remarkable people of faith lived through times of great suffering: forced emigration, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Many of them were criticized, if not condemned, by ecclesiastical opponents and authorities. Yet each demonstrate a unique pattern for holiness, illustrating that the path to sainthood is open to all.

With the fall of state socialism, Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries are being reopened and receiving renewed interest from believers and nonbelievers alike. Plekon calls to our attention people like Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1832), a monk, mystic, counselor, healer, and visionary; Father Alexander Men (1935–1990), a Russian whose writings after Glasnost ultimately led to his tragic assassination; Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), a painter, poet, and political activist who was killed in a concentration camp for hiding her Jewish neighbors; and Father Lev Gillet (1893–1980), one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual teachers.

Living Icons, which includes a foreword by Lawrence S. Cunningham, brings to life the beautiful, and often unfamiliar, spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Church through some of its most remarkable members. It shows with simplicity and clarity that Christ and the Gospel are often manifested in extraordinary ways in the lives of ordinary people.

ISBN: 978-0-268-03350-7

368 pages

“This gem of a book should be read by all. . . .I recommend without reserve this wonderful, well-written, spiritually enriching book: reading it is a like making a retreat. It shows how human goodness is the really interesting and exciting human story; it is evil that is dull.” — Orientalia Christiana Periodica

“Plekon offers a timely meditation on the state of Orthodoxy. . . . Thanks to the diversity of Plekon’s subjects and his own keen sense of ecumenical context, Living Icons would serve well as an introduction to the Russian religious renaissance and its heritage in the West.” — Slavic and East European Journal

“[Plekon] provides fetching profiles of ten Orthodox figures. Telling the story through these lives, Father Plekon also provides an inviting introduction to an Orthodox world of piety, reflection, and radical devotion that is too little known in the West.” — First Things

Living Icons offers profiles of ten Orthodox Christians, and there is a fearlessness that characterizes all of them, and an openness that contrasts refreshingly with the attitude of those we might call neotraditionalists.” — Commonweal

“Fascinating, uplifting, and evenhanded in its study of characters, foibles, and faith, as well as highly recommended for students of Orthodox Christian History, Living Icons is a profound testimony to the path set by just a few among many amidst constantly changing and conflicting headwaters of religious belief worldwide.” — Midwest Book Review

“This is an important resource for anyone interested in Orthodox tradition. The men and women profiled in these pages are saints in the understanding of those whose vocation is to be very similar to God.” — Spirituality & Health

“This work offers a precious treasure, a presentation of the lives, work and engagements of these [living icons] presented in a remarkable spirit of sympathy and synthesis. This is a beautiful and important book.” — Contacts

“His honest and open style is refreshing and reflective of many of the theologians he writes about. Catechists at all levels will be nourished by Living Icons and encouraged in their own struggles with people who are ‘literalists’ or exclusive in their understanding of Christ’s Gospel. Plekon’s Living Icons has a vision that is within its tradition yet beyond it. Those who believe that church unity is an important issue will find openness, willingness, and a creativity to find resolutions through dialogue about similarities.” — Living Light

“Timely” — The Catholic Hearld

“[A]n intimate portrait of ten Eastern Orthodox personalities. . . . The book is based on sound research of literary sources as well as numerous personal resources, such as conversations with those who knew or were familiar with these figures and visits to sites where these figures either lived or else are remembered.” — Pro Ecclesia

“[I]t is heartening to encounter a significant new study by an Orthodox scholar and priest that hearkens back to a time when Orthodoxy infused creativity and inspiration, to the whole of the Christian Church. Plekon reflects the profound and perennial relevance of Eastern Christianity by examining the life and thought of 10 individuals of the twentieth century whose lives, rooted in the Orthodox faith, reveal a vibrant, living faith that is catholic and orthodox in the best sense of those terms.” — Cistercian Studies Quarterly

“The author of this engaging book traces the spiritual journey of some of the most striking personalities of Orthodoxy of our time. . . . Through these witnesses, through their lives and work, this study reveals the true face of Orthodoxy and is at the same time an urgent appeal to today’s churches. . . [a] very beautiful book, full of spirit.” — Irenikon

“_Living Icons_ is a well-written, well-researched book that gives a moving portrayal of the lives of these ten people without sentimentalizing them. It is essential reading for Orthodox Christians. . . ." — The Russian Review

“Plekon’s . . . assessment of Russian theologians who have played a leading role on the American church stage is illuminating and challenging. Fr. Plekon’s aim is to show the relevance of Orthodoxy as a living faith in the west, as well as in Russia and in this he succeeds to an exciting degree. Here is a book which contains strong theological argument, presented in a readable and stimulating way.” — Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“What Plekon has written is of great value. It introduces the reader to some outstanding men and women of the Eastern Church who have had an impact on the Western Church as well. Each chapter contains a wealth of information and insight, a richness which can be fully appreciated only by reading the book." — American Benedictine Review

“Written in nontechnical language and composed of chapters that can be appreciated individually, the book is an excellent choice for use in undergraduate as well as graduate courses dealing with modern Orthodoxy and modern Christianity generally. Theologically Plekon’s book is a signal contribution to a broader vision of Orthodoxy.” — Slavic Review
“What he has to say is most always worth listening to, filled with anecdotes and pithy observations in which one catches something of his warm love for the church. And portraits of notable figures of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the twentieth century are interwoven with sage observations and insightful commentary on the state of Orthodoxy in the world and in America today. I think he has produced a splendid work.” — Theology Today

“Michael Plekon offers a selection of Orthodox lives-all but one near contemporaries of ours-which show forth the gospel in ways that are thoroughly consistent with Orthodox tradition and are at the same time distinctly modern forms of witness.” — St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly