Victoria Clark has written an interesting and perceptive travelogue of her journies to Mount Athos, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Cyprus and Istanbul and her interviews and encounters with Orthodox ecclesiastical officials, monastics, and believers.
These journies were motivated by her desire to understand and make known the costs and ongoing liabilities in present-day Europe to both the Christian east and west of the Catholic-Orthodox schism of 1054 and its corresponding mutual mistrust. Her primary thesis is that this schism cost the west its heart and the Orthodox east its mind and that the two are dangerously unbalanced without one another.
Clark makes these journies under the influence of her years as a journalist in the Balkans and Samuel Huntington's provocative thesis that present day history is a function of the clash of distinct civilizations including, western europe and Orthodoxy. Clark is not a Christian, but claims to be a theist. Most evident though, is her secular humanism.
Clark frames these journies in terms of two forces in Orthodoxy, phyletism, a heresy which identifies Christian faith with nationalism, and hesychasm, a primarily monastic prayer practice which aids the integration of the human person by conforming one's whole person to the life of the Trinity, and through which one may become divinized. Clark posits these as the basest and highest expressions of Orthodoxy and she journies about in order to see how these interact in contemporary Orthodox Europe.
The great strength of this book is Clark's writing of her encounters with Orthodox who are expressive of either or sometimes both of these traits. She brilliantly evokes some of these personalities and makes their presence palpable to the reader.
The great liability of this book is that Clark's theses don't take the Orthodox on their own terms but through the lens of Clark's secular humanism. As a result, one senses the frustration of Clark that the Orthodox "don't get it", and the frustration in some of the people she encounters that Clark "doesn't get it". To Clark's credit, she doesn't hide this. The most illuminating instance of this dynamic is Clark's interview with and subsequent reading of some answers that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos provided for her at the end of her book. In it he posits the goal of Orthodoxy as being "theanthropic", i.e. the communion of the human person with God. Clark's secular humanism wants to reduce Orthodoxy to "religion" which is in service to European or "World" harmony or peace. But this entirely misses the point for the Orthodox.
The missing presence in this book is Jesus, communion with whom is the reason for Orthodoxy, but who is relegated to the sidelines in Clark's book. This fundamental disconnection makes for interesting, well-written but ultimately frustrating encounters as Clark insists on her secular humanist viewpoint which necessarily distorts the people she is trying to understand and explain.