An Inner Step Toward God: Writings and Teachings on Prayer by Father Alexander Men Paperback – 1 Mar 2014
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Fr. Alexander Men (1935-90) was assassinated, murdered on his way to Sunday liturgy on September 9, 1990. The investigation of his case turned up no suspects, no leads and to this day his killers and their motives are only matters of speculation. He had been interrogated numerous times by the KGB during his lifetime for pushing the envelope of allowed religious activities. Once Glasnost ended the official oppression of religion he enjoyed a few brief years of recognition as a high profile speaker and specialist, often appearing on Russian TV and before large audiences to talk about faith. Though not a scholar his writing was prolific, a good deal of it published outside the country and some underground. He exercised a special outreach to younger intellectuals both returning to and coming to the church for the first time. Many of his talks both public and at friends' homes were taped and then transcribed. Some of the sermon and sermon excerpts in this volume are from this category. He also produced small handbooks, really catechetical materials for those he baptized and who came to his parish, given the dearth of any such literature. The booklet on prayer is the main source for the translation of texts here. This is a most welcome collection and for an ecumenical readership because Fr. Alexander was himself radically ecumenical and able to put not only the scriptures but church history and teachings as well as the sacraments into very accessible language. In the liturgical calendar he provided for the handbook on worship, he matter-of-factly includes a number of important western saints, much as he routinely quotes them in his other writings. So in this volume many familiar Eastern Church sources are mentioned from Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, desert fathers like Barsanuphius and John to contemporary figures like Fr Alexander Elchaninov and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, but also western ones like Francis de Sales.
The collection is full of what is typical for Fr Men–direct, uncomplicated language about pryer, honest, humane reflections on difficulties, distractions, the fickleness of our emotions, our wandering minds and attention. Here and there one finds short, powerful prayers not from the liturgy or prayerbooks and quite a few of these are Fr Men's own creations. The suggestions he gives for sticking to a definite span of time and everyday are wise. His openness to all kinds of sources for prayer and his advice about being able to pray in many different contexts–even while on vacation walking in the woods or at the beach–so compassionate, again humane. There are helpful bits of information about the services, also about the special intensity of the season of Lent, in which fasting, prayer and charity are to be linked with the services and communion. He urges communion frequently, something striking and radical in Russia even a couple of decades ago not to mention still today. One is able to listen to the "voice" of Fr. Men in a number of different registers or keys given the diversity of texts translated and included in the volume. There are quite a few selections from his really eloquent yet simple homilies, but also from some of the many public talks he gave. Then there are the more intimate "conversations" with small groups on home settings. And there is the voice in his handbooks. I was struck by the detail– something I had not seen previously in his writings-in the appendices, in his suggestions about better focus in prayer though breathing, awareness of tension, even physical weight and strain and mental concentration. I was also interested to see a very detailed examination of conscience before confession, with fourteen sets of questions to pose to oneself. I myself am no great fan of such "detail" either in prayer or in sacramental confession and I did find these in sharp contrat to thw warm informality that usually is found in Fr. Men's talks and writing. Yet even in these more methodical approaches and in remarks about how to live during Lent, there was nothing of the legalistic, nothing compulsive. One always need consider his or her situation, age, health, responsibilities at home as well as the advice of one's priest or confessor. And running through all the texts is Fr. Men's emphasis on a relationship with Christ that is joyful, that shows itself in love and forgiveness, peace rather than agitation or judgment of others. By now a number of selctions of Fr. Alexander Men's sermons, talks and writings have been published. Some have become difficult even impossible to access. This new collection reminds us of the gifts of this modern teacher, pastor and martyr and makes me hope that there will be more awareness of his lucid vision of how the Gospel is to be put into practice in everyday life.
Michael Plekon / 10010,
Baruch College of the City University of New York, 1 Bernard Baruch Way, New York NY,
An Inner Step Toward God includes not only Fr Men’s A Practical Guide to Prayer, which circulated first in samizdat and was then published in 1991, but also further talks and writings on prayer, which were added into a second edition of the Practical Guide published in 1995. This latter edition has been expertly edited by April French for a Western readership, and translated by Christa Belyaeva, with helpful footnotes and brief introductions to the texts, as well as useful glossaries on terminology and important figures mentioned.
An Inner Step Toward God is divided into four parts. The first contains two of Fr Men’s talks on the basics of prayer, where he describes three essentials as the three legs of a stool; meditation on scripture, one of the legs, he compares to a vine weaving round a tree trunk: “When you leave for work in the morning, you take this Word with you; it is present to you, and you ponder it. Just as a vine weaves itself around the trunk of a tree, your soul weaves itself around this truth.”
Part two is the text of A Practical Guide to Prayer which is indeed highly practical, taking into account the whole person, mind, body, and spirit, with advice on physical posture, breathing and the need to nurture inner silence. Fr Men selects from the great spiritual guides what is relevant to us today, and writes in an accessible manner.
Part three gives the Western reader an insight into Orthodoxy, with an examination of prayer in relation to Lent, providing useful guidance on how to meditate; during the third week, with its focus on St Gregory Palamas, Fr Men recommends that you should keep your mouth shut! “Only those conversations that are necessary in order to function are allowed. They say ‘an angel flies by’ whenever there is a moment of silence, so our task this week is not allowed him to leave.”
Part four consists of excerpts from Fr Men’s sermons on prayer and the communion of saints, and includes a moving collection of prayers of his own that he used at the end of informal gatherings or at the end of his sermons.
Fr Men writes quiet authority about matters which he understands from his own experience: he was a man of deep prayer, and a great pastor, who affected the lives of many hundreds. Although under constant surveillance by the secret police, he managed to continue his ministry during the rule of five Communist Party leaders, the last of whom, Mikhail Gorbachev, at last relaxed the oppression imposed on religious believers for seventy years.
By many Fr Men is revered as a martyr. There is evidence that he sensed his impending death and felt an urgency about his ministry, speaking wherever possible about the Christian faith during the early years of perestroika. The day before he was murdered, he gave a lecture in which he spoke of Christ as a bridge over the abyss that lies between the Creator and creation; St Paul, he said, understood this, and “internally united himself” with this bridge: “He was bound to Christ with endless love in such a way that he felt as if he carried Christ’s wounds on himself and that he had died with Christ on the cross and was resurrected with Him.”
In retrospect, these words sound prophetic: Fr Men, like St Paul, has also become a bridge across the abyss.
―Xenia Dennen, Church Times
March 30, 2014
Reading An Inner Step Toward God was like sitting down for a few hours with a beloved spiritual father. Father Men's advice is direct, simple to understand, doable and challenging at the same time--and if followed, will draw one closer to God. Father Men is a much-loved and revered Russian Orthodox priest; he was martyred at the close of the Soviet Union. His wisdom comes from faithfulness to Christ in times of struggle, ministry to others under challenging circumstances, and scholarship with few resources. This book--as is the case for all his writings--is rooted in love: love for Jesus Christ, love for all who follow Him (whatever their tradition), and love for those who have yet to know Him. I highly recommend this book for Christians (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians) who want to take a step closer to God.Gerald Munk
March 5, 2014
Father Alexander Men was one of the most enigmatic late Soviet religious figures. A convert from Judaism, Men participated in the revitalization of the Russian Orthodox Church in that period. His approach to Orthodox spirituality reflected the tensions of his era. In keeping with the resistance revitalization often encountered on the political level, he was frequently questioned by the KGB. Revitalization also often encountered resistance on a religious level. Thus, Men had to contend with an embattled Orthodox Church that had become accustomed to accepting the Soviet regime’s constraints as unavoidable. Not surprisingly, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms catapulted Men into the public sphere. His murder in 1990, tragic as it was, spared him the post-Soviet identity crisis in which so many heroic dissidents lost their luster. Instead, Men’s reputation grew under the halo of martyrdom, and his variety of written works have slowly made their way from Russian samizdat and tamizdat into English. An Inner Step toward God is such a volume, dedicated specifically to Men’s writings on prayer.
The current volume has much to offer Western Christians looking for an accessible Orthodox guide to prayer from one of Soviet Russia’s most acclaimed religious figures, and those with a scholarly interest in Soviet religious history. Christa Belyaeva provides a direct but approachable translation of Men’s words. In addition, French’s editorial commentary, four appendices, ten pages of notes, and two glossaries provide welcome assistance to both popular and scholarly readers. This volume gives a valuable glimpse into the mind of a figure whose importance continues unabated in contemporary Russia.
Erich Lippman, Assistant Professor of History, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Winona, Minnesota
About the Author
April French, the project editor, is one of the foremost North American authorities on Father Alexander Men. She worked for several years in Christian ministry to university students living in Irkutsk, Siberia, where Russian friends introduced her to the works of Fr. Alexander. April has a MA from Regent College, where she wrote her thesis on Fr. Alexander. She is now a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University.
Christa Belyaeva, the translator, lived in Moscow for eight years. While there, she converted to Orthodoxy and worshipped at the Church of the Dormition with people who knew Fr. Alexander Men personally. Christa has experience translating at Moscow Bible College and Hosanna Ministries. She now lives with her husband and three children in Temecula, CA.
Top customer reviews
Men's words, while simple, are peppered with profound insights, biblical exegesis, and quotes from Church Fathers and other theologians and authors. His writings are imbued with a sense of inner peace, love and sincerity. At times, his practical advice on prayer, aimed at the average layman and beginner, is reminiscent of another great Russian teacher of prayer, St Theophan the Recluse.
My only quibble is that at times Men's thoughts can seem disjointed, and he goes off on tangents now and again, but I cannot deny that there are some great insights even in those tangents. But this small imperfection does not take away from the beauty, simplicity and profundity of the book, which is a highly approachable introduction to prayer for all Christians, with plenty of practical tips for those who wish to deepen their private devotions.
'An Inner Step Toward God: Writings and Teachings on Prayer by Father Alexander Men' was provided to me for free by Paraclete Press in return for an honest review.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
During his life time, his books on Orthodoxy and the spiritual life were circulated in a clandestine manner–published under pseudonyms and passed out as carbon-copied manuscripts (or published abroad and smuggled back into the country). But because Men wrote in Russian, much of his writings remain unknown in the English speaking world. Editor April French and translator Christa Belyaeva have compiled many of Men’s works into a slim volume, An Inner Step Toward God. Readers will be treated to Men’s practical insights on the nature of prayer and its practice in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
There are four sections of this book. Part one records parts of two lectures: an informal one delivered in a parishioner’s house, and a formal lecture delivered in February, 1990 (months before his murder). Part two reproduces A Practical Guide to Prayer, a catechetical work utilized by small groups of Men’s congregants to deepen their prayer lives. Part three focuses on prayer and the Great Lent. There is a chapter where Men describes the Prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria (a prayer sent daily through Lent by Orthodox Christians) and devotional instructions for this season. Part four has sermon selections from Men on various saints, his public prayers and further selections from his sermons and lectures on prayer. In addition to these sections, there are appendices which record insights from Men and other Orthodox Christians on the life of prayer.
As a lowly Protestant, I often turn to the writings of the Christian east and find wells of deep insight. Writers like Kallistos Ware, John Zizioulas, Anthony Bloom, Paul of Finland and Alexander Schmemann have shaped my theology, my love of the sacraments and appreciation for liturgy. I remain firm in my non-Orthodoxy but these authors help me see the wisdom and depths of the Great Tradition. Men is a devout and insightful Orthodox author and I am grateful for discovering him through this gem of a book.
Men saw prayer as a means of cultivating an awareness of God’s presence throughout life and allowing God to transform us:
So let us pray that we may know He is with us right now. The Word of God will be with us. We will take Him home, and He will live in us. And Finally, let us live in the light and in hope. We believers are happy people who do not take advantage of happiness; we are rich people who neither take possession of nor utilize our treasure. Therefore, today we will wash away everything–our resentments, our disappointments, our worries and expectations, our sin and our burdens. We bring these things to the Lord so that He might strengthen us, for this is what is most important (18).
Men talks about breathing, prayer postures, managing distractions and ‘higher forms of prayer’ (i.e. cultivating an inner awareness of God through all of life). However his method of prayer is relatively simple: daily prayer with a prayer book, time reading and meditating on Holy Scripture, and the Eucharist. Orthodox prayer practice consists of saying set prayers (i.e. rote prayers from a prayer book or the Jesus prayer) as a means of attuning your heart to God. Men argues that these forms of prayers awaken us to God’s presence, and work on us regardless of whether or not we ‘feel like praying or not.’ To say the words from a prayer book, day in and day out is formational. I find myself challenged and inspired by Men’s prescription for daily regular prayer.
This book provided strategies for deepening my personal prayer life and introduced me to voice of someone outside of my own tradition. I am grateful for Men’s life and witness and to April French and Paraclete press for introducing me to him!
Notice of material connection: In addition to the copy I purchased here on Amazon, I also received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review.
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