Saint Theophan the Recluse, Turning the Heart to God, (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press), 2001
Father Ken Kasich and Iguman Iona Zhiltsov have done a commendable job of translating this slim volume (131 pages) into English from the original Russian. St. Theophan was an Orthodox bishop, teacher, and, eventually, recluse who lived through the turbulence that embroiled Russia during the 19th century. As such, his words resonate with us today as we pass through our own period of turmoil and upheaval of the social order.
The first three chapters of the book, written by Kasich and Zhiltsov, provide necessary background information about the great saint, his travels, and the cultural context of country he inhabited. Turning the Heart to God is part of a larger volume called The Path to Salvation. It was written for seminary students under the tutelage of the renowned staretz and so it is “a workbook-a spiritual traveler’s guide”.
Saint Theophan begins with an introduction that lays the groundwork for the objective of the book, which he defines as the guiding principles necessary to kindle the fire of longing for God’s Grace and, ultimately, move him into God’s presence. He then describes in detail the action of God’s Grace: how it is manifested and how it breaks the fetters of self-indulgence, the world, and Satan. The importance of acting with immediacy is stressed because of the dangers that lie in procrastination, and, in subsequent chapters, he lays out exactly how to remove the “layers of sin” from your body and thought and goes into great detail concerning the many excuses and pitfalls that ordinary men will invent or encounter on their path…and, more importantly, how to combat them. He exhorts us to work continuously, never relax-and never to despair. Finally, he describes the process of repentance, Confession, and Communion with God through the Eucharist which is the object of every Christian’s life.
The book is written in a clear. direct style that is easy to read and understand for lay people. The many sub-headings, numbered lists, and recaps help to organize St. Theophan’s thoughts into a practical, no-nonsense approach to the subject that will appeal to students, clergy, and laity alike. It is obvious from the reading that the old saint suffered through the same kinds of earthly temptations that all of us do, yet he provides a reason for hope to any who will simply respond to the call of Grace. It is not hard to see why has been said that Turning the Heart to God is “arguably the most profound work on repentance in all of Christendom.” That is high (but highly warranted) praise.