Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Review: Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam by John Oliver

Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam
By John Oliver
ISBN: 1888212659
Price: £9.83 (Amazon UK)
Touching Heaven was the second of my Christmas Holidays 'Theology Light' purchases, the purpose of these being to pick up and read through some of the more personalised Orthodox texts as a way of stepping out of academic theology works which dominate both my professional and personal life most of the time.
Touching Heaven is the story of the author's search for meaning in life, eventually leading him to discover the Orthodox Faith and join a pilgrimage to Valaam Monastery.  The book itself is split into seventeen chapters, which can be split into three sections which cover the author's journey Orthodoxy, their experience in the monastery and the implementation of the lessons learnt in their daily life. The book as a whole gives a very personal feel to the experience of the monastery as well as introducing a group of characters who we can relate to in our daily lives, allowing us to understand the struggles experienced in the life at the monastery and in the daily existence of the author.
The aforementioned structure in the book allows it to be easily digestible and readable in a short period of time. As well as this, the clever narrative and writing style allows the author to express both a personal spiritual journey and some important lessons in Orthodox living without focusing on a single part of the story or single moral point for too long. The writing style also allows the narrative to be broken up to include jumps to other story points (usually monastery flashbacks) without interrupting the flow.
Although the strength of the book as a narrative comes from its clever interplay between moral message and personal journey, the main draw of the book comes from its personalised take on the dilemmas faced by the author during his time at the monastery and in bringing the lessons he learnt there into his daily life. As someone that has been through this struggle, I feel that it is a challenge that faces all Orthodox Christians living secular lives which do not easily interplay with the spiritual requirements and discipline of the Orthodox life. The author’s personal anecdotes and experience in dealing with this can come as a reassurance and blessing to anyone new to Orthodoxy or trying to make more time for their faith in an age of 24/7 obligation. This simple and personal approach to the struggles faced can be a source of great strength to anyone reading the book as a way to seek answers to discovering Orthodoxy in the modern world.

The simple and personal approach to the issues can also be seen as the book’s weakness for some readers. Due to the book spending much time on how the author personally struggled with various issues of faith, it often addresses these issues and prioritises them based on the author’s personal challenges, missing many issues which others may face. An example is that the author does not seem to have any struggle with understanding key aspects of the faith, instead accepting Orthodox Christianity on merit due to his previous understanding and experience in Christianity. The book is mainly focused on monastic values and the lessons which can be learnt for the laity from the monastic life, it therefore puts priority on the inner struggle with the lifestyle over those which may be faced by people experiencing Christianity for the first time. 

Overall, I highly enjoyed the book and the somewhat unique way of looking at these issues through the eyes of a recent pilgrim. The book also allowed for a number of interesting anecdotes to provide wisdom from the Islands of Valaam, which are very handy to dwell upon when dealing with the struggles of the faith in daily life. It was a good read and would be of interest for anyone wishing to make more of their Orthodox Faith in their daily life, though the amount you get out of it will be based on what aspects you are seeking to develop.