Nil SORSKY (David M. GOLDFRANK, Editor and Translator), The Authentic Writings. Cistercian Publications, 2008. Pb. 369 + XXII. ISBN 978-0-087907-321-3 (pbk).
Reviewed by Richard PENASKOVIC, Auburn University, AL 36849-5210

The book deals with the life and writings of the mystic and advocate of scete monasticism, Nil Sorsky (1433/34-1508). He is generally regarded as medieval Russia’s master and teacher of stillness or hesychasm. Sorsky’s writings document how in the Balkans and in Russia hesychasm was practiced and taught in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In his one hundred page introduction Goldfrank points out how little we know about Sorsky apart from his extant writings. Sorsky hailed from Moscow then a stone-walled kremlin which covered almost its present area. Sorsky’s parents or guardians made sure Nil received a good education. Scholars are in the dark why and when Nil became a monk. Perhaps the positive attraction of prayer drew Nil into monasticism joining the famous cloister at Kirillov. This monastery at Kirillov successfully integrated contemplation, community life, and intellectual studies, to boot. Nil’s two main interests proved to be prayer and hagiography, both of which became the focus of his future literary achievements.

In the 1470s or 1480s Nil visited Constantinople and Mount Athos, which at that time consisted of twenty major cloisters containing several thousand monks. While at Athos Nil learned to read Greek and without a doubt mastered stillness or hesychastic prayer, without becoming an advocate for Gregory Palamas’s famous doctrine of divine light. After leaving Athos, Nil with his followers relocated north of Kirillov near the Sora River and Lake (whence the name, Sorsky) for the purpose of living strictly by the traditions of the holy Fathers, according to the Divine Writings. Nil’s spirituality contained three notable elements: poverty, solitude, and, prayer, particularly against evil spirits. One wonders whether Nil was influenced on this score by Antony of Egypt who also wrestled with demons according to the biography of Antony by St. Athanasius. Nil did editorial work in the monastery although scholars are uncertain how much he made use of original Greek texts.

Although Nil’s literary output was meager Goldfrank observes that it was of very high quality. Nil Sorsky composed the Predanie, the Ustav, his magnum opus, the Epistles to Vassain, Gurii, and German, The Little Epistles, the related Forewords and Postscripts to the Sobornik, and the Testament. In this book Goldfrank has carefully translated these works and has done the scholarly world a mitzvot. It should also be noted that all of these works are interrelated, textually speaking. In translating Sorsky’s works into English Goldfrank, to his credit, allows Nil to speak for himself. However, on the flip side, the English translation does not, in my view, read smoothly. For one thing, Goldfrank allows Nil’s ellipses to pass where other translators might fill in the missing word. On this score Goldfrank’s translation runs into problems because the translated text becomes terribly unclear. Goldfrank certainly understands that there are valid arguments for clarifying passages that are unclear. However, he has chosen not to do so except by using footnotes. In my view his method does not proves successful also because his translation is too literal, making the text very difficult to understand. Finally, I would note that this book contains an excellent bibliography and very detailed index, both of which testify to Goldfrank’s scholarship.

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