Reviewed by Mary Woods

  • Genre: Short Stories, Contemporary, Inspirational
  • Author’s Worldview: Orthodox Christian
  • Year Published: 2020
  • Themes: Orthodox Christianity, Parish Life, Urban Life, Inner City, Community, Family, Priesthood, Suffering, Redemption, Liturgy
  • Audience: Adult

If you have read the classic authors of Russian literature—such as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky—you have likely seen Orthodox Christianity portrayed in fiction. What you may not have seen before is fiction that shows Eastern Christians living out their faith in a contemporary, American setting. Fr. Stephen Siniari, an Orthodox priest who worked for forty years in inner-city parishes, has crafted a brilliant collection of short stories that brings to light the hidden gem of the American Orthodox experience.

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Set in a run-down, industrial Philadelphia neighborhood, these twenty-four stories revolve around the fictional parish of St. Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church. Fr. Naum, the pastor, is a humble and introspective man who brings a Christ-like compassion to everyone he meets, even as he remains acutely aware of his own failings. Fr. Naum encounters all kinds of people in his close-knit urban community: factory workers, elderly immigrants, ex-convicts, drug addicts, and many more. Each story paints a raw but beautiful portrait of a lost soul or broken family searching, consciously or unconsciously, for God’s healing.

Here are just a few examples of the characters that Fr. Siniari brings vividly to life: a Russian immigrant woman who once made vestments for priests in the Dachau concentration camp. An altar server with Down Syndrome who cannot read and yet knows the church services by heart. A fiercely stubborn young woman who defies her Orthodox family to marry a Roman Catholic. A devout old man who struggles to hold on to his faith after he discovers a terrible secret about his seemingly pious son. Fr. Siniari writes with deep insight into the fallen human condition and the hidden burdens that individuals bear while stumbling towards salvation.

The prose is a joy to read: familiar, colloquial, brimming with concrete detail and the unflinching perceptiveness of an inner-city native. Now and again, the extraordinary breaks through the ordinary in flashes of poetry and spiritual insight. These passages are neither abstract nor didactic; instead, they illuminate the human struggles of love, hate, and grief with a divine and healing radiance. There are no easy answers in these stories—only the mysterious, transformative power of God’s love.

Big in Heaven immerses the reader in a uniquely Orthodox expression of Christianity. Fr. Naum is a married priest, and the stories are full of references to the ancient prayers and liturgical traditions of the Eastern Church. Readers who come from an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic background will find St. Alexander the Whirling Dervish Parish to be a delightfully familiar world. Although a few of the cultural subtleties may be lost on readers from other religious backgrounds, the book still provides a wonderful introduction to the Eastern Christian community in America for those who have never experienced it before.

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While writing from a thoroughly Orthodox perspective, Fr. Siniari clearly has deep love and respect for people from other religious traditions. In the stories, Fr. Naum cultivates friendships with Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and many people from secular backgrounds as well. In each encounter, Fr. Naum seeks to serve individuals where they are, offering a listening ear to everyone while still remaining obedient to his own Church. I believe that readers of all faiths will be able to appreciate this realistic portrayal of people humbly working together to serve God.

Big in Heaven is quite honestly the best religious fiction that I have read in a long time. Both poignant and profound, this collection presents compelling, immensely readable stories about the often-overlooked community of Orthodox Christians. Anyone who is searching for contemporary fiction that is both entertaining and spiritually nourishing will find a veritable feast in Fr. Siniari’s work.