Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics, (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985)
I have long appreciated this short little book, so I figured for this last read through I'd take some notes and post a review of it. Originally released in 1960, it is written with the tone (though not the style) of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and continually challenges you to go further up and further into the spiritual life.
The book is 128 pages long, with about 105 going to the text and the rest going to front/back material. I guesstimated that the content comes in at around 19,000 words. Having said that, while it is rather short, it is nonetheless much denser or more insightful than your average book. It's short because brevity was a goal, because Mr. Colliander could say in 19,000 words what some others might have stretched into 38,000 words.
Topics include obedience, humility, prayer, fasting, the Jesus Prayer, guarding the heart, and other similar topics. The main theme running throughout the book is reliance on God and the "denial of self". Mr. Colliander quotes the Scriptures often, though sometimes simply alludes to passages. He also quotes and references Church Fathers and Orthodox writers, both ancient ones such as St. John Chrysostom and St. John Climacus, and also more modern ones such as St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ambrose of Optina.
Summing up the main theme of the book, Mr. Colliander says: "We must empty ourselves, therefore, of the immoderately high faith we have in ourselves. Often it is so deeply rooted in us that we do not see how it rules over our heart. It is precisely our egoism, our self-centeredness and self-love, that cause all our difficulties, our lack of freedom in suffering, our disappointments and out anguish of soul and body." (p. 5) Another statement that illustrates the tone of the work is: "Suppress your ruinous weakness and your craving for comfort; attack them from every side! Crush your desire for enjoyment; do not give it air to breath. Be strict with yourself; do not grant your carnal ego the bribes it is restively demanding. For everything gains strength from repetition, but dies if it is not given nourishment." (p. 18)
And one more passage: "Always keep this in mind: you are not doing anything virtuous by your continence. Or can it be considered a virtuous act when a man who, out of his own carelessness, has been trapped deep down in a mine shaft, takes pick and shovel and tries to work his way out? Is it not, on the contrary, quite natural for him to make use of the tools given him by a higher authority to make his way up out of the choking air and the darkness?" (pp. 36-37)
In an attempt to make the points accessible, Mr. Colliander makes liberal use of everyday situations to make a spiritual point, including cleaning a house (p. 14), bathing (p. 28), looking at things from high places rather than valleys (p. 30), using wind to sail a ship (p. 45), peeling an onion (p. 46), sitting behind closed curtains (p. 56), a spider waiting on it's web (p. 58), an artist working with various mediums (p. 59), writers and musicians getting cramps in the hand (p. 78), and observing weather changes (p. 84).
Other bits that caught my eye through the text include: "you are anchored in eternity," (p. 10) "self-confidence is a dangerous confederate," (p. 53) "Spiritual man thinks spiritually; his hope is sometime to hear the angels' joy over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:10), and that sinner is himself," (p. 16) "A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home," (p. 44) and "If you are disturbed over the mistakes of another, follow the example of Shem and Japheth: cover them with the mantle of silence (Genesis 9:23)" (p. 73).
To sum up, let me just say that this is one of my favorite books by a contemporary author, and IMO a modern classic. It is probably not for everyone though, as it could make you go a bit overboard if you have a tendency to get really zealous and take things to extremes. But if you can take the text in the correct spirit and apply it with moderation, it is a truly wonderful little book.