On How to Read the Holy Fathers
From the Magazine "The Orthodox Word" of Jan.-Feb., 1975
Below is the first part in a series of excerpts from the Introduction to I.M. Kontzevich's book, The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality.
As the example of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky and others continue to inspire interest in the reading of the Holy Fathers, guidance on how to read their soul-profiting writings becomes all the more essential. The awareness of a need for such guidance is crucial in our age of spiritual poverty, when one must bear constantly in mind the words of wisdom: Trust in the Lord and lean not to thine own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
Below are some excerpts from the Introduction to I .M. Kontzevitch's book, The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality (yet to be published) on "How to Read the Holy Fathers". In a future issue of "Orthodox America" we will print the continuation of this Introduction: "How Not to Read the Holy Fathers".
In the present century there has been a noticeably increased interest in the Philokalia and its Holy Fathers. In particular, the more recent Fathers such as St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory the Sinaite, and St. Gregory Palamas, have begun to be studied and a few of their writings translated and printed in English and other Western languages. One might even say that in some seminary and academic circles they have "come into fashion", in sharp contrast to the 19th century, when they were not "in fashion" at all, even in most Orthodox theological academies (as opposed to the best monasteries, which always preserved their memories as holy and lived by their writings).
St. John of the Ladder (6th century):
"Just as a pauper, seeing the royal treasures, all the more acknowledges his own poverty; so also the spirit, reading the accounts of the great deeds of the Holy Fathers, involuntarily is all the more humbled in its way of thought."
But this very fact presents a great danger which must here be emphasized. The "coming into fashion" of the profoundest spiritual writings is by no means necessarily a good thing. In fact, it is far better that the names of these Fathers remain altogether unknown than that they be merely the occupation of rationalistic scholars and "crazy converts" who derive no spiritual benefit from them but only increase their senseless pride at "knowing better" about them than anyone else, or even worse, begin to follow the spiritual instructions in their writings without sufficient preparation and without any spiritual guidance. All of this to be sure, does not mean that the lover of truth should abandon the reading of the Holy Fathers; God forbid! But it does mean that all of us- scholar, monk, or simple layman-must approach these Fathers with the fear of God, with humility, and with a great distrust of our own wisdom and judgment. We approach them in order to learn, and first of all we must admit that for this we require a teacher. And teachers do exist: in our times when the God-bearing Elders have vanished, our teachers must be those Fathers who, especially in the times close to us, have told us specifically how to read and how not to read the Orthodox writings on the spiritual life. If the Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky himself, the compiler of the first Slavonic Philokalia, was "seized with fear" on learning that such books were to be printed and no longer circulated in manuscript form among some few monasteries, then how much the more must we approach them with fear and understand the cause of his fear, lest there come upon us the spiritual catastrophe which he foresaw.
Blessed Paisius, in his letter to Archimandrite Theodosius of the St. Sophronius Hermitage wrote: "Concerning the publication in print of the Patristic books, both in the Greek and Slavonic languages, I am seized both with joy and fear. With joy, because they will not be given over to final oblivion...; with fear, being frightened and trembling lest they be offered, as a thing which can be sold even like other books, not only to monks, but also to all Orthodox Christians, and lest these latter, having studied the work of mental prayer in a self-willed way, without instruction from those who are experienced in it, might fall into deception..."
Few are they, to be sure, in our latter times of feeble ascetic struggle, who strive for the heights of mental prayer (or even know what this might be); but the warnings of Blessed Paisius and other Holy Fathers hold true also for the lesser struggles of many Orthodox Christians today. Anyone who reads the Philokalia and other writings of the Holy Fathers, and even many Lives of Saints, will encounter passages about mental prayer, about divine vision, about deification, and about other exalted spiritual states, and it is essential for the Orthodox Christian to know what he should think and feel about these.
The Blessed Elder Macanus of Optina found it necessary to write a special "warning to those reading spiritual Patristic books and desiring to practice the mental Prayer of Jesus." Here this great Father almost of our own century tells us clearly what our attitude should be to these spiritual states: "The holy and God-bearing Fathers wrote about great spiritual gifts not so that anyone might strive indiscriminately to receive them, but so that those who do not have them, hearing about such exalted gifts and revelations which were received by those who were worthy, might acknowledge their own profound infirmity and great insufficiency, and might involuntarily be inclined to humility, which is more necessary for those seeking salvation than all other works and virtues." Thus, our first approach to the writings of the Holy Fathers must be one of humility... We must come to the Holy Fathers with the humble intention of beginning the spiritual life at the lowest step, and not even dreaming of ourselves attaining those exalted spiritual states, which are totally beyond us...
Again, different Patristic books on the spiritual life are suitable for Orthodox Christians in different conditions of life: that which is suitable especially for solitaries is not directly applicable to monks living the common life; that which applies to monks in general will not be directly relevant for laymen; and in every condition, the spiritual food which is suitable for those with some experience may be entirely indigestible for beginners. Once one has achieved a certain balance in spiritual life by means of active practice of God's commandments within the discipline of the Orthodox Church, by faithful reading of the more elementary writings of the Holy Fathers, and by spiritual guidance from living fathers, then one can receive much spiritual benefit from all the writings of the Holy Fathers, applying them to one's own condition of life.
St. Barsanuphius [a 6th century Desert Father] indicates... something else very important for us who approach the Holy Fathers much too academically: "One who is taking care for his salvation should not at all ask [the Elders, i.e. read Patristic books] for the acquiring only of knowledge, for knowledge puffeth up (I Corinthians 8:1), as the Apostle says; but it is most fitting to ask about the passions and about how one should live one's life, that is, how to be saved; for this is necessary, and leads to salvation." Thus, one is not to read the Holy Fathers out of mere curiosity or as an academic exercise, without the active intention to practice what they teach, according to one's spiritual level...
Elder Macarius of Optina (19th century):
"Pray that you may be granted the grace to read the Fathers with the right understanding, the grace to live up to the standards they put before you, and the grace to clearly see your own frailty. You will not long be left wanting and waiting. God will give you help."
Finally, we must remember that the whole purpose of reading the Holy Fathers is, not to give us some kind of "spiritual enjoyment" or confirm us in our own righteousness or superior knowledge or contemplative state, but solely to aid us in the practice of the active path of virtue. Many of the Holy Fathers discuss the distinction between the "active" and the "contemplative" (or more properly, "noetic") life, and it should be emphasized here that this does not refer, as some might think, to any artificial distinction between those leading the "ordinary" life of "outward Orthodoxy" or mere "good deeds," and an "inward" life cultivated only by monastics or some intellectual elite; not at all. There is only one Orthodox spiritual life, and it is lived by every Orthodox struggler, whether monastic or layman, whether beginner or advanced... Almost all the Patristic writings refer to the life of action, not the life of vision; when the latter is mentioned, it is to remind us of the goal of our labors and struggles, which in this life is tasted deeply only by a few of the great Saints, but in its fullness is known only in the age to come...