How Not to Read the Holy Fathers
From the Magazine "The Orthodox Word" of Jan.-Feb., 1975

Below is the second part in a series of excerpts from the Introduction to I.M. Kontzevich's book, The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality.

Enough has been said to indicate the seriousness and sobriety with which one must approach the study of the Holy Fathers. But the very habit of light-mindedness in 20th century man, of not taking seriously even the most solemn subjects of "playing with ideas", which is what scholars at universities now do, makes it necessary for us to look more closely at some common mistakes which have been made by nominal Orthodox Christians in their study or teaching of the Holy Fathers This examination will enable us to see more clearly how not to approach the Holy Fathers.

The First Pitfall: DILETTANTISM

This, the pit into which the most light-minded of those interested in Orthodox theology or spirituality usually fall, is most apparent in "ecumenical" gatherings of many kinds- conferences, "retreats," and the like. We may read, for example, in an address on the Desert Fathers by a supposedly Orthodox clergyman, "The Fathers of the Desert can play an extremely important role for us. They can be for all of us a wonderful place of ecumenical meeting." Can the speaker be so naive as not to know that the Father he wishes to study, like all the Holy Fathers, would be horrified to learn that his words were being used to teach the art of prayer to the heterodox? It is one of the rules of politeness at such "ecumenical" gatherings that the heterodox are not informed that the first prerequisite for studying the Fathers is to have the same faith as the Fathers- Orthodoxy. Without this prerequisite all instruction in prayer and spiritual doctrine is only a deception, a means for further entangling the heterodox listener in his own errors. This is not fair to the listener; it is not serious on the part of the speaker; it is exactly how not to undertake the study or the teaching of the Holy Fathers.

The same corrupt spiritual attitude may be seen on a more sophisticated level in the "agreed statements" that issue now and again from "consultations of the theologians," whether Orthodox-Roman Catholic, Orthodox-Anglican, or the like. These "agreed statements", on such subjects as "the Eucharist" or "the nature of the Church" are, again, an exercise in "ecumenical" politeness which does not even hint to the heterodox (if the "Orthodox theologians" present even know it) that whatever definition of such realities might be "agreed upon," the heterodox, being without the experience of living in the Church of Christ, lack the reality thereof.

The main cause of this spiritual pitfall is probably not so much the wrong intellectual attitude of theological relativism which prevails in "ecumenical" circles as it is something deeper, something involved in the whole personality and way of life of most "Christians" today... The "casualness" of contemporary life produces a whole wrong attitude toward the Church and her theology and practice. But this brings us to the second basic pitfall we must avoid in our study of the Holy Fathers.


It is not only "ecumenical" gatherings which can be light-minded and frivolous; one may note precisely the same tone at "Orthodox" conventions and "retreats," and at gatherings of "Orthodox theologiana". The Holy Fathers are not always directly involved or discussed in such gatherings, but an awareness of the spirit of such gatherings will prepare us to understand the background which seemingly serious Orthodox Christians bring with them when they begin to study spirituality and theology.

Orthodox youth conventions in America as a general rule are an incongruous combination of the sacred and the profane: the serving of Divine Liturgy and discussions on such questions as the keeping of Lent, mixed with elaborate Saturday night dances fully in the "American life-style" and other amusements for the delegates including "rock and roll" bands, imitation gambling casinos and "belly dances." What spiritual preparation can a person bring to the Divine Liturgy when he has spent the previous evening celebrating the spirit of this world, and has spent many hours during the weekend at totally frivolous entertainments? A sober observer can only reply: Such a person brings the worldly spirit with him; worldliness is the very air he breathes; and therefore for him Orthodoxy itself enters into the "casual American life-style." If such a person were to begin reading the Holy Fathers, which speak of a totally different way of life, he would either find them totally irrelevant to his own way of life, or else would be required to distort their teaching in order to make it applicable to his way.

Even more serious gatherings sponsored by some Orthodox jurisdictions usually fail to escape the light-minded spirit of contemporary life. Usually, they only reflect the majority of pampered, self-centered, frivolous young people of today who, when they come to religion, expect to find "spirituality with comfort," some thing which is instantly reasonable to their immature minds which have been stupefied by their "modern education."

Seeing this background from which today's young Orthodox Christians are emerging in America (and throughout the free world), one is not surprised to discover the general lack of seriousness in most works- lectures, articles, books on Orthodox theology and spirituality today; and the message of even the best lecturers and writers in the "mainstream" of the Orthodox jurisdictions today seems strangely powerless, without spiritual force.

The powerlessness of orthodoxy as it is so widely expressed and lived today is doubtless itself a product of the poverty, the lack of seriousness, of contemporary life. Orthodoxy today, with its priests and theologians and faithful, has become worldy. The young people who come from comfortable homes and either accept or seek (the "native Orthodox" and "converts" being alike in this regard) a religion that is not remote from the self-satisfied life they have known; the professors and lecturers whose milieu is the academic world where, notoriously, nothing is accepted as ultimately serious, a matter of life or death; the very academic atmosphere of self-satisfied worldliness in which almost all "retreats" and "conferences" and "institutes" takes place. All of these factors join together to produce an artificial, hothouse atmosphere in which, no matter what might be said concerning exalted Orthodox truths of the worldly orientation of both speaker and listener, it cannot strike to the depths of the soul and produce the profound commitment which used to be normal to Orthodox Christians. By contrast to this hothouse atmosphere, the natural Orthodox education, the natural transmission of Orthodoxy itself, occurs in what used to be accepted as the natural Orthodox environment- the monastery, where not only novices but also pious laymen come to be instructed as much by the atmosphere of a holy place as by the conversation of a spiritual father; the normal parish, if its priest is of the "old-fashioned" mentality, on fire with Orthodoxy and so desirous for the salvation of his flock that he will not excuse their sins and worldly habits but is always urging them to a higher spiritual life: even the theological school, if it is of the old type and not modeled on the secular universities of the West, where there is opportunity to make living contact with true Orthodox scholars who actually live their faith and think according to the "old school" of faith and piety. But all of this, what used to be regarded as the normal Orthodox environment, is now disdained by Orthodox Christians who are in harmony with the artificial environment of the modern world, and is no longer even part of the experience of the new generation.

We must face squarely a painful but necessary truth; a person who is seriously reading the Holy Fathers and who is struggling according to his strength (even if on a very primitive level) to lead an Orthodox spiritual life must be out of step with the times, must be a stranger to the atmosphere of contemporary "religious" movements and discussions, must be consciously striving to lead a life quite different from that reflected in almost all "Orthodox" books and periodicals today.

The Third Pitfall: "ZEAL NOT ACCORDING TO KNOWLEDGE" (Romans 10:2)

Given the powerlessness and insipidity of worldly "Orthodoxy" today, it is not surprising that some, even in the midst of worldly "Orthodox" organizations, should catch a glimpse of the fire of true Orthodoxy which is contained in Divine services and in the Patristic writings, and, holding it as a standard against those who are satisfied with a worldly religion, should become zealots of true Orthodox life and faith. In itself, this is praiseworthy; but in actual practice it is not so easy to escape the nets of worldliness they desire to escape, but also are led outside the realm of Orthodox tradition altogether into something more like a feverish sectarianism.

The most striking example of such "zeal not according to knowledge" is to be seen in the present-day "charismatic" movement. There is no need here to describe this movement. It is clear enough that those among Orthodox Christians who have been drawn into this movement have no solid background in the experience of Patristic Christianity, and their apologies are almost entirely Protestant in language and tone. We must distinguish between two entirely different realities: one, the Holy Spirit, Who comes only to those struggling in the true Orthodox life, but not (in these latter times) in any spectacular way; and quite another, the ecumenist religious "spirit of the times," which takes possession precisely of those who give up (or never knew) the "exclusive" Orthodox way of life and "open" themselves to a new revelation accessible to all no matter of what sect. One who is carefully studying the Holy Fathers and applying their teaching to his own life will be able to detect in such a movement the tell-tale signs of spiritual deception (prelest), and also will recognize the quite un-Orthodox practices and tone which characterize it.

There is also a quite unspectacular form of "zeal not according to knowledge" which can be more of a danger to the ordinary serious Orthodox Christian, because it can lead him astray in his personal life without being revealed by any of the more obvious signs of spiritual deception. This is a danger especially for new converts , for novices in monasteries and, in a word, for everyone whose zealotry is young, largely untested by experience, and untempered by prudence.

This kind of zeal is the product of the joining together of two basic attitudes. First, there is the high idealism which is inspired especially by accounts of desert-dwelling, severe ascetic exploits, and exalted spiritual states. This idealism in itself is good, and it is characteristic of all true zealotry for spiritual life; but in order to be fruitful it must be tempered by actual experience of the difficulties of spiritual struggle, and by the humility born of this struggle if it is genuine. Without this tempering it will lose contact with the reality of spiritual life and be made fruitless. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov has written: "If a book gives counsels on silence and shows the abundance of spiritual fruits that are gathered in profound silence, the beginner invariably has the strongest desire to go off into solitude, to an uninhabited desert. If a book speaks of unconditional obedience under the direction of a Spirit-bearing Father, the beginner will inevitably develop a desire for the strictest life in complete submission to an Elder. God has not given to our time either of these two ways of life. But the books of the Holy Fathers describing these states can influence a beginner so strongly that out of inexperience and ignorance he can easily decide to leave the place where he is living and where he has every convenience to work out his salvation and make spiritual progress by putting into practice the evangelical commandments, for an impossible dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination." Therefore, he concludes: "Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life" (The Arena, ch. 10).

Second, there is joined to this deceptive idealism, especially in our rationalistic age, an extremely critical attitude applied to whatever does not measure up to the novice's impossibly high standard. This is the chief cause of the disillusionment which often strikes converts and novices after their first burst of enthusiasm for Orthodoxy or monastic life has faded away. This disillusionment is a sure sign that their approach to spiritual life and to the reading of the Holy Fathers has been one-sided, with an over-emphasis on abstract knowledge that puffs one up, and a lack of emphasis or total unawareness of the pain of heart which must accompany spiritual struggle. This is the case with the novice who discovers that the rule of fasting in the monastery he has chosen does not measure up to that which he has read about among the desert Fathers, or that the Typicon of Divine services is not followed to the letter, or that his spiritual father has human failings like anyone else and is not actually a "God-bearing Elder"; but this same novice is the very first one who would collapse in a short while under a rule of fasting or a Typicon unsuited to our spiritually feeble days, and who finds it impossible to offer the trust to his spiritual father without which he cannot be spiritually guided at all. People living in the world can find exact parallels to this monastic situation in new converts in Orthodox parishes today.

The Patristic teaching on pain of heart is one of the most important teachings for our days when "head-knowledge" is so much over-emphasized at the expense of the proper development of emotional and spiritual life. The lack of this essential experience is what above all is responsible for the dilettantism, the triviality, the want of seriousness in the ordinary study of the Holy Fathers today; without it, one cannot apply the teachings of the Holy Fathers to one's own life. One may attain to the very highest level of understanding with the mind the teaching of the Holy Fathers on every conceivable subject, may have "spiritual experiences" which seem to be those described in the Patristic books, may even know perfectly all the pitfalls into which it is possible to fall in spiritual life, and still, without pain of heart, one can be a barren fig tree, a boring "know-it-all" who is always "correct," or an adept in all the present-day "charismatic" experiences, who does not know and cannot convey the true spirit of the Holy Fathers.

All that has been said above is by no means a complete catalogue of the ways not to read or approach the Holy Fathers. It is only a series of hints as to the many ways in which it is possible to approach the Holy Fathers wrongly, and therefore derive no benefit or even be harmed from reading them. It is an attempt to warn the Orthodox Christian that the study of the Holy Fathers is a serious matter which should not be undertaken lightly, according to any of the intellectual fashions of our times. But this warning should not frighten away the serious Orthodox Christian. The reading of the Holy Fathers is, indeed, an indispensable thing for one who values his salvation and wishes to work it out with fear and trembling; but one must come to this reading in a practical way so as to make maximum use of it.