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Excerpts from The Arena on Reading Spiritual Books

by St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov)


CHAPTER 9

ON READING THE GOSPEL AND THE WRITINGS OF THE FATHERS

From what has already been said, it becomes increasingly clear that the chief occupation of a novice in his cell should be the reading and study of the Gospel and of the whole New Testament. The whole New Testament can be called the Gospel, since it contains nothing but the Gospel teaching. But a novice should first of all study the Lord's commandments in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. From the study of the commandments in these Evangelists combined with the actual practice of the commandments, the other Scriptures which constitute the New Testament also become more easily understandable.

While reading the Evangelists, the novice should also read The Herald; that is, the explanation of the Gospel by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Bulgaria*. The reading of The Herald is indispensable. It is an aid to the right understanding of the Gospel and consequently to the most exact practice of it. Moreover, the rules of the Church require that Scripture should be understood as the holy Fathers explain it, and not at all arbitrarily. By being aided in our understanding of the Gospel by the explanation of the holy Father, by the explanation received and used by the Church, we keep the tradition of holy Church. [1]

Very useful for our time are the works of St. Tichon of Voronezh.** They have no exclusive aim. They serve as excellent direction for athletes of Christ living in the world, and for cenobitic monks, and for monks living in state-subsidized monasteries, and for solitaries living the contemplative life. The grace of God inspired the Saint to produce writings especially suitable for our contemporary needs. In these writings the teaching of the Gospel is explained.

There is nothing to prevent a person from living according to the commandments of the Gospel in any monastery, whatever may be the rule of that monastery, however far that monastery may be even from being well-ordered. This is said to encourage and set at rest those who are not satisfied with the running of their monastery, whether rightly or wrongly. For every monk it is surer and better to seek the cause of his dissatisfaction in himself, rather than in his surroundings and circumstances. Self-condemnation always brings peace and rest to the heart. It does not therefore by any means follow that a well-ordered monastery should not be preferred to a lax or disorderly monastery, when the choice depends on us. But that is not always the case.

Having set oneself as a rule of life the learning and carrying out of the commandments of the Gospel, without allowing oneself to be diverted or distracted by the directions given by the different writings of the holy Fathers, [2] one can begin to read them in order to obtain as intimate and exact a knowledge as possible of the laborious, painful but not joyless monastic struggle. In reading the writings of the Fathers, it is essential to observe their gradational character: they are written for differing stages and degrees of the spiritual life. On no account should they be read hurriedly.

First of all, books written for cenobitic monks should be read, such as: The Instructions of St. Dorotheus, the Catechetical Sermons of St. Theodore the Studite, the Directions for the Spiritual Life of St. Barsanuphius and St. John the Prophet, beginning with Answer 216 (the preceding answers are given primarily for hermits and so are less suitable for novices), The Ladder of St. John Climacus, the Works of St. Ephrem the Syrian, and the Cenobitic Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian.***

Later, after some considerable time, books written by the Fathers for solitaries may also be read, as for example, The Philokalia, the Skete Patrology, the chapters of St. Isaiah the Solitary, the Treatises of St. Isaac the Syrian, the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic, the Words and Homilies of St. Macarius the Great, the prose and verse works of St. Symeon the New Theologian, and other similar writings of the Fathers on the active life.

All the books enumerated here belong to the category of active or ascetic writings, since they deal with and explain the active monastic life. Said St. John of the Ladder: "As you are leading an active (ascetic) life, read active (ascetical) books." Active books stir a monk to monastic activities or struggles, especially to prayer. The reading of the other writings of the holy Fathers leads to meditations and contemplations which, for an ascetic insufficiently purified of the passions, is premature. [4]

Endnotes

1. In all well-ordered cenobitic monasteries the explanation of the Gospel for the day given in The Herald is read daily at Matins. (Cp. 1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15.)

2. The author stresses the priority and primacy of the Gospel.

3. Ladder 27:28. (Translation differs widely from Gk.—Translator.)

4. Symeon the New Theologian: Three Ways of Prayer. St. Gregory the Sinaite: Ch. 11, On Reading.

* As of June 12, 1998, the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been translated into English and are available at any good Orthodox bookstore.

** Better known as St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. The only work of his currently available in English and related to the theme in question is Journey to Heaven, or Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian. This is also available from any good Orthodox bookstore.

*** Many of these, if not all, are now available in English in various forms. Search for individual volumes, but also check in the multi-volumed Philokalia. Another work that should surely be mentioned in this class of introductory works is Elder Basil of Poiana Marului: Spiritual Father of St. Paisy Velichkovsky, by a Monk of Prophet Elias Skete. Read an excerpt: "Introduction to the Book of the Blessed Hesychios."

CHAPTER 10

ON DISCRETION IN READING THE PATRISTIC BOOKS ON THE MONASTIC LIFE

The books of the holy Fathers on the monastic life must be read with great caution. It has been noticed that novices can never adapt books to their condition, but are invariably drawn by the tendency of the book. 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.

St. John of the Ladder says in his chapter on Silence: "In the refectory of a good brotherhood there is always some dog watching to snatch from the table a piece of bread, that is, a soul; and taking it in its mouth, it then runs off and devours it in a lonely spot." [1]

In the chapter on Obedience this guide of monks says: "The devil suggests to those living in obedience a desire for impossible virtues. Similarly to those living in solitude he suggests unsuitable ideas. Scan the mind of inexperienced novices, and there you will find distracted thought: a desire for solitude, for the strictest fast, for uninterrupted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for unbroken remembrance of death, for continual compunction, for perfect angerlessness, for profound silence, for surpassing purity. And if by divine providence they lack these in the beginning, they rush in vain to another life and are deceived. For the enemy urges them to seek these perfections before the time, so that they may not persevere and in due time attain them. But to those living in solitude the fraud extols hospitality, service, brotherly love, community life, visiting the sick. And the deceiver's aim is to make the latter as impatient as the former." [2]

The fallen angel tries to deceive monks and drag them to perdition by suggesting to them not only sin in its various forms but also the most exalted virtues unsuited to their condition. 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. If the monastery in which you are residing gives you the possibility of living a life according to the commandments of the Gospel and unless temptations to mortal sin, do not leave your monastery. Endure courageously its defects, both spiritual and material. Do not think you can find a sphere of activity not given by God to our time.

God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And He is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or in a convenient, well-equipped harbour. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and all his fellow-travellers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship's wreckage. [3]

Endnotes

1. Step 27:1.

2. Step 4:118

3. Acts 27: 21-44.