How to Study and Communicate the Words of the Fathers
by Archimandrite Vasileios
The Kingdom of God is not a Talmud, nor is it a mechanical collection of
scriptural or patristic quotations outside our being and our lives. The Kingdom
of God is within us, like a dynamic leaven which fundamentally changes man's
whole life, his spirit and his body. What is required in patristic study, in
order to remain faithful to the Fathers' spirit of freedom and worthy of their
spiritual nobility and freshness, is to approach their holy texts with the fear
in which we approach and venerate their holy relics and holy icons. This
liturgical reverence will soon reveal to us that here is another inexpressible
grace. The whole atmosphere is different. There are certain vital passages in
the patristic texts which, we feel, demand of us, and work within us, an
unaccustomed change. These we must make part of our being and our lives, as
truths and as standpoints, to leaven the whole. And at the same time we must put
our whole self into studying the Fathers, waiting and marking time. This
marriage, this baptism into patristic study brings what we need, which is not an
additional load of patristic references and the memorizing of other People's
opinions, but the acquisition of a new clear-sighted sense which enables man to
see things differently and rightly. If we limit ourselves to learning passages
by heart and classifying them mechanically-and teach men likewise-then we fall
into a basic error which simply makes us fail to teach and make known the
patristic way of life and philosophy. For what is altogether distinctive about
the patristic creation is that it is conceived and held together, it is formed
and grows, as a result of the grace and power of the freedom of the Spirit.
What the Fathers require and give is the change which comes from the Spirit.
If we want to approach them outside this reality, they will remain for us
incomprehensible as writers and scorned as persons.
Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a
matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a
concordance. It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living
organisms, assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And,
subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming this miracle through
the very fact of being brought to life, an experience we apprehend in a way that
defies doubt or discussion. Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed
mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions
into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation
to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating
"fathers" who make it their personal word, a new possession, a
miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away. This is the unchanging
change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption. It is the
motionless perpetual motion of the word of God, and its ever-living
immutability. Every day the word seems different and new, and is the same. This
is the mystery of life which has entered deep into our dead nature and raises it
up from within, breaking the bars of Hell.
Offering the words of the Fathers to others means that I myself live; that I
am changed by them. And so my metabolism has the power to change them, so that
they can be eaten and drunk by the person to whom I am offering them. This
change of the word within man, and the change in himself resulting from it,
preserve unchanged the mystery of personal and unrepeatable life which is "patristically"
taught and given. It is like the food a mother eats: it nourishes her and keeps
her alive, and at the same time becomes within her mother's milk, the drink of
life for the stomach of her baby.
How beautiful it is for a man to become theology. Then whatever he does, and
above all what he does spontaneously, since only what is spontaneous is true,
bears witness and speaks of the fact that the Son and Word of God was incarnate,
that He was made man through the Holy Spirit and the ever-virgin Mary. It speaks
silently about the ineffable mysteries which have been revealed in the last
This theological life and witness is a blessing which sweetens man's life. It
is a food which is cut up and given to others; a drink poured out and offered in
abundance for man to consume and quench his thirst. In this state one does not
talk about life, one gives it. One feeds the hungry and gives drink to the
thirsty. By contrast, scholastic theology and intellectual constructions do not
resemble the Body of the Lord, the true food, nor His Blood, the true drink;
rather they are like a stone one finds in one's food. This is how indigestible
and inhumanly hard the mass of scholasticism seems to the taste and the mouth of
one accustomed to the liturgy of the Church, and it is rejected as something
foreign and unacceptable.
Our words are often flabby and weak. For the word to he passed on and to give
life, it has to be made flesh. When, along with your word, you give your flesh
and blood to others, only then do your words mean something. Words without
flesh, which do not spring from life and do not share out our flesh which is
broken and our blood which is shed, mean nothing. This is why, at the Last
Supper, the Lord summarized the mystery of His preaching by saying: "Take,
eat My Body," "Drink My Blood."
Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is
poured out and given to others to drink. When his time of trial comes, he will
not be afraid. He will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood
that, in the celebration of love, 'by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten
and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food
and drink to his brother. That is to say, he nourishes the other's very
existence and makes it grow.
From Hymn of Entry, by Archimandrite Vasileios
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 34-36.