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A Sermon on Reading Spiritual Works

by Archbishop Platon of Kostroma

This is the commandment given by the holy Apostle [Paul] to his beloved disciple, Bishop Timothy. The reading of holy writings of profit to the soul is one of the main means of succeeding in the spiritual life. Following the Apostle, the Holy Fathers also command us to read continually the holy writings, since this is an important means to spiritual perfection. Such reading is absolutely necessary, especially in the present age, when worldly education and worldly habits threaten to stifle a taste for everything spiritual, and false teachings and ideas are spreading rapidly.

Brethren, without doubt you read many books, but how often do you read books on spiritual matters? Such reading is a respected, beneficial, and gratifying occupation.

First, the reading of spiritual books is honorable. For what reading can compare with it? What is the honor in reading history, the works of philosophy and of famous writers of the pagan past? If true honor and glory consist in feeling oneself near to God and His saints, then it is through spiritual reading that we attain this honor and glory, for through it God speaks with us; through it the great saints converse with us, and through it we enter into communion with the entire Heavenly Kingdom. What an honor to a mortal human being and mere creation!

God speaks with us when we read the Holy Scripture, for what does it contain, if not the Word of God itself? In it is His truth, His teaching, His commandments. But do we listen when He speaks, or as we read? Regardless of when these words were written, one and the same God speaks to us. “If we read the Sacred Scriptures with faith,” says St. Basil the Great, “we will feel that we see and hear Christ Himself. What is it we need, an actual voice or the One Who speaks to us through the Scriptures? It is all the same. In Sacred Scripture, God speaks with us just as truly as when we speak with Him through prayer.” For this reason, prayer and the reading of sacred books must be our continuous occupation. Pray or read continually if you want to be with God at all times.

Why do we not want to use for reading and prayer the time we spend outside of church? Why do we not want to meet with Christ, to talk with Christ, to hear Christ? We talk with Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine word. Why do we neglect the Word of God and read books which only feed our curiosity and are sometimes pernicious and harmful? For one of the evils of the present age is unselective reading.

The saints talk with us when we read their writings. Through their writings, they guide us and speak to us and we, so to speak, resurrect through them after their death in order to talk with them. Thus, we have no reason to envy the contemporaries of Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Athanasius the Great, Ambrose and others. From the holy ranks of the Fathers we may choose with whom it is best for us to converse. There is no better, more joyous, and more beneficial way to spend the time we have than in reading the writings of the Holy Fathers.

Finally, by reading books which are profitable for the soul, we enter into communion with all the dwellers of Paradise. When I read books about God,” says the hieromartyr Timothy, “then the angels of God surround me.” The holy writings speak of the glory of the saints, of their blessedness, of their virtues and ascetic labors, through which and read they were vouchsafed to be inheritors of the Kingdom of God. We ourselves, as it were, become citizens of a different world and dwellers of Heaven. We hear only that which concerns Paradise, so that we may say, “Our life is in the heavens” (Phil. 3:20), “Ye are no more strangers or foreigners, but co-dwellers with the saints and friends of God.” Is it not a great honor to enter into communion and talk with the ambassadors from of the Heavenly King? What can give us more honor than conversing, through reading of spiritual books, with the holy Angels, with the souls of the blessed, and with God Himself.

Secondly, the exercise of reading soul-profiting books is not only an honorable study, but also a beneficial one. What kind of benefit can the reading of other books bring? They bring the mere satisfaction of our curiosity, the mere acquisition of knowledge. But many books, especially the ones which contradict the teaching of the Orthodox Church, can bring only harm. The Lord Jesus Christ, our Light and our King, says that ‘by their fruits shall ye know them” (Mt. 7:16). What are the pleasant fruits of the books which contradict faith and morals? They alienate us from the Law of the Lord, or what is more, from God, the Law-giver Himself. They are the dwelling place of demons and of their prince, the devil. They do not lead those who read them to light, but only into darkness. They do not arouse the fear of God, but only more success in sinfulness. These are the tares which the enemy sowed on the field of the master of the house. These are the weeds which grew on the earth, cursed by God the Master. They are lies, darkness, and deception. Flee from them, especially you who are young, so that their teaching does not root itself in your heart. Flee from the books which arouse the passions, so that you do not drive away from yourself the Angels of God and the Holy Spirit. Flee from harmful books, for they dry up compunctionate tears, darken the heart, and have destroyed, do destroy, and will destroy many people.

But, When I read holy books,” says St. Gregory the Theologian about the books of St. Basil the Great, ‘then the spirit and body are illumined and I become the temple of God and the harp of the Holy Spirit, played by divine powers through them I am corrected and through them I receive a kind of divine change and I am made into a different person.” The great Hierarch Gregory says this about reading holy writings out of his own experience. They completely transfigure a person, making him into a saint and deifying him.

Do you remember how the conversion of the Blessed Augustine was accomplished? For a long time the grace of God had already touched his heart. He could not bear the torment of soul caused by his sinful life and yet at the same time he could not leave it. He both wanted it and did not want it. But as soon as he heard the words, “Take, read,” and had read several words, he immediately resolved to abandon his sinful life. What gave cause to such a change? The advice which is often heard, but is rarely given the attention it deserves: “take and read.”

Therefore, cleave to reading spiritual writings. It will lead you to that wonderful change which took place in so many saints. Through these works we receive great and holy enlightenment. Through them we learn of the path to salvation, we learn what kind of temptations await us on this path, and about the means by which we may be delivered from them. Anyone who does not read spiritual books is separated from God, for he falls into former sins due to ignorance of the Scriptures. This is the source of heresy and the neglect of the true spiritual life. Those who do not read the holy writings walk in deep darkness and are like the blind who have no one to lead them, who rush on and fall into a ditch. So let our eyes be enlightened by the light of the word of God, for Sacred Scripture enlightens more brightly than the sun those who read with love and who keep the commandments of God.

Thirdly, what delight, joy, and comfort there is to be gained through the reading of works which profit the soul. There is nothing more pleasant than this occupation. The Psalmist says, “How sweet to my tongue are Thy words, 0 Lord” (Ps. 118:103), “sweeter than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 108). This food pleases every palate. This is the true manna, the heavenly food, the angelic bread which was prepared by Heaven without labor on our part, and which has in it every sort of sweetness and every sort of fragrance, satisfying every man’s needs. What can be more pleasant than this? If you do not know this from your own experience, then believe the experience of the countless saints who found in the reading of the word of God all their joy and the greatest of comfort. For how many times and how powerfully it comforted the holy Maccabees amidst their great sorrows. Was it not in the reading of holy books that they found their joy? The holy Apostle Paul advises the Romans to seek comfort in the Sacred Scriptures (Rom. 15:4). With what did St. Paul comfort himself in prison? He asks his beloved disciple Timothy to send the books he left behind, in order to use them during his confinement in prison (2 Tim. 4).

Do we, with the saints, find our joy in the reading of soul-saving books? Alas! We find our comfort, our glory, and food in vain things. We read books which only feed curiosity and which are often very harmful. The day seems too short for acquiring knowledge and we spend whole nights in reading books, while nothing can distract us. What can be said of those who spend day and night in the reading of harmful, tempting books which smother faith and which arouse and feed the passions? Leave them quickly, my brother,” says one great ascetic, ‘so that you do not surround your own heart with the diabolic fire, so that in place of grain these tares may not be sown in your field and in place of life you receive death, and... (why do I waste words?) that in place of Christ you accept into yourself the devil. Do not be tardy in this, but save yourself as did Lot from Sodom” (St. Barsanuphius, p. 607).

Do not be lazy, O Christians! Read spiritual works so that your soul may not die starved of hearing the word of God with which God threatens us through the prophets. Remember that the noble of the Queen Candace, while sitting in a chariot on the road, read the Sacred Scriptures and for this was vouchsafed to be called to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Let us continually read Sacred Scripture, the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and other soul-profiting works. But when we approach the reading of these books, we must first pray with all our heart to the Lord God that He might open the eyes of our heart and that we not only understand what is written, but do it. For he who reads and does not do what is written despises the Divine Scriptures.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 34, No. 3 (May-June, 1984), pp. 30-34. Translated by Basil Voytan from A Chrestomathy of Sermons (in Russian), Vol. II, pp. 316-319, Jordanville, 1965.