Living an Orthodox Life: Foundational Writings

In one of his best books, Anchored in God: Life, Art, and Thought on the Holy Mountain of Athos, Dr. Constantine Cavarnos recorded the following conversation he had with a monk during one of his many pilgrimages to Mt. Athos. This excerpt serves as a helpful short overview of the foundation for orthopraxis, or "right-practice" (i.e., living the Orthodox Christian life):

"There are a number of important things that should be observed by those seeking spiritual development. One of these is physical and mental quiet (hesychia), made possible by living in a quiet place [or turning off the TV at home, the radio in the car, etc.], away from noise, confusion, and distractions.

Control of talking is another. Such control helps bring about inner silence, which strengthens a person spiritually, whereas unnecessary talking does the reverse.

Fasting is indispensable. It purifies the body, disciplines the soul, and helps the mind exercise inner attention.

Inner attention, observing vigilantly one's thoughts and emotions, and opposing those that are bad or useless, is quite essential. Without it, prayer cannot be effective.

Mental prayer is most important, and should be practiced constantly. This form of prayer consists in invoking the name of Christ, saying: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.' During such prayer one should strive to bring the mind into the heart, to unite thought with feeling." [pp. 180-181; for more on the Jesus Prayer].

This famous quote by St. Seraphim of Sarov, as recorded by N. Motovilov, is also very apropos of our theme:

"Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end.   The true aim of our Christian life consists in the [increasing] acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God." (See A Comparison of the Mysticism of Francis of Assisi with that of St. Seraphim of Sarov.)

Recommended Books Providing Basic Moral and Practical Instruction

A Guide to Orthodox Life by Father David and Presbytera Julianna Cownie: there are many good books out there, but I've not come across anything comparable to this book. It answers the most basic questions that converts have about practical Orthodox piety. It explains fasting, how to behave in Church, private devotional issues, etc. Most converts have a good idea of what the dogmas of the Faith are, but have to stumble around blindly when it comes to practical things like when you make the Sign of the Cross in Church. This book shouldn't be taken as the absolute last word on every detail mentioned. There are minor variations in practice, such as between Russian and Greek practice—for example, the strict Russian interpretation of abstinence from oil is that you use no oil in your cooking of any kind. Greeks interpret this to only refer to olive oil. On the whole, the basics are the same, and this book explains it very well:

St. Theophan the Recluse

One of the most important recent writers on the spiritual life

Table of Contents, with Short Introduction.

Chapter 1: (pp. 3-53) "Orthodox Daily Life"

  • The Sign of the Cross
  • Icons
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Money
  • Creating an Orthodox Atmosphere in the Home

Chapter 2: (pp. 54-100) "Orthodox Church Life"

  • Church Etiquette
  • The Mystery of Confession
  • Holy Communion
  • Clergy Etiquette
  • Monastery and Convent Etiquette

Chapter 3: (pp. 101-124) "The Orthodox Cycle of Life"

  • Orthodox Baptism
  • Marriage and Family Life
  • An Orthodox Approach to Death

The Law of God, by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery): this book also covers many of the issues of practical piety, but not always in the detail converts need— which is why you need Fr. David Cownie's book too. Yet this book contains a complete catechism, as well as a survey of Biblical and Early Church history, an explanation of the meaning of the services, the service books, the major feasts, liturgical vestments, etc. It is not inexpensive, but is still well worth the money.

Journey to Heaven, or Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. This classic was recently translated from the Russian and made available in English. It is a wonderful basic handbook on the spiritual life. It makes a perfect companion to the above two volumes. Beautifully laid out with an extensive glossary, index, and two Lives of St. Tikhon, no Orthodox Christian should be without it! St. Theophan the Recluse (below) was greatly inspired by St. Tikhon and shared in his legacy of making complex Patristic teachings more accessible to the average layperson.

Theological Principles Behind Orthopraxis

The Way of Spiritual Transformation, by Hieromonk Damascene. From The Orthodox Word (May-Aug 2005)

Orthodox Spirituality: A Living Tradition, by Bishop Photii of Triaditza.

The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Theology of the New Testament, by Father George Florovsky. This is a lengthy survey of almost the entire New Testament. The author demonstrates that in each book the Orthodox doctrines of synergy and theosis are taught. He interacts constantly with the theology of Luther and Calvin, as well as the book Agape and Eros, by Anders Nygren.

The Three Powers of the Soul and Their Curative Exercises, by St. Theophan the Recluse.

St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Wonderful Revelation to the World, the text from the famous and inspirational "Conversation with N. Motovilov."

On the World and Family, by Elder Ephraim.

The Church, the Treasury of Salvation: by St. John of Kronstadt.

The Monastic Life: In Response to a Modernist Abbot's Observations. This article was added in part because it so eloquently lays out the relation between praxis and theoria. "By attention to externals, we affect internals; and by the restored internal state, external attributes are affected."

The Struggle With Passions, Ch. 2 from the modern classic The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia, by I.M. Kontzevich.

Concerning Thoughts, by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite. An excerpt from the Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession.

Concerning Mortal Sins, Pardonable Sins, and Sins of Omission. Part I, Chapter 3 from the Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession.

On Watchfulness, Prayer and Confession: A Homily by Elder Ephraim of Philotheou. Translated from the Greek by Fr. Seraphim Bell.

The Variety of Demonic Battles, and How to Cut Off the Entrance of Every Thought and Desire: Ch. XXXV from Field Flowers, by St. Paisy of Neamt.

The Catechetical Homilies and Testament of St. Theodore the Studite, Homilies 47 (Concerning Fasting, Dispassion, and Purity) and 48 (Concerning Now We Should Adorn Our Eternal Habitation with Virtue).

Recommended Books on Living the Spiritual Life

Journey to Heaven (listed above), forms a nice transition to the works below, which are a little more advanced (though still fairly basic when compared with the corpus of Orthodox spiritual writings). There are innumerable books on living the spiritual life. The ones listed below in order of priority were chosen mainly because of their readability, introductory nature, wide acclaim, and practical "how to" instruction. They are "primers" for the spiritual life. When one is beginning to practice the spiritual life, advanced books, especially those written for persons called to the lofty heights of monastic solitude (e.g., The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian), are definitely not recommended (see further comments in the "Prayer and Confession" section, below). The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It is especially helpful for people living in the world, as it was written not for monks but for a young, middle class woman living in late 19th-century Moscow. If you are endeavoring to understand the rudiments of Orthopraxis, the first two books will arguably provide you with everything you will need.

Guidance for Laymen on Reading Spiritual Books. From the Letters of Archbishop Theophan of Poltava and Pereyaslavka.

The Path to Salvation, by St. Theophan the Recluse. This is considered to be his magnum opus, the encapsulation of everything from the writings of the Holy Fathers that he endeavored to transmit to the Faithful. This book is especially good for those with children, as it contains some lengthy sections on raising them properly. Here is an outstanding excerpt from the book: The Three Powers of the Soul and Their Curative Exercises.

The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, by St. Theophan the Recluse. If you can only purchase one book, this may be the one (or The Path). Read two excerpts: " Inner Peace" and "A Prayer Rule".

Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One's Life to God, by Abbess Thaisia, spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt. This is a classic text for novice nuns. Nevertheless, it  contains a well of wisdom from which Orthodox Christians still living in the world can also very profitably draw. Read the Introduction and a sample chapter.

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."

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: by Saint John Climacus. A timeless classic filled with spiritual gems. Read the Introduction.

The Arena, or, An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov). Do not let the title fool you. This book is also very applicable to laymen as well. As Archimandrite [now Bishop] Kallistos (Ware) notes in his Introduction: "But Ignatius' Offering is very far from being a work exclusively for monks. As the author himself says, 'We hope that even lay people ... may also find our book helpful.' As a brief glance at the table of contents will show, most of the chapters discuss matters of universal concern... [T]he same evangelical rules that the monk seeks to carry out are also binding upon all other members of the Church. Ignatius' Offering to Contemporary Monasticism is therefore at the same time an offering to every Christian.... [St. Ignatius'] works are ...the fruit of a close familiarity with the Patristic tradition, but equally they spring from a personal awareness of contemporary issues and situations." This book was frequently quoted by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina in his writings. For example, see this article on acquiring an Orthodox mind. Here is an excerpt from The Arena, On Prayer.

Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, by trans. by Constantine Scouteris. Though written centuries ago, this is a remarkably appropriate book for lay people. One of my favorite books on the spiritual life. This book is hard to find. Another worthy edition is titled Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings.

On the Eight Principle Sins, from the Conferences of St. John Cassian.

For those of you wanting some short works that are of a more scholarly and theoretical bent...

Humility, by [Arch]bishop Chrysostomos. This is Vol I in the Themes in Orthodox Patristic Psychology series published in part by The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. All four volumes (Humility, Obedience, Repentance, and Love) are invaluable. In each volume His Eminence presents the Patristic consensus on these four themes. Along the way he interacts with and critiques the Western understanding of them as well.

Orthodox Spirituality: A Brief Introduction, by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos. All of his very helpful and inspiring writings are firmly based upon the Patristic consensus and accessible to modern readers. Read Chapter 2, "The Difference Between Orthodox Spirituality and Other Traditions." Click here for more information on his books and to read many more articles by him.


Whatever Fr. Macarius advised, he always put humility at the forefront of his counsels; from that virtue he brought forth all the subsequent virtues which make up the character of a true Christian. Here is the essence of the lessons Fr. Macarius taught to all who thirsted for his instructions and edification: to examine your conscience; to continually struggle with your passions; to cleanse your soul of sins; to love God in the simplicity of your heart; to believe in Him without calculating; to have unceasingly before you His limitless mercy, and with all the strength of your soul to praise and bless Him in all of life's unpleasant circumstances; to look for your own guilt, and forgive any trespass of your neighbor against you in order to obtain God's forgiveness for your sins; to try to establish love for your neighbor in yourself; to preserve peace and tranquility in your family and acquaintances; to recall more often the commandments of God and to try to fulfill them, as well as the decrees of the Church; if possible, to go to confession and partake of the Holy Mysteries several times a year; to observe all four fast periods, as well as Wednesdays and Fridays; to attend Vigil and Liturgy on every feast day; to say morning and evening prayers and even a few psalms every day, and, if time allows, to read a chapter of the Gospels or the Epistles of the Apostle; to pray every morning and evening for the repose of the departed and the salvation of the living, and, at the beginning of this prayer, to pray with reverence for the Sovereign Tsar and all the Royal Family. If, under whatever circumstances, you cannot fulfill these obligations, then reproach yourself so as to sincerely repent, and make a firm resolve not to fail likewise in the future. Pray even for those against whom you bear some ill will, for this is the surest means towards reconciliation in Christ.

From the "Reminiscences of a Spiritual Son" in Elder Macarius of Optina (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 1995), pp. 357-358.

Those greatly err who think that prayer, fasting, struggling, and the battle with passions have only the one goal of personal salvation. Thus they conceal in themselves a spirit of egoism. No! Inner struggle with self is the treasure of the whole Church. It is a gathering of power in the Church, of riches which consist not in the number of members, not in great and rich churches, not in beautiful choirs, not even in the amount of charitable acts, but in the moral character of the believers.

Our service to the Church consists in the transmission through our personal Christian life to our social life of the spirit of the Gospel and thus we should defeat the enemies of the Church (visible and invisible).

Christian strength is meekness. Meekness is the rule of the New Life and its activity under whose banner the Gospel declares war on the world. Meek Christian virtues are the most powerful force in God's world. They represent the arteries by which the power of God enters the world.

By what means should we serve the Church? The answer is simple; by active obedience to her. Active obedience to the Church represents life according to Church norms, i.e., by keeping the moral teachings, by zealously attending church services, praying at home, following a Christian way of life always. In general, we might say: for us it consists in joyful adherence to the Russian Church Abroad as the true confessor of the Orthodox Catholic Faith and the spokesman for truth and correspondingly the building up of our own personal spirituality.

In our times what is most dangerous for us is the entry of Orthodox Churches into the ecumenical movement. This means their acceptance of a Protestant ecumenical understanding of the Church. Such an understanding in reality is already spoken of at meetings and printed in the books of Orthodox ecumenists. Together with the breakdown of an authentic Orthodox understanding of the Church we find an undermining of the meaning of the Ecumenical Councils which means a consequent loss in the firmness of the Council's dogmas. As a result, the very foundation of Orthodoxy is undermined.

By Father Michael Pomazansky. From Orthodox Life, No.1, 1989.