On Spiritual Study
An Excerpt from Spiritual Awakening
By Elder Paisios the Athonite (+1994)
— Geronda, what books should be read
by those who are beginning their spiritual search?
— First, they should read the New Testament to learn the meaning of
Christ, to be shaken up a little; later they can read the Old Testament.
Do you know how hard it is when they have read nothing and yet they
come to ask for help? It is like an elementary school child going to
a university professor and saying, “Help me.” What can the professor
tell him? “One plus one equals two”? Others, again, are not spiritually
restless; they come and say, “Father, I have no problems and I am
just fine; I only dropped by to see you.” Man can never say that he
has no problems, no concerns; he will have something. The struggle for
the spiritual life never ends. Or some people come and tell me, “Tell
us spiritual things.” It is as if they went to the grocery store and
said, “Give us some groceries.” The grocer is at a loss and needs
to know what they need. They need to say, “I want so much sugar, so
much rice, and so on, but they only say, ‘Give us groceries.’ “It
is like going to the pharmacy and saying, “Give us medicines,” without
first saying what their illness is, or whether or not they went to the
doctor, and what he advised them to do. Go figure! You see, whoever
is seriously concerned over his spiritual condition knows, more or less,
what he is lacking, and once he seeks it, he benefits.
As a novice, when I read something
I liked, I wrote it down so as not to forget it, and I would try to
apply it to my life. I didn’t readjust to pass my time pleasantly.
I had a spiritual restlessness and, when I could not understand something,
I would ask for an explanation. I read relatively little, but I checked
myself a great deal on what I read. “What point am I at? What must
I do?” I would sit myself down and go through such a self-examination.
I did not allow what I read to pass me by untaxed.
Today with so much reading people end
up like tape recorders, filling up their cassettes with superfluous
matters. According to Abba Isaac, however, Wisdom not based on righteous
activity is a deposit of disgrace.
 You see, many who are interested in sports read sports magazines
and newspapers while they are sitting. They may be like the fatted calf,
but they still marvel at the athletes. “Oh he is marvellous! He is
great! Bravo!” But they don’t work up any sweat, and they don’t
lose any pounds. They read and read about athletic events, and then
they go and lie down; they gain nothing. They are satisfied with the
pleasure of reading. Some worldly people read newspapers, others romantic
literature or an adventure novel, still others watch a football game
at the stadium and pass their time. The same thing is done by some people
who read spiritual books. They may spend the whole night reading spiritual
books with great intensity and be content. They take a spiritual book,
sit comfortably, and begin reading. “Oh, I profited from that,”
they say. It would be better to say, “I enjoyed myself, I spent my
time pleasantly.” But this is not profit.
We profit when we understand what we
read, when we censure ourselves and discipline ourselves by applying
it: “What does this mean? Where do I stand in relation to this spiritual
truth? What must I do now?” After all, the more we learn, the more
responsibility we have to live up to what we have learned. I am not
saying that we should not read so that we can plead ignorance and therefore
be free of responsibility, for this is a cunning deception; I am saying
that we should not read merely to pass our time pleasantly. The bad
thing is that if someone reads a lot and has a strong memory, he may
remember many things and may even talk a lot about what he has read,
and thus deceive himself into thinking that he also personally observes
the many things he reads. So he has created an illusion toward himself
and others. So don’t be comforted by the thought that you read a lot.
Instead, turn your attention to applying what you have read. Much reading
alone will only educate you encyclopaedically. Isn’t that what they
— Yes, Geronda.
— The goal, however, is to be transformed in a God-centred manner.
I am not aiming to be a university professor where I would need to know
many things. But if I ever need something from this worldly knowledge,
I can easily learn it once I have acquired the God-centred knowledge.
Do you see what I mean?
— When one has a distraction, is it beneficial to concentrate through
— Yes, one should read a little, something very demanding, in order
to warm the soul. This keeps distractions and concerns under the lid,
and the mind is transposed into a divine realm. Otherwise, the mind
is diverted by whatever task is preoccupying it.
— Geronda, when someone is tired or upset, he usually wants to read
something light and easy, a short story or a novel, perhaps, or something
— Is there no spiritual book that is appropriate for such times? The
purpose is not to forget one’s worry, but to be redeemed. Such light
reading does not redeem. Novels, newspapers and television have no value
in developing a spiritual life. Quite often even some religious periodicals
are damaging to Christians, because they stir a foolish zealousness
that leads to confusion. Take care. Do not read unnecessary things during
your free time. Some reading matter is completely hollow, like a water-pumpkin;
it is like looking in a haystack to find a kernel of wheat. Some people
say, “Yes, but they relax me.” But how can they be relaxing, my
good man, if they make you dizzy and cause your eyes to ache? It is
better to rest by sleeping. You can learn much about a person’s spiritual
state from what he reads. One who is very worldly will probably be reading
indecent magazines. One who is less worldly will read less indecent
magazines and newspapers. One who is religious will read religious periodicals,
or contemporary religious books or patristic texts, and so on.
— Geronda, which spiritual books are the most helpful?
— The various patristic texts, which thank God are available by the
thousands today, are very helpful. One can find whatever one needs and
desires in these books. They are authentic spiritual nourishment and
a sure guide on the spiritual path. However, in order to be of benefit
to us, they have to be read with humility and prayer. Patristic texts
reveal the inner spiritual condition of the soul, much as axial tomography
reveals the inner structures of the body. Each sentence of the patristic
texts contains a multitude of meanings, and each person can interpret
them according to their own spiritual state of being. It is better to
read the ancient text rather than a translation, because the translator
interprets the original verse according to his own spirituality. In
any case, in order to understand the writings of the Fathers one must
constrain oneself, focus and live spiritually, for the spirit of the
Fathers is perceived through and by the spirit only. Especially helpful
are the Ascetical Homilies by Saint Isaac the Syrian, but they
must be studied slowly so that they can be assimilated little by little
as spiritual food. The Evergetinos
is truly of great benefit, because it gives us insight into the Whole
spirit of the Holy Fathers, it is helpful because it describes the struggles
of the Fathers against each and every one of the passions, and, by learning
how they worked on the spiritual life, the soul is greatly assisted.
Also, the Synaxaria, the Lives of the Saints, are sacred history
and very helpful, especially for young people, but they should not be
read as stories.
We do not need great knowledge to be
devout. If we concentrate and meditate on the few things we know, our
heart will be spiritually embroidered. One may be profoundly affected
by a single hymn, while another may feel nothing, even though he may
know all the hymns by heart, as he has not entered into the spiritual
reality. So, read the Fathers, even one or two lines a day. They are
very strengthening vitamins for the soul.
6. See Saint Isaac the Syrian, The
Ascetical Homilies, Homily 1, p. 8.
7. A familiar anthology of ascetic and patristic sayings and incidents,
which were compiled by the Monk Paul the Evergetinos,
the founder of the famous Holy Monastery of the Theotokos Evergetithos
(Benefactress) in Constantinople.
8. Jn 4:23.
From Spiritual Awakening, Vol.
II in the Spiritual Counsels series by Elder Paisios of Mount
Athos (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery "Evangelist John the Theologian", 2008), pp. 109-114.