Very Valuable Readings
An Excerpt from Man's Spiritual Evolution
by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos
Besides a Spiritual Guide, the reading of edifying Orthodox works, or listening
to others read such works, is of great value throughout one’s journey on the
spiritual path. It was hearing a Gospel reading in the church of his village, and
taking it in all seriousness, that revolutionized St. Antony’s [the Great] life
when he was a youth. To all such readings he listened very attentively and applied
their lessons to himself.
Regarding this, in his biography of him, St. Athanasios says: “He (St. Antony) gave
such heed to what was read that none of the things that were written fell from him
to the ground, but he remembered all, and afterwards his memory served him for books.”
The Gospels have always occupied an especially important place in Orthodox life.
A select passage is read from one of the Gospels at every Divine Liturgy, and often
the reading is followed by a sermon on it. At Mount Athos, where there is a Liturgy
every day, a Gospel excerpt is read in the church. In addition, many monks there
and elsewhere make reading the Gospels part of their private reading. St. Seraphim
of Sarov, the most popular of Russian saints, is known to have included in his daily
reading parts of the Gospels.
In this and in other things Orthodox monks provide lessons for those in the “world”
who aspire for spiritual development. This statement is consonant with the following
saying of St. John Climacos, one of the great masters of the spiritual life: “Angels
are the light of monastics, while the monastic way of life is a light for all men.”
Great value for the striver is also ascribed by the holy men of Athos to reading
(a) the lives of saints, (b) The Evergetinos, and (c) The Philokalia.
Once I asked a saintly monk, the hermit Gabriel who dwelt at Karoulia—the most
secluded and inaccessible region of the Holy Mountain—whether he recommended The
Philokalia to persons like me who live in the “world.” He replied: “The Philokalia
is an excellent work, but it is for those advanced in the spiritual life.
To use an analogy, it is ‘university education.’ First, one has to go to ‘grammar
school,’ next to ‘high school,’ and only then is he ready to go to a ‘university.”
“Should one start with The Evergetinos?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “this, too, is advanced. It is ‘high school.’ One must start with
something more elementary. One should read simple lives of saints, in order to learn
what kind of persons they were, how they lived, and what they did. Then one can
proceed to the higher steps.”
Manifest in these statements of Father Gabriel is the idea of stages in
the path of one’s “beautiful change.” These stages or levels of understanding
spiritual writings corresponds to the three stages of spiritual growth
that I mentioned earlier: those of the “beginner,” of the “intermediate,” and
of the “perfect.”
For each of these levels of spiritual development a different kind of mental food
is particularly suitable: food that is digestible and assimilable by a person at
that level. Such food provides sustenance to the soul of one who partakes of it,
and promotes his advancement.
Clearly, there is food for the soul just as there is food for the body. Christ Himself
stressed the existence of these two kinds of food when He said: “Man shall not live
by bread alone [which is food for the body], but by every word that proceedeth out
of the mouth of God” [which is food for the soul] (Matthew 4:4).
St. Paul points out that for beginners in the spiritual life the spiritual food
that is to be provided has to be different from that of those who have grown spiritually.
It is the same as in the case of the body. For the physical babe, the food that
is suitable is physical milk. Similarly, for the spiritual babe: “spiritual milk”
is needed; whereas for the spiritual adult solid food is proper. Thus, the Apostle
writes to the Corinthians: “I have fed you with milk, and not with solid food: for
hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet are ye able, for ye are yet carnal”
(1 Corinthians 3:2). And writing to the Hebrews, he says: “Ye have need that one
teach you again the elements (stoicheia) of God’s word; and are become
such as need milk, not solid food. For every one that needeth milk is unskilled
in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature
(teleioi), for those who have their faculties trained to distinguish good
from evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Relating these points to the statements made by the Athonite hermit Gabriel, we
may say that simple lives of saints are “pure spiritual milk for spiritual babes;”
the Evergetinos is a kind of mixed fare, comprising both spiritual milk
and solid spiritual food; while the Philokalia provides only “solid food.”
From Man's Spiritual Evolution, by Dr. Constantine
Cavarnos, pp. 43-47.