Glory to God for All Things

Reading Rightly

The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.

St. Isaac of Syria quoted in The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

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I believe that it was Stanley Hauerwas who once commented in a class I was taking that among some Jewish groups, a man was not allowed to read the book of Ezekiel until he was over 40. The idea behind that prohibition is similar to that offered above by St. Isaac.

In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!

Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith.

St. James offers this warning:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).

And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (15-16).

It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden to those beneath a certain age, but rather that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.

St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation.

Again, this is not to say that we should not be regular in our reading of Scripture. But we do well to consider how we read it. To read or sing the psalms is an effort which is a sweet sacrifice of praise to God. If we have difficulty with what we read, then ask questions. The reading of the Gospels, even on a daily basis, is a common devotional activity, properly, in an effort to draw closer to Christ. Reading the daily readings appointed for the Church (most Orthodox calendars have these) is also salutary, even if there are things that we don’t always understand.

Other things should be read with some guidance. There’s nothing wrong with asking your priest the question, “Is this good for me to read at this point?” I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee (usually after reading The Way of a Pilgrim) only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. The same can be said of many of the writings of the Fathers. Taking these things up at the wrong time can leave us with a false impression and lack of proper respect for what we have just put down in frustration.

I generally suggest to people that they read devotionally, with some other things (possibly in the context of a group study) as well. And we should read sparingly – only taking in what we can digest. Many books that I read – I take in only a few pages a day.

Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

I readily confess again in my writing that I am an ignorant man. I know very little. But this is the heart of my writing – to urge others to come to know very little. It is so much better than knowing nothing.

19 Responses to “Reading Rightly”

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  1. Laura says:

    In the words of my dearest grandmother, (b 1895 and who died at 90) -”the older I get the less I know”. i have a theology degree and and I hope that I have the humility-because this is what it is about-to realise that the most important thing I learned IS how little I know, because all the books in the world-important as they are-do not compare with trying our utmost to practice our faith, however inadequately. Thanks Father S.

  2. Margaret says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This reminder and encouragement was much needed!

  3. I remember once that I was present at a serious discussion of St Peter the Aleut. I had failed to identify myself as a Roman Catholic and the priest didn’t know me so it was no fault of his, It just happened.

  4. Nick says:

    This definitely strikes home as I read ‘The Art of Prayer’ long before I was ready for it (oh, and I was the guy you described reading the Philokalia as well).

  5. Chrys says:

    The desire to opine as well as the assumption that we are equal to the great texts of tradition are both symptoms of an overweening pride. We are quite taken with our own rather vapid thoughts. As a result we ignore the fact that these texts are the fruit of the lifelong labors of those living at a different level than most of us. As Father points out, humility is the only appropriate way to approach them. Indeed, humility is not just the condition for true learning and real knowledge (in contrast to the weak tea of mere conceptual mastery) – it more importantly makes room for God. Thus, the Fathers rightly insisted that humility was the path to Life.

  6. Brad Day says:

    The Art of Reading has become just as rare as the Art of Writing in the lives of many people for various reasons. I was the youngest in a family of avid readers. My brother and sisters, as well as myself, became English Majors at college. Jack London and Charles Dickens made a deep impression on me during my adolescence and led me to contemplate the Human Condition and its Environment, and how they interplay. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and the classical novels of Mary Renault and the various Arthurian romance novels revealed to me the Pride and Follies of Mankind. I grew up with a biblical literacy and consciousness and ended getting a degree in biblical studies at a bible institute. I discovered the devotional writings of Bishop Fulton Sheen which directly spoke to me and became intrigued with the writings of Thomas Merton. I also read and reflected over the writings of the Existential writers of Europe and became a camp follower of Shakespearean literature and the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, McDonald, and Sayers). I say all this because I have been in contact with many people with various religious training and education throughout my life that struggle with understanding Human Nature and its relationship with its Creator revealed by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. God reveals Himself in many different ways for the benefit of all mankind, but in the end Man must pay attention, reflect, and respond by seeking the wisdom of God with his/her thoughts, words, and deeds for his/her mind, heart and soul. The Orthodox Way is not a magic formula but a lifestyle of growth that offers possibilities for all those who take up the discipline to strive into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ which is revealed to us.

  7. Brad your comment makes me think of the scripture that the Holy Spirit blows where He wills. I’ve never been able to wrestle him into a box.

  8. Molly says:

    Father,
    What about other non-devotional books, like great novels, or essays. It’s hard only to read Orthodox books all the time. I don’t think I can do it. Well, I suppose that I *could* do it, if I had to — but other books seem to have value in them as well — and how severe ought a person (a perhaps rather immature, non-monastic person) to be?

  9. Rhonda says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    A wonderful, timely & insightful blog as usual as well as a great follow-up to “Is the Bible True?”. Many thanks for your time & efforts.

  10. Bruce says:

    On the last page of AA’s Big Book (page 164); the concluding statements include ‘we know but a little’ and ‘abandon yourself to God’. Your post reminds me of both. What we believe is most clearly shown by what we do, our actions, not what we say or what we read or what we may claim to know intellectually. Sober self examination is a key to both sobriety and to participating in His Life in the Body of Christ. The knowing we experience when we live our faith then travels that incredibly long distance from our head to our heart.

  11. Molly,
    I think there are many things worth reading that are non-theological, even opposed to the faith. It would seem likely that an addiction (if I may use such a term) to certain kinds of literature (Romance novels and the like) would be something to question. I read a wide range of literature, from history to fiction, etc. Some things are well worth the time spent.

    I would say that we read these differently than theological works. In reading theological work (and the Scriptures) we do well to read slowly, and what we can digest properly. Theological and devotional reading are important but are not a substitute for prayer and works of charity and ascesis. We want to become what we read and not just read about what we should become.

  12. Father, when are we going to see a post on the universe as icon? :)

  13. Preston says:

    “Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm.”

    Amen.

  14. Josh Hopping says:

    Right on! This is a good reminder to let Jesus guide us on our reading (which books, when to them, etc).

    There has been many times in my life that I have felt the Lord telling me to buy a particular book only to have He tell me not to read it, but just to hang on to it. Months or even years later I will be looking at my book shelf only to find that book and realize that it is just what my soul needed at that time!

  15. Steve Austin says:

    Thank you for such a powerful, grace-filled post. This is a fantastic reminder and I hope to be able (at some point in my life) to follow the words of this paragraph:

    “If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.”

    I’m a first-time reader of your blog, but this won’t be my last!

  16. Drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for your sage advice on how to read. I’m reminded of St. Theophan’s words on the subject, but yours addresses the initial selection of which material to use.

    It is so true that we get offended if we’re told that anything is off limits to us. One is reminded again of the single tree in the Garden…

    The main issue though seems to be that we have become a society of gluttonous consumers. More is always better. In Perelandria when Random had such exquisite and perfect fruit off the bubble tree, his first instinct was that “if something is good, more is always better.” But then an even deeper and more intrinsic sense told him that you can’t top perfection, and caused him to pull his hand back from the second piece of fruit.

    We look at spiritual treasures such as the Art of Prayer and want to “go straight to the good stuff”. I believe this may lead back to your post on morality vs. spirituality. We look at the externals and in our continuous mode of consumption, why not excel by going straight to the top, getting to the heart of the matter, and settling for nothing less than the very best.

    Sadly this totally ignores the internals, namely the state of our own souls and the level of maturity our heart is at. Few people acquire the top of a mountain by going straight up; most ascend by levels, going back and forth or winding round and round.

    We North Americans claim this is not good enough and that we really must press harder, go faster, and so on. But if we allow the adrenaline to stop coursing through our veins for even one minute, we might just be able to hear the sounds of our own heart and accept our limitations, our weakness, our pace of taking one step at a time. We will find Christ there as well, waiting to walk with us.

    Your words ring so true and are a great reminder of who we are, who God is, and the journey we are on with Him. Thanks again.

    drew

  17. cathy says:

    Preparing for confession this morning and your words hit the nail on the head-how little I know and how incongruent my actions are at times.

  18. Darlene says:

    I remember when it was a popular practice for immature Christians to read the book of Revelation. That was during the era of Hal Lindsay and various predictions regarding the end times. Such practices lead to presumptuous and arrogant behavior on the part of many. So many folks all of a sudden knew what St. John was really talking about and what all those figures meant. But such knowledge can often be delusional.

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