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 Syrianby Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

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.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


28 responses to “Reading Rightly”

  1. Visibilium Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I saw a study that indicated that the internet, rather than resulting in social isolation as the social science pundits predicted, has resulting in an increasingly segmented socialization. Folks on the internet want to talk to other folks who think like them, and don’t want to talk to Others. I’ve certainly encountered this phenomenon first-hand, and I know that you indulge all sorts of views as long as they’re civilly expressed.

    One can only come to see the wisdom of St. Isaac’s advice after first pursuing all sorts of blind alleys.

  2. Robert Avatar

    Thank for you Fr. Stephen<

    I have become a “ferocious” reader after my recent conversion to the Orthodox Faith (I am no longer in schism to myself 🙂 ). I continue to ask myself, “why am I reading this? what is my motivation?” and remind myself the reason for reading is spiritual growth – not solely building up of the intellect. And spiritual growth requires that “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts” to which you refer. I have to remind myself, that there is no shortcut from this purification, and neither should there be. It is the path to salvation.

    I love what St Gregory Nazianzen said: “It is a great thing to speak of God, but still better to purify oneself for God.”

    What applies to speech, applies to reading just as well.

    May God have mercy on us all!

  3. Barbara Avatar

    “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.”

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen. When I initially began exploring Orthodoxy, I did it in a very western, protestant, academic way…reading every book I could get my hands and eyes on.

    After my first Pascha last spring, I asked my Priest what I should read next. I had run out of something new to devour. He very wisely advised me not to read, that Pascha was a time to “be”. I think he had probably been wanting to say that to me for a long time. I definitely use books/knowledge in ways that are not devotional and more linked to my pride and my need to be right, to know. It is hard for me to trust that God will reveal Himself to me outside of the scripture and other books. One icon that helps me is the icon of the last supper, where St. John the Theologian rests his head on Christ’s breast. It’s my understanding that the early fathers said that this moment was the beginning of theology. We can never know anything about God outside of His revelation to us as we draw nearer to Him in relationship. I know from many years of experience that books do not increase knowledge of God. They do point me in the right direction sometimes, though, if I’m paying attention….like your blog.

    I echo your prayer…may I come to know very little.

  4. Robert Avatar

    correction: in my above post I meant to write: “Thank for you that post Fr. Stephen,”

    (I wish we could edit posts)

  5. Robert Avatar


    “St. John the Theologian rests his head on Christ’s breast. It’s my understanding that the early fathers said that this moment was the beginning of theology.”

    Thank you for sharing that. It is very profound. Resting on Christ – the beginning of theology!

  6. Ian Avatar

    Another thanks from me Father. I too suffer the need to read too much; Orthodoxy is a wonderful corrective in that much is experiential.

  7. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Thank you Barbara and Robert. Your comments reflect a lot of my experience as a former evangelical as well. I want to share a story about a recent happening for me: I was in somewhat of an emotional quandary and crisis that has been coming to a head for a while. I should explain that I have a vulnerability to excessive anxiety that on extreme occasions has led to severe insomnia for me. Such episodes have been triggered at what were major junctures in my spiritual journey–significant turning points in my relationship with God. There have been three such episodes for me on this journey to (and in) Orthodoxy. Two occurred toward the beginning of my journey and one very recently. During the recent crisis as I was preparing with my husband to go meet with my godmother and her husband for counsel, the significance of the Icon my godmother gave me when I was a catechumen, the very first Icon I came to possess, suddenly revealed itself to me. The Icon is a recently written one, not following former patterns and features Christ in His paradoxical Infant/Adult form reclining on a bed of folded linens, yet without the Theotokos. My godmother gave it to me simply telling me it was one of her favorites and giving me its name. At the time, I was touched by the gesture, but to be frank, the Icon itself struck me as a bit strange and had no emotional appeal. I gave it a place near my bedside. You will understand its significance to me in this circumstance when I tell you the name of the Icon–it is called “The Unsleeping One.” When I mentioned this coincidence to my godmother, she said that this connection had not occurred to her at all at the time–it was merely one of her favorite Icons. Tears spring to my eyes even as I type this because of how this whole circumstance so powerfully brought home to me the reality of how intimately God KNOWS me–knows even ME–and will be present in His love to me if I will only let HIm. One moment of such encounter with our Lord is worth far more than any number of books. Yet it is also reading that can prepare our hearts for such an encounter if we read in the right way. God is so good and merciful!

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for your prayers. This moment was certainly one answer to them.

  8. Margaret Avatar

    Karen C., thanks for posting and sharing your story of The Unsleeping One. Immediately my mind went to a gospel song recorded by Take 6:

    He never sleeps,
    He never slumbers
    He watches me both night and day
    (Day and night / night and day)
    He never sleeps,
    He never slumbers
    The reason I know – He told me so

    I don´t have to worry, my soul´s in His care
    I don´t have to worry, He´ll always be there
    I know that He´s watching wherever I go
    I know that He´s watching, He told me so

    I also have a tendency toward insomnia, beginning in childhood and concerning my spiritual walk with God, although I didn’t call it that at the time, and many unnecessary fears were associated with it. Then I also have the tendency to worry myself into insomnia over very trivial, ungodlike thoughts. Learning about Orthodoxy and the worship night and day of the monks and many other godly people has brought to my heart once again that God is good! He has calmed my soul and aided my prayers so that I know that what you say is true and the words of this song are true. Praise God and may He contiually draw us closer to Himself.

  9. AR Avatar

    Margaret, they lifted all the good parts from Psalm 121. Perhaps you can find a musical version of this and be even more blessed:

    I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
    From where shall my help come?
    My help comes from the LORD,
    Who made heaven and earth.
    He will not allow your foot to slip;
    He who keeps you will not slumber.
    Behold, He who keeps Israel
    Will neither slumber nor sleep.
    The LORD is your keeper;
    The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
    The sun will not smite you by day,
    Nor the moon by night.
    The LORD will protect you from all evil;
    He will keep your soul.
    The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in
    From this time forth and forever.

  10. AR Avatar

    I don’t know if it’s Orthodox Psalm 121. I forget how the numbering is different.

  11. selena Avatar

    Thank you Father for this post. It is great for me just now. Frequently I get to the end of an exhausting day and sit in bed with a very interesting book on some aspect of Orthodoxy, knowing full well that I ought to be praying. But frankly, praying is just so hard. The hardest thing in the whole world.

    Barbara, I feel the same as you – I am a sucker for reading and learning, because that’s what Christianity was to me for so many years.

    Fr Stephen, your comments are so true. I desperately wanted to read and understand “For the life of the world” by Fr Alexander Schmemmen, and bought it, but just couldn’t understand it. It was so disappointing. But I have really known deep down, all along, that I need to pray and pray and actually become Orthodox (have not yet, sadly) before I can really understand the sacramental life.


  12. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, AR! It had been awhile since I looked up the Psalm. That the song referred to the Psalm was one thing I liked about it, but the melody really stayed with me, reinforcing the words.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post and for encouraging us to Read Rightly! I have found helpful this book: The Bible and the Holy Fathers For Orthodox, daily scripture readings and commentary for Orthodox Christians compiled and Edited by Johanna Manley and Published by Monastery Books, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

  13. frmilovan Avatar

    Elder Paisios says:

    “…do not rebellious books or pamphlets that mention Church matters if you wish to be calm, since you are not responsible for such serious affairs. You have need of books that will assist you in your repentance…and avoid sappy and superficial books by contemporary writers, who use long titles to provoke spiritual interests. One gets tired only by reading them, just like a cow, when its stall is full of straw, tires of chewing and ruminating its food all day long, and in the end does not produce even one glass of milk….”

  14. AR Avatar

    “…the melody really stayed with me, reinforcing the words.”

    Yes, I know what you mean, Margaret. That’s likely the most important thing that music does for us. And probably why our Liturgy is mostly sung, right? I like to compare it to a vessel: the music takes the words home to our hearts the way a dish carries food to our bodies.

    Unfortunately, much contemporary music is so “sappy and superficial” as the quote above says about certain books. Setting divine words to such music strikes me much like serving the Eucharist out of a styrofoam cup and a plastic spoon.

    (Very very final abosultely last resort.)

    People today forget what our fathers knew very well: that music is itself a language. Not a language of intellect, but of feeling. To pair divine words with stock everyday popular expressions of feeling is…well, I won’t say what it is. I don’t have the authority. But I know what I feel that it is, and if I ever learned anything about music in my years of musical training, I know that is what popular “contemporary” Christian musicians are largely doing.

    Anyway, if I ever learned to write music properly, I think the first thing I would do is to write singeable, expressive tunes for the actual words of all the best-loved Psalms, so that everyone could go about singing them like in the early days of the church. (That alone would probably address many of the dangerous impulses Fr. Stephen is talking about here.) Just a dream of mine, but I don’t know if it’s something I will ever be able to do. I wish someone would. Too many times I’ve been merry with nary a Psalm to chant!

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I must confess to singing psalms privately with tunes learned in my youth. Anything to bring them to heart and mind. Your prayers please. A bit of a virus kept me in bed today. I hope to be back up and around tomorrow and able to post. Many thanks!

  16. Raphael Avatar

    I will offer prayers.

  17. Lucias Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Prayers for your health and for your continued nearness to God.

    The counsel in this post was spot on for me. I read with a vengeance lately. I prayed more and read less tonight.

  18. Ian Avatar

    Prayers for a quick recovery from the Antipodes Father.

  19. AR Avatar

    Father Stephen, I myself often revisit ‘Old Hundredth’ which was the usual ending hymn in our house church, and certain Thanksgiving hymns never fail to water up my eyes. I think people have to have something and we will use what we have. It has to be something we can remember, something we can understand like our native tongue. And music learned in youth treasures up meaning by virtue of where and how and with whom we enjoyed it in the past, doesn’t it?

    For me that is enough reason to make sure my son learns worthy music. I don’t mean to condemn folks (not Margaret by any means) for leaning on the music that’s accessible to them. I’m more concerned with doing what I can to provide richer more profound music that’s still accessible to “folk” in their private devotions. What concerns me is that when we bring music into our worship lives, we then bring our worship lives into the sanctuary, along with whatever sentiments we’ve learned. Is that overthinking it?

    I’m immensely grateful that the Orthodox Church has preserved a strong musical tradition for the Liturgy. I don’t know much about how music gets approved for use in the Church. I often wonder what would happen if American Orthodox people in general lost the ability to tolerate anything more serious than the latest wannabe band. Would the parish churches begin to condescend to us in that case? I wonder this because that is largely what happened in evangelicalism, and now the whole movement is blowing away like dandelion fuzz. I’m very concerned with the Orthodox community remaining the refuge of authentic religion it is here in the U.S. but I’m aware there’s a vast mystery in the preservation of the Church that I don’t have access to.

    I’ve just discovered my husband is something like a musical genius. (Strange thing to discover in the fourth year of marriage, right? As it turns out he uses different words to describe musical ideas than someone less self-educated would use and I couldn’t understand what he was saying until he sat down at the piano and showed me last night.) Anyway, we’re working on a Psalm 23 that’s shaping up to be fairly memorable. If it turns out good enough I’ll post a video on my blog.

    My unworthy prayers are also offered with you in remembrance.

  20. Anna Avatar

    I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters for serious men of experience are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read.

    Yes, may God save us from all “serious men of experience.” They’ll sooner destroy the world than keep their experiential “wisdom” to themselves.

  21. Lana Balach Avatar
    Lana Balach

    Father Stephen,
    I will keep you in my prayers for a quick recovery.
    Frequently while reading about the saints, it is written that he/she/they sang psalms while confronting their martyrdom. I think about that a lot. I would love for my children and myself to learn how to sing the psalms the way they were meant to be sung …. like the saints and martyrs did.

  22. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Anna, yes, may God save us from such men!

    Dear Father, bless! I pray you are recovering well. Anna’s comment drew my attention again to your phrase “spiritual abuse.” I am familiar with this term from a slightly different context than that of your post. I’m wondering how you might define spiritual abuse in order to offer a sort of plumb line of the heart for someone to know when it is functionally occurring in any context. This is a bit off the subject, so a private response is fine or perhaps just a subject for another post!

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Anna and Karen,

    I could have used other terms, more carefully chosen. But there is much material in Orthodoxy that presumes more maturity spiritually than is common. In our democratic culture, everything is available to everyone – sometimes to ill-effect. I think of it as “spiritual abuse” to use such material in the wrong manner or with the wrong people. Patience and restraint are often lacking. I do not consider myself a “serious man of experience”, by the way. There are materials I stay away from and would not post for discussion on this site. I’m not there yet, and few of us are.

    I ask forgiveness if my comment created any confusion or offense.

  24. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I have truly appreciated your comments herein. I consider them as “words to the wise.”

    Sometimes I find myself in conversation with fellow Orthodox Christians who are reading more and have perhaps studied the Orthodox Church in a more serious manner than I have. If I ever find myself wondering why I didn’t receive the same ‘insight’ from the same reading or discussion or homily, and if this worries me, I consult my priest. I believe that along with restraint and thoughtfulness, you also encourage this. Thank you!

  25. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, on my part there was no offense taken–quite the reverse. I think your language and appeal for discretion are well considered and appropriate and that you were quite clear. It was my conviction that there are even wider contexts than the Internet where such spiritual abuse occurs that prompted me to ask for clarification and perhaps expansion on this issue. So, forgive me, as it appears it was I who was unclear in my question. It seems to me that Jesus’ interactions with certain of the Pharisees in the Gospels demonstrate that spiritual abuse, because of its huge potential as a stumbling block to the vulnerable, was a particular concern to Him, drawing His harshest censure. It seems to me in making the statements you did that you echo our Lord’s concern in this regard. May God save us from ourselves when we know just enough about spiritual reality to make us dangerous! To quote David Bentley Hart (The Doors of the Sea): “To see the world as it should be seen, and to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.” And to quote St. Paul, “Love is patient . . . and bears all things.” May God give us such patience and restraint–both in our dissemination of information and in our consumption of it.

  26. -C Avatar

    “I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee …only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. ”

    Whew. I thought it was just me.

    Prayers for your complete and quick recovery.

  27. […] Reading Rightly […]

  28. […] the meantime, I’ll refer people to other places. Today is it Reading Rightly from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s excellent blog “Glory to God for All […]

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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