Rightly Reading

isaac1This is a reprint from last October.

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.






25 responses to “Rightly Reading”

  1. davidperi Avatar

    I know from my Jewish studies that Jewish men could not read the Song of Solomon until they turned 30 yrs old.

  2. Yudikris Avatar

    Thanks Father Stephen,



  3. evangelos Avatar

    Thank you, Father!

  4. Stephen Avatar

    Thank you Father. Careful ingestion is important to our spiritual life. I love the book “The Arena”. It speaks to me about of what I had come out of to become Orthodox. To others it may not be of importance to their spiritual growth at the time. “The holy Fathers wrote to those to suit the circumstances at the time and condition of those monks for whom they were writing” Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov. This shows the importance for us to place ourselves under the watchful eye of a Father Confessor and to regularly seek him out for confession. Since he knows our spiritual state and our level of Illumination, he can properly steer us to writings that can benefit our soul. Self delusion comes easily, the Spiritual Father and or a Father Confessor can help us from entering into that state. To depend solely on our own abilities leads to spiritual death.

  5. T. Ambrose Nazianzus Avatar

    I like this very much, though I might say, I find in reading the Fathers that I read the whole work in one or two sittings (if possible). And then I go back, and read it slowly. This is probably better for academic reading, than devotional, but I find that having a general outline of the text (and an idea of where I was utterly confused) helps me to the second reading.

    Of course, if I don’t understand anything after page 2, I know that I’ve gone from milk to peanut butter, and should change directions.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I often read in a similar fashion – even “skimming” to a degree in the first reading – then going back very slowly. It has cut down seriously on the number of books I read – and made me choose far more carefully what I do read. Both being good things…

  7. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Father! I so appreciated it the first time, and I am very thankful for the re-posting.

  8. Meskerem Avatar

    “…….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.”

    Thank you Father for this.

    I must say the new Orthodox Bible is very helpful for devotional reading; in the sense it includes everything to guide me, from who wrote the Chapter to when it happened, to the explanation of each verse.

  9. coffeezombie Avatar

    “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.”

    It seems to me that putting the book down in frustration may be the *best* thing that can happen when one reads something at the wrong time. The *worst* would be reading the whole thing through, thinking you understand it. At least this seems to me to be my biggest danger.

    I have had the experience of putting down a book I wasn’t ready for, though. “For the Life of the World” was like this for me; it was suggested to me and my to-be wife as we first began exploring the Church. She read it and loved it. For me, however, I had a few false starts before giving up and putting it down for a while. I couldn’t get through the second chapter (the one on the Liturgy).

    Some time later, after having been Orthodox for a while and becoming more familiar with the Liturgy, etc., I picked the book up again and, while I still found it a little difficult, was finally able to get through it. Of course, I still don’t quite understand everything I read; I’ll probably pick it up again sometime in the future and, hopefully, will be able to get more from it then.

  10. Marcus Avatar


    Schmemmann, though a wonderful author, has some strange sentences in that book. They tend to be very profound ones as well, the kind of closing point to his argument. So, don’t get too frustrated, his writing is unclear at times. I loved the book though, gave a lot of valuable insights into our culture

  11. Jon who is called Mark Avatar
    Jon who is called Mark

    Fr. Stephen

    I found this useful today since I had begun to realize the truth of this in my own life and reading. But, how does one know when one should read something beyond the gospels or scripture or what to read? I often wonder if what I am attracted to in a certain work is just one more instance of satisfying fulfilling my own desire for what I want and like )(or things I agree with to show how right I am) rather than being truly beneficial for spiritual growth.

  12. asiaticus Avatar

    Granted. But what of those who live in lands where confessors may not be available and yet have such books at hand that may deemed difficult or inopportune and crave for spiritual food beside Scripture?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Read with moderation and seek to practice what you understand.

  14. asiaticus Avatar

    Practice with moderation what you read , indeed-this is what saint Isaac and you are saying- a golden rule of spiritual reading. Thank you. And of course, prayer for enlightenment should accompany such readings.

  15. Jason Barker Avatar

    I greatly appreciated the quotation from St. Isaac. It reminded me of a similar teaching from St. Peter of Damascus: “Reading and spiritual knowledge are good, but only when they lead to greater humility.”

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is such a richness in the Orthodox faith that many are drawn to its writings. Our culture’s fascination with ideas can lead people to gorge themselves. Orthodoxy is a way of life and not a set of ideas. It can be lived and known but not understood (in the rational sense of the word). We should hunger for God rather than the idea of God. Then we will find the satisfaction of our souls.

  17. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    When I engage in conversations with non-Orthodox and the subject of what books to read comes up, I generally tell them they need to attend the services.

    And, usually, that results in them wandering off. But I just don’t like to get someone on the wrong path immediately, encouraging them to find the truth through a western, rational path.

  18. CAL Avatar

    Following your last comment, Father…

    I began my experience with Orthodoxy by gorging on ideas, and by God’s grace I eventually realized that it was harming me. I discovered that spending so much time consuming and thinking about various theories and theologies and histories led me to one of two things: either a false sense of spiritual growth or despondency. Neither was productive or healthy. What saved me was putting books away for a while and going to services, praying more, reading the Scriptures, talking with my friends. The ideas are wonderful and can be (are) life-giving. There is a richness that should be explored. But I can attest to the need to find balance and a sustainable pace. My heart is in such a better place for having put limits on reading.

    Thanks for reposting this article. It was an encouraging reminder.

  19. mike Avatar

    ….i know very little about orthodox religious practices…..i do tend to read alot and my reading style is unorthodox…im a mystic in that i believe books find me…i never start a book at the beginning…i skim from the middle or back until i find “it” and then i dig in…i have stacks of as yet “unfinished” books….do i NEED TO read anything?….Christ said The Father would send the Comforter to dwell in us and He would show us all things..we have no need of a “teacher” much as in the same way we no longer have need of a preacher once we have found God or rather are known of God….

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    An Orthodox saying: “You cannot be saved alone.” I know the verses in St. John – we still need teachers – but they are of no use without the Spirit teaching you within. But God has not created us to ever live without the need of other human beings: “It is not good for man to be alone.” You cannot overcome pride or envy without another human being. Has the Comforter not shown you this?

  21. mike Avatar

    …..” we still need teachers – BUT THEY ARE OF NO USE WITHOUT THE SPIRIT TEACHING YOU WITHIN”….??…….” But God has not created us to ever live without the NEED of other human beings”…i feel anytime we find ourselves NEEDING anything from another human being we have lost our way in a matter of speaking and become as it were emotional slaves.to another master…..

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand that you feel this way. However, “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you,’ “(1 Cor. 12:21). What you are describing is a self-directed interpretation of Scripture instead of understanding what is taught there. I understand what you are saying – but the Scriptures teach that we have need of one another. Such need should not be expressed or received as slavery – but a proper relation as the Son is to the Father.

    I will also note that in internet etiquette – all caps is considered shouting. Emphasis should be indicated in another way.

    We are contingent human beings. We cannot rid ourselves of necessity. I did not create myself, nor did I give myself birth. I do not grow my own food, nor did I build the roads on which I drive. I did not build this computer I am typing on, nor did I create the internet. Necessity is part of life. In Christ we have freedom – and yet that freedom does not make us independent of one another. By love we are commanded to serve one another – and it has the obvious corollary to be gracious to others when we are served.

    As for our need for one another – there is no teaching of salvation in the NT that is “outside the Church.” And in the Church, God has appointed, “Apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.” Why would God appoint teachers if we do not need teachers? It is important in understanding the faith to read all of Scripture and not just those parts that support our private opinion.

    Forgive me if I have responded too harshly. I only mean to be clear.

  23. nomad Avatar

    ..Old Russian saying:..Some days you get the bear…some days the bear gets you.

  24. Audra Wooten Avatar
    Audra Wooten

    What a relief to hear someone recommend practicing what you read before you read something else. I’ve always preferred this and felt that others thought be a little slow not to move on to the next thing quickly.

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