Rightly Reading – Yet Again

I am reprinting this short article on “rightly reading” in response to comments on my last post. I suspect that this article will be reprinted often when the subject of the study of Scripture arises.

isaac1The 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

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 priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





12 responses to “Rightly Reading – Yet Again”

  1. George Avatar

    Father I have enjoyed reading you blog (and listening to your podcasts) and others as I try to make some sense of issues I don’t understand and make my journey towards a deeper relationship with God. This post however touches an area of concern for me that my reading in fact comes at a price as quite often it raises more questions than answers and takes away my ‘right’ focus which should be on Jesus.

    How do you see the ‘blogsphere’ fitting in with your views on right-reading.

    thank you and bless you


  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I limit my blog reading as well. Sites that purvey information are always subject to question. Who is putting the site together? If Orthodox, do they have a blessing from a hierarch to be putting forward information (not everyone does or bothers with such).

    Not all blogs are equal. How are people treated when they visit the site? Is there any code or rule of conduct for those who comment (there is on this site).

    I would use the same rule: read a little – think and pray more.

    No blog site substitutes for actually meeting a priest and getting information from him.

    This blog, for instance, is written by an ordained Orthodox priest (with some education). It has the blessing of my diocesan bishop and the Metropolitan Bishop of the OCA (happens to be the same person for the time being).

    I try to remember to say “I don’t know” when I don’t know. And I try to ground things in the writings of those who do know.

    If the site is written by a layman and much use and reference is made to the canons of the Church, I would have a problem. The interpretation of canons is a difficult thing and not everyone is appointed to interpret the canons.

    If the site is generally critical of canonical Orthodox Churches (i.e., those in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the other Patriarchs and Metropolitans of the Orthodox Churches) then I would look elsewhere for information. It’s possible on some sites to be “more Orthodox than the Orthodox.” Such groups (if its a group and not just a self-appointed individual) do not usually bear good fruit.

    I try to put up something useful each day. But no one should spend too much time even on my site. 🙂 Life is to be lived and not spent in front of a screen.

    Be sure to take time off. This stuff can be addictive.

  3. Meskerem Avatar

    No question asked people who grew up Orthodox accept this. They attend Liturgy, celebrate the Saint’s days and commemorate. They understand that our Lord God cannot be explained or understood by a human mind and accept when things are left out not detailed.

    In my experience the Liturgy was not even a spoken language a very old one, you can imagine not understanding a bit of it, but so beautifully sang most know it by heart. Know it so much to blend in when the verse (the way it is sang) changes for the season. The sermon and the scripture reading and the lives of the Saints is read though in the spoken language in which people understood.

    We go to church not to question, but because that is our way of life. In church we worship God pray, give alms, commune together we had that tiny little faith that brings us to be part of the Eucharist, we accept our journey that way.

    Father said there was no print outs of the Bible out as much and not everybody had it. This is sill true in some cases, but there were a lot of book of prayers from St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St John the forerunner and more. These are prayer books in smaller prints everybody has. And almost all these prints have the ten commandments of God, the Lord’s prayer, the creed, the Sacraments, Prayer to the Theotokos and more, as we read always reminded of our beliefs. And because the authority of interpreting is left to the church and the priest who is serving her, everybody respected that. In fact the priest does approach you with only his big cross which he hands out to bless you and you kiss that to greet him. Right there you are with the communicator of our Lord and obedience starts.

  4. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Father Stephen: Although I am Catholic, I read this blog regularly and find it both enlightening and spiritually nourishing.

    A comment on a previous thread confused me, and therefore I hope you will not mind if I ask a question — please forgive my ignorance. Does the Orthodox Church consider the Book of Revelations to be part of the canon?

    I look forward to your response.

  5. George Avatar

    Thank you Father for your response. I enjoy your blog and it provides me much food for thought (and prayer), and as someone who does not really have a church home I find your unwavering commitment to your Orthodox beliefs comforting.

    If I was not on the other side of the world I would be honored to buy you a coffee 😀

  6. Marcus Honeysett Avatar

    Dear Stephen

    what an interesting post! I expect you will know that Christian reading in the UK is in dramatic decline, so it is always encouraging to find someone posting about how to read well. More disturbing still to my mind is a declining lack of discernment on what is worth reading and when, as you rightly point out.

    I regularly speak evangelistically to university students. In these dialogues it is clear that fewer and fewer people are able to answer the question “how do you know what you know?” There is no firm epistemological base to most of the answers I get. And therefore no way to make serious value judgements about how or what to read. Some end up reading almost no serious Christian material, others end up reading any old nonsense and have no grounds to determine useful from harmful. And perhaps a third set end up pouring over the scriptures and Christian reading for the sake of knowledge only, thus making their reading an educative exercise rather than one of moral obedience to the Lord.

    Hallelujah for a post on wisdom in reading – quite unusual for the blogosphere, I think. Thanks from an evangelical prompted to think by you this morning.

  7. Margaret Avatar

    I will never tire of reading this, thank you for re-posting! I especiall find this helpful because it describes the world so well and provides encouragement on what to do:

    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.

  8. Paul Johnston Avatar
    Paul Johnston

    Fr. Stephen:
    This helps. Placing learning within a life of obedience is a healthy balance. This echos John 14 where God promises to reveal himself to those who obey.
    Thanks for the clarification,

  9. […] Father Stephen’s post today Rightly Reading – Yet Again I was struck (again), by the wisdom of this simple paragraph. “I believe that it was Stanley […]

  10. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Fr. Stephen –

    I’ve been Orthodox a little over 5.5. years. I tended to keep my reading to simpler things, aside from the Bible, for most of the time I’ve been Orthodox. I found Archbishop Dmitri’s books on the New Testament especially helpful. I did find St. John Chrysostom and St. John of Damascus wonderfully readable. I had once picked up The Ladder of Divine Ascent not long after becoming Orthodox and my-then parish priest told me to put it down, as it was something you read after being Orthodox 10 years or so. And so I did. The most complicated I got into the ascetical tradition was Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics this past Great Lent, until my priest was preaching from The Ladder at Presanctified this year, so I then picked it up, and read some before the end of Lent. Made much more sense to me than it would have five years ago.

    Recently, though, my reading has taken a 180 turn. I’m in the OCA’s Diocese of the Midwest, and the Chicago Deanery has a Higher Ed program – for diaconal candidates, to train lay catechists (this is a goal of Archbishop Job’s), and others for personal enrichment. It’s a three-year program, year round, meeting every other week for two to four hours, depending on semester length (there are nine semesters). You need to allow about ten hours for reading each week. My parish has a female lay catechist who went though the last cycle of classes and passed the catechist exam. We’re in the midst of the first semester of a new cycle of classes – this one is “Orthodox Spirituality” (I don’t much like the phrase, but I guess it works). Mostly works in the ascetical tradition. Anyway, my priest asked if I was interested in the program, and I jumped at the opportunity. This is pretty much grad level work. I know folks who’ve been to seminary and tell me they’ve not read some of this stuff. We’re reading huge portions of Origen, Evagrius of Pontus, St. Anthony the Great, St. Athanasius (Life of St. Anthony), St. Gregory of Nyssa, (Pseudo)-Macarius, (Pseudo)-Dionysius, The entire Ladder, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Maximus the Confessor, Gregory the Theologian, St. John of Damascus, St. Symeon the New Theologian. We even read bits of texts from the Qumran community and some mildly Gnostic stuff, so we could have a sense of the historical continuity of the “spiritual mindset” of the the times. Clergy teach, as well as qualified laity.

    I would not have picked up half this stuff on my own, at least not for years. It’s much work, but the class is endlessly enlightening, and the participants seem to enjoy the chance to discuss, rather than just reading on one’s own. At least in my diocese, this sort of program is rare, I’m told – for the chance to a group to read and discuss together. Diaconal candidates seem to have no choice but distance learning and discussion with their parish priest. On a side note, I’m currently the only woman in the program.

    All of this to say that you definitely *do* have to be ready to read many texts. I’d not have been spiritually ready to read these texts several years ago. If I come across something that’s really got me stuck, I’ve found that going back to the Way of the Ascetics helps enlighten me.

    I follow Fr. Arseny’s practice of reading one chapter of a Gospel each day, along with usually a chapter of an Epistle (lectio continua for Gospel and Epistle), and some or all of a kathisma of the Psalter, along with the appointed daily lectionary readings (my priest often refers back to the daily readings in his sermons, so it’s a good reason to keep up with them). It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, with input from my priest. I read the Old Testament (aside from the Psalter) as I have the time.

    This is pretty much the only Orthodox blog I regularly read that’s profitable – I’ve found the focus on spiritual matters meshes very well with my deanery class reading. No church political stuff, although I do read things that report on that, which is frankly a waste of time when I’ve got better things to read.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve seen outlines of the program in the Midwest – it is excellent. Especially helpful to have a teacher, and a group with whom to discuss. We probably only assimilate a percent or so of what we read, but the familiarity is very useful. Glad to hear it’s going so well. I’d like to look closer at it (for use in the South).

  12. Moses Avatar

    The movie theaters capitalized on that point: Silence is golden! 😉

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