Food for the Soul

I recently sat in on a meeting between my bishop and a young man looking to attend seminary. After getting the bishop’s approval, he asked a wise question: “What should I be reading to prepare?” I was as interested in the answer as he was. “Read good literature,” was the answer. This advice came from a bishop who is both a scholar and a monk (Archbishop Alexander Golitsyn). Read good literature. This is not so much advice for the demands of seminary – it’s advice for the soul.

Our culture tends to have a focus on the mastery of information, the management of the facts. I recall a famous television evangelist who touted himself as having memorized the entire Bible. It made him a television evangelist, not a great soul or a deeply wise man. It can indeed be little more than a carnival trick.

I was once told that this same advice was given to inquirers and catechumens by Fr. Seraphim Rose. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard about him – it shows a preference for the soul over an indoctrination of the mind. So many who inquire into the faith would do well to heed such sage advice.

Growing the soul is not at all an obvious thing. Plato, in his Republic, suggested that musical training be required for all children precisely for the formation of the soul. The soul is ever so much more about who we are, and the character of who we are than what we are and what we know.

As the traditional “canon” of literature continues to come under withering attack in the American academy, more and more people are simply “ignorant” souls. It is not so much that they lack the information gained from such literature (though they do), but that they lack a depth and the ability to reflect that is only made possible through engaging with the greatest ideas, the greatest music, the deepest beauty. Only a great soul can teach another soul to become great.

Several years ago, in a class of inquirers, I mentioned Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Everyone in the class had a college education, or a nearly complete degree. A young man asked me who Solzhenitsyn was. I was staggered. I realized immediately that the notoriety of this spiritual giant had passed some time in the 80’s and 90’s, but this only refers to his notice by the 24/7 news cycle. Sadly, few of those who know his name will have read anything by him. Our knowledge of culture too often extends to trivia, the stuff that comes up on Jeopardy.

I have frequently encouraged readers towards a slower life. As we hurtle along at the speed of our internet service, we tend to nurture the habit of brief encounters. We assimilate information that has been formatted for speedy acquisition. The depth of contradiction, paradox and context tend to be eliminated. It is mostly fodder for delusion.

The brilliance of the internet is its ability to “skim and retrieve.” Its genius fails when it comes to understanding and analysis. True human knowing requires the large (and slow) effort of attention and communion.

Some years back I decided to get serious about Dostoevsky. I had read his novels and pondered them. It was obvious to me that there was much that was being lost, both in translation and in the larger cultural references. I hunted down a commentary on his work and started the long, and often dull exercise of studying. It seemed worth doing. I have done the same with Solzhenitsyn. I have recently been slogging my way through Dionysius the Areopagite. I have thrown Origen onto my list of studies. Not everyone is a scholar, nor able to digest scholarly works. But we need to understand the difference between the slow, patient work of mature, healthy scholarship and the brief summaries and opinions that pass for information on the internet.

Depth requires that we admit how much we do not know.

We will not be saved by information, least of all, the shallow information of our current culture. The work of salvation is slow, patient, and deep. It is filled with paradox and contradiction – things that can only be reconciled in the context of a life that lives them. Good literature, truly good literature, brings us into contact with just such realities.

Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said:

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

In truth, such an epistle is more than a brief letter – it is the deepest of novels. God give us grace to read the “tablets of flesh.” They have not been digitally formatted…

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.



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65 responses to “Food for the Soul”

  1. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Thank you, Father!

    If time and the architecture of your blog permits an addition, I would welcome a new section with recommendations on literature and, why not, films, art and music.

    Some time ago I took a very big book with me on a trip. It gave me such a headache, I had become addicted to the easily digestible fast consumption of articles you can “read in 1 minute”.

    I can’t remember what the book was about, but the effort was worth it.

  2. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for this, Father. Some time ago, I bought a large number of books to learn more about Orthodoxy (this was after I became Orthodox). I have found that, as good as they are, I need more to just live life and pray. I do not do this well at all but it has changed my perspective on what is needed in life. I still read regularly but I try to limit myself to simpler books (I just finished Joseph Loconte’s, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War, which was a quick read but both simple and enlightening in some respects concerning Tolkien and Lewis) and less to scholarly tomes (I haven’t the wisdom to drudge through them, I think).

  3. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    bravo Father! most excellent & itself calming of soul…& our resolve to nurture it. thank you,

  4. Sharon MacKinnon Avatar
    Sharon MacKinnon

    “…they lack a depth and the ability to reflect that is only made possible through engaging with the greatest ideas, the greatest music, the deepest beauty. ”

    I appreciate this encouragement to think deeply, slow down – and ponder what the great souls of art/literature offer, however, the one person I have met and who I believe is a saint is also no scholar – I doubt she knows of Solzhenitsyn – furthermore, as far as I know, Hobbits had no knowledge of the Western canon.

    My own patron – Saint Matrona – was no scholar, yet she was a saint. The list of uneducated saints may be far longer than the list of those who puffed themselves up with great art (?)

    I don’t write this to disagree with your main point – that exposure to great souls is many times associated with the development of a great soul. At the same time, there seems to be a persistent belief that if one has not been exposed to the goodness, truth, and beauty found in great art, a person will not have the depth and ability to reflect that is necessary for the development of virtue: I disagree – for that – a humble and contrite spirit may be all we need (and sometimes all that we are capable of in our short lives) or maybe apprenticeship to an expert bricklayer.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree wholeheartedly. However, for those souls who have found their way to this blog, the advice will be well-used. There is a greatness of soul that simply comes by living well and simply. It is our modern existence that tends to attenuate the soul and stretch it into great thinness.

  6. Patsy Avatar

    Thank you again, Father, for your thought-provoking prose. For the past few years, I have given myself a treat of “light” reading with the works of Kyriacos Markides (what I call his Trilogy): The Mountain of Silence, Inner River, and Gifts of the Desert as well as Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon (translated from Russian). I have read these books several times and continue to be amazed at the instruction there. There are otherOrthodox authors that I read, which are more authoritative, such as Fr. Alexander Schemann. However, I like the story (by Tolstoy) told in The Mountain of Silence about the Bishop that visited 3 hermits on an island and instructed them better in the way of salvation, and later that evening, in humility, they came to him running on the water to be corrected by the Bishop because they had forgotten his instructions. So it is with me; I forget so much.
    Because Christ is merciful!

  7. TLR Avatar

    That is great advice!
    W. E. B. Du Bois wrote something similar in a beautiful letter to his daughter, Yolande:
    “Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul…”

    The full letter is here:

  8. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, My husband Michael is a student of the great scholars and literature that I have never even attempted. I know it has helped him in so many ways, and helps him to help me with things I struggle with.
    I have a very high I.Q., so it is not lack of ability to read, but more of understanding the points that Michael picks up and “gets” in such books, that evade me. I was reading some very simply “entertaining” Christian books recently, and they kept mentioning big changes in people from reading the Bible and finally understanding so much of the meanings of the passages. I have struggled with that for my life. I have read the Bible many times, but just don’t seem to gather the same understanding that I would like to have. At church, our deacon and our Priest both read from the Bible each Sunday. I gain more insight from the homily he gives afterwards than I have from reading the passages myself. I see the wisdom of reading great literature, but I really want to understand the Bible and what the meanings are within it a great deal more. I recently bought a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible on ebook to carry with me everywhere. We have the hardcopy at home, but it is very big and heavy and I am taking this very slowly, and taking time to read the study portions of it. It is already making a lot of the history I had read of the church so much more clear and easy to understand. I have a new porch with a lovely chair on it, and I am going to do as you suggest, and take time out, in the nature all around us in our rural home, and let the meanings soak it a bit more. Reading and understanding the meaning of what you read, is a great gift of wisdom. We are indeed living in a time of instant gratification, and expect things to be quick and easy. Slowing down is indeed a gift to ourselves, and promises to be a time well spent. If you can spend an hour on Facebook, or other social media, you can give yourself at least that much time to rest and soothe your soul. Thank you Father. Once again

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Reading and digesting great literature and reading and digesting great souls require two abilities: the ability to discern and the ability to listen.

    To have the opportunity for either is a great gift. It only takes one such encounter if fully embraced to transform one’s soul. It is perhaps the search for either or both that is equally important.

    To memorize the Bible could indeed be a carnival trick. To know it by heart is another thing entirely. To engage such authors as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner requires an understanding of the post-Civil War south that has now become anathema to even think about.

    The tragedy of the digital is that it tends to rob us of both the inclination to search and the ability engage in listening. It offers the stultifying or fearful now. As antidote it offers fantasy of all types. It is a cultural schitzophrenia in the making.

    As I have gotten older, I no longer have the stamina nor the mental energy to engage great art or literature. I do have an increasing capacity, I hope, to listen to other people, to share their burdens and lighten them if I can at least not add to them.

    Learning to really love the wife of my old age is my greatest effort as she is a gift from God.

    For the young to read great literature requires so much more as even realitvely recent works exist in an environment and mileau that modernity has destroyed. That is the aim of progress.

  10. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I agree with the advice to feed the soul. The more we feed our souls the human we become. Some of the best Saints could not read but their souls were aglow

  11. Raphael Shelton Avatar
    Raphael Shelton

    Excellent post, Father. About 5 years ago, my son and I read The Iliad as bedtime reading. It was honestly the first time I had ever read it. I was simultaneously in awe, as befits a sublime work of art, and disappointed that no one in my education had pushed me to read it before.

    If I may share one other thing: I recently read an article that was a collection of recommendations for contemporary literature, music, poetry, and film. My favorite part was the film critic’s thoughts.
    I’ll quote a bit, if you’ll indulge me:

    As I near my 40s, the most fundamental question I ask when deciding what movie to watch is not “drama or comedy?” or “new movie or old movie?” Rather, “something we have seen before or something new?” This is the metaphysical coup of film. The occasions when I want something new are always attended by flightier moods, not a spirit of adventure. When I have my gravity, when my faculties are strong, I want something I’ve seen a thousand times. The number of films I watch for the first time dwindles every year. The number of films I am watching for the twentieth, even thirtieth time rises. Before I travel for conferences in the summer, I watch Lost In Translation and Sans Soleil. When Autumn comes, I watch Gattaca. In the month of December, I revisit the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre. In the deep part of winter, The Remains of the Day. In the Summer, The Fifth Element and Some Like It Hot.

    I may live long enough to see the complete and personal codification of an annual film viewing cycle, much like the Church calendar commemorates a particular saint on each day of the year. This would be, so far as I am concerned, the apotheosis of the art form.
    — Joshua Gibbs “Film as Metaphysical Coup”

  12. Robert Avatar

    This begs the question which I haven’t seen asked yet; “what is good literature.”

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The article did mention the “canon” of good literature. That list would certainly vary somewhat. It does not mean literature with which we would agree. It is well-written, complex, engaging the great questions in a serious manner. Dostoevsky’s chapter “Rebellion” in the Brothers Karamazov, for example, is probably the most devastating case against the goodness of God that has ever been written. It was not Dostoevsky’s own opinion, but that of one of the leading characters. He even feared he had written it too well. But, I would venture that it is essential reading when thinking of good literature. I would include Dickens (he is, for Russians, much like Dostoevsky is for us). There are certainly more recent works that belong in that canon. Harold Bloom’s canon is a fairly complete list.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Track down the film Chuck Norris Versus Communism. It’s a documentary about the underground movement in Romania for watching Western films during the Communist period. Fantastic.

  15. John G. Demakis Avatar
    John G. Demakis

    In one od Kyriacos Markidis’ books (either Mountain of Silence or Gifts of the Desert) a young novice on Mt. Athos asks the Abbot what books should he read to prepare himself for a life a prayer. The Abbot went to his book shelf and pulled down a book and told the novice to read this book first. The novice took the book and was shocked to see that it was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. When he asked the Abbot why that book the Abbot told him because it helps us to understand people including ourselves.

  16. jacksson Avatar

    Merry, the bible isn’t a book that you read and understand. It is a spiritual book and when the spirit moves – you understand. As a former Protestant of about 25 years and now Orthodox for 21 years, I am amazed how much I pick up every Sunday from my priest’s homilies. This past Sunday, the gospel was about the king who established a vineyard, puts some locals in charge of it, and then goes away; he then sends back his servants to collect some fruit from his vineyard and the locals kill his servants, stones some of them, casts a few out. I have read that scripture many times, but never really thought about it. My concrete reading in this particular gospel always caused me to be amazed that the king didn’t return and wipe out the locals after they killed one of his servants. Then he sent his son who they killed. You know the story.

    Duh – for some strange reason, the spiritual point being made in this reading had never clicked for me, the spirit hadn’t moved and my Protestant background blinded me to the real meaning of the parable. I have read the bible 20-25 times, I studied it in Greek and Hebrew while doing my B.A. degree in Biblical and Religious studies and like to think of myself as being open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.

    On the way home after this incident, I told my wife about what had happened, how I had suddenly understood a gospel reading that I should have understood years before. She commented, you mean that you never understood that parable as being about God, His prophets, and the sending of His Son?. And, I am supposed to be the bible expert in the family. I love it when the Holy Spirit rolls up a cannon and blows another hole in my oversized ego.

  17. MamaV Avatar

    I would like to recommend “Island of the World” by Michael O’Brian… there is no other book that I have had to put down so many times to weep. It gave me a huge depth of insight to my own soul and the souls of all people…

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Best movies I have ever seen Watch on the Rhine; Dersu Usala, Kagamushu and Ikiru by Kirosawa. Kirosawa makes his movies in a decidely non-modern way. Tough to watch if one is used to modern movies because “nothing seems to happen” but by the end there is a revelation of humanity. Even in The Seven Samauri, the action is not the point.

    Best books William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. George McDonald–anything.

    Any of Shakespeare’s plays but see them performed with traditional staging.

    Best history, Henry Adams Mont St.Michel and Chartres and Degradation of the Democratic dogma. Someday I may have to read his Education.

    Also read all of Nietzche’s works translated into English. Good to know the enemy.

    All of these works challenged and enlightened me and remain with me.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Best screen presentation of Hamlet is the one by Mel Gibson.

  20. Sophia Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    You’re on a roll!

    And what Robert said!

  21. Robert Avatar

    Perhaps if I’d read more good literature I wouldn’t have left the question mark out of my question earlier. Doh!

    I’m enjoying this very much because most of my life I’ve often felt I was missing something because I wasn’t moved by “good literature” as so many seemed to be. Perhaps there were some fakers along the way, but I suspect most were probably honest about their feelings.

    Much of this comes down to taste but there seems to be some general consensus as to what constitutes important works. Being indecisive and largely ignorant of the subject I’m the type of person that wishes a wise sage were to appear and hand me a book and tell me I needed to read it because it would shape my life.

    This is the next best thing and I enjoy the comments.

  22. Rick Avatar

    Father, please delete this post if it is inappropriate. Michael Bauman if you would be willing, I would very much like to have an email conversation with you about some of your posts. They’re quite helpful and I’d be interested in hearing more from you on a couple of topics. My email is email hidden; JavaScript is required

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In point of fact, fewer and fewer people have read very much of the canon. High School curricula, for example, often neglect classical books that used to me pretty standard. Lots of kids graduate without ever reading Dickens and others. The teaching of history has long been an American weakness and has grown worse. I’ve been teaching in the context of Churches for over 35 years in which the vast majority of the members had college degrees, many of them graduate degrees. The lack of general knowledge (history/literature/basic “great ideas”) is appalling.

    Perhaps it has long been like that.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father I think it is, in part, a product of an industrial/technological mind which is fragmented and excessively precise. It is focused on achieving more and correcting defects. Human beings become part of the machinery of production.

    It is part of modernity and began in ernest in the last half of the 19th century but was not created then.

    Ultimately it is connected to the Will to Power. It is an outright rejection of the Cross and the depths of humanity the Cross reveals. A willful ignorance intially that is changed into a cultural virtue.

    I know when I have tried to teach the historical ground of the Church in my little way, eyes began to role up into people’s head before I even start.

    But, the good news is that Christ reaches folks anyway. Still even the direct intervention of Jesus Himself can lack strong roots without at least an appreciation of the foundation.

  25. Margaret Avatar

    God bless you for this — for your efforts with this topic

  26. Justin Avatar

    About a decade ago I was conversing with someone who had attained an advanced degree (either masters or phd) in philosophy from either Cambridge or Oxford (I forget which). I rejoiced that I could finally make a reference to Plato’s cave (which I learned about in the Third Grade). His response: “Never heard of it.”

  27. Adam N Avatar
    Adam N

    Father bless,

    I find this article very interesting and pertinent to me. Despite both my sibling being literature/film buffs and English majors, it was only after becoming interested and involved in Orthodoxy several years ago that I myself acquired an interest in literature in itself (I was and remain, in many ways, the standard scientist/engineer type). Before that, most all of what I read was for the purpose of passing a test, to do well in school, to get a good (STEM) job, and so on. It was an arbitrary obstacle that had to be overcome in order to “be successful”. It’s not even that I wasn’t exposed to the great “canon” of Western literature. My high school curriculum was very rigorous (it’s one of the top public schools in the US) so I read Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens…and even Solzhenitsyn. But I suppose it was a “head reading”, not a “heart reading”. I never truly wrestled with the ideas, or pondered the beauty of the words, but rather just faked such things for the instructor (BS-ing as we called it, pardon my French).

    I don’t think the connection between learning about Orthodoxy and developing a genuine interest in literature was obvious to me at the time, but it is obvious to me now (at least the fact that such a connection exists). Even now its nature is not entirely clear to me, though I can articulate some vague ideas such as that Orthodoxy and great literature both have a high concern for beauty. Anyway, I look forward to any further articles you may decide to write on the subject that may help me understand it.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman sophomore year in high school we read in the standard Enghish class, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Shakespear’s Julius Caesar and “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and other works. Plus we also learned how to diagram sentences and the basics of grammar.

  29. Kenny Scott Avatar
    Kenny Scott

    Chuck Norris Vs Communism

  30. Darrell Avatar

    So I am reading:The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to it. By St. Theophan the Recluse
    And on page 113 and 114 he writes:

    “However, not everything is accomplished by the Divine Spirit alone. We are expected to do something, and this “something” is of no small importance. The Divine Spirit arouses, the good news indicates where to begin. This is from God. But, having done this, God stops, and awaits our consent. With His first actions, God seems to be asking: “Do you want to get out of trouble? Here, do this.” This moment is the most important. Whoever yields himself to this opens the door to further actions of grace, which bring him then into the realm of the saved. If, however, a person does not yield himself, he cuts off further actions of grace, and he remains among those who perish. St. Paul preached in Areopagus. After the sermon, St., Dionysius and some of the people followed after him, and were baptized. Of the others, one said, “what is this idle talk supposed to be teaching us?” Someone else said, “Come some other time, we will listen to you then,” (see Acts 17:16-34). God does not desire the death of a sinner, but He does present a choice, and only he who chooses salvation is saved. If our consent were not required, God could save everyone in a single instant, for he wants everyone to be saved. In that case, no one at all would perish. But out free will does not always act wisely; it becomes stubborn and does not obey Even God., That is how we perish.”

    I don’t know if one would define this writing as literature, but certainly it states that one is on a journey and one has to choose who will assist him as he encounters suffering, trials, whatever on this journey. And isn’t this is what literature is all about?

  31. Burt Noyes Avatar
    Burt Noyes

    If a person wants to understand the modern human condition, I can’t think of better reading than Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, especially if you have any type of pastoral responsibility.

  32. NSP Avatar

    “Any of Shakespeare’s plays but see them performed with traditional staging.”
    — Michael Baumann

    For those who don’t have the luxury of attending the staging of Shakespeare’s plays at a real theatre, might I recommend the BBC Television Shakespeare series? I have started going through this series recently and am finding it a real delight!

    “Kurosawa makes his movies in a decidely non-modern way. Tough to watch if one is used to modern movies because “nothing seems to happen” but by the end there is a revelation of humanity.”
    — Michael Baumann

    What do you think of Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi? I guess we could also throw Yoji Yamada and even Hayao Miyazaki into the recommendations basket while we’re at it.

    Also, special mentions: “Samurai Rebellion” by Masaki Kobayashi. Here too, “the action is not the point.”
    and “After the Rain” by Takashi Koizumi. (a very special mention)


  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You should disclose just how many years ago that was… 🙂

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And for the epitome of the canon: Shakespeare meets Godzilla 🙂 couldn’t resist!

  35. Dean Avatar

    Well, ya’all,
    You’ve seen the caps old guys wear, “Older than dirt!”? That’s how I feel at times, lol. Michael mentions some of the things he read in h.s. I can barely remember that far back. College starts getting a little more clear. Now what I did yesterday…. 🙂

  36. Patrick Avatar

    I think it is good to remember that for most of history, most people could not read. Their exposure to literature was more often by “hearing” it. I think a more common way people would “feed their souls” was through simple crafts and arts. It could be simple carving, knitting, drawing, singing, baking, gardening, etc these are all ways that not only feed and nurture our souls but can sustain them through the trials of life.

    Evelyn Underhill often mentioned that her spiritual director, Baron Von Hugel, would require those who came to him for direction have a regular hobby/craft and also be involved in some direct contact with the poor and needy in their community. There is a lot of wisdom in that approach.

    As we become a society of consumers, we rob our souls of the joys and blessings that come from creating something simple but unique through arts, crafts, and hobbies.

  37. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    On a more serious note, speaking of yesterday….
    Now there are many ways that a soul can be enriched, as seen by your article and comments.
    Yesterday mine was enriched by a young lady of 40 (young to me). I was sitting with my brother in law who was getting chemo. The recliners where people receive their infusions are really close together. So, this young Hispanic lady was next to us. Through the conversation I discovered she had stomach cancer which has spread throughout her body. She had first noted discomfort in her abdomen a year ago. But her doctor did not really pursue it. Now she’s dealing with the consequences. She works at a fairly low paying job, but thankfully she has good bosses who are paying her full time while working reduced hours due to chemo. Her insurance is not the best. She has received a grant to help her with the first few months of therapy…one session can cost tens of thousands of dollars (I know because of my wife’s struggle with cancer). Anyway, here this lady is sharing all this with me with a smile on her face. Not once did I hear her complain or feel sorry for herself! What an encouragement to me, and I hope with my brother in law. My soul was fed by this simple? lady sharing with me out of much pain, which she kept hidden. Just wanted to share this short vignette of my encounter with a courageous lady. There are so many good people in our world, despite all the headlines to the contrary.

  38. NSP Avatar


    Your post reminds me of an older essay by Fr. Freeman, A Virtuous Man and also Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soul Craft.

    Also, thanks for the mention of Evelyn Underhill. I recently obtained her book titled Mysticism, but then couldn’t get around to reading it and it got buried under a pile of other books. Your post has inspired me to dig it out and start reading it.


  39. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    My husband recently brought home a pile of library books…by Anton Chekov. Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, recommended his works. His short novel, The Steppe, is delightful in how he describes the natural world, the priest, and a little boy who is clearly marinated in Orthodoxy. During a thunderstorm, his instinct is to say, “Holy, Holy, Holy art thou, O God, Lord of Sabaoth: Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory.” It comforts him to repeat this. This vision of everyday Orthodoxy is truly precious. Another book…an autobiography…does much the same: Many World’s: A Russian Life. In her memoirs, Sophie Koulomizin chronicles her family’s path from wealthy landowners in Russia at the time of the Revolution to Estonia, Germany, France and the US. The unbelievable suffering, perseverance and faith touch the soul. Again, their faith permeated everyday life and death. On her mother’s deathbed, she is told that it is Pentecost. Her mom’s response is to quote the Pentecost acclamation:”Thou art our God who doest wonders.” The book is from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

  40. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    I read somewhere that the value of great literature was not in the reading, but the re-reading; that during our lives, we should find the 250 books that we can spend our lives reading over and over, as great literature seems new to us with every reading, and with every reading we go deeper into the book. Some of my picks are Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Brothers Karamazov, Heart of Darkness, The Great Santini, and Pride and Prejudice.

  41. David Singhiser Avatar

    There is a story in Mountain of Silence where a young man wants to become a monk at Mount Athos, The Abbot tells him to read David Copperfield. The young man is scandalized, but the abbot says he needs to learn how to develop Christian feelings and view life as David did, with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness.

    I also recommend the novels by Michael O’Brien.

  42. Dino Avatar

    That’s an interesting observation. I’ve made it a kind of tenet for myself that “a book that’s not worth reading more than one is not worth reading even once”, I pinched the wording from Eldress Gabriela Papagianis…

  43. Santosh Samuel Avatar
    Santosh Samuel

    Thanks again Fr. Your writing has that ‘food for the soul’ quality.
    Dino, i second your tenet. You could say the same for movies too.
    Oh the amount of junk i’ve read and seen! And the amount of work that i need to do to clean it up! Prayer is the answer.

  44. NSP Avatar

    Regarding the recent comments above about re-reading, I’m reminded of this passage from Nabokov which I came across only last month:

    Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

  45. Raphael Shelton Avatar
    Raphael Shelton

    In my opinion, there is no character in Literature that demonstrates Christian kenotic love more that Dan Peggoty from David Copperfield.
    Lord, let me be more like Mister Peggotty!

    FYI, there is a good version of David Copperfield on Librivox.

  46. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    I like the thought that we “live with” great books as to just merely reading and rereading them.

  47. Kristal Avatar

    Father, would you share which commentary or translator you felt did a better job with illuminating Dostoevsky’s works? Thank you!

  48. Matthew Avatar

    Some of the more esoteric literature in my collection:
    Sir Gawain and the Green knight (I made the effort once to try to learn Old English, its more difficult than one might think)
    Queste del Saint Graal (attributed to Walter Map in the last pages)
    Lais of Marie De France
    Ovid’s Metamorphosis
    Heroditus’ Histories
    The Kalevala
    The Mabinogi
    Aurelius’s Meditations

    None of these are very easy to read. However so, they have all found their way into my collection, and I do find myself coming back again and again to them.

    If one studies the Romantic Period, I find myself drawn to much of the same material. Even post-Romanticism – the arts-and-crafts movement, Academic Art and The Pre-Raphaelites, the folk song compilations from composers like Vaughn Williams, and Edvard Grieg – all clearly follow the heyday of the Romantic period.

    I had to go to College to hear of Plato’s Cave. To be fair though, my High School English Lit classes weren’t focused on Plato. They had Dickens, Hawthorne, and Poe. Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald, and more that I’ve forgotten…

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    NSP, the alternative you mention for viewing Shakespeare is quite good. It is getting tougher to find good staging live. Acting Shakespeare takes a lot of energy to get into the language and bring up so that it can be heard.

    Father, not sure what you mean exactly but I first encountered Kirosawa in college some 49 years ago in the film Ikiru. Emotionally devasting. Unforgettable. I had two incredible experiences with my late wife watching Kagemushu and then Dodes’ka-den.

    The last time I tried to watch Dersu Usala with my son, I failed. I could not stay with it.
    So my Kirosawa experience spans over thirty years.

    I have always had trouble re-reading anything. Even years later I will pick up the book and start to read and the whole book will start to unfold in my mind. But I do return to the experience again and again within my new circumstance.

    Joseph Conrad has been the exception. Heart of Darkness is fantastic.
    George McDonald too.

  50. Donna Farley Avatar

    To the recommendation of reading good literature I would like to add: read good children’s books. Even if, or maybe especially if, you are already grown up. Re-read the ones you loved as a child, and read the classic children’s books if you missed them as a child. For unless we become as little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven……

  51. SW Avatar

    Michael, I’m listening to an audio version of Heart of Darkness after having read it years ago. I never forgot the beauty of Conrad’s use of words and how it called my mind to slow down and experience the setting he was describing and somehow to think more deeply about life, to take the time to reflect on those moments that stir the soul, or at the very least to treasure them.
    “Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of the day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, ‘followed the sea’ with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames.” – Heart of Darkness

  52. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    – Stick with Pevear/ Volokhonsky for all Dostoevsky work.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    SW. And English was his second language.

  54. Kristin Avatar

    Oh my this is such a wonderful post and series of comments!

    I didn’t become a ‘reader’ until I read Brothers Karamazov the summer after I graduated college. Finding time to immerse myself in a book comes with difficulty. Perhaps the greatest gift to me comes in the form of home schooling my children. Not only do I get to choose what we read, I myself receive quite an education. By presenting the best to my children, I welcome them to feast on ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty, but it is up to them to reach out and truly grasp them.

    Coincidentally, it’s through a classical Christian education group that I was first exposed to Orthodoxy….

  55. SW Avatar

    Michael, that is truly amazing. Have you read any of his other works and are there any that you recommend? Thanks.

  56. Greg Avatar

    When I was first interested in Orthodoxy I read Losskys book on mystical theology, some Dionysius, Maximus Confessor, etc. In retrospect I wish someone had told me a) don’t read any theology at all and try to avoid trashy things as best you can b) go help the poor regularly and preferrably with others and c) cultivate some spiritual disciplines like Fr Alexander Men described for his newly Orthodox spiritual children with simplicity and consistency. If I was pressed that is what I would recommend now.

  57. napoleonsays Avatar

    Fr Stephen – are you familiar with the work of clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson? In a more recent interview, he spoke about reading great books. The first 3 authors he mentioned were : Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn & Tolstoy. He is intentionally vague about what religion he practices, however, I found it remarkable, and also not remarkable that the first three authors he mentioned were Orthodox or in Tolstoy’s case, at least heavily influenced by it.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m familiar with Peterson – at least as a public figure. A mutual acquaintance has spoken to me about him. I gathered that he’s a bit of a Jungian – which can leave one with a rather ambiguous religious situation.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    SW, I have an old collected works of Conrad. This discussion has made me want to drag it out again. I have not read anything in a long time. Heart of Darkness is rather amazing.

  60. napoleonsays Avatar

    what about being a Jungian leaves one in that position? I don’t know enough about Jung.
    He speaks about Solzhenitsyn repeatedly in his talks. So, I’ve purchased Archipelago Gulag and have gone back and re-started Brothers Karamazov. The convergence of multiple sources recommending these great books seems nothing less than providential!

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jung was a Gnostic of sorts – certain of the power and religious nature of archetypes, symbols, etc. However, he really wasn’t sure at all that there was anything more to them than our own “collective consciousness,” i.e. they were psychological in nature rather than truly existing matters of the Divine. I used the word “ambiguous” because Jungian thought does not require a belief in God – and many Jungians, even when they believe in God, have a fairly murky God – who functions more like an abstraction. A Christian can certainly think about, understand, and even use Jungian insights, I think. But he would do well to be careful.

    I once attended a Jungian retreat (long ago in my Anglican past). It turned out to be just about the weirdest conclave of New-Agers, Witches (self-described), and odd kooks that I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a number of days with. As I recall, my companion and I chose to spend our days on a golf course instead. I’m just a bit careful, I suppose.

    Again, I have very little knowledge about Peterson. Frankly, if he’s paying attention to Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, he’s on a good path. The Gulag is a long, hard read. I recommend A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch – much easier and poignant. Also, search out Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address and read it.

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have read only one volume of the Gulag. That was enough. The Cancer Ward was good.

    The one thing I really retained from the Gulag is his statement that when they come for you and arrest you, you have to understand that everyone you love is already dead as they will use your desire to protect to break you.

    It speaks to the larger topic of our lack of control and our unwillingness to let that go.

  63. tess Avatar

    “It speaks to the larger topic of our lack of control and our unwillingness to let that go.”

    Oh, isn’t that fundamental? Lately I’ve been wishing someone could pound the Serenity Prayer through my head down into my heart. 🙂 It’s discouraging how hard it is to make that connection.

  64. napoleonsays Avatar

    Fr Stephen – I’ve picked up some of those themes listening to Peterson’s lectures on Genesis. It does seem he has a great respect for Orthodoxy though.

    I sent them to my sister (non-Orthodox) since she studied biology as an undergrad and found evolutionary theory fascinating. She was un-nerved by the first hour of the lecture she listened to. While there are many things to object in them, there is some really helpful stuff, especially when he discusses divorce and child-rearing. He is vehemently anti-divorce and his description of the struggle of marriage has certainly hit home.

    As for the Gulag – what is hard about it? The stories themselves? or the writing?

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s hard because it’s long and full of thick history. Some people love that.

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