“Walking the Talk” — Spiritual Reading, Part II
— Fr. Bohdan Hladio
December 2008 A.D.
Anyone who truly wishes to deepen their knowledge of and love for God will follow a daily rule of spiritual reading.
Besides the Holy Scriptures the Church offers us a vast amount of beneficial and uplifting literature. The writings of the holy fathers, devotional texts, the lives of the saints, and works of theology can complement and help us better understand the Biblical texts in particular and the Christian life in general.
The most challenging texts to read are undoubtedly works of deep theology. Priests and other spiritual leaders should be reading and referring to such texts regularly, but for most of the faithful reading such “technical literature” is usually unnecessary.
There is, however, theological literature – the sayings of the desert fathers, for instance – which is very profound, yet very down to earth and practical. There are also very good patristic works such as the sermons of St. John Chrysostom or the biblical commentaries of St. Theophylact of Ochrid which can be read with benefit by the average layman.
The average Orthodox Christian will undoubtedly derive the greatest benefit from popular educational or devotional works, as well as the lives of the saints.
Regarding devotional or didactic writings we should limit ourselves to reputable works by well-respected Orthodox authors such as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Fr. Anthony Coniaris, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, etc. There is so much good Orthodox literature available today that there is no need to resort to non-Orthodox material (One exception I would make to this rule regards the Christian writings of C.S. Lewis, especially books such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain – as long as they are read in addition to and not instead of good Orthodox writings). Besides books, magazines such as Again and The Handmaiden are excellent and interesting sources of information and edification.
Studying the lives of the saints is also essential. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes:
“Why is it so important to read the Lives of the Saints? – In the infinite spectrum of the paths leading to God, which are revealed in the lives of the various saints, we can discover our own; we can obtain guidance to help us emerge from the jungle in which we have become entangled through our human sinfulness, and so gain access to the path which leads towards the light.”
Many collections of the Lives of the Saints exist; the compilation of St. Dmitri of Rostov, the Greek Synaxarion, and others have been translated into many languages. Probably the best for daily reading is the Prologue from Ochrid, compiled by St. Nikolai Velmirovic, which contains short biographies of the main saints of the day, a meditation for consideration, and a short homily. This book has also been translated into many languages, and is available on the internet as well.
To quote Father Alexander again:
“I am convinced that in our condition of life the daily reading of the Holy Fathers and of the Lives of the Saints is the essential and most effective means of sustaining our faith and love. This reading helps us to form a concrete picture of the realm to which we aspire, it provides our faith with images, ideas, feelings, shows us the way, gives us hope by describing the various steps and stages of the interior life, warms the heart and draws us towards the blessed life of the saints. How can we love that which we do not see, of which we receive no constant impression? The early Christians were filled with such great faith and love because they had heard, and seen with their eyes, and their hands had handled (I John 1). This possibility of receiving direct impressions from the Divine Light is granted to us either through communion with living saints or through that very same communion, obtained from reading and penetrating into their inner life. It might seem that we can attain this same aim by reading the Gospels. Indeed we can – provided we are capable of reading them with profit. But there are many people to whom the Gospels mean nothing – either because they were ‘bored’ by the Gospels in childhood or because the light of the Gospels is too bright for weak eyes, and not everyone is able to apprehend it. In this case, one needs the gentler atmosphere of the Lives of the Saints, which are penetrated with the same evangelical light, but in a more accessible form.”
As was mentioned regarding Holy Scripture, we will only benefit from our spiritual reading if we are committed to fulfilling the precepts and commandments contained therein. As St. Athansius of Alexandria, in De Incarnatione Verbi, states:
“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life”.
A soul, like a body, won’t grow to its full potential unless it consumes good, nourishing food. Holy Scripture, the lives of the saints, the writings of holy men and women – these are food for the soul, the food which “causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:16).