Father Christopher Foley
The Holy Fathers set forth their thoughts, their heart, the image of their activity in their writings. This means: what a true guidance to heaven, which is borne witness to by heaven itself, are the writings of the Fathers.
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov
Tire yourself in reading spiritual books, as they save you from impurity.
Saint Anthony the Great
Starting this fall we will begin a new adult class based on the writings of the Holy Fathers. We will be taking some time to establish a habit of spiritual reading as part of our daily spiritual exercise. We will take some time also to reflect together on what we are reading and discuss how the Fathers’ guidance is helpful for us. Before we begin, it is important for us to take some time to reflect on why this is important in the first place.
Why Should We Read The Holy Fathers?
Spiritual reading should be a normal part of one’s devotional and contemplative life. But why should we read the Holy Fathers? Don’t we have enough in the Scriptures and is it not enough to come to church and participate in the services? Of course, Holy Scripture is paramount and is, par excellence, the main source of Holy Tradition and it is within the Divine Services that we come to understand these Scriptures. However, it is important for us first to remember that the writings of the Holy Fathers of the church are also part of the Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition is nothing less than the full proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many monuments to this Gospel: Holy Scripture, Patristic texts, conciliar decrees, Liturgical rites, church art, hymnography, architecture, etc. to the extent that they accurately manifest Christ to us. Thus, the writings of the Holy Fathers, present to us one of many ways to continue participating in the fulness of the Gospel. There is a continuity of this proclamation of the Gospel within the Holy Tradition of the Church.
The Troparion to the Holy Fathers says that they are “lights upon the earth.” They refract and distill the light of the Gospel in unique ways. Saint Gregory Palamas, offering the example of the mother who chews hard food and then gives to her baby to eat, says that the holy fathers prepare the word of the Gospel for us so that the spiritual discernment and understanding in the hearts of the God-bearing fathers come to offer nourishment to those who listen and obey. This “softening” of the meat of the Gospel is not a watering down of Truth but an aide in digesting the tough sayings of Christ so that we could more readily hear them and apply them. This is what compels us to peruse these writings daily.
The Holy Fathers provide a solid foundation upon which to build. Their teaching is bedrock, a cornerstone, a firm wall and bullwark against the enemy. Elder Ameilianos states that,
The Word of God conceals within itself the power of God, the power of Christ. And when you immerse your mind and heart in spiritual books, you will always be filled when you come forth from your reading. What then do spiritual books give us? They give us, first of all, a foundation in God. The power of the word of God conquers our sins and defeats the devil, as St. John Chrysostom says (Third Homily on Lazarus).
We find strength and power in their works as they are writing out of their own lived experience and the struggles that they too have faced trying to fully live out the Gospel.
Reading the Holy Fathers helps us to acquire the mind of the Church. We realize that we are still in process and are still learning to die to our old self - our ideas, our conceptions, our opinions and that there really is nothing that is “ours.” We want to strive to acquire the mind of Christ and be able to see things more clearly, which includes ourselves. We read the Fathers in order to continue to awaken as from sleep and illumine our darkened mind and reasoning.
How Should One Approach Reading The Holy Fathers?
One should approach the Fathers with openness and a willingness to apply their simple truths to our lives. We read as a spiritual discipline, not to acquire knowledge or argue with the author, but in order to engage and hear and do. It is not like reading theology or a novel, it is devotional reading meant for contemplation.
Saint Maximus the Confessor, in his introduction to his four hundred chapters on love tells the recipient of his writing,
If anything in these chapters should prove useful to the soul, it will be revealed to the reader by the grace of God, provided that he reads, not out of curiosity, but in the fear and love of God. If a man reads this or any other work not to gain spiritual benefit but to track down matter with which to abuse the author, so that in his conceit he can show himself to be the more learned, nothing profitable will ever be revealed to him in anything.
This means that we approach this spiritual literature with an open and uncritical spirit. The point is to listen, contemplate and engage the text in order to put it into practice, not in order to study it as a scientist in a laboratory. One reads with their heart rather than with their mind. “Occupy yourself with reading with a calm spirit,” says Abba Evagrius, “so that your mind may be constantly raised up to contemplation of the wondrous acts of God, lifted, as it were, by some hand outstretched to it.”
The best way to train oneself to read devotionally is to read in shorter segments, daily (preferably at the same time every day) after one’s morning prayers or evening prayers. The goal is not to “finish the book” in order to check it off the list, but to slowly read and chew on it, slowly digesting the spiritual treasure that is there. It may be helpful to highlight and take notes or journal about what one finds helpful and challenging. When one finds a passage that is difficult instead of trying to figure it out, just close the book, make the sign of the Cross and pray a simple prayer for discernment. Then come back the next day and simply continue reading. Many of the writings on the spiritual life are very practical and profound in their simplicity and have a way of getting straight to the heart of things. We read in order to be led by these “lights on the earth.” We humble ourselves and sit at the feet of these spiritual giants receiving their words as guidance on the journey of salvation in Christ. The Desert Fathers say that the one who chooses himself as a spiritual guide chooses a fool and a blind man. We need this direction and it is amazing to see how fresh and current the writings from the Holy Fathers are.
Beginning this fall we will begin trying to make this a vital part of our daily discipline. We will read texts through the week and then when we gather on Wednesday nights we can discuss what we have read. I will make the readings available at church and, if I can find them electronically, I will send the links out. This way, even if you can’t make it to the discussion class, you can still benefit from the readings. I think you will find them a treasury of spiritual guidance and a true gift and encouragement. We will have our first class on Wednesday, September 19 at 7pm preceded by Compline at 6:30pm.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Glory, O Lord, to the power of Thy Cross, which never fails! When the enemy oppresses me with a sinful thought or feeling, and I, lacking freedom in my heart, make the sign of the Cross several times with faith, suddenly my sin falls away from me, the compulsion vanishes, and I find myself free… For the faithful the Cross is a mighty power which delivers from all evils, from the malice of the invisible foe.
St. John of Kronstadt
Did you see how baptism is a cross? Learn that even Christ called baptism the cross when He used the name of baptism interchangeably [with that of the cross]. He called your baptism a cross. ‘I call my baptism a cross,’ he says. Where does He say this? ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with, of which you do not know.’ And how is it clear that He is speaking of the cross? The sons of Zebedee came up to Him - rather, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, saying ‘Command that these my two sons may sit, one at thy right and and one at thy left hand, in thy kingdom.’ A mother’s request, even if it was an inconsiderate one! How then did Christ answer? ‘Can you drink of the cup of which I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ You see that He called the cross a baptism.
St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions