Source: St. Lawrence Orthodox Church
The reading of edifying Orthodox works, or listening to others read such works, is of great value throughout one’s journey on the spiritual path. It was the hearing of the Gospels and Epistles that started St. Anthony, St. Mary of Egypt, the pilgrim (author of The Way of the Pilgrim), and many others on their great spiritual journeys. Along with daily reading of the Scriptures, we should be reading books that motivate us spiritually in a way that is practical and applicable to our lives. The reading of spiritual works that are beyond our understanding or, worse, are inapplicable to our lives only leads to frustration and possibly even spiritual delusion.
A monk of Mt. Athos once said: “The Philokalia is an excellent work, but it is for those advanced in the spiritual life. To use an analogy, it is university education. First, one has to go to grammar school, next to high school, and only then is he ready to go to a university. One should start with simple lives of saints, in order to learn what kind of persons they were, how they lived, and what they did. Then one can proceed to the higher steps.”
St. Theophan the Recluse often emphasized this idea as well: “One must differentiate reading which is merely informative from that which guides one in spiritual matters. Generally speaking, one may read everything. But for guidance in spiritual matters, one must choose that reading which is appropriate to one’s way of life. The best spiritual directors for Christians dwelling in the world are those whom we call the Ecumenical Fathers and teachers of the Church: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, and among the Russians, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. One may extract rules to guide one’s spiritual development from other Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church as well. This must, however, be done with care. In particular, one must heed everything that is written about spiritual matters. Yet we need not always heed their instruction on personal matters in so far as they are peculiar to a certain place or time.”
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov exhorts us in a similar fashion, saying, “Read the books of the Holy Fathers that are relevant to your own way of life, so that you will be able not only to admire and enjoy reading the writings of the Fathers, but to put them into practice as well. A Christian living in the world should read the works of the great prelates who wrote for laypeople, teaching Christian virtues appropriate to those who spend their lives amid material concerns. Monks in monasteries should read other works, and still other works should be read by recluses and those keeping a vow of silence! Studying the virtues without taking into account one’s own way of life can lead to daydreaming and delusion.”
And St. Basil the Great: “The Holy Scriptures lead us into eternal life, but as long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their depth, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon poets, historians, orators, indeed on all works that may further our soul’s salvation; for we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.”
Set aside time this summer to read privately and out loud to your children, if you have them (or to your spouse!), especially those who are not naturally inclined to read. Good reading will illumine your mind and relieve it from vain worries, lift your heart, and inspire your love for God and neighbor.