What should we be reading during the remaining days of the Nativity Fast? We asked a number of clergy throughout Russia for their recommendations. (Whenever possible, titles have been given as they appear in English-language editions.)
Bishop Roman of Yakutsk and the Lena
The Holy Gospels. I repeat: the fast is a time of intensive spiritual labor. One’s mind and inner world need to be brought into line with the life-experience of the Gospels. For this one needs to read.
Read more often. Perhaps even take the Gospel with you as you walk; put it under your pillow; be close to this Book.
Read in the subway. Read everywhere. Read in your free time and in your not-free time. Read and reflect.
Bishop Jonah of Obukhiv
Deputy Abbot of the Holy Trinity Monastery of St. Jonah in Kiev
It is difficult to recommend a particular book. Different kinds of literature are appropriate for people at different levels of churching.
But if you are going to read something, then by no means read any pseudo-Orthodox fiction: novels, novellas, and short stories with Orthodox trappings that have become very popular today among Orthodox readers because of their ease and crudeness of presentation. Unfortunately, such fiction displaces serious ascetic literature.
I think it is best to turn to one’s spiritual father with a request that he recommend a book for the fasting period. A spiritual father knows the spiritual condition of the spiritual children appealing to him and can give sound advice.
Archpriest Alexander Iliashenko
Rector of the Church of the All-Merciful Savior in the former Monastery of the Joy of All Who Sorrow (Moscow)
Director of the Pravmir website
Today many books are being published and it is easy to find worthy reading. It is instructive to read the lives of the saints during the fast: both of ancient saints and of modern New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, as well as those who suffered in other countries. There are some especially interesting books, for example, about the lives of Greek saints.
We need to familiarize ourselves and our children with the history of the Orthodox Churches.
In addition to spiritual literature, one can also read the classics. Recently I came across a small volume by Leo Tolstoy, in which I read two remarkable stories. One was called “The Poor People.” The action unfolds, if I recall correctly, in France. A woman is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, a fisherman. And then she remembers that an ailing neighbor, the mother of two little kids, had not yet made an appearance outside.
The woman leaves her sleeping children, goes to her neighbor, and sees that she has died. Next to her are lying her small children, whom she had managed to wrap up warmly before she died. The woman, knowing that the children would perish without a mother, takes them home. Then she thinks: “Now my husband will come home and scold me. We ourselves are barely making ends meet.” But she brings the children home, puts them in bed with her own, and draws the curtain.
Her husband finally returns, tired and wet. The woman tells him that their neighbor has died. The husband replies that they need to take in the kids, that they should not leave them alone. He urges his wife, surprised that she isn’t hurrying to do so…
We should look for similar works and share them with one another.
Archpriest Alexei Uminsky
Rector of the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Khokhly (Moscow)
By and large, I always recommend only the Gospels. This book remains truly unread. We read and read, but all the same we cannot read it all the way through to the end. Therefore reading the Gospels during the fast is a good thing to do.
Then anyone can choose good spiritual literature for himself that he might find useful. It is difficult to recommend anything here: there are so many possibilities for reading now, so many books are being published, and so many can be found on the Internet…
During the fast I myself always read something different. Personally, I like to reread The Philokalia, especially the first two volumes – particularly the teachings of St. Anthony the Great.
During the fasts I often recommend that my parishioners read the work of Abba Dorotheos. In my view, it is both accessible and quiet profound, and not outdated. It is very relevant, given that it talks about the things we are always coming up against: conscience, the fear of God, judgment, self-reproach, and how to fight against and overcome the passions. These are the most fundamental concepts of our spiritual life.
Archpriest Maxim Pervozvanky
Church of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia at Novospassky Bridge (Moscow)
I will not undertake to give such advice. If you go into any fairly sizeable Orthodox bookstore you will find several thousand titles. It goes without saying that they are not all highly spiritual. But there are also many powerful things. Still, in this case it remains highly individual.
For me, personally, what helps me tune into the fast is not even reading the Holy Fathers so much as reading letters: Christ Is in Our Midst: Letters from a Russian Monk [by Elder John of Valaam] and the letters of St. Ambrose of Optina… Or lengthy lives of saints, such as the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov.
Archpriest Alexei Potokin
Assistant Rector of the Church of the “Live-Giving Spring” Icon of the Theotokos in Tsaritsyn (Moscow)
I cannot give any general advice about what to read during the fast or whether one can or cannot go to the theater or watch television. Christianity is not a religion of prohibition. The Apostle Paul says: All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient [1 Corinthians 11:23]. Accordingly, everyone must find his own measure.
If someone is not attached to watching television, then he himself might happily not watch it during the fast, in order not to become distracted. But for someone whose television is always on, let him try to limit the time he spends watching it, excluding useless shows that offer nothing to either mind or heart. This will already be an effort on the way to meeting the Savior at His Nativity.
As far as literature is concerned, the Gospels can be recommended to all: whoever has read them can reread them in order to refresh his memory; whoever has not read them should all the more become familiar with them. And one does not need to be ashamed to recognize that there might be things one does not understand: one cannot come to understand such a grand book – a book about the Heavenly Kingdom – immediately. For this there are the commentaries of the Holy Fathers, which I also recommend – but only for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of the principles of faith.
Reading can be difficult, but one should not do violence to oneself. If one wants to come to know Christ, even if one does not at first understand everything in the Gospels or in other spiritual literature, then reading will be a joy and will gradually become a necessity. I think that before the Nativity it is also profitable to read books that describe man’s encounter with God.
This encounter cannot be predicted ahead of time and nobody knows when it will take place, but the experience of others is very important for gaining an understanding of life. It is also described in the lives of saints; today many books have also been published about our contemporaries who have come to faith in adulthood, which are also very useful.
But for some, the lives of saints and even the mystical experience of our contemporaries are too strong meat. Milk is better for them: good literature that is in the Christian tradition. For instance, I very much love Chekhov’s story “The Student.” The hero, a seminarian, warms himself by a fire on Passion Friday, telling people about how the Apostle Peter had also warmed himself at such a fire many centuries before on that day. The people take in the whole horror of how Christ was condemned to death while His disciple warmed himself by the fire.
There are also wonderful memoirs about Pascha by Saltykov-Shchedrin: he saw some criminals and began to hope that the Lord would have mercy on them. Indeed, many classics, both Russian and foreign, describe Christian feast days. Among foreign writers, I can recommend François Mauriac and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. When one so desires, a good book can be found – a book that can revive a moribund heart at least a little.
Archpriest Theodore Borodin
Rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian on Maroseyka (Moscow)
I recommend Counsels on the Spiritual Life by Mark the Monk [aka St. Mark the Ascetic].
Archpriest Konstantin Ostrovsky
Rector of the Dormition Church in Krasnogorsk (Moscow Oblast)
Dean of Churches in the Krasnogorsky District, Moscow Diocese
Unceasing prayer of the heart and reading only Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers – this is the ideal to which every Christian should aspire. Not everyone can attain this – I myself am far from it. But in spiritual warfare, as in battle, if one needs to retreat then it should be done in an orderly manner – not running away cowardly or, what is worse, going over to the side of the enemy.
Since I cannot live with only the Bible and The Philokalia, I read simpler things: the lives of saints and the letters of the Optina Elders to laypeople. And if I lack the strength even for this, I read books on Christian history or religious philosophy.
If I am even weaker yet, I read good literature: Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy (his great novels, not his later works). Among foreign classics there are also writers with a Christian spirit, but I simply know Russian writers better. But looking at pornography is like reading enemy propaganda.
People who are starting out on the spiritual path should ask for advice about reading, especially as concerns spiritual literature, from an experienced spiritual father.
Archpriest Viktor Grigorenko
During the fast we should also pay attention to spiritual food. One should read more than usual, but one should do this slowly, unhurriedly. Once again, once we have taken the burden on our shoulders we should not cast it off.
One should regulate one’s reading time. It is good to read the daily Gospel and Epistle readings, as indicated in the church calendar, in the morning, so that one might recall what one has read throughout the course of the day. In the evening, after one’s prayers, one can read spiritual literature.
As for authors whose works are especially valuable to study during the fast, one should advise with the priest to whom one normally goes to confession.
Text prepared by Leonid Vinogradov, Oksana Golovko, Alisa Orlova, and Maria Senchukova.
Translated from the Russian
Several authors advise reading the letters of the Optina Elders. While relatively few volumes of their letters have yet been translated into English, several volumes containing selections from their letters and other spiritual councils do exist: Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina (an anthology of spiritual advice drawn from the works of the Optina Elders); Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 1834-1860 by Staretz Macarius of Optino; and A Collection of Letters to Nuns: Profitable Instructions for Laymen and Monastics by St. Anatoly (Zertsalov) of Optina. See also the seven-volume Optina Elder Series published by St. Herman Press, which also contains many letters.
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