The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality

Different Patristic books on the spiritual life are suitable for Orthodox Christians in different conditions of life: that which is suitable especially for solitaries is not directly applicable to monks living the common life; that which applies to monks in general will not be directly relevant for laymen; and in every condition, the spiritual food which is suitable for those with some experience may be entirely indigestible for beginners.

Source: Saint Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church



THE PRESENT PATROLOGY will present the Fathers of Orthodox spirituality; therefore, its scope and aims are rather different from the ordinary seminary course in Patrology. Our aim in these pages will be twofold: (1) To present the Orthodox theological foundation of spiritual life —the nature and goal of spiritual struggle, the Patristic view of human nature, the character of the activity of Divine grace and human effort, etc.; and (2) to give, the practical teaching on living this Orthodox spiritual life, with a characterization of the spiritual states, both good and bad, which one may encounter or pass through in the spiritual struggle. Thus, strictly dogmatic questions concerning the nature of God, the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, and the like, will be touched on only as these are involved in questions of spiritual life; and many Holy Fathers whose writings deal principally with these dogmatic questions and which touch on questions of spiritual life only secondarily, as it were, will not be discussed at all. In a word, this will be primarily a study of the Fathers of the Philokalia, that collection of Orthodox spiritual writings which was made at the dawn of the contemporary age, just before the outbreak of the fierce Revolution in France whose final effects we are witnessing in our own days of atheist rule and anarchy.

In the present century there has been a noticeable increase of interest in the Philokalia and its Holy Fathers. In particular, the more recent Fathers such as St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory the Sinaite, and St. Gregory Palamas, have begun to be studied and a few of their writings translated and printed in English and other Western languages. One might even say that in some seminary and academic circles they have “come into fashion,” in sharp contrast to the 19th century, when they were not “in fashion” at all even in most Orthodox theological academies (as opposed to the best monasteries, which always preserved their memories as holy and lived by their writings).

But this very fact presents a great danger which must here be emphasized. The “coming into fashion” of the profoundest spiritual writings is by no means necessarily a good thing. In fact, it is far better that the names of these Fathers remain altogether unknown than that they be merely the occupation of rationalist scholars and “crazy converts” who derive no spiritual benefit from them but only increase their senseless pride at “knowing better” about them than anyone else, or—even worse—begin to follow the spiritual instructions in their writings without sufficient preparation and without any spiritual guidance. All of this, to be sure, does not mean that the lover of truth should abandon the reading of the Holy Fathers; God forbid! But it does mean that all of us—scholar, monk, or simple layman—must approach these Fathers with the fear of God, with humility, and with a great distrust of our own wisdom and judgment. We approach them in order to learn, and first of all we must admit that for this we require a teacher. And teachers do exist: in our times when the God-bearing Elders have vanished, our teachers must be those Fathers who, especially in the times close to us, have told us specifically how to read—and how not to read—the Orthodox writings on the spiritual life. If the Blessed Elder Paisius Velichkovsky himself, the compiler of the first Slavonic Philokalia, was “seized with fear” on learning that such books were to be printed and no longer circulated in manuscript form among some few monasteries, then how much the more must we approach them with fear and understand the cause of his fear, lest there come upon us the spiritual catastrophe which he foresaw.

Blessed Paisius, in his letter to Archimandrite Theodosius of the St. Sophronius Hermitage,[1] wrote: “Concerning the publication in print of the Patristic books, both in the Greek and Slavonic languages, I am seized both with joy and fear. With joy, because they will not be given over to final oblivion, and zealots may the more easily acquire them; with fear, being frightened and trembling lest they be offered, as a thing which can be sold even like other books, not only to monks, but also to all Orthodox Christians, and lest these latter, having studied the work of mental prayer in a self-willed way, without instruction from those who are experienced in it, might fall into deception, and lest because of the deception the vain-minded might blaspheme against this holy and irreproachable work, which has been testified to by very many great Holy Fathers… and lest because of the blasphemies there follow doubt concerning the teaching of our God-bearing Fathers.” The practice of the mental Prayer of Jesus, Blessed Paisius continues, is possible only under the conditions of monastic obedience.

Few are they, to be sure, in our latter times of feeble ascetic struggle, who strive for the heights of mental prayer (or even know what this might be); but the warnings of Blessed Paisius and other Holy Fathers hold true also for the lesser struggles of many Orthodox Christians today. Anyone who reads the Philokalia and other writings of the Holy Fathers, and even many Lives of Saints, will encounter passages about mental prayer, about Divine vision, about deification, and about other exalted spiritual states, and it is essential for the Orthodox Christian to know what he should think and feel about these.

Let us, therefore, see what the Holy Fathers say of this, and of our approach to the Holy Fathers in general.

The Blessed Elder Macarius of Optina (+ 1860) found it necessary to write a special “Warning to those reading spiritual Patristic books and desiring to practice the mental Prayer of Jesus.”[2] Here this great Father almost of our own century tells us clearly what our attitude should be to these spiritual states: “The holy and God-bearing Fathers wrote about great spiritual gifts not so that anyone might strive indiscriminately to receive them, but so that those who do not have them, hearing about such exalted gifts and revelations which were received by those who were worthy, might acknowledge their own profound infirmity and great insufficiency, and might involuntarily be inclined to humility, which is more necessary for those seeking salvation than all other works and virtues.” Again, St. John of the Ladder (6th century) writes: “Just as a pauper, seeing the royal treasures, all the more acknowledges his own poverty; so also the spirit, reading the accounts of the great deeds of the Holy Fathers, involuntarily is all the more humbled in its way of thought” (Step 26:25). Thus, our first approach to the writings of the Holy Fathers must be one of humility.

Again, St. John of the Ladder writes: “To admire the labors of the Saints is praiseworthy; to emulate them is soul-saving; but to desire suddenly to become their imitators is senseless and impossible” (Step 4:42). St. Isaac the Syrian (6th century) teaches in his second Homily (as summarized by Elder Macarius of Optina, op. cit., p. 364): “Those who seek in prayer sweet  spiritual sensations with expectation, and especially those who strive prematurely for vision and spiritual contemplation, fall into the deception of the enemy and into the realm of darkness and the obscurity of the mind, being abandoned by the help of God and given over to demons for mockery because of their prideful seeking above their measure and worth.” Thus, we must come to the Holy Fathers with the humble intention of beginning the spiritual life at the lowest step, and not even dreaming of ourselves attaining those exalted spiritual states, which are totally beyond us. St. Nilus of Sora (+ 1508), a great Russian Father of more recent times, writes in his Monastic Rule (ch. 2), “What shall we say of those who, in their mortal body, have tasted immortal food, who have been found worthy to receive in this transitory life a portion of the joys that await us in our heavenly homeland?… We who are burdened with many sins and preyed upon by passions are unworthy even of hearing such words. Nevertheless, placing our hope in the grace of God, we are encouraged to keep the words of the holy writings in our minds, so that we may at least grow in awareness of the degradation in which we wallow.”

To aid our humble intention in reading the Holy Fathers, we must begin with the elementary Patristic books, those which teach the “ABCs.” A 6th-century novice of Gaza once wrote to the great clairvoyant Elder, St. Barsanuphius, much in the spirit of the inexperienced Orthodox student of today: “I have dogmatic books and when reading them I feel that my mind is transferred from passionate thoughts to the contemplation of dogmas.” To this the holy Elder replied: “I would not want you to be occupied with these books, because they exalt the mind on high; but it is better to study the words of the Elders which humble the mind downward. I have said this not in order to belittle the dogmatic books, but I only give you counsel; for foods are different.” (Questions and Answers, no. 544). An important purpose of this Patrology will be precisely to indicate which Patristic books are more suitable for beginners, and which should be left until later.

Again, different Patristic books on the spiritual life are suitable for Orthodox Christians in different conditions of life: that which is suitable especially for solitaries is not directly applicable to monks living the common life; that which applies to monks in general will not be directly relevant for laymen; and in every condition, the spiritual food which is suitable for those with some experience may be entirely indigestible for beginners. Once one has achieved a certain balance in spiritual life by means of active practice of God’s commandments within the discipline of the Orthodox Church, by fruitful reading of the more elementary writings of the Holy Fathers, and by spiritual guidance from living fathers—then one can receive much spiritual benefit from all the writings of the Holy Fathers, applying them to one’s own condition of life. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov has written concerning this: “It has been noticed that novices can never adapt books to their condition, but are invariably drawn by the tendency of the book. If a book gives counsels on silence and shows the abundance of spiritual fruits that are gathered in profound silence, the beginner invariably has the strongest desire to go off into solitude, to an uninhabited desert. If a book speaks of unconditional obedience under the direction of a Spirit-bearing Father, the beginner will inevitably develop a, desire for the strictest life in complete submission to an Elder. God has not given to our time either of these two ways of life. But the books of the Holy Fathers describing these states can influence a beginner so strongly that out of inexperience and ignorance he can easily decide to leave the place where he is living and where he has every convenience to work out his salvation and make spiritual progress by putting into practice the evangelical commandments, for an impossible dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination.” Therefore, he concludes: “Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life” (The Arena, ch. 10). What Bishop Ignatius says here about monks refers also to laymen, with allowance made for the different conditions of lay life. Particular comments will be made at the end of this Introduction concerning spiritual reading for laymen.

St. Barsanuphius indicates in another Answer (no. 62) something else very important for us who approach the Holy Fathers much too academically: “One who is taking care for his salvation should not at all ask [the Elders, i.e., read Patristic books] for the acquiring only of knowledge, for knowledge puffeth up (I Cor. 8:1), as the Apostle says; but it is most fitting to ask about the passions and about how one should live one’s life, that is, how to be saved; for this is necessary, and leads to salvation.” Thus, one is not to read the Holy Fathers out of mere curiosity or as an academic exercise, without the active intention to practice what they teach, according to one’s spiritual level. Modern academic “theologians” have dearly enough demonstrated that it is possible to have much abstract information about the Holy Fathers without any spiritual knowledge at all. Of such ones St. Macarius the Great says (Homily 17:9): “Just as one clothed in beggarly garments might see himself in sleep as a rich man, but on waking from sleep again sees himself poor and naked, so also those who deliberate about the spiritual life seem to speak logically, but inasmuch as that of which they speak is not verified in the mind by any kind of experience, power, and confirmation, they remain in a kind of fantasy.”

One test of whether our reading of the Holy Fathers is academic or real is indicated by St. Barsanuphius in his answer to a novice who found that he became haughty and proud when speaking of the Holy Fathers (Answer no. 697): “When you converse about the life of the Holy Fathers and about their Answers, you should condemn yourself, saying: Woe is me! How can I speak of the virtues of the Fathers, while I myself have acquired nothing like that and have not advanced at all? And I live, instructing others for their benefit; how can there not be fulfilled in me the word of the Apostle: Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? (Rom. 2:21.) Thus, one’s constant attitude toward the teaching of the Holy Fathers must be one of self-reproach.

Finally, we must remember that the whole purpose of reading the Holy Fathers is, not to give us some kind of “spiritual enjoyment” or confirm us in our own righteousness or superior knowledge or “contemplative” state, but solely to aid us in the practice of the active path of virtue. Many of the Holy Fathers discuss the distinction between the “active” and the “contemplative” (or, more properly, “noetic”) life, and it should be emphasized here that this does not refer, as some might think, to any artificial distinction between those leading the “ordinary” life of “outward Orthodoxy” or mere “good deeds,” and an “inward” life cultivated only by monastics or some intellectual elite; not at all. There is only one Orthodox spiritual life, and it is lived by every Orthodox struggler, whether monastic or layman, whether beginner or advanced; “action” or “practice” (praxis in Greek) is the way, and “Vision” (theoria) or “deification” is the end. Almost all the Patristic writings refer to the life of action, not the life of vision; when the latter is mentioned, it is to remind us of the goal of our labors and struggles, which in this life is tasted deeply only by a few of the great Saints, but in its fullness is known only in the age to come. Even the most exalted writings of the Philokalia, as Bishop Theophanes the Recluse wrote in the preface of the final volume of the Russian-language Philokalia, “have had in view not the noetic, but almost exclusively the active life.”

Even with this introduction, to be sure, the Orthodox Christian living in our century of puffed-up knowledge will not escape some of the pitfalls lying in wait for one who wishes to read the Holy Fathers in their full Orthodox meaning and context. Therefore, let us stop here, before beginning the Patrology itself, and examine briefly some of the mistakes which have been made by contemporary readers of the Holy Fathers, with the intention of thereby forming a yet dearer notion of how not to read the Holy Fathers.


From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 11, No.1 (Jan.-Feb.., 1975), 35-41. 


[1] From the Optina Edition of the Life and Writings of Elder Paisius, pp, 265-267.

[2] In his collected Letters to Monks, Moscow, 1862, pp. 358-380 (in Russian).

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