Having just posted “ten books of influence,” (by request) – I’ve been reflecting on the role of books in the Orthodox life. I’ll start with the story of a brief encounter:
During my years as an Anglican priest, I continued to read Orthodox writings, a practice that had begun in college. I worked on “digesting” what I read and making it part of my life. To an extent it certainly had an effect on me: I liked Orthodox things (at least those I actually encountered). At that point in my life I had attended exactly one Orthodox liturgy (all in Greek) and this on a major feast during a weekday morning with about 15 people in attendance. Thus I cannot say that my interest in “things Orthodox” had much to do with the reality of Orthodoxy as it actually exists. In honesty, I would have to say I liked reading about Orthodoxy. I had a few mounted icon prints but did not much know what to do with them.
Somewhere in the mid-80’s, I met a woman who had been an Anglican nun, but had converted to Orthodoxy. Where I met her is a long story and not of real concern. But I was very interested to hear her story and find out about someone who had actually done what, at the time, was little more than a fantasy for me.
She told me her story – which itself was quite a spiritual journey. Then she asked me about myself and my interest in Orthodoxy. I have no remembrance of what I said to her. Doubtless I rambled on a bit about this and that.
When I finished she said to me, “Stephen, you think a lot. Someday, you’ll think with your heart and when you do, you’ll be Orthodox.”
I was struck dumb at the statement, but it stayed with me – for years. Indeed, I pondered it even after I became Orthodox.
In a book by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (Pilgrimage to Dzhivari), the abbot of a monastery says to the main character (a woman who has largely found her way into Orthodoxy by an intellectual path): “You should read no more hours in a day than you pray.” I was struck by the statement when I first read it and thought that there was more than a little truth in it.
If, before becoming Orthodox, I had spent 100 hours in reading about the Orthodox faith (I have no way of guessing what the real amount of time was), it is certainly true that it had far less impact on my life than the first 100 hours of worship as an Orthodox Christian.
Books should never be disparaged (least of all by someone who tends to write as much as I do). However, by their very nature, books will not bring us into the Kingdom of God. Indeed, the intellectual life can often be a poor substitute, even a delusion, when it comes to the truth of our life in Christ.
One hour of prayer, or one hour of Church, is worth far more than one hour of reading in the same way that one hour of walking is of more value than one hour of reading about the benefits of walking. But this very fact is frequently stated in one form or another in the books one reads on Orthodoxy. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of reading books telling us to do something other than reading books. We agree intellectually and then keep on reading.
In truth, I probably read less now than at any time in my life and how I read has changed greatly. I pick books very carefully now, and often take a long time to read them (a few pages a day). Of course, I’ve read a lot over the years that remains somewhere in my brain, undigested. It is useful, certainly, to have a certain amount of information at hand. But information is useless until you know what it means and how to use it.
Thus I read much less than I once did.
Generally, when I am working with people who are inquiring into the Orthodox faith, or working in the Catechumenate, I tend to stress Church attendance, prayer (in modest measure), fasting (very moderated), giving alms, and looking at fairly large matters (the sacraments, repentance, etc.). I do suggest reading, but find that I struggle more and more to find things that I actually think would be useful to read.
The conversion to Orthodoxy, I believe, happens somewhere that books rarely go (except by the grace of God). It is as I was told, “Someday you’ll think with your heart, and then you’ll be Orthodox.” It is a paradox to “think with the heart” but I know more about what it means now than when I first heard it and I continue to learn. Just finding the place of the heart is itself a great spiritual struggle. For me, it required a complete change in my life – leaving my employment and identity and beginning anew as a newly Chrismated Orthodox Christian. And that was only a beginning.
Read books, but look for God in the heart and understand just how difficult a thing it is. Strangely, we make more progress in the Kingdom of God by knowing how much we do not know, than by trying to know more than we do.
Your point is very well taken. I have found that my reading benefits me much more now that I have experienced Orthodoxy for seven years. I finally feel ready to actually learn. And what I read deepens my experience or opens me up to a new experience. That’s why I’m grateful for a list like yours – I don’t have time to read as much as I used to, either, and so I want what I do read to be profitable and to contribute to my growth as a person and a Christian. It’s overwhelming because Christianity (and Orthodoxy in particular) is like a never-ending well – the deeper you go, the more you realize you’ve barely left the surface.
If I could do my “conversion” experience over, I would have read less and gone to church more. Lots more. That’s still my goal. 🙂
“Thus we have the strange phenomenon of reading books telling us to do something other than reading books. We agree intellectually and then keep on reading.”
So true! I’ve also spent a lot of time blogging and speaking with others about silence 🙂 One problem, though, is finding the line between maturity and hypocrisy. After years of reading, the message apparently sank in–you figured out that you should read less and pray more. But by then, you’d already acquired much of what you could from reading books. When you teach inquirers and catechumens to minimize reading, you may be sparing them a longer, more difficult road to what you yourself have found, but you may also appear to be denying them the benefits of first learning whatever books do have to offer.
I wonder if maybe some of the problem is a shortage of willing and capable guides. We can’t always learn Orthodoxy directly by plugging into the life of an Orthodox saint, or elder, or mature believer. So we substitute reading to fill the void. Reading also provides the illusion of speed. It seems like we can acquire more in less time through reading than the comparatively slow pace of personal investment. Whether we actually acquire much useful in the process is another matter.
isn’t it a bit like love?
Dikussion and going out won’t do it. Unless one dares to really kiss that young lady, it will never end up in marriage.
Your analogy is indeed accurate. But you said it, not me. 🙂
In the long run, I could defend some of my reading in terms of my life as a priest and the amount of time I spent in school studying theology. But on the ground, it was almost always something other than reading that made the difference. I would probably have to say that reading Zizioulas’ Being as Communion had more personal impact on me than anything else I ever read. When I finished the book (I was reading it for a doctoral seminar) I think I realized on some level that becoming Orthodox was no longer a theoretical matter, but would in fact be a necessity in my life. Thus, I cannot downplay the importance some books can have. They are a conversation of sorts, and conversations can be very important.
Benedikt, I appreciate your analogy.
Just the other day I was writing a journal entry and was describing how I am feeling about my internal conflict of wanting a “full” life in Christ. I wanted all of it, but at the same time I experience the hesitancy to leave my roots in protestantism for a future in orthodoxy. After writing about that it struck me as the same as desiring that perfect fully experienced relationship with the woman of my dreams but not willing to commit to the marriage. It seems now to me that the one is impossible without the other. (and in reality the full marriage is likely still impossible without the “full” life in Christ)
I was talking to my spiritual father yesterday about a book I had read – and he reminded me that the Scriptures and the services are enough to have a full Orthodox life; he also commented that if he (or anyone) tried to keep up with all of the Orthodox books published today, it could destroy one’s spiritual life.
I am beginning to see that one’s spiritual life can be enriched by carefully selected spiritual reading, but that this reading cannot replace one’s inner life nor can we afford to confuse intellectual reading with spiritual growth/disciplines done within the context of the Church.
Thank you for the reaffirmation of this.
When I was first learning about the Orthodox faith, I read a great deal. That continued on as I was a catechumen. However, I’ve noticed that I am not reading as much–especially this past year. I’m trying to concentrate on the Gospels. My priest told me to keep reading them. Your post makes me feel better because I think that being Orthodox to me is becoming more of a heart thing instead of a mind thing. I find that obeying the Gospels is not an easy thing. I especially find the Beatitudes quite challenging. We are involved in mission work . You are actually our leader in Clarksville, Tn. It won’t be easy. We will never make it unless we can live the Beatitudes on a daily basis. Thanks for this post.
Thank you father, for this posting.
In my “first time” I also couldn’t get enough of reading and listening (a special podcast from Ancient Faith Radio). It was important for me, cause as a protestant theologian I had to reflect the orthodox faith theologically.
But what really “hit” me were not theological reflections but parts of the Akathistos Hymnos. And it was once more totally different when I heard this Hymnos sung in the time before Pascha. I can only confirm that in the whole process of my conversation the attendence of the church services was the most important part.
I like this “to think with the one’s heart” – though reading the great orthodox theologians remains also important for me, especially when I feel that someone’s writing comes from the heart (from the encounter with God) and goes to the heart.
(Now, that I am a member of the Orthodox Church my Name is Ioannis. My Patron saint is “Ioannis ho Rossos”, John the Russian)
I will be praying for you all, and hope to be visiting Clarksville very soon. The mission will go forward there. Your observations on the gospels are spot on.
How greatly I needed to read this! Thank you, Fr!
Life is complex, often with few universal answer on many things. I am the
type of person who thinks Spock is to emotional, so for me books did
much more than Divine Liturgy. It is ineresting, there is a movement in
churches called the “Emergent Churh” witch has a similar thought as Orhodoxy, Your heart matters more than your mind. The big difference is
the depth of the books produced from each camp. So the question remains
“How then does Orthodoxy produce such robust books and so many if
the services and prayer is really more important.
Because those writing the books attend a lot of services and prayers, which they did not make up or re-invent. Orthodoxy is that which has been given us by God, not that which someone thought would be a good idea. But that’s the answer in a nutshell. The difference with the Emergent Church is a lack of Tradition in which there is a living continuity in which there are those who know what the “heart” is and know this in an unbroken line of experience throughout the ages of the Church. Why reinvent what God has already provided? Other than to avoid the messiness of Orthodox (they’ll get to reinvent the messiness as well).
I would also say that the effect of the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church is cumulative.
Indeed, and they inherently carry Divine Grace.
I read the Bible a lot, of course, but I also find plenty of food for thought in the services (I’m also a choir member so this is a good way of becoming more familiar with the texts). I try to read the Prologue of Ohrid daily (the online version works just fine when I’m too lazy to pull out my hard copy). I remember reading somewhere that the Bible and the Prologue could well be considered enough reading for an Orthodox Christian.
I love how the Orthodox Church challenges me to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t do well when we try to separate our members.
I thought I might note that what you’re saying is very consonant with Plato’s ambivalence about writing, as expressed in the Phaedrus (obviously, he wasn’t downright hostile since he committed his own philosophy to paper). Catherine Pickstock develops this theme admirably in her book “After Writing: the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.”
Thank you for this complimentary post of caution to go along with your reading list. While I read my way into Orthodoxy like you, I know that reading can’t replace the actual living of the Orthodox life. The rule of spending no more time reading than praying is a good one for someone like me and I know which one get’s the lion’s share of my time. One of the indicators early on to me that Orthodoxy was the real deal was how often it nailed me to the wall. This is but one example.
A favorite song of my youth, Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock” has one line that fits here: “I have my books and my poetry to protect me”
The Church is personal, indeed a Person, Jesus Christ. Books can introduce us and/or put us in the right frame of mind to recognize Him, but they are not Him. Even the Bible is not Him. It is regretfully possible to approach the Divine Liturgy in such a way as to miss Him.
Fr. Stephen’s story reveals that he met the Church first in a person, the convert nun.
I’ve read St. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word” three times. Each time it has been almost as if I was reading a new book. It was not that the book taught me more, it was because living in the Church allowed me to recognize Christ in the book in deeper ways. I had new eyes to see with by the grace of God.
It is the same, IMO, with reading the Holy Scriptures, which is why they need to be unfolded to us by someone who knows the Lord or has the Chrisim to teach.
“You should read no more hours in a day than you pray.”
Father, that hit spot on! The Holy Spirit has been whispering this sort of thing deep in my conscience–I so needed to read it again in your post. Thank you. Pray for me, a sinner.
My wife and I were talking with some friends recently about how it seems that many people in America who come to Orthodoxy at least start out with a lot of reading. I have a theory about this: we are Westerners, and, at least at the beginning, we approach Orthodoxy in a Western fashion by reading about it.
I believe I posted before about how I find it interesting that Barlaam, who, IIRC, opposed Hesychasm because of his belief that we cannot know God directly, but only through such things as philosophy, ultimately became a Roman Catholic bishop. To some degree, at least, Barlaam represents the Western approach to theology, and St. Gregory Palamas represents the Eastern approach.
That said, before my conversion, I read quite a bit. I even ordered the 38-volume “Early Church Fathers” book set, and actually read some of it! I still think that one of the most important points of my journey to Orthodoxy was reading St. Athanasius’ “Against the Heathen” and “On the Incarnation.”
However, since my wife and I were chrismated, I’ve found that I don’t read quite as much. In fact, the longer we’ve been Orthodox, I’m finding that I even don’t speak about “theological things” much anymore. My blog, which once was used for my ponderings and rants has largely gone silent (at least on spiritual matters). I hope that the reason for this is mainly that, from what I’ve seen and heard in Orthodoxy, I’ve begun to realize that I do not truly know that of which I speak, and it is better for me to keep silence and learn to listen.
Or, in the words of Solomon, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3) And, perhaps more famously, “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12:11-14)
Of course, I still read, but I think I read differently now. I read more carefully, and, while I can’t say I read more prayerfully, I am at least aware that I *should*. In addition, some of the things I’m reading now make more sense than they did. I started reading For the Life of the World two or three times before, but, this time, I’m actually beginning to understand what is being said, and I’m actually over half-way done.
Lots of wonderful comments here. I love those Scriptures, Matt. Ironically, I’m still reading, not praying per se! Could it be that some reading is a form of prayer? I realize a lot of my reading has been to check out my own perceptions of what I felt God was showing and teaching me–of the deep convictions about the nature of relational and ultimate reality that were forming in my heart through my own experiences and feeble seeking after God–and to find reliable experts who could clarify or validate those convictions. To a great extent Fr. Stephen’s blog serves in that capacity for me. It was a great comfort to find sayings of the Desert Fathers and contemporary Orthodox elders that spoke deeply to me in this way. Finally, within Orthodoxy I have found reliable spiritual guides–so I keep reading as I have need, though the need is not as great as it was before, and to have the Liturgy and prayer fulfills this need as well. Since I am unable to participate in the services of the Church as often as I need or would like to, spiritual reading sometimes fills in that gap for me.
Fr. Stephen, now it is my turn to notice that you’ve changed your avatar. Quite fetching, and I hope that’s not improper to say to a priest…
Benedikt – a most refreshing sentiment to hear from a man. All the ladies say Amen, under their breath of course.
You know how it is: you get bored with your avatar every so often. It’s from a photo my daughter took, whilst the other was one my son took. If it looks better, I would credit the photographer. Thanks for noticing! 🙂
Fr. Stephen, I think you just pointed out a huge problem I have.
Indeed, I usually deceive myself by thinking that reading will lead me to Christ.
I’ll TRY to take this phrase, “You should read no more hours in a day than you pray”, as a lesson to apply to my whole life, starting now.
Thank you the enlightenment! 🙂