Food for the Soul

Some years back, I sat in on a meeting between my bishop and a young man looking to attend seminary. After getting the bishop’s approval, he asked a wise question: “What should I be reading to prepare?” I was as interested in the answer as he was. “Read good literature,” was the answer. This advice came from a bishop who is both a scholar and a monk (Archbishop Alexander Golitsyn). Read good literature. This is not so much advice for the demands of seminary – it’s advice for the soul.

Our culture tends to have a focus on the mastery of information, the management of the facts. I recall a famous television evangelist who touted himself as having memorized the entire Bible. It made him a television evangelist, not a great soul or a deeply wise man. It can indeed be little more than a carnival trick.

I was once told that this same advice was given to inquirers and catechumens by Fr. Seraphim Rose. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard about him – it shows a preference for the soul over an indoctrination of the mind. So many who inquire into the faith would do well to heed such sage advice.

Growing the soul is not at all an obvious thing. Plato, in his Republic, suggested that musical training be required for all children precisely for the formation of the soul. The soul is ever so much more about who we are, and the character of who we are than what we are and what we know.

As the traditional “canon” of literature continues to come under withering attack in the American academy, more and more people are simply “ignorant” souls. It is not so much that they lack the information gained from such literature (though they do), but that they lack a depth and the ability to reflect that is only made possible through engaging with the greatest ideas, the greatest music, the deepest beauty. Only a great soul can teach another soul to become great.

Several years ago, in a class of inquirers, I mentioned Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Everyone in the class had a college education, or a nearly complete degree. A young man asked me who Solzhenitsyn was. I was staggered. I realized immediately that the notoriety of this spiritual giant had passed some time in the 80’s and 90’s, but this only refers to his notice by the 24/7 news cycle. Sadly, few of those who know his name will have read anything by him. Our knowledge of culture too often extends to trivia, the stuff that comes up on Jeopardy.

I have frequently encouraged readers towards a slower life. As we hurtle along at the speed of our internet service, we tend to nurture the habit of brief encounters. We assimilate information that has been formatted for speedy acquisition. The depth of contradiction, paradox and context tend to be eliminated. It is mostly fodder for delusion.

The brilliance of the internet is its ability to “skim and retrieve.” Its genius fails when it comes to understanding and analysis. True human knowing requires the large (and slow) effort of attention and communion.

Some years back I decided to get serious about Dostoevsky. I had read his novels and pondered them. It was obvious to me that there was much that was being lost, both in translation and in the larger cultural references. I hunted down a commentary on his work and started the long, and often dull exercise of studying. It seemed worth doing. I have done the same with Solzhenitsyn. I have recently been slogging my way through Dionysius the Areopagite. I have thrown Origen onto my list of studies. Not everyone is a scholar, nor able to digest scholarly works. But we need to understand the difference between the slow, patient work of mature, healthy scholarship and the brief summaries and opinions that pass for information on the internet.

Depth requires that we admit how much we do not know.

We will not be saved by information, least of all, the shallow information of our current culture. The work of salvation is slow, patient, and deep. It is filled with paradox and contradiction – things that can only be reconciled in the context of a life that lives them. Good literature, truly good literature, brings us into contact with just such realities.

Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said:

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

In truth, such an epistle is more than a brief letter – it is the deepest of novels. God give us grace to read the “tablets of flesh.” They have not been digitally formatted…

35 comments:

  1. You have hit several nails on their heads, Father Stephen. Even as we embrace what you have said,, doing it requires much discipline to decline the mindless distractions that are in themselves a pandemic.

    I think you have described why I changed my college major (decades ago) from engineering to English. When I reflect on the lifelong cost (lower income), I do understand how our society has pursued its present course — it pays better.

    I need another walk in the woods.

  2. Great article Father. Dickens cracked me open (a bit) as surely as anything else I have read.

  3. Father,
    Like you, I grew up without the internet. I sometimes try to remember what we did in the evenings back then. Reading, playing banjo, and going “down in the woods” were some of what I recall from my youth. When my wife and I were newlyweds, we had no TV. I remember we read The Gulag Archipelago at that time. I try to discipline myself to read real books on a regular basis. I avoid the “news” like the plague. But the default for our evenings these days is the internet. It is so easy to sit down at the end of a long day and just chill out.
    I can only imagine how much today’s youth are formed and influenced by the internet. My daughters will be starting their families soon, God willing. You write, “Only a great soul can teach another soul to become great.” Any words of wisdom to new parents on raising great souls in these days of shallowness and data?
    Also, such an article begs the question of a recommended reading list of “must read” great literature?
    As an aside, will there be any way to replay the Incarnation videos you presented last month? I enrolled late and missed the first few.
    Thank you,
    Jeff

  4. -‘Depth requires that we admit how much we do not know.’-

    This has a liberating quality to it. To be at ease with not having answers to all questions that might be raised. To be (trans)formed, by all that is true and beautiful.

    -‘Literature is a luxury; fiction a necessity.’-
    -G.K. Chesterton.

  5. @Lewis As one who followed the Engineering path I can say it pays better, but the “golden handcuffs” are very constraining. I constantly long for something deeper and never feel like I have the time to pursue it. Alas, I read this article and feel like crying because even finding 15 mins in my day in order to read, let alone study Solzhenitsyn, would be a miracle. Ouch, my soul hurts.

  6. This past week I felt “inspired,” (as I choose to understand the impulse) to put together a list of Christian novelists, beginning with those counted as classic and extending to notable contemporary ones. I doubt I’ll get to most of them; I’m on the verge of age 67. And the two Russian writers you mentioned, I plan to reread at some point. As you have written, Father Stephen, novels touch on the vissitudes of life, rather than just principles and methods of conducting aspects of our life. So now I have more confident that “inspired” is the right word because of what you have written here.

  7. Beautiful. Like a breath of fresh air. Thank you. John Muir said “People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! … Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them” While this seems off topic for your blog, I hear the same perspective in both the blog and the quote—slow down, listen, read, saunter.

  8. Fr – could you perhaps suggest a brief list of beginning recommended reads for the ‘non-scholarly’ amongst us?
    Hint: I have attempted at various times to do a complete read though of a Dostoevsky novel with little success

  9. I have always been grateful for your wisdom. Indeed, the information age never gives the soul time to catch up, just as theology suffered when it became what we know about God and not knowing God.

  10. Thank you Father for your thoughts. I have recently started filling my spare time with good literature. I purchased my fist book by Solzhenitsyn the other day, “From Under the Rubble”. I think my brain has been suffering from the numbing slog of clickbait sized info and sound bites. Picking up one of the great works of literature feels like a medicinal step in the right direction.

    Blessings,
    From a Geriatric Millennial and Catechumen

  11. I have been an English teacher in the public school system for nearly 20 years. (A newly graduated engineer’s first paycheck will be markedly higher than my next one, but I digress).
    When reading ‘A Modest Proposal’ to students who were not certain where or if they would get their next meal, I learned satire is wasted on the meek. When reading ‘A Rose for Emily’ with the same students, they taught me there is no shame in poverty; and with that, I lost all sympathy for Emily. The kids did, however, appreciate Chekov’s ‘The Bet’. They liked that he spent so much time with the Bible, and that everything was nonsense. More than a few could even understand why he fled at the 11th hour instead of waiting, just a little longer, for the money. They appreciated his conviction.
    And although great works of literature, art, and music are indeed essential, I know how hard it is to appreciate van Gogh’s brush work when your stomach aches because it is so empty.
    Perhaps a good use of the oh-so-addicting internet is to listen to great works of literature being read to you on the various platforms that offer such a service, most of them free of charge. This is how I am ‘getting through’ Gulag Archipelago. But there is no substitute for holding ‘The Little Prince’ in my hands.

  12. *correction*They liked that he spent so much time with the Bible, and that everything ELSE was nonsense.

  13. My own course of literature has often included great plays. Shakespeare of course, Moliere and lesser pieces by modern play writes such as Thorton Wilder and Christopher Fry. Mark Twain and William Faulkner on the literary side.
    I have read Solzhenitsyn but not studied him.
    Great literature is about people not ideology. I can also recommend narrow focus history. I benefited greatly from my study of Andrew Jackson. Not just the books but his letters and papers as well.
    It is amazing how God’s Providence is made obvious when we engage people rather than ideology or “news”.

  14. I’ve spent the last week on vacation, although I really have no money to go anywhere (aside from a day trip or two to neighboring areas and back). I’ve realized that I have no discipline; I have not structure to my spiritual life, in spite of my prayer rule. With all this time available, I’ve managed to read nothing at all. I’ve recognized my soul’s poverty.

    I am a fan of Jessica Hooten-Wilson. Her blog and emails always seem to include a “what I’m reading” list that is very impressive. She reads so much! I recommend her to anyone here wanting to put together a good reading list. I will have to try and begin, if I can tear myself away from being lazy in front of the computer. I shrivel in anticipation of something worthwhile.

  15. I remember Msgr Georges Khodr once mentioned that his path to Christianity began with the startling literary beauty of the Gospels. From there, I recall thinking, one of the most fruitful lives in Orthodoxy unfurled organically.

  16. Thank you, Father, for yet another thought provoking blog. I was, frankly, surprised by the brevity of the bishop’s advice. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, as a firstborn in a large aristocratic family, suffered from lack of affection from a distant and sometimes cold father. So he sought what love he lacked by walking in the vast woods surrounding his home. I believe he not only sauntered, but made direct contact with the Almighty who responded to the boy’s hunger for love, rewarding him with inspired meditations in the woods. These meditations later transformed into moving essays in natural imagery tied well into Scriptures. Unfortunately a lot of these compositions are still not translated from the original Russian. Young Dmitry (his given name) also had the benefit of a wise tutor who familiarized him with early authors in original Latin and Greek. So when the adult Ignatius wrote, he marshalled all that early experience informed by walks in the woods together with his familiarity with ancient authors, saints and scriptures. To read St. Ignatius Brianchaninov today is to bathe in the richness of his ascetic life and deep springs of knowledge of the ancients to use a mixed metaphor. By the way he warned against haphazard reading habits, citing reasons to avoid certain authors who could mislead .

  17. Byron,
    screens seem to a mesmerising effect, be it the tv, computer or smart phone. They are quite addictive and numb the mind; my mind. It can become habitual due to their soothing effect, producing a false calmness, Books however, open a whole new vista and do feed the mind and soul. I have found it useful through life to read a wide variety. Some, theology, Scripture commentary, lives of the Saints, history, interspersed with with plenty of fiction and light reading. I hope you find time and space to pick up a book.

  18. Byron,
    if you don’t mind, I would suggest for reading that is not to heavy to make a break from your computer, two travel books. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby and From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple.

  19. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I usually love your blog posts and often recommend your blog to others, but this post was unsettling to me. I imagine it was unintentional, but it looks like you’re disdaining a man who preaches the Gospel and has memorized the entire Bible. I don’t know who the man is, but I greatly admire someone who would so dedicate his life to Christ. Only God can judge his motives, but on the face of it, it sounds like he has done something wonderful. On the other hand, while some books that are deemed “great literature” are truly great, much that is called “great literature” is not so great, but IS food for human pride and vainglory. There is a great risk of letting our reading become a basis for competitive comparison with others. In an era when most Christians have never read through the entire Canon of Scripture a single time, it seems sad that more clergy are not encouraging the daily reading of Scripture.

  20. Wise words, Father, thank you.
    These days,(especially here in Australia) we seem dominated by FEAR – from pandemics, politics, economics etc. At the same time we hear in the Liturgy and in the Scriptures about “THE FEAR OF GOD”. Clearly, these are different “fears”
    Would you be able to comment?

  21. Ron,
    The “fear” of God could easily be translated as “awe.” It is the deep, abiding regard for the fullnes of who He is. In general, the “fear” that we experience from day to day is a mixture of shame and terror. The only true guard against the fear that is shame and terror, is the quiet confidence that God is in charge of the outcome of history and that we may trust Him in all things.

  22. Anon,
    Thank you for recommending my blog to others. I take it as a compliment.

    As to your concerns: I had a specific person in mind (which is why I did not name him) who, as a televangelist, specialized in false prophecies about future events, and used his amazing memory of Scripture as a sort of carnival trick that purported to prove that he knew what he was talking about – he did not. He was guided by false doctrine.

    As to great literature. Great literature, such as that by Dostovesky, Solzhenitsyn, Dickens, Faulkner, etc. are not things that are read in order to extract correct information. They are occasions of a conversation with significant thinkers or thoughts of our time. “Great” literature is considered to be such because others have found it to be great and worth the time to read and ponder. It is not, however, the source of answers. I understood the Bishop’s advice (echoed by Fr. Seraphim Rose) to be a way of encouraging someone to broaden their experience and their thoughts.

    In my experience of 40+ years of ordained ministry – the ability to understand people and their problems has required a very broad experience. Good literature has been helpful in struggling with the problems of souls.

    If you have a problem with competitive comparison of reading with others – you need different friends. It would seem a useful sort of conversation.

    I would agree that reading Scripture is of paramount importance. My blog as over 2500 articles, lots of them about Scripture. There is, I suspect, only one or two suggesting anything about the importance of literature. I do not see it as a common theme out there in clergy writings, whereas there are lots and lots of things on Scripture. I therefore do not understand your generalization.

    What I would say is that many people are not thoroughly familiar with the canon of Scripture and would do well to broaden their reading. The reading of Scripture, however, requires guidance and help. Good commentary is useful. Some, like Fr. Larence Farley, have made it the focus of their ministry and writing and it is very helpful.

    I hope these answers are of use to you.

  23. I was a double major in physics/English lit.

    You alluded to the “canon” above. Even in the 1980s, canonic works tended to be handled by running them through officially approved critical templates to extract meaning. This was based on the theory (explained to me as if I must be some kind of idiot) that the work is autonomous and therefore the author’s intention is of no relevance. Proponents of this view call it the “intentional fallacy”, but I call it “the artist as useful idiot theory”. Anti-intentionalism serves very well to obscure any wisdom that one might otherwise absorb, and it has the added advantage of making the course work much easier for careerist students.

    Reading Owen Barfield, it’s clear his casual fluency with classical and modern Romance languages, as well as his understanding of historical frameworks, informed his work. However, this kind of education would be almost impossible to receive today, and I cannot imagine any English professor having a successful career with this kind of background today.

    On a personal note, Barfield retired from his solicitor job age 60 to return to this field. I am turning 60, and intended to do the same, to return to musical composition and do a deep dive into a couple of classical languages. But I am being asked to stay in my political tech/admin job.
    Prayers would be welcome.

  24. Ook,
    Be assured of my prayers. Barfield, like Lewis and Tolkien, came from one of the last thoroughly classically educated generations. Lewis wrote about its growing disappearance in the Abolition of Man. Modern English departments have been filled with this sickness for a long time now.

    On the other hand, I know of some out there who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Someone mentioned Jessica Wooten. I met her several years ago and have been impressed with her work. The academy in general, however, is in terrible shape. At some point, it will collapse because it’s Timbers are rotten. Perhaps after that, there will come a rebuilding. Such things are in the hands of God. In the meantime, we should feed our souls, and encourage others to feed as well.

    It is the times we live in, and we have been appointed to live in just this time. Do good work.

  25. Andrew,

    Thank you for your recommendations! I do, in fact, read but not voraciously–as I did in my youth. I find I have to “make time” for it when before it came easily. I was surprised when I took this vacation and I didn’t seem to have any time at all to read! It was hindsight–I’ve come to the end of the break and realized how shallow it has been. I’ve been in front of a screen too much and sat and read far too little! Of course, realizing one’s plight is the first step to correcting it (I hope)!

  26. Byron,
    I didn’t get the the impression that you did not read, but as you say find it difficult to find the time. If I came across in my comments with that wrong impression, please forgive my lack of articulation.

  27. Lovely article Father, and s true.
    Currently reading a book you are all most likely so familiar with: “SAINT SILOUAN THE ATHONITE” By Saint Sophrony Sakharov. Excerpt page 87: “The Staretz would say, it is one thing to believe in God, and another to know Him”….
    It is a beautiful narrative and theology of Saint Silouan as witnessed by his disciple Saint Sophrony. I think words and phrases can be perceived differently according to each persons spiritual condition. I remember once many years ago trying to read Saint Sophrony’s “WE SHAL SEE HIM AS HE IS”. For the life of me I couldn’t understand a thing, it was hard going, so I gave up and put it aside.
    Quite a few later, when there was a significant change in my life (trying not to boast, forgive me), I tried reading it again, and this time I was just awestruck. I don’t know if anyone else has ever had that experience before.

  28. Mario, not that exact experience– but similar by the Grace of God. His Mercy reveals Who He is on many occassions.

  29. Kathryn Leskosky,
    Thank you for your comment about your students and your experience. It seems to me that socially we are offering nothing but bad gifts and wrong advice for those caught in places where there are so many temptations and struggles. It sounds like they knew very well what was the hope for them, the “one thing necessary,” if I may put it that way. It really is our hope and we need to make sure they have it.

    That said, I can’t seem to read the Gospels/Scripture in any way but the way I read literature as an English major. The author is trying to tell us something.

    Thank you for this, Father! I remember reading “The Gulag Archipelago” at about 13 and of course I could barely comprehend anything, but at least I had the impulse to know that literature was important. And in the same vein, language is so essential to our faith also.

  30. *Excuse me, at that age, it must have been Cancer Ward I read (shows you how much I understood!) My memory becomes more interesting every year 🙂

  31. Father Bless,

    Your write, “I hunted down a commentary on his (Dostoyevsky) work and started the long, and often dull exercise of studying.” Which commentary did you use? I’m finally deep into “War and Peace”. It is my third attempt, and so far successful. Some say, don’t read anything that was written more recently than 100 years ago. There is some wisdom in that.

    Thank you for your wisdom.

  32. Yes, like Diana above, I also wish to know how to go about “studying” Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn. I am also interested in Alexander Men, but the only one I have even begin to delve into is Dostoevsky (Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Demons). The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy had a profound effect on me, too, and is shorter. Anna Karenina, also a real epoch, is filled with the same Russian spirit. I find that audio books allow me to “read” even a lengthy Dostoevsky novel (listen time 27 hours such as Demons that I am “reading” now) in a couple weeks. I listen while I go about a many fairly mindless household tasks or driving in the car. Russian literature is famous, I believe, for losing many of us with the multitude of difficult names for we Americans. But I plod through, still entranced, gathering up what I can of the intricacies, philosophies, character development, psychology, political references, and most of all, spiritual depth, exploring the meaning of life. No, its definitely “beyond me” in many ways, But so is the Bible, and so I glean what I can of its riches. Its a delight to me when I find the characters going to confession, lighting a candle by an icon, observing the fasts or feasts, referencing scripture. To read literature so imbued with the essence of our faith is by itself worth the read. Father, if you can tell us how to “study” these great pieces of literature, I would be so grateful.

  33. Xenia,

    It sounds very much to me as though you are going about it the right way already. Unfortunately, I cannot read Russian and undoubtedly miss much as a consequence that supplementary materials might compensate for. My experience in English of English/American literature, however, is that much criticism is bad, and literary *theory* is pernicious. The bishop in the story Father Stephen’s recounts above instructed the young man to “read good literature”–not to read *about* good literature. I think that’s right.

    I’d say, therefore, keep doing what you’re doing. If you particularly like a good book, come back to it because it will have more to say to you. Knowing the ending when you revisit the beginning is a way of “studying” in that you are more clearly able to see the writer’s craft–much as having seen the climax of a magician’s trick you can better appreciate how it was pulled off.

    I’ve read both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov multiple times. (I am also very fond of The Idiot.) I did not come to appreciate C&P as much as the other two until this year, in fact, when I listened to an audio recording of it by George Guidall. His reading is tremendous, and it made for a great traveling companion on my way back and forth to work. At the time it was available for free on YouTube.

    I’m not sure whether it was the interpretation Guidall’s voice lent to the various characters or that I also became an inquirer into Orthodoxy about that time that led to my finally loving C&P as much as I had Dostoevsky’s other two books. Contrariwise, when I was young I likely placed Tolstoy above Dostoevsky, but Orthodoxy has made me value D’s heart over T’s head.

    Although I think reading the “primary sources” is far above reading the secondary, I did find this article that might align with seeing the Orthodoxy in Crime and Punishment:

    https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54d0df1ee4b036ef1e44b144/t/5e7914ecfd5d5a3e7212ba7e/1584993522349/19_02_meerson.pdf

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