The Application of Holy Words

[At Pittsburg Airport]
When we speak of spiritual matters, we like to quote the fathers who have been helpful to us. We like these fathers because the way they talk about their inner life helps us identify what seems to be going on in our own inner life. For most of us, these fathers are not men whom we know personally; that is they are not spiritual fathers or confessors to whom we speak and who give us personal advice, but rather these are fathers who have written. We read their works because (in many cases) we do not have access to spiritual fathers and confessors of the calibre we need—or think we need. Certainly there is a lot to be said for a confessor who is a holy man who has spent thirty or forty years in monastic struggle to maintain constant prayer. But most of us have no access to such a holy man, so we read the writings of such holy men, those who have through the centuries left records (or whose disciples have left records) of their insights into the inner life.

The writings I am referring to include such works as the many books about the lives and sayings of contemporary elders of Mount Athos, the works of the Russian ascetical writers such as St. Theophan the Recluse or the writings of/about the Optima elders, the writings of the Philokalia, or the excellent contemporary works of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and others. These works are extremely useful, however they are also dangerous. They are dangerous in at least two ways that I would like to point out in this posting.

The first way that such writings are dangerous is that they are disincarnate. That is, there is no actual relationship between the person reading the book and the holy person who wrote the book. Therefore, the person who reads the book can easily misinterpret what he reads. He can misinterpret it by merely trying to understand what it says and not applying what it says. Spiritual writing is not written like academic writing, with the goal of communicating ideas. The goal of spiritual writing is to communicate life, so to seek merely to understand and not apply what is written is a serious mistake. And even if the reader wants to apply what he reads, the reader can also misunderstand by thinking that he is indeed applying what it says when he really isn’t. Human beings have an almost unlimited ability to deceive themselves. Without the guidance of a flesh and blood confessor who knows us well, it is very easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our spiritual life is more advanced than it is.

The second way such writings are dangerous—and this is the part that I have difficulty articulating—is that they allow the reader to imagine that the ideas written in the book are somehow universal. The written word often has a very different kind of authority than the spoken word, and in the spiritual life this is dangerous. It is dangerous because in the Orthodox Christian tradition the word of the spiritual father, the word spoken by a flesh and blood holy person to a flesh and blood disciple, is the normal way spiritual insight is passed on from one generation to another. “Abba Anthony said to Abba Paul,” the saying goes. Abba Anthony is not speaking a word that he intends to be applied universally; Abba Anthony is speaking a word to Abba Paul. This word to Abba Paul has come down to us in writing because the Church has found that it is a word that speaks to many people, not because the word is a universal principle that applies to all people at all times in all circumstances, a principle that can be issolated and applied, almost mechanically, whenever needed: X spiritual malady is cured by Y spiritual exercise.

An example of this thinking that I have encountered lately has to do with the writings of certain contemporary Athonite elders. When discussing issues in the church as diverse as on what day to celebrate Christmas or how to overcome distracting thoughts in prayer, I have heard someone quote Elder So and So as though that should end the discussion. However, what this or that elder has said on a matter does not end the discussion. The elder’s words certainly add to the discussion and should be considered carefully and respectfully, but the elder’s words do not end the discussion. The words of an elder to specific people in a specific context do not necessarily apply to different people in a different context—that must be discerned. Further, even if the elder was intending to speak universally on a matter, his word is only just that: his word. Whether or not it is the universal word of the Church is, again, a matter of the discernment of the whole Church over time.

A similar example of universal application of the words of a holy man is to take the vocabulary he uses or the categories he sets up as though they were the only ways the church ever talks about certain matters. St. Maximus the Confessor, for example, provides us with the very useful three-stage image of spiritual growth: purification, illumination and deification. Such a way of conceiving and talking about spiritual growth is very useful; however, it is not the only image holy men and women in the Church have used to talk about spiritual growth. Our Lord, for example, used a mustard seed and a lump of yeast as metaphors of spiritual growth. St. John of the Ladder famously uses the image of climbing a ladder with many (much more than three) rungs. Within the Church there are many ways to talk about spiritual growth.

I get nervous whenever I hear someone say, “all the fathers agree…”. No one has read all the fathers. When someone says “the fathers teach” with an air that seeks to shut down discussion, it is a signal to me that this person has read very narrowly. Our inner life, our life with God, is full of ineffable mystery. Words can never fully or universally describe the inner landscape of a human being’s journey to heaven. Words are important, especially the word of a holy person spoken in the context of a life-giving relationship; but words can never be universal. Words are helpful when through discernment they help us see; but without discernment, the same word that heals can also injure. We must be careful when we read books and especially when we try to apply to others what we have read in books. Books, and even words, are just tools. As Abba Anthony asked, “Which came first the book or the knowledge?”

Books are useful if they guide us to knowledge: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.  But we must be careful not to mistake the book, or the word, for the knowledge.

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