On Interpreting the Interpreters of the Holy Fathers on Education

I have not read most of what St. Gregory Palamas (or any Church Father for that matter) has written. I have read his homilies (at least those recently published in English by Mount Thabor Publishing), bits from the Philokalia, and about twenty years ago The Triads, published in the Classics of Western Spirituality series–of which I understood absolutely nothing. However, the great majority of what he has written I have not read. Most of what I know of his teaching has come to me through secondary sources, those who have actually read all or most of his extant work in the original language and who, most importantly, carrying the Orthodox Christian ethos have tried to pass on the essence of the saint’s writings.
Consequently, any time you read in this blog the words “According to St. So and So…” you should be aware that what you are getting is an interpretation of an interpretation.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Academically, it is dicey, but this blog is not about academics. It is, I hope, about finding Life in Christ, particularly finding Life in Christ through the wealth of the lived Orthodox Christian Tradition. What I try to do is share musings that I have found or suspect to be Life-giving. An unfortunate reality of our reliance on my writing to communicate this is that even if God grants me a Life-giving thought, the words that communicate this thought fairly well in my mind may fail miserably in yours. Although silence is safer, love compels me to try to communicate.
Archimandrite Vasileios in Hymn of Entry (a book that should be read and reread by anyone who wants to understand the Fathers of the Church) says,
Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a concordance. It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living organisms [that’s you and me], assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And, subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming this miracle [the miracle of being nourished by the Fathers]….Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating “fathers” who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away.
This organic process of passing on the Life-giving teaching of the Holy Fathers means that fallible human beings, who “see in part and prophesy in part,” pass on the “nourishing” teaching.
My thinking about the passing on of Life-giving words has been stimulated by a comment by Barbara on my blog entry, Education and Illumination. It think part of the problem with that entry is that I used the word “education” when perhaps a more narrow word like “study” or “scholastic inquiry” might have served better. Nonetheless, Barbara’s concern is well taken. While only the Holy Spirit can illumine the heart, the words, actions, prayers and the general lives of “spirit-bearing” people are often the means by which someone’s mind is brought into her heart (to use the famous expression of St. Theophan the Recluse and other Church Fathers) and attention is given to the activity of Grace there.
One of the points I was hoping to make in the Education and Illumination entry was that heart, mind and body are not separate, which I think is also the point Barbara is making. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, even the holiest spirit-bearing elder is just another old man. However, God has also ordained that we depend on one another: “One Christian is no Christian,” as I believe St. Augustine said. In a mysterious way, the Grace of God is carried in and passed on by people (the Treasure is in earthen vessels). Some earthen vessels are called to be teachers but all are called to be taught. And so, yes, in a mysterious way, the Grace of God often does dawn in our hearts through teaching, through the Grace of God in the teacher that somehow communicates God’s Grace to our hearts.


  1. Thank you for loving us enough to teach/educate us, Fr. Michael, and for helping us be awake when the sun rises!

    Both your response to my questions and this additional explanation are life giving.

  2. I think something might be missing here. I am thinking of the role a "moral education" (what used to be a fundamental part of education before Dewey and his followers demolished it) and the part the "moral imagination" plays in forming a child or adult, including his heart. For example, when a child reads the classic morally formative literature (like Pinocchio for example – the original not the Disney caricature) his mind is certainly formed along a moral line and even towards a Christian mindset. I would say it is just as fair to say his heart is lead in the right direction also, perhaps even more so.

  3. Just as a follow up, I can see what you’re saying about a narrow "scholastic" definition of education. Indeed I think you are right in that this is what is meant by the term today. I suppose I want to rescue the term "education" from its corruption of the last 100 years or so.

    On the other hand, I am questioning what seems to be your argument that the heart cannot be "educated" in the broader sense. It's an honest question in that I don't really know if the Fathers assert this or not. It does not "feel" right to me however. I am probably just not getting your words however 😉

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