Tips to Avoid Delusion When Reading Spiritual Books

“Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes/ That in the world to come you will find life/If you have not tried to find it in this present world.”
From “The Ladder of Divine Graces” by Theophanes the Monk in volume 3 of The Philokalia.
Generally speaking, I do not recommend that people read the Philokalia, except as guided by a spiritual father. This is important for several reasons. First, like the Bible, the Philokalia is a set of texts written at different times by different authors for different purposes, although mostly to inspire monks in the spiritual life. Consequently, an unguided reader might make connections or imagine applications that are just that: imagination, not reality.
Further, the Philokalia is a set of collected texts. That is, it contains only selected texts from selected authors. These texts were selected in the late Middle Ages to meet a specific need. I won’t get into what the specific need was–that is not the purpose of this post–but I mention it only to emphasize that without guidance someone reading the Philokalia might wrongly think that it represents a complete summary of Eastern Orthodox spiritual wisdom. The Philokalia certainly is a treasury of Orthodox spiritual wisdom, but it is, to use a metaphor, only the gold in the treasury. There are also the diamonds and rubies, silver and platinum, and the other valuable gifts within the treasury of the Orthodox Church. These too must be appreciated in order to taste the fullness of the wisdom within the Church.
However, the biggest danger in reading the Philokalia without guidance–which, by the way, applies to the reading of any spiritual books, especially the Bible–is that people can deceive themselves into thinking they not only understand what they are reading, but also that they are actually practicing and experiencing what they are reading about. This is called delusion.
Unfortunately, there are very few experienced spiritual fathers. For many in the West, the only access to spiritual wisdom is through reading. For those who find themselves in this position, I suggest the following to help defend against the delusion that might come about from reading spiritual literature without guidance.
  1. Submit to the Church. As St. James said, If you can’t love the brother whom you see, how can you love God whom you have not seen? Similarly, if you cannot submit to the rhythm and discipline of the Church, you are fooling yourself to think that you are submitting to God through your own application and interpretation of the spiritual books you are reading.
  2. Take seriously the criticism of others, especially those who love you or who have a position of spiritual authority in your life. If others say that you are too________, you need to take it seriously. They may not be completely right, but they are probably neither completely wrong. Never quickly dismiss criticism. Always assume that others are more likely to see you more clearly than you see yourself. Always assume that you are wrong at some level and need to be corrected.
  3. Avoid pushing things to their extreme, logical or otherwise. A little aspirin can heal you, too much can kill you. There is no single key to the spiritual life. There is no one schema by which everything else must be interpreted. No words, principles or categories suffice to reveal God’s glory. Words may point the way, but the way itself must be known through experience. And no one experience, or even the totality of one person’s experience, no matter how profound, is the whole picture.
  4. Keep in mind that experience is always partial. Although you may indeed have experience in the spiritual life, consider your experience to be shallow. Assume that you have only scratched the surface. And if you think you can relate to the spiritual experiences you are reading about, be certain that you only relate to them as a child sounding out the words in a university text book relates to that text book.

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