I’m reading With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, volume one of the five volume “Spiritual Counsels” of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (it is a collection of his sayings recorded by his spiritual children). I’m finding myself blessed reading it. There is much, however, that doesn’t directly apply to a Canadian context–his counsels on curses and the evil eye, for example do not directly apply to the contemporary Canadian context. I’m not saying that these things don’t exist in contemporary Canada, but we generally understand such phenomena in a different paradigm–not necessarily a better or more accurate paradigm, just a different paradigm.
Still, as I am reading I experience a certain joy, an imparting of Life, Insight and Truth. I felt this way reading Father Arseny: 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father; Mother Gavrila: Ascetic of Love; and Saint Nektarios: The Saint of our Century by Sotos Chondropoulos. However, this is not what I experience when I read many other contemporary elders. With some I experience a kind of heaviness. I read some of these books with the sense that I should be getting life from the book: others say they have, but I don’t. I push myself, but seldom get more than halfway through. It’s not that I disagree with anything particular that the elder says, nor that I don’t see the truth of what he or she is saying. It’s just that the book does not overflow with Life for me.
Recently, I spoke with and older priest in a neighbouring parish, an archimandrite (celibate priest), about this. He said that this is exactly the reason why we need to be guided in what we read. There are all sorts of Orthodox literature out there–especially on the internet. And those on the margins seem to shout the loudest. And even the material of unquestioned quality may be written for an audience very different from the typical western-educated Canadian. Literature written to speak to the spiritual needs of peasants in the Balkans a hundred ago, or written for highly educated monks in the fifteenth century may be exactly the wrong literature to bring Life to a Protestant convert mom struggling to raise three children in suburban Vancouver. And it may also be that the book or article is just not very full of Grace. There may be nothing particularly wrong with it, with the facts or the statements. It just doesn’t overflow with Life.
Even as a priest sometimes I struggle, wondering if it’s “just me,” or if there is something not quite right with the material I am reading or it’s fit for my life. As I was discussing this with my archimandrite friend, I mentioned that I was reading With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, and what a feeling of Life I am getting from the book. My friend told me that he had not read the book, but he had known Elder Paisios himself.
My friend had visited Elder Paisios twice on Mount Athos about thirty years ago. The second time he waited several hours outside his cell (the elder had gone for a walk) for Elder Paisios to return so that he could hear his confession. As soon as my friend began speaking about Elder Paisios, his face lit up–really lit up. He said that you can always tell a holy elder by the way he deals with confession: “Does he make you heavy or make a way for you to go forward? ”
“The thing about Elder Paisios,” my friend said, “was that he lived it. He did not write about how to live or go about telling others how to live, he just lived the life with God himself. That makes all of the difference.”
Yes, that does make all of the difference.