That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Tag: Spiritual Reading

So great a cloud of witnesses

As in the earthly life there are poor and rich, so also in the spiritual life, in the spiritual order, there are poor and rich. As the poor ask charity of the rich, and cannot live without help from them, so also in the spiritual order the poor must have recourse to the rich. We are the spiritually poor, whilst the saints, and those who shine even in this present life by their faith and piety, are the spiritually rich. It is to them that we needy ones must have recourse. We must beg for their prayers that they may help us to become simple as children, that they may teach us spiritual wisdom, how to conquer sins, how to love God and our neighbor. May the saints of God pray for us, that we may become like unto them.

— Saint John of Kronstadt (emphasis added)

Sorting out my bookshelf a few days ago, I noticed that the ever-expanding ‘contemporary elders’ section has been displacing many older books. (This section is not labelled or clearly-defined, but more or less includes lives, letters and teachings of Orthodox Saints and elders from the twentieth century to now.) I reflected how, years ago, I used to have much greater patience with theological works and practical but abstract texts like the Philokalia. These days, I feel upheld, comforted and challenged by spending time with Orthodox Christians of my own time who have labored to embody holiness in their own lives. In recent years we’ve been blessed with books by and about many such Christians: works by and about St. John Maximovitch, St. Nektarios, Elder Porphyrios, Elder Païsios, and Fr. Seraphim Rose come to mind. Perhaps my shift toward this kind of reading is just part of a movement, one which every believer needs to make, from “What is our Faith?” to “How can I live our Faith?” I sometimes wonder if those of us who come to the Faith later in life approach it in too theoretical a way: perhaps catechumens, as they learn about our beliefs, should spend at least as much time with these examples of lived Orthodoxy, especially examples from our own time. It’s odd that, when we bring up our children in the Church, we always introduce Orthodox practice before, or at least along with, dogma; but when we deal with adult catechumens we tend to emphasize dogma first, perhaps because we feel that they’re more “ready” for it. I’m reminded of a story by a convert about his first visit to an Orthodox church for Divine Liturgy. As he stood tentatively in a corner of the church, a kindly yia-yia approached him and asked “Are you Orthodox?” “No, I’m not.” (pause) “Would you like to be Orthodox?” “Yes, I think I would.” (pause) “Okay, I’ll show you how to light a candle.” I think she had the right idea.

As it happens, I’ve just begun what looks like a lovely example of the kind of Lived Orthodoxy work I’ve been pondering here: Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon. It’s a first-hand account of the life and experiences of a student in the Soviet Union who, with a few friends, embraced the Faith in the 1980s and eventually became a monk. The Russian original has the wonderful title Несвятые Святые (Nesvyatie Svyatie), which I think means something like “Unsaintly Saints.” These examples are so important to us! May we who are poor continue to seek and find the help of those who are rich.

Water on a stone

St. Isaac of Syria
by Photios Kontoglou

Forsake not Isaac. Every day one page of Abba Isaac. Not more. Isaac is the mirror. There you will behold yourself. The mirror is so that we may see if we have any shortcoming, any smudge on our face, in order to remove it, to cleanse ourselves. If there is a smudge on your face or on your eyes, in the mirror you will detect it and will remove it. In Abba Isaac you will behold your thoughts, what they are thinking. Your feet, where they are going. Your eyes, if they have light and see. There you will find many sure and unerring ways, in order to be helped. One page of Isaac a day. In the morning or at night, whenever. Suffice it that you read a page.
Elder Ieronymus of Aegina (+ 1966)

Taking Elder Ieronymos’ counsel, I’ve been trying to read a page a day of The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac of Syria. It’s easy to see why the Elder recommended small doses: the texts are remarkably intense and concentrated. Here’s a sample passage from the Second Homily:

Remember the fall of the mighty, and be humble in your virtues. Recollect the grievous transgressions of those who of old trespassed and repented, and the sublimity and honour of which afterwards they were deemed worthy, and take courage in your repentance. Be a persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity. Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of Heaven: for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.

Reading that, I’m tempted to think that a sentence, rather than a page, each day would be more suited to my poor understanding.

“Small doses, regularly taken”, seems to be a good rule of thumb for much of the spiritual life. In various places we’re also told about prayer and Scripture reading that five minutes every day is much better than an hour once a week. I’m reminded of this, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

[Abba Poemen said:] The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God: it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, used to be available only in a bulky scholarly edition packed with footnotes, introductory material and appendices. Recently they’ve produced a new edition much better suited to devotional reading: they’ve done a bit of revising of the text, eliminated many footnotes, taken out a lot of supportive material, and reduced the size of the book to something that that can be carried around in a book bag. Recommended. (If you want all the scholarly material, they still supply it in PDF form.)