St. John the Baptist Parish, A Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, Canberra, Australia

How Not to Read the Holy Fathers

Fr. Seraphim (Rose)

ENOUGH HAS BEEN SAID to indicate the seriousness and sobriety with which one must approach the study of the Holy Fathers. But the very habit of light-mindedness in 20th-century man, of not taking seriously even the most solemn subjects, of "playing with ideas"?which is what scholars at universities now do?makes it necessary for us to took more closely at some common mistakes which have been made by nominal Orthodox Christians in their study or teaching of the Holy Fathers. It will be necessary here to cite names and publications in order to know precisely the pitfalls into which many have already fallen. This examination will enable us to see more clearly how not to approach the Holy Fathers.


This, the pit into which the most light-minded of those interested in Orthodox theology or spirituality usually fall, is most apparent in "ecumenical" gatherings of many kinds conferences, "retreats," and the like. Such gatherings are a specialty of the English Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, as reflected in its journal, Sobornost. Here we may read, for example, in an address on the Desert Fathers by a supposedly Orthodox clergyman, "The Fathers of the Desert can play an extremely important role for us. They can be for all of us a wonderful place of ecumenical meeting." [1] Can the speaker be so naive as not to know that the Father he wishes to study, like all the Holy Fathers, would be horrified to learn that his words were being used to teach the art of prayer to the heterodox? It is one of the rules of politeness at such "ecumenical" gatherings that the heterodox are not informed that the first prerequisite for studying the Fathers is to have the same faith as the Fathers of Orthodoxy. Without this prerequisite all instruction in prayer and spiritual doctrine is only a deception, a means for further entangling the heterodox listener in his own errors. This is not fair to the listener; it it is not serious on the part of the speaker; it is exactly how not to undertake the study or the teaching of the Holy Fathers.

In the same periodical one may read of a "pilgrimage to Britain" wherein a group of Protestants attended services of various sects and then an Orthodox Liturgy, at which "the Father made a very clear and illuminating address on the topic of the Eucharist (Sobornost, Summer, 1969, p. 680). Undoubtedly the Father quoted the Holy Fathers in his address?but he did not bring understanding to his listeners; he only confused them the more by allowing them now to think that Orthodoxy is just another of the sects they were visiting, and that the Orthodox doctrine of the Eucharist can help them the better to understand their Lutheran or Anglican services. In an account of an "Ecumenical Retreat" in the same issue (p. 684), we find a result of the preaching of "Orthodox theology" under such conditions. After attending an Orthodox Liturgy, the retreatants attended a "Baptist Communion service," which was "a breath of fresh air." "Particularly refreshing was the little sermon on the note of Resurrection joy. Those of us who know the Orthodox Church have found the same truth expressed there and we were happy to find it in a Baptist service also." The Orthodox encouragers of such insensitive dilettantism have doubtless forgotten the Scriptural injunction: Cast not your pearls before swine.

Of late the same Fellowship has broadened its dilettantism, following the latest intellectual fashion, to include lectures on Sufism and other non-Christian religious traditions, which probably enrich the "spirituality" of the listeners in much the way Orthodoxy has been doing it for them up to now.

The same corrupt spiritual attitude may be seen on a more sophisticated level in the "agreed statements" that issue now and again from "consultations of theologians," whether Orthodox-Roman Catholic, Orthodox-Anglican, or the like. These "agreed statements," on such subjects as "the Eucharist" or "the nature of the Church" are, again, an exercise in "ecumenical" politeness which does not even hint to the heterodox (if the "Orthodox theologians" present even know it) that, whatever definition of such realities might be "agreed upon," the heterodox, being without the experience of living in the Church of Christ, lack the reality thereof. Such "theologians" do not hesitate even to seek some "agreement" on spirituality itself where, if anywhere, the impossibility of any agreement should be glaringly evident. Those who can believe, as the official "Message" of the "Orthodox-Cistercian Symposium" (Oxford, 1973) declares, that Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican monastics have a "deep unity between us, as members of monastic communities coming from different Church traditions," surely are thinking according to the corrupt wisdom of this world and its "ecumenical" fashions, and not in accordance with the Orthodox monastic-spiritual tradition, which is strict in its insistence on purity of faith. The worldly purpose and tone of such "dialogues" is made quite clear in a report on the same Symposium, which indicates that this "dialogue" is now going to be broadened to include non-Christian monasticism, something which will enable "our common Christian monasticism... to identify in some real way with the monasticism of Buddhism and Hinduism."[2] However sophisticated the participants in this Symposium may imagine themselves to be, their dilettantism is by no means superior to that of the Protestant laymen who are awed just as much by the Baptist communion service as by the Orthodox Liturgy.

Again, one may read, in an "Orthodox" periodical, an account of an "Ecumenical Institute on Spirituality" (Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox) held at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York in 1969, where a talk was given by the "broad-minded" Orthodox professor Nicholas Arseniev on Christian spirituality East and West. An Orthodox priest thus reports his talk: "One of the professor's most striking assertions was that there already exists a Christian unity in the saints of all Christian traditions. It would be interesting to try to work out the implications of this for a treatment of the doctrinal and institutional divisions which also clearly exist."[3] The doctrinal deviations of "Orthodox" ecumenists are bad enough, but when it comes to spirituality there seem to be no bounds whatever to what may be said or believed?an indication of how remote and vague the tradition and experience of genuine Orthodox spirituality have become to the "Orthodox theologians" of today. A true and serious study of "comparative spirituality" could indeed be made, but it will never produce an "agreed statement." To take only one example: the prime example of "Western spirituality" cited by Dr. Arseniev and nearly everyone else is Francis of Assisi, who according to the standard of Orthodox spirituality is a classic example of a monk who went spiritually astray and fell into deception (prelest) and was revered as a saint only because the West had already fallen into apostasy and lost the Orthodox standard of spiritual life. In our study of the Orthodox spiritual tradition in this book* it will be necessary to point out (by way of contrast) precisely where Francis and later Western "saints" went astray; for the present, it is enough to indicate that the attitude which produces such "ecumenical institutes" and "agreed statements" is basically the same attitude of frivolous dilettantism which we have already examined on a more popular level above.

The main cause of this spiritually pathological attitude is probably not so much the wrong intellectual attitude of theological relativism which prevails in "ecumenical" circles, as it is something deeper, something involved in the whole personality and way of life of most "Christians" today. One may see a glimpse of this in the comment of one Orthodox student at the "Ecumenical Institute," sponsored by the World Council of Churches at Bossey, Switzerland. Speaking of the value of "the personal encounter with so many different approaches which we had not previously experienced," he notes that "the best discussions" (which were on the subject of "Evangelism") "took place not during the plenary sessions, but rather when sitting by the fireplace drinking a glass of wine."[4] This almost off-hand remark reveals more than the "casualness" of contemporary life; it indicates a whole modern attitude toward the. Church and her theology and practice. But this brings us to the second basic pitfall we must avoid in our study of the Holy Fathers.


It is not only "ecumenical" gatherings which can be light-minded and frivolous; one may note precisely the same tone at "Orthodox" conventions and "retreats," and at gatherings of "Orthodox theologians." The Holy Fathers are not always directly involved or discussed in such gatherings, but an awareness of the spirit of such gatherings will prepare us to understand the background which seemingly serious Orthodox Christians bring with them when they begin to study spirituality and theology.

One of the largest "Orthodox" organizations in the United States is the "Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs," consisting chiefly of members of the former Russian-American Metropolia, which has a yearly convention whose activities are quite typical of "Orthodoxy" in America. The October, 1973, issue of The Russian Orthodox Journal is devoted to the Convention of 1973, at which Bishop Dimitry of Hartford told the delegates: "What I see here, and I mean this extremely sincerely, is that the FROC is potentially the greatest spiritual force in all of American Orthodoxy" (p. 18). It is true that a number of clergymen attend the Convention, usually including Metropolitan Ireney, that there are daily religious services, and that there is always a seminar on a religious subject. Significantly, during this year's seminar (entitled, in the "American Orthodox" spirit, "What? Lent Again?"), "questions arose about observing Saturday evening as a preparation period for Sunday. Conflicts arise because American life styles have made Saturday night the 'social night' of the week." One priest who was present gave an Orthodox answer to this, question: "On Saturday evening he advocates attendance at Vespers, confession, and a quiet evening" (p. 28). But for the Convention planners there was quite obviously no "conflict" whatever: they provided (as at every Convention) a Saturday-night dance fully in the "American life-style," and on other nights similar amusements, including a "Teenage Frolic" with a "Rock and Roll band," an imitation gambling casino "with an environment reminiscent of Las Vegas," and some instruction for men in "the 'cultural' art of belly dancing" (p. 24). The pictures accompanying the articles show some of these frivolities, which indeed assure us that "Orthodox" Americans are by no means behind their fellow countrymen in their pursuit of shamelessly inane entertainments?interspersed with solemn photographs of the Divine Liturgy. This mixture of the sacred and the frivolous is considered "normal" in "American Orthodoxy" today; this organization is (let us repeat the bishop's words) "potentially the greatest spiritual force in all of American Orthodoxy." But what spiritual preparation can a person bring to the Divine Liturgy when he has spent the previous evening celebrating the spirit of this world, and has spent many hours during the weekend at totally frivolous entertainments? A sober observer can only reply: Such a person brings the worldly spirit with him, worldliness is the very air he breathes; and therefore for him Orthodoxy itself enters into the "casual" American "life-style." If such a person were to begin reading the Holy Fathers, which speak of a totally different way of life, he would either find them totally irrelevant to his own way of life, or else would be required to distort their teaching in order to make it applicable to his way of life.

Let us look now at a more serious "Orthodox" gathering, where the Holy Fathers are indeed mentioned: the yearly "Conferences" of the "Orthodox Campus Commission." The Fall, 1975, issue of Concern magazine gives a number of photographs of the 1975 Conference, whose aim was entirely "spiritual": the same "casual" spirit, with young ladies in shorts (which puts even the FROC Convention to shame!), and the priest delivering a "main address" with his hand in his pocket... and in such an atmosphere Orthodox Christians discuss such subjects as "The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church." The same issue of Concern gives us an insight into what goes on in the minds of such outwardly "casual" people. A new "women's liberation" column (with a title so deliberately vulgar that we need not repeat it here) is edited by a smart young convert: "When I converted to Orthodoxy, I felt that I was aware of most of the problems that I would meet in the Church. I knew of the scandalous ethnicism that divides the Church, of the quarrels and factions that plague parishes, and of the religious ignorance..." This columnist then proceeds to advocate the "reform" of the traditional forty-day period for "churching" a woman after childbirth, as well as other "old-world" attitudes which this "enlightened" modern American finds "unfair." Perhaps she has never met a genuine Orthodox clergyman or layman who could explain to her the meaning or convey to her the tone of the authentic Orthodox way of life; perhaps if she did encounter such a one, she might not even wish to understand him, nor to comprehend that the worst of a convert's "problems" today are not in the easily-criticized Orthodox environment at all, but rather in the mind and attitude of the converts themselves. The way of life reflected in Concern is not the Orthodox way of life, and its very tone makes any approach to the Orthodox way of life almost impossible. Such periodicals and conferences reflect the majority of pampered, self-centered, frivolous young people of today who, when they come to religion, expect to find "spirituality with comfort," something which is instantly reasonable to their immature minds which have been stupefied by their "modern education." The young?and many older clergymen of today, themselves having been exposed to the worldly atmosphere in which young people are growing up?sometimes stoop to flattering the young people's easy criticism of their elders and their Orthodox "ghettos," and at best give powerless academic lectures on subjects far over their heads. Of what benefit is it to speak to such young people on "Deification" or "The Way of the Saints" (Concern, Fall, 1974)?concepts which, to be sure, are intellectually comprehensible to college students today, but for which they are emotionally and spiritually totally unprepared, not knowing the ABCs of what it means to struggle in the Orthodox life and separate oneself from one's own worldly background and upbringing? Without such preparation and training in the ABC's of spiritual life, and an awareness of the difference between worldliness and the Orthodox way of life, such lectures can have no fruitful spiritual result.

Seeing this background from which today's young Orthodox Christians are emerging in America (and throughout the free world), one is not surprised to discover the general lack of seriousness in most works?lectures, articles, books?on Orthodox theology and spirituality today; and the message of even the best lecturers and writers in the "mainstream" of the Orthodox jurisdictions today seems strangely powerless, without spiritual force. On a more popular level also, the life of the ordinary Orthodox parish today gives an impression of spiritual inertia quite similar to that of today's "Orthodox theologians." Why is this?

The powerlessness of Orthodoxy as it is so widely expressed and lived today is doubtless itself a product of the poverty, the lack of seriousness, of contemporary life. Orthodoxy today, with its priests and theologians and faithful, has become worldly. The young people who come from comfortable homes and either accept or seek (the "native Orthodox" and "converts" being alike in this regard) a religion that is not remote from the self-satisfied life they have known; the professors and lecturers whose milieu is the academic world where, notoriously, nothing is accepted as ultimately serious, a matter of life or death; the very academic atmosphere of self-satisfied worldliness in which almost all ''retreats'' and "conferences" and "institutes" take place?all of these factors join together to produce an artificial, hothouse atmosphere in which, no matter what might be said concerning exalted Orthodox truths or experiences, by the very context in which it is said and by virtue of the worldly orientation of both speaker and listener, it cannot strike to the depths of the soul and produce the profound commitment which used to be normal to Orthodox Christians. By contrast to this hothouse atmosphere, the natural Orthodox education, the natural transmission of Orthodoxy itself, occurs in what used to be accepted as the natural Orthodox environment: the monastery, where not only novices but also pious laymen come to be instructed as much by the atmosphere of a holy place as by the conversation of a particularly revered elder, the normal parish, if its priest is of the "old-fashioned" mentality, on fire with Orthodoxy and so desirous for the salvation of his flock that be will not excuse their sins and worldly habits but is always urging them to a higher spiritual life; even the theological school, if it is of the old type and not modelled on the secular universities of the West, where there is opportunity to make living contact with true Orthodox scholars who actually live their faith and think according to the "old school" of faith and piety. But all of this?what used to be regarded as the normal Orthodox environment?is now disdained by Orthodox Christians who are in harmony with the artificial environment of the modern world, and is no longer even part of the experience of the new generation. In the Russian emigration, the "theologians" of the new school, who are eager to be in harmony with intellectual fashion, to quote the latest Roman Catholic or Protestant scholarship, to adopt the whole "casual" tone of contemporary life and especially of the academic world?have been aptly called "theologians with a cigarette." With equal justification one might call them "theologians over a wine glass," or advocates of "theology on a full stomach" or "spirituality with comfort." Their message has no power, because they themselves are entirely of this world and address worldly people in a worldly atmosphere?from all this it is not Orthodox exploits that come, but only idle talk and empty, pompous phrases.

An accurate reflection of this spirit on a popular level may be seen in a brief article written by a prominent layman of the Greek Archdiocese in America and published in the official newspaper of this jurisdiction. Obviously influenced by the ''patristic revival" which hit the Greek Archdiocese and its seminary some years ago, this layman writes: "The phrase 'to be still' is a much needed one today. It is actually an important part of our Orthodox tradition, but the fast world in which we live seems to crowd it out of our schedule." To find this silence he advocates "making a beginning, even in our homes... At the table before eating, instead of a rote prayer why not a minute of silent prayer, and then jointly reciting the 'Our Father'? We could also experiment with this in our parishes during the services. Nothing need be added or detracted. At the end of the service merely forego any audible prayer, chanting, singing or movement, and just stand in silence, each of us praying for God's presence in our lives. Silence and body discipline are very much part of our Orthodox tradition. In centuries past it was called in the Eastern Church, the 'hesychast movement'... To be still. That is a beginning toward the inner renewal we all need, and should be seeking." (The Orthodox Observer, Sept. 17, 1975, p. 7.)

The author obviously means well, but like the Orthodox churches themselves today he is caught in a trap of worldly thinking which makes it impossible for him to see things in the normal Orthodox way. Needless to say, if one is going to read the Holy Fathers and undergo a "Patristic revival" only in order to fit into one's schedule now and then a moment of purely outward silence (which is obviously filled inwardly with the worldly tone of one's whole life outside of that moment!) and to inflate it with the exalted name of hesychasm?then it is better not to read the Holy Fathers at all, for this reading will simply lead us to become hypocrites and fakers, no more able than the Orthodox youth organizations to separate the sacred and the frivolous. In order to approach the Holy Fathers one must be striving to get out of this worldly atmosphere, after recognizing it for what it is. A person who is at home in the atmosphere of today's Orthodox "retreats ..., conferences," and "institutes" cannot he at home in the world of genuine Orthodox spirituality, which has a totally different "tone" from that which is present in these typical expressions of "religious" worldliness. We must face squarely a painful but necessary truth: a person who is seriously reading the Holy Fathers and who is struggling according to his strength (even if on a very primitive level) to lead an Orthodox spiritual life?must be out of step with the times, must be a stranger to the atmosphere of contemporary "religious" movements and discussions, must be consciously striving to lead a life quite different from that reflected in almost all "Orthodox" books and periodicals today. All this, to be sure, is easier said than done; but there are some helps of a general nature which can aid us in this struggle. To these we shall return after a brief examination of yet one more pitfall to avoid in our study of the Holy Fathers.



Given the powerlessness and insipidity of worldly "Orthodoxy" today, it is not surprising that some, even in the midst of worldly "Orthodox" organizations, should catch a glimpse of the fire of true Orthodoxy which is contained in the Divine services and in the Patristic writings, and, holding it as a standard against those who are satisfied with a worldly religion, should become zealots of true Orthodox life and faith. In itself, this is praiseworthy; but in actual practice it is not so easy to escape the nets of worldliness, and all too often such zealots not only show many signs of the worldliness they desire to escape, but also are led outside the realm of Orthodox tradition altogether into something more like a feverish sectarianism.

The most striking example of such "zeal not according to knowledge" is to be seen in the present-day "charismatic" movement. There is no need here to describe this movement.[5] Each issue of the "Orthodox charismatic" magazine, The Logos, makes it ever clearer that those among Orthodox Christians who have been drawn into this movement have no solid background in the experience of Patristic Christianity, and their apologies are almost entirely Protestant in language and tone. The Logos, to be sure, has quoted writings of St. Simeon the New Theologian and St. Seraphim of Sarov on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit; but the contrast between these true Orthodox teachings on the Holy Spirit and the Protestant experiences described in the same magazine is so glaring that it is obvious that there are two entirely different realities involved: one, the Holy Spirit, Who comes only to those struggling in the true Orthodox life, but not (in these latter times) in any spectacular way; and quite another, the ecumenist religious "spirit of the times," which takes possession precisely of those who give up (or never knew) the "exclusive" Orthodox way of life and "open" themselves to a new revelation accessible to all no matter of what sect. One who is carefully studying the Holy Fathers and applying their teaching to his own life will be able to detect in such a movement the tell-tale signs of spiritual deception (prelest), and also will recognize the quite un-Orthodox practices and tone which characterize it.

There is also a quite unspectacular form of "zeal not according to knowledge" which can be more of a danger to the ordinary serious Orthodox Christian, because it can lead him astray in his personal spiritual life without being revealed by any of the more obvious signs of spiritual deception. This is a danger especially for new converts, for novices in monasteries?and, in a word, for everyone whose zealotry is young, largely untested by experience, and untempered by prudence.

This kind of zeal is the product of the joining together of two basic attitudes. First, there is the high idealism which is inspired especially by accounts of desert-dwelling, severe ascetic exploits, exalted spiritual states. This idealism in itself is good, and it is characteristic of all true zealotry for spiritual life; but in order to be fruitful it must be tempered by actual experience of the difficulties of spiritual struggle, and by the humility born of this struggle if it is genuine. Without this tempering it will lose contact with the reality of spiritual life and be made fruitless by following?to cite again the words of Bishop Ignatius?"an impossible dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination." To make this idealism fruitful one must find out how to follow the counsel of Bishop Ignatius: "Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life" (The Arena, ch. 10).

Second, there is joined to this deceptive idealism, especially in our rationalistic age, an extremely critical attitude applied to whatever does not measure up to the novice's impossibly high standard. This is the chief cause of the disillusionment which often strikes converts and novices after their first burst of enthusiasm for Orthodoxy or monastic life has faded away. This disillusionment is a sure sign that their approach to spiritual life and to the reading of the Holy Fathers has been one-sided, with an over-emphasis on abstract knowledge that puffs one up, and a lack of emphasis or total unawareness of the pain of heart which must accompany spiritual struggle. This is the case with the novice who discovers that the rule of fasting in the monastery he has chosen does not measure up to that which he has read about among the desert Fathers, or that the Typicon of Divine services is not followed to the letter, or that his spiritual father has human failings like anyone else and is not actually a "God-bearing Elder"; but this same novice is the very first one who would collapse in a short while under a rule of fasting or a Typicon unsuited to our spiritually feeble days, and who finds it impossible to offer the trust to his spiritual-father without which he cannot be spiritually guided at all. People living in the world can find exact parallels to this monastic situation in new converts in Orthodox parishes today.

The Patristic teaching on pain of heart is one of the most important teachings for our days when "head-knowledge" is so much over-emphasized at the expense of the proper development of emotional and spiritual life. This will be discussed in the appropriate chapters of this Patrology. The lack of this essential experience is what above all is responsible for the dilettantism, the triviality, the want of seriousness in the ordinary study of the Holy Fathers today; without it, one cannot apply the teachings of the Holy Fathers to one's own life. One may attain to the very highest level of understanding with the mind the teaching of the Holy Fathers, may have "at one's fingertips" quotes from the Holy Fathers on every conceivable subject, may have "spiritual experiences" which seem to be those described in the Patristic books, may even know perfectly all the pitfalls into which it is possible to fall in spiritual life?and still, without pain of heart, one can be a barren fig tree, a boring "know-it-all" who is always "correct," or an adept in all the present-day "charismatic" experiences, who does not know and cannot convey the true spirit of the Holy Fathers.

All that has been said above is by no means a complete catalogue of the ways not to read or approach the Holy Fathers. It is only a series of hints as to the many ways in which it is possible to approach the Holy Fathers wrongly, and therefore derive no benefit or even be harmed from reading them. It is an attempt to warn the Orthodox Christian that the study of the Holy Fathers is a serious matter which should not be undertaken lightly, according to any of the intellectual fashions of our times. But this warning should not frighten away the serious Orthodox Christian. The reading of the Holy Fathers is, indeed, an indispensable thing for one who values his salvation and wishes to work it out with fear and trembling; but one must come to this reading in a practical way so as to make maximum use of it.


1. Archimandrite Demetrius Trakatellis, "St. Neilus on Prayer," Sobornost, 1966, Winter-Spring, page 84.

2. Diakonia, 1974, no. 4, pages 380, 392.

3. Fr. Thomas Hopko, in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 1969, no. 4, p. 225, 231.

4. St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 1969, no. 3, p. 164.

5. A detailed description may be read in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1975.

From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 11, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 1975), 228-239. It appears to have been the start of a book entitled The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality. Unfortunately, this series ended with this third installment.

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