Orthodox America

How Not to Read the Holy Fathers  

(Part 1), (Part 3)

There is always the danger that life can be converted into a hothouse. a greenhouse, where it will be supported by artificial warmth, and as soon as the source of warmth ceases to operate, life will perish. There must be a constant source of life...ceaselessly nourished by that Elemental power which the Church of Christ gives, which is incarnated in the Orthodox way of live.
"The Restoration of the Orthodox Way of Life"

Below is the second part in a series of excerpts from the Introduction to I.M. Kontzevich's book, The Holy Fathers of Orthodox Spirituality.

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 look more closely at-some common mistakes which have been made by nominal Orthodox Christians in their study or teaching of the Holy Fathers This examination will enable us to see more clearly how not to approach the Holy Fathers.

The First Pitfall: DILETTANTISM

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. 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. 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-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 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.

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 the 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.

The main cause of this spiritual pitfall 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.. . The "casualness" of contemporary life produces a whole wrong 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 theologiana" 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.

Orthodox youth conventions in America as a general rule are an incongruous combination of the sacred and the profane: the serving of Divine Liturgy and discussions on such questions as the keeping of Lent, mixed with elaborate Saturday-night dances fully in the "American life-style" and other amusements for the delegates including "rock and roll" bands, imitation gambling casinos and "belly dances." 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 week-end 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

Even more serious gatherings sponsored by some Orthodox jurisdictions usually fail to escape the light-minded spirit of contemporary life. Usually, they only reflect the majority of pampered, self-centered, frivolous young people of today who, when they come to religion, expect to find "spirituality with comfort," some thing which is instantly reasonable to their immature minds which have been stupefied by their "modern education."

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.

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 worldy. 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" takes 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 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 spiritual father; 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 he 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 modeled 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.

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 Or t h o do x spiritual life-must be out of step with the times, must be a stranger to the atmosphere of c on t e m per a r y "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.

(From The Orthodox Word, Jan. - Feb., 1975)

(Part 1), (Part 3)