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  How Not to Read the Holy Fathers  


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

(Part 1), (Part 2)

The Third Pitfall: "ZEAL NOT ACCORDING TO KNOWLEDGE" (Rom. 10:2)

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 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 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 know ledge" is to be seen in the present-day "charismatic" movement. There is no need here to describe this movement. It is clear enough 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 We must distinguish between two entirely different realities: 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 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 con tact with the reality of spiritual life and be made fruitless. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov has written: "If a book gives counsels on silence and shows the abundance of spiritual fruits that are gathered in profound silence, the beginner invariably has the strongest desire to go off into solitude, to an uninhabited desert. If a book speaks of unconditional obedience under the direction of a Spirit- bearing Father, the beginner will inevitably develop a desire for the strictest life in complete submission to an Elder. God has not given to our time either of these two ways of life. But the books of the Holy Fathers describing these states can influence a beginner so strongly that out of inexperience and ignorance he can easily decide to leave the place where he is living and where he has every convenience to work out his salvation and make spiritual progress by putting into practice the evangelical commandments, for an impossible dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination." Therefore, he concludes: "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. 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 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 cone to this reading in a practical way so as to make maximum use of it.

(From The Orthodox Word, Jan.-Feb., l975)

(Part 1), (Part 2)

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