Thursday, 7 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 15A — What Should I Be Reading A & B?

In our last post, we answered the first of two questions posed by a reader. We continue with the second question, what he should be reading to deepen his knowledge of Orthodoxy and to better understand Orthodox monasticism—clearly because he is considering entering a monastery. Let us treat this matter in four sections: assumptions about who the reader is; what he should be reading to deepen his knowledge of Orthodoxy; what he should be reading to better understand Orthodox monasticism; and general remarks. However, because of technical problems with Blogger, we must break this up into two separate posts, 15A and 15B.

A. Assumptions

Judging from our reader’s name, he is a Romanian; judging from his diction, he lives in the United States and English is his first language or close to it. Since English is his first language, we doubt that he will, as an American, be at ease reading in other languages, even Romanian. This somewhat limits the possibilities of his improving his knowledge of Orthodoxy and Orthodox monasticism because, unfortunately, the Orthodox literature in English is not very good. There just isn’t much of it. Moreover, what there is of it is not always very good or even very complete. We will concentrate on books in English with reference to works in other languages.

We gather that our young reader is in his twenties, that he is intelligent, and that, as he says, he has returned from a wasted ‘adolescence’ to the Church. We imagine that he is attending an Orthodox Church, possibly but not certainly the Romanian Church. Since we assume that he is an American, it behoves us to recognize that there is a plethora of jurisdictions that he might be attending, from the Romanian Church to the Orthodox Church in America to the Antiochan Church—even with a Western rite—to one of the many Slavic jurisdictions to a non-canonical jurisdiction. Since he doesn’t speak in detail about his childhood, we assume that in his childhood he was a nominal Orthodox and that he did not receive a serious spiritual formation although he did attend the mysteries (sacraments).

B. Deepening Our Knowledge of Orthodoxy

With the above assumptions, we strongly recommend to our reader to read the Fathers of the Church, beginning with the simpler Fathers. We suggest that above all he read the commentaries of St John Chrysostom. Particularly important is the formation that St John gives in his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew and, we believe, the Gospel of John. These works can be found in the series ‘Post-Nicene Fathers’. The problem here, which shouldn’t bother our particular reader given his intelligence and command of English, is that the ‘Post-Nicene Fathers’ translations were done in a high Victorian style.

There is another problem in the ‘Post-Nicene Fathers’ series collection of St John Chrysostom’s works in that the translations and notes were done by Protestants. This is not much of a problem in the commentaries of St John Chrysostom on the Gospels, but it shows through in his commentaries on Romans: the Protestants don’t like what St John is saying, even though they don’t understand it, and treat St John with respect only in their words. They insert a different text of Romans into the commentary than the one that St John had before him (compare the texts of Romans in ‘Post Nicene Fathers’ to the ancient Greek texts of the commentaries), and then criticize St John’s interpretation of the text they have inserted. But our reader should be able to sort through that. One very important aspect of St John Chrysostom’s commentaries is that he always spends half his homily on interpretation and the other half on a moral exhortation. This is very important for our reader living as he does in Protestant America: he will develop an Orthodox moral sense and orientation from St John’s moral exhortations. We cannot overemphasize this.

The next work that our young Romanian-American should be reading is the Catechisms of St Cyril of Jerusalem, also to be found in ‘Post-Nicene Fathers’. This is not only a matter of the ‘mystagogical catechisms’, the ones that were delivered to the newly baptized, but also of the others, the ones that were delivered to the catechumens before they were baptized. We point this out because we believe there is an English edition which has only the mystagogical catechisms. Don’t read these first: read the whole set in order. We have seen someone suggest that since St Cyril does not comment on the whole Nicene Creed, then he was using a different form of the creed than the Nicene Creed. This is silly. He was commenting on what he thought was important. Someone else would have gone through the creed in detail.

The reader should read St Athanasios of Alexandria, the Great, especially ‘On the Incarnation’.

He should read the Apostolic Fathers. This is a collection of writings of St Clement of Rome, St Polycarp of Smyrna, St Ignatios of Antioch and so on, men who were the immediate disciples of the Apostles. There are a variety of translations of this work.

He should read St Irenaeus of Lyons.

He should read St John of Damascus. His most important work is the Fountain of Knowledge. This is a three-part work. The first part is a summary of Aristotelian philosophy. This should not be too difficult for our intelligent young reader. The next part is a summary of heresies, based for the most part on St Epiphanios of Cyprus, although the remarks on Islam are clearly those of St John, who grew up in Damascus at the court of the Caliph. The final part is the Summary of the Orthodox Faith, which is very important, although without a complete command of Aristotelian philosophy as St John of Damascus understood it, some of the fine points will be lost on the reader. Next by St John of Damascus is a work that might cause some of our readers to object: the Life of Barlaam and Ioasaph. It has been objected that this is really a Life of Buddha that has been assimilated through a translation from the Georgian into the Greek by an Abbot of Iviron Monastery on Mt Athos, and taken over by the Orthodox. First of all, it is naïve to think that everything that comes out of the East is exactly what it claims to be: does anyone seriously think that the Life of Buddha was written down immediately upon the Buddha’s death? Hence, any serious study of Barlaam and Ioasaph (which has not been done) would have to consider the textual history of the Life of Buddha. Good luck! Moreover, in its present form, whatever the provenance of its plot-line, Barlaam and Ioasaph is a catechism written by an Orthodox Father of the Church. This unfortunately does not come through too well in the Loeb translation, especially when the Creed is being discussed. The underlying Greek is much clearer and much more Orthodox than the rather confused and stilted translation by the two Anglican divines. We understand, perhaps wrongly, that a new translation of Barlaam and Ioasaph has been made but we do not know anything about it. The reader should also read St John of Damascus, ‘On the Icons’.

The next writer is very important for those in our day and age who have an intellectual maturity: Clement of Alexandria, the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. (By ‘school’ we here mean an actual building and students, not a school of interpretation.) Clement is recognized as a saint in the West, in the Roman Catholic Church, but he is not so honored by the Orthodox (although there is no reason to suppose that there is anything wrong with him). There are three basic works by Clement, some of which are available in English (in general, searching the Net will bring up various works, publishers, booksellers for the books and so on). It seems to us that the most complete editions of his works are to be found in French, but even they are not complete. In one of his works, Clement discusses moral life in Alexandria in his day, the late Roman Empire. He could be writing in America today. This should make us uneasy.

Read St Basil the Great, especially ‘On the Holy Spirit’ and ‘On the Six Days of Creation’ (we will mention his ascetical works below). In general, it will not be useful to the beginner to jump in the deep end of the Arian dogmatic disputes. You need a lot of philosophy to understand them. For the same reason, and because he is at the best of times extremely difficult, we recommend against reading St Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil’s brother, at the beginning.

Some Roman Catholic series have reliable translations of the Fathers, for example the ‘Ancient Christian Writers’ series based at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Other Roman Catholic series, such as the ‘Classics of Western Spirituality’, are much less useful.

Some modern Elders have written—or have had their sayings collected—concerning broader social issues for the Orthodox Christian. These are good works to read if you can find them in a language that you know. Among these Elders are Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, especially in the series called ‘Logoi’ published in Greek by the Hesychasterion of St John the Theologian in Souroti, Greece, where Elder Paisios is buried. Since the sisters of the Hesychasterion arrange for translations of Elder Paisios’ works, it may be that ‘Logoi’ may yet come out in English, although we have no information yet. Wounded by Love, the spiritual reminiscences and teachings of Elder Porphyrios, is a work to which we have referred many times in this blog. There are also the writings of Elder Aimilianos, the ailing Elder of Simonos Petra on Mount Athos. His works are published by the woman’s monastery of the Annunciation that he founded in Ormylia, Greece, and are also available through the Greek publisher Indiktos. Elder Aimilianos’ works are important but difficult. Some of them have been translated into English and these are worthwhile to track down and read. More of the works have been translated into French.

In general, we should avoid modern writers who have theories about the end-times. It is not to the advantage of the Christian to spend his time on the end-times when he should be spending on the poor and homeless.

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