Thursday, 7 December 2006

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

C. Better Understanding Orthodox Monasticism

The first thing to do is to read the Lives of Orthodox monastic saints, starting with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. In English, we are aware of the translations of Benedicta Ward and of the translations of Budge from the Syriac. Both are good, but they do not cover the whole range of manuscripts in all languages. We would avoid the ‘New Directions’ translation due to Thomas Merton. The situation is perfect in French, since Regnault has compiled a complete set in many volumes of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and there is now a critical edition of the ‘Systematic Collection’ in ‘Sources chrétiennes’ (a series published by Cerf in Paris), in the original Greek with French translation.

Next is the Life of Anthony.

‘Cistercian Studies’, a series published in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has an excellent work on St Pachomios, the founder of Egyptian coenobitical monasticism. This work includes all his Lives, and all the associated material.

Next are the works of St John Cassian. We would avoid the ‘Classics of Western Spirituality’ series translation. There is a mostly complete verson in ‘Post-Nicene Fathers’ which is to be preferred. It is more important for the beginner to read the Coenobitical Institutions than the Conferences’ although he will profit from the Conferences.

Next is the collection of Lives of Syrian saints written by Theodoretos of Cyr. He knew St Symeon Stylites personally and has a vivid vignette describing what occurred during one of his visits to St Symeon’s pillar. There is nothing of a dogmatic character in the Lives.

Next are the works of Cyril of Scythopolis, a collection of lives of St Euthymios the Great, St Savas the Sanctified and of a number of other saints of their circle in 5th and 6th Century Palestine. These lives gives very important information on monasticism, and also, for those who are interested, on the Origenist controversies of the 6th Century.

Later Orthodox saints that are very important include St Lazarus of Mt Galesion (11th Century), whose Life is really a monastic catechism. The Life can be found on-line at This is a book-length PDF download of almost 1MB.

In general, read all the Lives of Orthodox monastic saints written by their immediate disciples that you can get your hands on. We would recommend against reading periodicals published by non-canonical jurisdictions even if they contain Lives of saints. Sometimes these publications lack a sound Orthodox phronema (habit of thought) and you can get a bad spiritual headache, not to mention axes ground in your mind by a mixed-up guy who thinks he’s more Orthodox than St John Chrysostom. This also applies to periodicals published by groups with a dubious history.

There is a new English translation of Abba Isaiah, who is very important, by Pachomios Penkett and Rev Dr John Chryssavgis.

There is a translation of the homilies of St Dorotheos of Gaza in the ‘Cistercian Studies’ series.

In general we would recommend against reading St Ephraim the Syrian and St Isaac the Syrian in the modern English translations unless your confessor suggests it.

This also goes for the ascetical works of Evagrius Ponticus.

This also goes for such works as the Philokalia and the collected works of St Symeon the New Theologian.

There will be time for these works once you get the spiritual basics down.

Read the ascetical works of St Basil the Great, especially his homilies on the ascetical life and the ‘long’ and ‘short’ rules.

Read St John of Sinai, the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Read the available works of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain.

In terms of modern works, the most important work to read is undoubtedly St Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). This work contains the writings of St Silouan the Athonite together with a very important introduction by Archimandrite Sophrony. St Silouan is a man of great love; pray to him and to Fr Sophrony.

Read The Way of the Pilgrim, in the translation by a fellow named French.

Read Archimandrite Sophrony’s autobiography, We Shall See Him as He Is. We have the impression that it is out of print, but it should be available somewhere. Unless you have theological inclinations, don’t start off with Fr Sophrony’s other works; they are too difficult. However, if you read the French language and can get hold of the translations from the Russian into the French of his ‘Homilies to the Community’ delivered by him near the end of his life, these are well worth walking a mile for.

Read the works of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain that are available in English.

Read the works of Elder Ephraim of St Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona.

Read the Life of Elder Joseph the Hesychast published by Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos, and his letters, published by St Athonys Monastery in Arizona.

Read the Life of Elder Charalambos, the former Abbot of Dionysiou Monastery on Mt Athos. This work is hard to find in English translation, but they have it at the bookstore at St Anthony’s Monastery (ask them).

Read the Life of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia. This is available in English. Think about what obedience means. It is important to realize that Elder Ephraim of Katounakia achieved sanctity not through bodily asceticism—he was physically too weak and would get ill—but through an obedience that would leave most of us in despair in five minutes.

Elders Charalambos and Ephraim of Katounakia were disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast along with Elder Ephraim of Arizona.

There is a collection of letters of direction of St Ambrose of Optina Monastery, done by Dunlop.

The letters of spiritual direction of St Theohpane the Recluse (19th Century) are good.

In reading the collected letters and remarks of modern Elders, it is very important to bear in mind the following point: The Elder speaks to a specific situation by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That advice is for that person in that situation. The next day the Elder might say the complete opposite to someone else, responding to what would seem to us to be the same situation; however, the next day’s remarks might not have been recorded, so that we see in the book we are reading only the first day’s remarks. We can’t apply the occasional remarks of Elders willy-nilly to ourselves without discernment. They are directed to a specific time, place, person and situation.

We ourselves have published a translation of the vows of the tonsure to the Great Schema on this blog in this post. We have also commented on these vows, both the narrow meaning of the words and the broader sense of what it’s all about, in the subsequent two posts, here and here. [Update May 16, 2007: we have just published the full service of the tonsure to the Great Schema in this post of May 14, 2007.] While you might think that the Great Schema is not for you, it is the criterion and standard by which all Orthodox monasticism is judged. Hence, even if we are far from it, we must know the Great Schema and measure ourselves by it. A complete English translation of the services of tonsure for all three degrees of Orthodox monasticism is to be found in N. F. Robinson, Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches, 1916. That out-of-print work was republished some years ago by a group in Seattle, but we believe that that reprint is now also out of print. The work is worth tracking down, although not so much so that you should pay an arm and a leg for it.

In general, read our own posts from the beginning of this blog, especially on the Jesus Prayer, starting on September 28, 2005; on the passions, starting on October 8, 2005; and on combating the passions, starting on November 7, 2005. Those series of posts contain discussions that will help you.

We have here given our references to previous posts by date because these are series of posts, and a specific URL for the first post in a series would make navigation difficult. Using the monthly archives will be more convenient for you, starting with the month in which the series that interests you begins.

There are various recordings of Elders’ homilies that circulate either publicly or privately. If you understand the language, if the Elder has a sound reputation and if you are sure that the recording and distribution have been authorized by the Elder, then there is no reason not to listen to such homilies.

Avoid modern works with novel interpretations of the ancient monastic saints, for example ones which ‘prove’ that Evagrius was not a heretic, that St Anthony was a ‘gnostic’ and so on. These are the supposedly scholarly works, not the popular works that take you right off the deep end with conspiracy theories about the Gospel transmission or about how the apocryphal Gnostic gospels have the same validity as the canonical gospels. The serious Orthodox does not get mixed up with this stuff.

Visit a monastery. You can’t become a monk if you don’t have a monastery to become a monk in. Unfortunately, Orthodox monasticism in the West is a mixed bag. It is possible to fall in with a group of mixed-up people and thus to damage yourself for life. Be cautious. Go only to monasteries in canonical jurisdictions. Go to monasteries that have an Elder with a sound reputation. (That doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t have enemies.) If you are serious about monasticism, it would be good to have a confessor who is a monastic and also to visit Mt Athos. The ‘Friends of Mt Athos’ have the details on their web-site about how the paperwork is done for a visit to Mt Athos. Once you are on Mt Athos, you can request an extension of your visitor’s permit. If you explain that you are thinking of becoming a monk, that you are already Orthodox and that you are expected by a monastery that you have already contacted before coming, then the Fathers at the Holy Community will be happy to assist you to spend more time on the Holy Mountain. If you belong to a non-Greek jurisdiction, there is no reason not to visit monasteries in the home country of your jurisdiction, especially if you have roots and perhaps some command of the language.

D. General Remarks

Read, if you can, the services of the Church. Especially study the texts of the Divine Liturgy, in all three forms that the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the Orthodox Church. If you can get hold of a video which explains the Divine Liturgy in detail, study it. The same for a video on the layout of the Church, the priest’s vestments, the various services and so on.

Go to Church. Attend the Church services in a canonical jurisdiction. Participate, if you can, without losing humility. There’s nothing worse than an Orthodox know-it-all running roughshod over the people around him who know far more than he but who are too spiritual to say anything.

Avoid ecclesiastical disputes. You’re a learner, not a teacher.

St John of Sinai in the Ladder counsels three things that are very important in regard to becoming a monk: First, the beginning monastic needs a guide. Without a guide, you are headed for delusion and a mental hospital. Next, not every guide is for every man or woman. The guide must be suited to your character, to what your spiritual problem really is, to what your controlling passion or weakness really is. Finally, St John recommends that we be a little bit devious when we are selecting our Elder: We should approach the Elder and his monastery as if we were merely visitors. Then we should use our discernment (in the case of us beginners, through prayer and our confessor who is not part of the monastery) to size up the Elder and the monastery. We shouldn’t merely jump off the deep end and hope for the best. But, says St John, once we have selected an Elder and a monastery, then we should exercise obedience. After all, we came to be trained, not to train others. As the reader can infer, we wouldn’t dream of entering an Orthodox monastery that was not in a canonical jurisdiction, nor one where there was any hint of moral turpitude, nor one where there were a lot of monks with mental problems.

In terms of secular literature, there is nothing wrong with having a broad education. However, it must be pointed out that post-modern literature is ‘post-nihilist’: post-nowhere, post-lost-in-the-passions. It might be good for you to consult with someone about your capacity in this regard, whether for example there is anything wrong given who you are with your reading Shakespeare. We ourselves think very highly of Middlemarch by George Eliot although that work is explicitly anti-Christian. We don’t think highly of it because of Eliot’s anti-Christian sentiments, but because of her compassion and her characterization of Dorothea Brooke. But presumably we read it at an age where our faith was not in danger. Your confessor can help in such matters.

Of course, you will read Dostoyevsky unless you find him too heavy. We should suggest reading him in the order of composition of his works.

If you have any idea that you would want to study theology, you are going to have to study Greek philosophy.

That should do you for a while.

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