On Reading the Holy Fathers
by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
Conversation and association with one's neighbors very much affects a person. Conversation and acquaintance with a learned man communicates much knowledge; with a poet, many exalted thoughts and feelings; with a traveler, much information about countries, about the characters and customs of peoples. It is obvious that conversation and acquaintance with the saints communicates holiness. "With the holy man wilt thou be holy, and with the innocent man wilt thou be innocent. And with the elect man wilt thou be elect" (Psalms 17:25-26).From henceforth, during the time of this short earthly life, which Scripture has not even called "life," but rather "journeying," let us become acquainted with the saints. Do you want to belong to their society in heaven, do you want to be a partaker of their blessedness? From henceforth enter into association with them. When you go forth from the house of the body, then they will receive you to themselves as their own acquaintance, as their own friend (Luke 16:9).
There is no closer acquaintance, there is no tighter bond, than the bond of oneness of thoughts, oneness of feelings, oneness of goal (I Corinthians 1:10).
Where there is oneness of thoughts, there without fail is oneness of soul, there without fail is one goal, an identical success in the attaining of one's goal.
Appropriate to yourself the thoughts and the spirit of the Holy Fathers by reading their writings. The Holy Fathers attained the goal: salvation. And you will attain this goal by the natural course of things. As one who is of one thought and one soul with the Holy Fathers, you will be saved.
Heaven received into its blessed bosom the Holy Fathers. By this it has borne witness that the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the Holy Fathers are well-pleasing to it. The Holy Fathers set forth their thoughts, their heart, the image of their activity in their writings. This means: what a true guidance to heaven, which is borne witness to by heaven itself, are the writings of the Fathers.
The writings of the Holy Fathers are all composed by the inspiration or under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Wondrous is the agreement among them, wondrous is the anointing! One who is guided by them has without any doubt whatsoever the guidance of the Holy Spirit.All the waters of the earth flow together into the ocean, and it may be that the ocean serves as the beginning of all the waters of the earth. The writings of the fathers are all united in the Gospel; they all incline towards teaching us the exact fulfillment of the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ; of all of them both the source and the end is the holy Gospel.
The Holy Fathers teach how to approach the Gospel, how to read it, how to understand it correctly, what helps and what hinders in comprehending it. And therefore in the beginning occupy yourself with the reading of the Fathers. When they have taught you how to read the Gospel, then read the Gospel primarily.
Do not consider it sufficient for yourself to read the Gospel alone, without the reading of the Holy Fathers! This is a proud, dangerous thought. Better, let the Holy Fathers lead you to the Gospel, as their beloved child who has received his preparatory upbringing and education by means of their writings.
Many people, all who have senselessly and presumptuously rejected the Holy Fathers, who have come without any intermediary, with a blind audacity, with an impure mind and heart to the Gospel, have fallen into fatal delusion. The Gospel has rejected them; it grants access to itself only to the humble.
The reading of the Fathers' writings is the father and the king of all virtues. From the reading of the Fathers' writings we learn the true understanding of Holy Scripture, right faith, the way of life in accord with the Gospel's commandments, the deep esteem which one should have toward the Gospel commandments—to say it in a word, one learns salvation and Christian perfection.
Because of the diminishing of Spirit-bearing instructors, the reading of the Fathers' writings has become the main guide for those who wish to be saved and even attain Christian perfection. (Rule of St. Nil Sorsky)
The books of the Holy Fathers, as one of them has expressed it, are like a mirror; looking into them attentively and frequently, a soul can see all of its shortcomings.
Again, these books are like a rich collection of medicinal means; in them the soul can seek for each of its illnesses a saving remedy.
St. Ephphanius of Cyprus said, "A mere glance at holy books arouses one towards the pious life." (Alphabetic Patericon)
The reading of the Holy Fathers should be careful, attentive, and constant; our invisible enemy, who hates the voice of confirmation (Proverbs 11:15), hates especially when this voice comes forth from the Holy Fathers. This voice unmasks the wiles of our enemy, his evilness, reveals his snares, his way of working; and therefore the enemy arms himself against the reading of the Fathers by various proud and blasphemous thoughts, tries to cause the ascetic to fall into vain cares in order to distract him from this saving reading, fights with him by means of despondency, depression, forgetfulness. From this warfare against the reading of the Holy Fathers we should conclude how saving (is) the weaponry for us, by the degree to which it is hated by the enemy. The enemy makes all efforts to wrest it out of our hands.
Let each personally choose for himself the reading from the Fathers which corresponds to his way of life. Let the hermit read the Fathers who wrote about the solitary life; let the monk who lives in the cenobitic life read the Fathers who wrote instructions for cenobitic monks; let the Christian who lives in the world read the Holy Fathers who pronounced their teachings for all Christianity in general. Let everyone, in whatsoever calling he be, draw forth abundant instruction in the writings of the Fathers.
It is absolutely necessary that the reading correspond to one's way of life. Otherwise you will be filled with thoughts which, although holy, will be unfulfillable in the actual deed and will arouse you to fruitless activity in only the imagination and desire; the work of piety which does correspond to your way of life will slip out of your hands. Not only will you become a fruitless dreamer—your thoughts, being in constant opposition to your sphere of activity, will without fail give birth to turmoil in your heart, and to uncertainty in your conduct, which are burdensome and harmful for you and for your neighbors. By an incorrect reading of Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers, one can easily deviate from the saving path into impassable thickets and deep abysses, which has happened with many. Amen.
From Living Orthodoxy (Vol. XVII, No. 2, March-April 1995)