In the Heart of the Desert: Continuing Reflections on How to Read the Fathers
Before looking at the writings of the desert Fathers or looking at specific themes that emerge in “philokalic” spirituality, I have thought it important to spend a great deal of time considering how to understand their lives more deeply and how to approach their writings. Today I want to consider how NOT to read the Fathers. Again, I am following the thought of Seraphim Rose, (August 13, 1934 - September 2, 1982), an American hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia who co-founded the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in California. His thought about the matter is challenging and direct - not only about the seriousness and sobriety that we must have in approaching the study of the Fathers but of the necessity of overcoming the habits of “light-mindedness”, of “not taking seriously enough even the most solemn subjects,” and of “playing with ideas”, into which we often fall.
The first pitfall that Seraphim Rose speaks of is “dilettantism”; that is, having an interest in a subject but no real commitment to it. This can be true of the spiritual life in general or of reading the desert Fathers. We may be “dabblers” - engaging in a study, or in certain spiritual activities or ascetic practices, but having no serious intentions or experiential knowledge. We do ourselves and others an injustice when we study or speak of the Fathers as if it can be separated from right faith and practice. Studying the Fathers can become the latest intellectual fashion whereby we are trying to enrich our own and others “spirituality”. It is a kind of corrupt spiritual attitude that we often fall into that believes we can study these writings while being removed from the experience of the living in the Church of Christ - of lacking the reality to which the Fathers writings point. One might approach the Fathers to broaden one’s mind but lack purity of faith and so fall into deception. What I find striking about Rose’s thought here is that he sees the cause of this pathological attitude not simply relativism but rather something deeply rooted in “the whole personality and way of life of most ‘Christians’ today. It is not just the ‘casualness’ of contemporary life, but “indicates a whole modern attitude toward the Church and her theology and practice.”
The second pitfall that Seraphim Rose speaks of is doing “Theology with a Cigarette” - the tendency we have at times of mixing the sacred and the frivolous. This is true in the spiritual life in general today. In what way are we prepared to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, for example, if we are constantly celebrating in the spirit of the world and immersed in its frivolous entertainments - or worse yet immersed in those things that are contrary to spirit of the Gospel. Rose states: “Such a person brings the worldly spirit with him, worldliness is the very air he breathes. . . .; If such a person were to begin reading the 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 of life.” The loss of moral and spiritual authority in the Church today is “doubtless itself the product of the poverty, the lack of seriousness, of contemporary life.” Priest, theologian, and faithful have become worldly. The Fathers, Rose goes on to say, are often studied and discussed in an “artificial hothouse atmosphere in which, no matter what might be said concerning exalted . . truth or experiences, by the very context in which it is said and by virtue of the worldly orientation of both speaker and listener, it cannot strike to the depths of the soul and produce the profound commitment” it should. We often fail to examine our hearts in this fashion when approaching our faith and spiritual tradition and we also fail, according to Rose, to face squarely a painful but necessary truth: “a person who is is seriously reading the Holy Fathers and who is struggling according to his strength (even if on a very primitive level) to lead a . . spiritual life - must be out of step with the times, must be a stranger to the atmosphere of contemporary ‘religious’ movements and discussions, must be consciously striving to lead a life quite different from that reflected” in many spiritual books and conferences.
The third and final pitfall Seraphim Rose describes using a quote from St. Paul - “zeal not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). There are contemporary movements that, while catching a glimpse of the fire of truth faith, in their worldliness lead people into “something more like a feverish sectarianism.” Beyond this, Rose describes a more subtle form of zeal not according to knowledge - high idealism. This is inspired by the lives and asceticism of the desert Fathers but it is not “tempered by actual experience of the difficulties of the spiritual struggle, and by the humility born of this struggle if it is genuine. Without this tempering it will lose contact with the reality of spiritual life and be made fruitless by an impossible dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his imagination.” Developing with this is a “critical attitude applied to whatever does not measure up to the [person’s] impossibly high standard.” In the end, this leads to disillusionment and a waning of one’s initial enthusiasm. The one-sidedness of their approach to the Fathers and the spiritual life is revealed. They lack an “emphasis or total awareness of the pain of heart which must accompany spiritual struggle.”
All of these things, Seraphim Rose tells us, are “hints as to the many ways in which it is possible to approach the Holy Fathers wrongly.” The study of the Fathers is not to be ‘undertaken lightly, according to any of the intellectual [or spiritual fashions] of our times. . . .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 . . .”
***All quotes taken from an article by Seraphim Rose entitled: “How Not to Read the Fathers” and can be found online at orthodoxinfo.com.