The Role of Books on the Spiritual Life

Father Stephen Freeman writes:

Somewhere in the mid-80’s, I met a woman who had been an Anglican nun, but had converted to Orthodoxy. Where I met her is a long story and not of real concern. But I was very interested to hear her story and find out about someone who had actually done what, at the time, was little more than a fantasy for me.

She told me her story – which itself was quite a spiritual journey. Then she asked me about myself and my interest in Orthodoxy. I have no remembrance of what I said to her. Doubtless I rambled on a bit about this and that.

When I finished she said to me, “Stephen, you think a lot. Someday, you’ll think with your heart and when you do, you’ll be Orthodox.”

I was struck dumb at the statement, but it stayed with me – for years. Indeed, I pondered it even after I became Orthodox.

In a book by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (Pilgrimage to Dzhivari), the abbot of a monastery says to the main character (a woman who has largely found her way into Orthodoxy by an intellectual path): “You should read no more hours in a day than you pray.” I was struck by the statement when I first read it and thought that there was more than a little truth in it.

If, before becoming Orthodox, I had spent 100 hours in reading about the Orthodox faith (I have no way of guessing what the real amount of time was), it is certainly true that it had far less impact on my life than the first 100 hours of worship as an Orthodox Christian.

This is certainly true. Though I’m afraid that I have spent far more time reading than praying, it is undeniable that the Divine Services (especially that first fateful Divine Liturgy) have had more of an impact on me than any book. That’s one of the things I love about Orthodoxy – that I can read Blessed Sophrony’s On Prayer, and almost every time be convicted enough to put it down and start praying. That’s “keeping it real.”

Books should never be disparaged (least of all by someone who tends to write as much as I do). However, by their very nature, books will not bring us into the Kingdom of God. Indeed, the intellectual life can often be a poor substitute, even a delusion, when it comes to the truth of our life in Christ.

One hour of prayer, or one hour of Church, is worth far more than one hour of reading in the same way that one hour of walking is of more value than one hour of reading about the benefits of walking. But this very fact is frequently stated in one form or another in the books one reads on Orthodoxy. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of reading books telling us to do something other than reading books. We agree intellectually and then keep on reading.

In truth, I probably read less now than at any time in my life and how I read has changed greatly. I pick books very carefully now, and often take a long time to read them (a few pages a day). Of course, I’ve read a lot over the years that remains somewhere in my brain, undigested. It is useful, certainly, to have a certain amount of information at hand. But information is useless until you know what it means and how to use it.

Thus I read much less than I once did.

The conversion to Orthodoxy, I believe, happens somewhere that books rarely go (except by the grace of God). It is as I was told, “Someday you’ll think with your heart, and then you’ll be Orthodox.” It is a paradox to “think with the heart” but I know more about what it means now than when I first heard it and I continue to learn. Just finding the place of the heart is itself a great spiritual struggle. For me, it required a complete change in my life – leaving my employment and identity and beginning anew as a newly Chrismated Orthodox Christian. And that was only a beginning.

[hat tip to the God parents]


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