Elder Paisios the New of Mount Athos: On Theology

Theology is the word of God, which is apprehended by pure, humble and spiritually regenerated souls, and not the beautiful words of the mind, which are crafted with literary art and expressed by the legal or worldly spirit. . . .

Theology that is taught like a science usually examines things historically and, consequently, things are understood externally. Since patristic ascesis and inner experience are absent, this kind of theology is full of uncertainty and questions. For with the mind one cannot grasp the Divine Energies if he does not first practice ascesis and live the Divine Energies, that the Grace of God might be energized within him.

Whoever thinks that he can come to know the mysteries of God through external scientific theory, resembles the fool who wants to see Paradise through a telescope.

Those who struggle patristically become empirical theologians through the visitation of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. All those who have an external education, in addition to the internal enlightenment of the soul, may describe the divine mysteries and interpret them correctly, as did many Holy Fathers.

If, however, one does not become spiritually related to the Holy Fathers and wants to take up translating or writing, he will wrong both the Holy Fathers and himself, as well as the people, with his spiritual cloudiness.

Neither is it right for someone to theologize using someone else’s theology, because he will resemble an impotent man who adopts others’ children, presents them as his own and pretends to be the father of a large family. The Holy Fathers took the divine word or personal experiences from their hearts: the result of spiritual battles against evil and the fire of temptations, which they confessed humbly, or, out of love, wrote down in order to help us. . . .

Those who are grateful towards God for everything and constantly attend to themselves humbly and look after God’s creatures and creation with kindness, theologize and thus become the most faithful theologians, even if illiterate. They are like the illiterate shepherds who observe the weather in the countryside, day and night, and become good meteorologists.

The Orthodox Word [2003], no. 229, pp. 86-88

Reading the Lives of the Saints

Down the left column of this blog, I have a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse’s The Path to Salvation, which gives a rule for reading. Since the print is somewhat small, I’ll copy a portion of it here:

The best time for reading the Word of God is in the morning. Lives of saints after the mid-day meal, and Holy Fathers before going to sleep. Thus you can take up a little bit each day.

I have noticed something in the last several months. It began with my reading the revised biography of Father Seraphim Rose. When I was reading his biography I was almost always eager to arise early to pray. I was often motivated to pray the Akathist to the Mother of God. I was better able to focus on humility of heart and mind (though I can’t say I ever successfully achieved it).

Similarly, as I’ve been reading the life of Elder Ambrose of Optina–he on whom Dostoyevsky based his character Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov–I have found myself more focused on prayer. In fact, I read just yesterday the following from Elder Ambrose of Optina:

When people complained to the Elder that unrelated thoughts disturb their prayer, he said: “A man rides through the market; around him is a crowd of people, conversations, noise. But he just sits on his horse–gee-up, gee-up! and little by little he passes through the whole marketplace. Let it be the same with you—no matter what the thoughts say, just keep at your business–pray!” (256-257)

And so today, as I was almost constantly distracted by wandering thoughts during morning prayers, I just kept returning to the prayer I was praying.

And yesterday my book order from Lignt -N- Life Publishing came in. Items: Hapgood’s Service Book, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena, and three biographies of St. John (Maximovitch) the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (Blessed John the Wonderworker, Man of God, and the small booklet St John the Wonderworker). [By the way, The Arena was a bit too ambitious. I didn’t realize it was intended for monastics, but just knew it as a spiritual classic. It will have to wait till I’m ready for it.]

I have recently been exhorted to read the contemporary Fathers, in addition to the ancient Church Fathers, because these more recent Fathers speak to a world similar to our own, putting the teachings of the Holy Fathers in language and concepts which are more graspable for us. This is also true of the lives of contemporary saints. The lives of the saints of the ancient Church are edifying, but seem so much more remote to us today. On the other hand, the lives of modern saints, being more near to us in time, exhort us with a special practicality and urgency. Lives of holiness are not merely ancient tales of other times and places, but are realities now. Father Seraphim, St John the Wonderworker, the Elder Ambrose of Optina, Elder Paisios the New of Mount Athos, all these present-day witnesses of the life of Faith proclaim to us the Gospel, call us to repentance, and show us how it is that theosis is a way of life and not “merely” a doctrine.

In my own experience, while I am edified by the earlier Fathers, especially the life of St. Benedict, and the martyrdoms of St. Ignatios of Antioch, St. Polycarp, St. Perpetua, and the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the lives of the contemporary Fathers provide me with a desire to pray and to struggle that I don’t get–or at least not in the same way–from the ancient Fathers. Just skimming over some of the pages of the books on St. John the Wonderworker, I knew clearly that I would rise early today and pray with a special clarity–even if still distracted by wandering thoughts. And that is, indeed, what happened this morning. Praise the Lord.

So, given the dark inertia I have lived in the first half of Lent, I will make sure to read from the lives of the saints daily in this second half, as I struggle with my brothers and sisters here in the desert.