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.

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