Primers of the Orthodox Life

The day after my chrismation, I quickly realized my need for either a personal guide in daily Orthodox living, a spiritual father, and/or a primer of the same, a book to which I could turn for basic guidance as to things like confession, fasting, and prayer.

Clearly our parish priest, Father Patrick, is a most trustworthy guide for our souls. But as a manager of a contact center, working on salary, with a wife and two very young daughters, my life is very busy. And so is Father Patrick with the care of other souls in the parish. I just do not have the opportunity to meet with Father Patrick as often as I’d like.

But I can resort to books. And in God’s grace, I have three books in particular that are proving to be very good primers of the Orthodox way of life.

  • St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation (St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood: 1998)
  • ________. The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It (St Herman of Alaska Brotherood: 2000)
  • Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: an Orthodox Anthology (Faber & Faber: 1997)

It is no secret that selections from St. Theophan’s writings form the vast bulk of Igumen Chariton’s work. And thus, what we have is St. Theophan as a spiritual guide for us through his writings. The Saint was a very large influence on the spiritual life of one of my own patrons, Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina. Father Seraphim noted that the Saint had a gift of taking the teaching of the Church in the Holy Fathers and making that teaching understandable and applicable to us in our times. On Father Seraphim’s words alone, I commend all these to your reflection and prayer.

A word or two about them.

The first, The Path to Salvation, is a much more structured work. Beginning with the description of the model for Orthodox childhood, post-baptism, in part one, St. Theophan moves in part two to the reality of those who have not “kept clean their baptismal garments” and how God moves in these toward repentance. In the final part, the Saint begins to describe the parameters of the Orthodox life, from confessing, to prayer, to a rule for reading, as well as the battle against the passions and much else besides. For those with a need for a more structured and ordered account of the life of Faith, this is the book to start with.

The second book, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, however, in some ways is a more full account, both of the Orthodox anthropology underlying the Saint’s counsel as well as the way of life meant to foster the wholeness of the person and his incorporation into Christ and his Church. This second work is a series of letters the Saint wrote to a young woman of the nobility who eventually went into a monastery. Thus the feel of the work is very much as though one had one’s father confessor or spiritual father sitting across from one and offering counsel. But though it is a series of letters, an orderly structure quickly becomes apparent. The Spiritual Life is organized in much the same way as The Path to Salvation, though there are some marked differences. For those who prefer a more personal feel to reading about the life of Faith, this is the book to start with.

It goes without saying that having begun with one book, one would do well to follow shortly with the other. It also goes without saying that these books will be read many times over. Due in part to the fact that our is not an Orthodox Christian culture, indeed, that ours is a pagan culture overtly antagonistic to Christian faith and life, these are not books that one can take in through consecutive readings over a handful of nights. One must proceed slowly, taking in what one can, and resolving to return later to work through the books again, this time to add a little bit here and a little bit there to the Christian way of life one should have then been able to develop.

Finally, The Art of Prayer. This is a sort of mini-Philokalia for beginners. I have been made quite clear by my priest, and it has been brought soundly home to me in these first two weeks as an Orthodox Christian, that I have no business diving into any part of the Philokalia if I can barely get the basics of the Orthodox way of life in the forefront of my daily attention (let alone not even being proficient in them). But Igumen Chariton’s work is different from the Philokalia proper—though it borrows some selections from that work—in that it is largely made up of citations from St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatii Brianchaninov, two men who were deeply influential to Father Seraphim Rose, and who commended them, as noted above, for their ability to distill the faith and life of the Fathers for us in our current sociocultural milieu. In that regard, it is much more amenable to Christians like myself who will need to devote some years to the basics, and even then will not be ready for the deeper waters of the Philokalia.

But The Art of Prayer is more accessible, and more pragmatic for our day and time, and thus makes an excellent introduction to the warfare against the passions, and, well, the art of prayer.

These are, in my view, required reading for all Orthodox Christians, and ought be on every Christian’s bookshelf, to be read through, marked and notated, and dog-eared annually.

Of course, one’s parish priest, father confessor or spiritual father, always takes precedence over any silly advice I have to give.

2 thoughts on “Primers of the Orthodox Life

  1. Great choice of books! You may want to add the works of Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh (collected in his amazing volume “The Essence of Prayer”)

    Though excellent, “The Art of Prayer: an Orthodox Anthology” may contain references to levels of spiritual life and prayer which are inaccessible/inappropriate for beginners.

    A book that is often referred to as the most appropriate starting point for those who want to engage into the Prayer of Jesus is St. John Climacus’ “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867) makes this suggestion in his great introductory book “On the Prayer of Jesus.” He also mentiones Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Paisius Velichkovsky and the less known Romanian Elder Vasile of Poiana Marului (Paisius’s teacher) as great authors to start with.

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