On Reading Spiritual Books by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
Excerpts from The Arena on the correct Reading of Spiritual Books by St. Ignatius (Ignaty) Brianchaninov.
CHAPTER 9ON READING THE GOSPEL AND THE WRITINGS OF THE FATHERS From
what has already been said, it becomes increasingly clear that the
chief occupation of a novice in his cell should be the reading and study
of the Gospel and of the whole New Testament. The whole New Testament
can be called the Gospel, since it contains nothing but the Gospel
teaching. But a novice should first of all study the Lord's commandments
in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. From the study of the commandments
in these Evangelists combined with the actual practice of the
commandments, the other Scriptures which constitute the New Testament
also become more easily understandable.
While reading the
Evangelists, the novice should also read The Herald; that is, the
explanation of the Gospel by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of
Bulgaria*. The reading of The Herald is indispensable. It is an aid to
the right understanding of the Gospel and consequently to the most exact
practice of it. Moreover, the rules of the Church require that
Scripture should be understood as the holy Fathers explain it, and not
at all arbitrarily. By being aided in our understanding of the Gospel by
the explanation of the holy Father, by the explanation received and
used by the Church, we keep the tradition of holy Church.  Very
useful for our time are the works of St. Tichon of Voronezh.** They
have no exclusive aim. They serve as excellent direction for athletes of
Christ living in the world, and for cenobitic monks, and for monks
living in state-subsidized monasteries, and for solitaries living the
contemplative life. The grace of God inspired the Saint to produce
writings especially suitable for our contemporary needs. In these
writings the teaching of the Gospel is explained.
nothing to prevent a person from living according to the commandments of
the Gospel in any monastery, whatever may be the rule of that
monastery, however far that monastery may be even from being
well-ordered. This is said to encourage and set at rest those who are
not satisfied with the running of their monastery, whether rightly or
wrongly. For every monk it is surer and better to seek the cause of his
dissatisfaction in himself, rather than in his surroundings and
circumstances. Self-condemnation always brings peace and rest to the
heart. It does not therefore by any means follow that a well-ordered
monastery should not be preferred to a lax or disorderly monastery, when
the choice depends on us. But that is not always the case.
set oneself as a rule of life the learning and carrying out of the
commandments of the Gospel, without allowing oneself to be diverted or
distracted by the directions given by the different writings of the holy
Fathers,  one can begin to read them in order to obtain as intimate
and exact a knowledge as possible of the laborious, painful but not
joyless monastic struggle. In reading the writings of the Fathers, it is
essential to observe their gradational character: they are written for
differing stages and degrees of the spiritual life. On no account should
they be read hurriedly.
First of all, books written for
cenobitic monks should be read, such as: The Instructions of St.
Dorotheus, the Catechetical Sermons of St. Theodore the Studite, the
Directions for the Spiritual Life of St. Barsanuphius and St. John the
Prophet, beginning with Answer 216 (the preceding answers are given
primarily for hermits and so are less suitable for novices), The Ladder
of St. John Climacus, the Works of St. Ephrem the Syrian, and the
Cenobitic Institutes and Conferences of St. John Cassian.***
after some considerable time, books written by the Fathers for
solitaries may also be read, as for example, The Philokalia, the Skete
Patrology, the chapters of St. Isaiah the Solitary, the Treatises of St.
Isaac the Syrian, the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic, the Words and
Homilies of St. Macarius the Great, the prose and verse works of St.
Symeon the New Theologian, and other similar writings of the Fathers on
the active life.
All the books enumerated here belong to the
category of active or ascetic writings, since they deal with and explain
the active monastic life. Said St. John of the Ladder: "As you are
leading an active (ascetic) life, read active (ascetical) books." Active
books stir a monk to monastic activities or struggles, especially to
prayer. The reading of the other writings of the holy Fathers leads to
meditations and contemplations which, for an ascetic insufficiently
purified of the passions, is premature.  Endnotes
+ + +
CHAPTER 10ON DISCRETION IN READING THE PATRISTIC BOOKS ON THE MONASTIC LIFE The
books of the holy Fathers on the monastic life must be read with great
caution. It has been noticed that novices can never adapt books to their
condition, but are invariably drawn by the tendency of the book. If a
book gives counsels on silence and shows the abundance of spiritual
fruits that are gathered in profound silence, the beginner invariably
has the strongest desire to go off into solitude, to an uninhabited
desert. If a book speaks of unconditional obedience under the direction
of a spirit-bearing father, the beginner will inevitably develop a
desire for the strictest life in complete submission to an elder.
has not given to our time either of these two ways of life. But the
books of the holy Fathers describing these states can influence a
beginner so strongly that out of inexperience and ignorance he can
easily decide to leave the place where he is living and where he has
every convenience to work out his salvation and make spiritual progress
by putting into practice the evangelical commandments, for an impossible
dream of a perfect life pictured vividly and alluringly in his
St. John of the Ladder says in his chapter on
Silence: "In the refectory of a good brotherhood there is always some
dog watching to snatch from the table a piece of bread, that is, a soul;
and taking it in its mouth, it then runs off and devours it in a lonely
In the chapter on Obedience this guide of monks says:
"The devil suggests to those living in obedience a desire for
impossible virtues. Similarly to those living in solitude he suggests
unsuitable ideas. Scan the mind of inexperienced novices, and there you
will find distracted thought: a desire for solitude, for the strictest
fast, for uninterrupted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for
unbroken remembrance of death, for continual compunction, for perfect
angerlessness, for profound silence, for surpassing purity. And if by
divine providence they lack these in the beginning, they rush in vain to
another life and are deceived. For the enemy urges them to seek these
perfections before the time, so that they may not persevere and in due
time attain them. But to those living in solitude the fraud extols
hospitality, service, brotherly love, community life, visiting the sick.
And the deceiver's aim is to make the latter as impatient as the
The fallen angel tries to deceive monks and drag
them to perdition by suggesting to them not only sin in its various
forms but also the most exalted virtues unsuited to their condition. Do
not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses or inclinations,
even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the
most holy monastic life. If the monastery in which you are residing
gives you the possibility of living a life according to the commandments
of the Gospel and unless temptations to mortal sin, do not leave your
monastery. Endure courageously its defects, both spiritual and material.
Do not think you can find a sphere of activity not given by God to our
God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And He is
always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life
and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or in a convenient,
well-equipped harbour. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and all
his fellow-travellers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his
fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they
were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards
and various bits of the ship's wreckage. 
In all well-ordered cenobitic monasteries the explanation of the Gospel
for the day given in The Herald is read daily at Matins. (Cp. 1 Cor.
11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15.)
2. The author stresses the priority and primacy of the Gospel.
3. Ladder 27:28. (Translation differs widely from Gk.—Translator.)
4. Symeon the New Theologian: Three Ways of Prayer. St. Gregory the Sinaite: Ch. 11, On Reading.
5. Step 27:1.
6. Step 4:118
7. Acts 27: 21-44.
The Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark, John and Luke have been translated
into English and are available at any good Orthodox bookstore.
Better known as St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. The only work of his currently
available in English and related to the theme in question is Journey to
Heaven, or Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian. This is
also available from any good Orthodox bookstore.
*** Many of
these, if not all, are now available in English in various forms. Search
for individual volumes, but also check in the multi-volumed Philokalia.
Another work that needs to be mentioned in this class of introductory
works is Elder Basil of Poiana Marului: Spiritual Father of St. Paisy
Velichkovsky, by a Monk of Prophet Elias Skete.