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Deeper Spiritual Reading

Deeper Spiritual Reading

There is a kind of reading that should be a part of the life of every Christian, and that is spiritual reading.  Literature on the spiritual life is not a theological discussion of the doctrines of the church, but it is a discussion of the ways by which we may obtain maturity in Christ.

John Wesley strongly emphasized the necessity of spiritual reading and provided The Christian Library in fifty small volumes to be read by the early Methodists.  The Upper Room of the General Board of Discipleship continues this tradition by publishing The Upper Room Devotional Guide and the periodical Weavings.

Many of us need to find spiritual writings which go deeper than most of the contemporary resources.  The collection of spiritual writings which I think is most helpful is The Philokalia.  This is an anthology of writings by spiritual guides who lived in the patristic and medieval eras.  These writers discuss how to pray and contemplate, examine one's life, resist temptations, practice virtues, and ascend toward union with God.  The Philokalia comes out of the Russian Orthodox tradition, but it has value for all Christians.  It is now published in English translation in several paperback volumes by Faber and Faber or The Eling Trust with G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware as translators and editors.

The first time we enter the world of The Philokalia, we may be bewildered by the language which the spiritual masters used.  This is the first indication that we are encountering a distinct discipline-- a science with its own knowledge, methods, and terminology.  Fortunately, the new English edition of The Philokalia provides a glosary for learning the language of this discipline.  It is a foreign world at first, but, if we persist in our reading, we shall discover the benefit of  exposing ourselves to this kind of spiritual writing.  It conditions us to pay attention of the work of our sanctification through divine grace, and it teaches us the skills we need to grow in grace.

We also have to overcome a distance that exists between the writers' world and our own.  For example, some of the writers' detailed knowledge of demonology will seem strange to us until we realize how truthfully they are speaking of spiritual realities all of us face even though we ourselves might use a different language to describe them. 

Moreover, we have to beware that this literature is influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophical ideas dominant at the time when this tradition of spiritual life and writing came into being.  We have to read everything with a critical theological eye.  One the whole, in my opinion, this spiritual tradition represents a Christian transformation of Neo-Platonism rather than a Platonizing of the Christian faith.  We may consider this to be another example of how Christ assimilates all things to himself and transforms them by becoming their center.

The season of Lent would be a fitting time to do some deeper spiritual reading.  As a hint of the kind of writing to be found in The Philokalia, I select one paragraph from "Texts for the Monks in India" in Volume One by St. John of Karpathos.  No one knows much about John.  He may have lived in the 7th century, and he may have written to monks living in Ethiopia despite the title attributed to this work.  Both the distinctive terminology and spirit of The Philokalia are reflected here.

"To anyone among you who is oppressed by a sense of his worthlessness and inability to attain holiness, this is our message:  if he attains dispassion [apatheia, freedom from the passions of the body and soul] he can see Jesus, not only in the future, but coming to him here and now 'with power and great glory' (Matt. 24:30).  Though his soul, like Sarah, has grown old in barrenness, it can still bear a holy child, contrary to all expectation; like her he can still say:  'God has made me laugh' (Gen. 21:6)--that is, God has granted me great joy after the many years that I have spent in sorrow, dominated by the passions; God has shown His tender love to me, so that my youth 'is renewed like an eagle's' (Ps. 103:5).  Previously I had grown old in sins and shameful passions, but now I am reborn in the fresh vigor of youth; material desires and actions had made me rough and hard, but now I am softened.  God in His compassion has healed my intellect [nous, the heart, which is distinguished from dianoia, the mind or reason], and regaining my natural  simplicity I can now see the things of this world clearly.  My flesh, like that of Naaman the Syrian, has become as the flesh of a little child, because I have washed in the Jordan of spiritual knowledge (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:14).  Now I am one with myself, set free by God's grace from the guile of the serpent and from the great variety of evil thoughts that I had acquired in a manner contrary to nature"  (The Philokalia, Volume One, Faber and Faber, p. 306).