It is not possible to read every book that others or one’s own intellect may suggest, however holy or important they are. At the same time, it is a good idea to always keep a book going. While some prescribe reading the lives of the saints, and others the desert fathers (always with the blessing and conversation of one’s Father Confessor), and still others history, the fathers, or the work of the latest scholar or thinker (which are sometimes erroneously called theologians), it is good to consult one’s Father Confessor on such things, and to find one’s own way. Advice can be helpful; just as one would ask instructions for reaching Rome. Others have been on the path, even if all roads eventually lead there.

In university, my Professor advised me to read what interests me, and the moment it doesn’t interest me to put it down. Subject, of course, to one’s catechetical instructor, and one’s Father Confessor, I would suggest in your case, reading the Fathers – not the Desert Fathers, for now, but that these be read with help from those who know the difference between a Father, an early Christian writer, and a heretic, which often appear in the same volumes, collection, and editions.

You definitely want the Apostolic Fathers, with the aforementioned provisos. The SVS Press editions of later Fathers are compact (notably, the works of St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite, on the Holy icons, and St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation”). Bettenson’s twin Volumes, “The Early Christian Fathers” and “The Later Christian Fathers”, with the same provisos, are excellent topical arrangements of texts. I would also recommend some appropriate history, such as certain works by Fr. Meyendorff (“Christ in Eastern Christian Thought”), Fr. Schmemman (“The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy”), some works on iconography, such as those of Kalokyris and Fr. Ouspensky, and some works that it may be safely said belong in any Orthodox library, such as Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” and works by Fr. Florovsky (not Florensky). I would also recommend the works of Joseph Farrell, such as “Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor”, “The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit”. The work by his academic mentor Bishop Kallistos Ware (as Fr. Timothy Ware) – “The Orthodox Church” is a handy introduction, though problematic in some areas.

In short, be reading something, and read as gradually or voraciously as you feel is right, consulting your catechetical instructor and later Father Confessor, and read always with prayer, realizing that reading is a form of prayer, but do not drown in books at the expense of the rest of your Faith.

 — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

The Pious Customs

Do not be weighed down with too much pressure, either self-imposed or presumably imposed by others, to learn and keep all pious customs as though they were commandments. But gradually add every pious custom to your own customs. It is not necessary to stock your icon corner with every implement, nor keep all the hours as a monastic would. It is likely not possible without damaging much that is necessary for life, for your salvation. At the same time, do not cling too much to the beauty of sparse offerings, since Orthodoxy is the fullness of the fullness of piety. Again, gradually seek the fullness of piety. It is a path of discernment that we must not ignore things merely because they interfere with our enjoyment, or require of us some rigor, but we must not presume to be gladiators just yet. When we are lazy, we should remember the old women, the Archbishop of venerable age, and those on crutches and with canes, who stand in long services without flinching, like warriors in an arena. When we are weighed down, we should remember St. Seraphim’s simple icon of the Theotokos, and the Jesus Prayer, and ask of ourselves just a little more – only a little, not a lot. If anyone corrects you in simple piety, try to learn and to follow, if the custom is truly pious and if it is not too burdensome. Discuss all things with your Father Confessor.  — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

Prayer at mealtimes

It is better not to eat, than to eat and not pray. It is customary to pray Our Lord’s Prayer, without adding the priest’s part: “For Thine is the Kingdom…” or to pray another pious prayer that confesses the Incarnation and that reminds of us what we are doing…

The eyes of all hope in Thee, O Lord, and Thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest Thy generous hand and fillest every living thing with good will.

If you also pray after meals, pray such a prayer as this:

We thank Thee, O Christ our God, that Thou has sated us with the good  things of Thine earth: do not deprive us also of Thy heavenly Kingdom.

The fathers tell us not to eat until full, but stop while still a little hungry. Besides, the stomach does not tell the brain it is full, until about 20 minutes after it has had enough. Be willing to leave a little on the plate; it is not waste, rather waste is the energy lost on too much preoccupation with food.

Pray always “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Pray the Jesus prayer at all times when the slightest need or inclination is felt, and at some times simply as a way of living, or as a discipline. Do not try to regulate your breathing or engage in any other ascetic exercise without consulting your Father Confessor.

 — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

The icon corner

Treat the icon corner always with reverence and as an occasion to pray, if only briefly. It is the chapel of the home. When passing it, stop to face it not too hastily, and cross yourself. Use the lighting of the lamp to draw yourself into prayer. Do not hesitate to look directly at the icons when praying, as your rule of prayer is memorized; they are for the eyes. Venerate them as you would any image of the Saints and Our Lord. At the same time, do not be delicate by avoiding the icon corner and prayer, out of a presumed humility when you sin. That form of gluttony is a passion and the tool of the enemy. Keep your prayer rule short enough to be manageable in morning, evening, and at special times, so that you are not frustrated, and add to it only gradually in conversation with your Father Confessor. If others are around, do not pray with the heterodox, nor pray with an audience. For the non-Orthodox who are not heterodox, offer them to pray along with you or ask for privacy. — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

Celtic Prayers

Catechumens: I’ve spoken to you occasionally concerning the need for prayer at all times and in all activities, whether preparing supper or traveling or preparing for any work. This tradition is visible in the many prayers for such occasions in the prayer books for laymen, in the Russian Book of Needs, and in the various priestly blessings for everything from traveling to blessing a house. As an example, I have referred to the pieties of the Celts, Orthodox before the centurions came to convert or martyr them by the sword. Whether from pious customs of the Russians, the Serbs, the Greeks, or those of any pious people, we stand to learn much that can transform the inner man by transforming his outward veneration.

A Brief Summary of the Economy

Catechumens: I was asked, recently, to summarize what is meant by the Economy. It is not possible for me to give it even a full outline, here or anywhere else, and certainly not to explore all its implications here. But I will attempt to speak of it with as much brevity as truth and substance may permit. I will try to do it some modicum of justice. 

God is unknowable. Man can neither reach Him nor speak of Him. His divine Essence cannot be compared to any essence, has no analogy, and cannot be contained in created human concepts. Man can know God only in a dim way by revelation – the revealing of God’s uncreated Energies by the divine Persons. The unfolding of the divine economy, God’s activity toward his creation, has culminated in a total and all-encompassing event, a personal event, a Person, to make possible true knowledge through true communion. We speak of Christ, who is God incarnate. God has become man, so that man might genuinely know God in the only way possible, in that man and God become one, while remaining at the once utterly distinct. Christ, the God-man, one person who is two natures, God and man, makes possible union with God, having accomplished and become the union of the two natures for all. He summed up in His own person all of man and all of God, all of nature and the divine, all creation and the Creator, deifying all things. Now, in Christ, union of man and God is possible for each individual person, and so knowledge of the unknowable God – never knowledge of God’s essence, but personal knowledge and full knowledge, available only in communion with Him. Through theosis (deification) in Christ, man and indeed all creation is restored to God the Creator. This requires for each person, participation at that personal level, a synergy of God and man. The fullness of union is not possible without the will of each person. If the inviolate will of each person were overcome, the image of God in him would be destroyed. But now, the union of each person’s will with God’s will, the union of his flesh with that of the Incarnate God, makes possible the fullness of union of each person, while preserving both God and man — not the swallowing up of an individual in God, but perfect union and distinction. In this way, man may know God without being destroyed, may be consumed without being lost or indistinct. So salvation – this theosis – was accomplished first by the initial work of God toward man, and is accomplished now by the joint work of man and God in uniting individual persons to Christ. It is not ‘personal salvation’, such that God is a god in general, subject to whatever fancies the individual mind may invent, nor is it a ‘salvation in general’, such that individual activity is irrelevant. It is salvation through union and distinction, the beyond-transcendent God and mortal man made immortal by grace. — Catechetical Letter 1/25/2005

The Ascetic Character of Holy Scripture

Catechumens: As you have heard me say to you, now and then, Orthodox ‘spirituality’ is not of a theoretical type, but is in the entire tradition of the Fathers rooted in practice, whether in the silent prayers of the Hesychasts or in the charitable labours of St. Basil. And the source and character of our piety in practice is ascetic. The hours we pray are monastic hours. The Jesus Prayer, simplest, seemingly, of all prayers, learned at the very beginning and by young children, is a monastic prayer with a deep ascetic practice behind it, though we are instructed not to add to it any ascetic feats without the clear direction of a spiritual director. One looks at the Orthodox keeping of time, celebrating the seasons by following the path of Our Lord’s life, venerating daily the various heroes who have gone before on that journey, and alternately feasting or fasting, and the ascetic character of our whole worship is unmistakable. When we receive Holy Confession, we confess the same kinds of passions struggled against by monks. When we receive Holy Communion, we strive, as they do, to see God. There is no disparity between their lives and ours; we are all seeking the same thing, celibate or married, monastic or in the world. In fact, the monks are the light of laymen, as angels are the light of monks.

Likewise, we have discussed, as we would expect, the ascetic character of Holy Scripture. Israel fasted in preparation for God’s activity, put on sackcloth and ashes in repentance, and even engaged in abstinence in preparation for jihad. These were not merely legal pieties, though the law too was given to help man overcome the passions. In the same way, an instruction to fast was first given to Adam in the perfection of Eden, that he might not acquire the passions, and the breaking of that fast slew the world. Christ is our prime example, born of a virgin, Himself a virgin, fasting in the wilderness, feasting with his disciples, keeping the holy days and long watches or hours, and purifications by which He purified our nature and all creation. The Apostles, likewise, followed in this way, and the Fathers after them, and we do as well, following after our Bishop, a celibate and prototype of ascetics. The Holy Scriptures read like a manual for ascetic training, teaching us to fast from the passions, war with death in our flesh, restrain the body’s appetites, and acquire the spirit of humility. The writings of the desert Fathers retain an unmistakable continuity with those of the Holy Apostles, whether instructing us on preferring others in love, or on overcoming temptation, or on seeing God and theosis. In the Scriptures, it is the same Christ in all, whether in our diversity of vocations we live in the world or the desert. He remains the ultimate example of ascetic piety. I tell you these things now, in the hope that the enemy will never be able to lure you from the path, and likewise if I stumble and am lost, you may remind and strengthen me, and we will continue on together. — Catechetical Letter 1/25/2005

Unworthy to Teach

Catechumens: My flaws as a catechist occur to me frequently. I wonder if I communicate clearly that I am flawed and know it, and pray only that all I say to you, whether in speaking or writing, is taken less with regard to my unworthy example, and more after the example of the One I am describing. It is Him I am also striving to reach, with your help, and if I say anything about Him, it is because I have met Him and know Him in however small a way, and desire that you would know Him too, and would likewise teach me how we may be examples to each other.

I call you ‘my catechumens’ out of affection and devotion, to keep myself in mind of my responsibility with fear, but there is only one Catechist, one Father, one Teacher, one Evangel. I dare, with dread of judgment, to teach you and speak to you of the glories of Christ, the richness of the fullness of the Church and pieties of the Saints: partly because I cannot contain myself – His mercies endure forever; partly because I see your hunger and your need – He is True Food; partly because, my beloved godchildren, I desire your fullness in the fullness of Christ – He Who fills the hearts of men as Heavens. I offer words because you are my true friends, for whom I will risk so much, and my godchildren, whose very breath I hold precious and so give you what I have to give. And in the end, I offer you my life, in the form of this vocation, that your prayers to Christ may stand for me at the Judgment as I have stood for you in prayers at your induction as catechumens, praying for you still. You are my hope of mercy and the reward of Heaven, if you save me by your prayers.

For my part, I have taught you nothing of use to your salvation if it is not to follow the example of our holy fathers, those who are with Christ in glory. If I have not led you to the example of humility and dispassion in Our Champion Leader, the all-blameless all-holy Ark of Our Salvation. If I have not directed your attention to the altar of the One Holy Church, where Christ is, the uncontainable God. And to the heavens where the angels gaze upon us and the Saints surround us with cheers, swift to aid, strong in prayer, fierce in battle, and ever directing our attentions to Christ the Life of all flesh. If I have not laid before you the infallible councils of the only Church, the concert witness of the venerable Fathers, the example of the mighty athletes in the desert. If I have not introduced you to Christ, ever humble for us, who desires you for his own, as precious ones, as friends, as little children. I have nothing in myself to teach, nor any original words of any great importance. I can only, as a flawed worker in the fields of my Master’s pasture lead you to the flawless Shepherd. He is our Life and prime example. Do take my hand, likewise, and lead me to Him, and don’t forget me when I falter.

Glory to God for His handmaiden, A***, my wife and your godmother in the Lord, who teaches me how to give thanks to the God who lives, and instructs me with all humility in childlike faith, governing my passions by the example of gentleness. Glory to God for my godson, A*** the catechumen of Christ, who restores my soul through sincerity and faith and fidelity, strengthens me through perseverance and teaches me humility. Glory for P***, goddaughter and child of my heart, catechumen of Christ and beloved daughter to lighten me with her brightness in Him, who teaches me to struggle for humility at great cost, instructs me in hope and lovingkindness, teaching her teacher well. Glory for the servant of God, M***, who informs my heart how love keeps the truth inviolate. Glory for J*** who first taught and led me and so has given me gifts for my beloved. Glory to God for M***, and by his prayers save D***, the unworthy. Remember in your prayers the child Charles with an affliction of the eyes since birth, and me if you should think of me.

– Catechetical Letter 1/18/2005

The Imaginary Foe

Catechumens: My godchildren and my hope, without whose prayers I cannot hope to be saved. Rather routinely, and following as best I can the holy fathers, I share with you pitfalls I’ve experienced. I am not like a staretz or even an abbot or one of the fathers, except that Christ has pleased to make me your father in leading you into the faith as much as I can, with dread and trembling, sharing with you the unique filial bond that makes A*** and I your parents in the Lord, and you our most beloved children, who remain brothers and sisters and friends. It is to you I write, while A*** sends love.

Mutual Confession and Self-Accusation

Catechumens: It is good to confess our sins to one another, if we can bear to do so. It is good to admit our faults. I am striving to learn to always be ready to admit my faults and, when I cannot see a fault, to accuse myself with my accusers, so I don’t fall into the most dangerous sin of pride. While justifying myself before my brethren, I may lose that quiet of conscience that comes from vulnerability and contrition before God. How will I hear, if he corrects me in my brethren? If the Lord corrected St. Anthony in the desert, how am I above correction in the midst of the luxuriant wellspring of men? It is good to listen for God. – Catechetical Letter 1/18/2005

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. – St. James


It is easier for me to admit sins I have committed, though, than to accuse myself when others wrongfully accuse me. Can I bear to say, “I am guilty” whenever another says that I sin? Can I say, “I remember it differently, but perhaps you are right,” when I am falsely accused – misquoted or misrepresented? If I can bear insults, as the Lord teaches, can I bear unjust insults, slander, attacks on the dignity of my character? Can I bear to be thought of in a different way than I think of myself? Can I accept being wronged? Can I accept it without railing at it? Can I go to slaughter without resistance? Can I keep humility, if I am wronged, without welling up with pride that knows my innocence? Can I bear being misunderstood and presumed upon? Can I bear it from brethren, and not only from the world? If I cannot, am I not then right in saying, “I am guilty.”?

St. Paul: To Thessaly

The Holy Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians.  First Epistle. Chapter 5.

But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.

But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.

Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.
But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.

For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.


And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;  And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men.

Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.

Brethren, pray for us.

Greet all the brethren with an holy kiss. I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

St. Paul to Ephesus

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;

And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.

But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;

Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.

For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.

Be not ye therefore partakers with them.


For ye were sometimes darkness, but now [are ye] light in the Lord: walk as children of light:

(For the fruit of the Spirit [is] in all goodness and righteousness and truth;)

Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.

And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove [them].

For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.

But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.

Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,

Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.

Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord [is].

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;

Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;

Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

–          The Holy Apostle Paul to the Church at Ephesus

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