On Reading Spiritual Books

St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov). "On Prelest". About Discretion in Reading the Patristic Books on the Monastic Life

St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

The books of the Holy Fathers on the monastic life must be read with great caution. It has been noticed that a novice can never adapt books to his condition, but is always 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.

God 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 attractively in his imagination.

St John Climacus says in his chapter about silence: “In the reflectory 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 spot” (Sermon 27).

In the chapter about 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 absence of anger, 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 former” (Sermon 4).

The fallen angel tries to deceive monks and to drag them to perdition by suggesting to them not only the sin in its various forms but also the most high virtues, Do not trust, o brethren to your dreams, impulses, or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you 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 Holy Gospel and unless you are exposed to 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 time.

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 harbor.

He promised to save the holy Apostle Paul and all his fellow travelers, and so He did. But the Apostle Paul and his mates 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 wreckage (Acts 27:21-49).

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