Concerning Prayer and Reading

The following is a letter to a nun who asked about what she should read:
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           Before telling you how you should concentrate on your reading let us consider these words of St. Theophan the Recluse: training must be twofold outer and inner.  Outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner in love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; Outer in technique [by “technique” he is most likely speaking of the whole of physical external discipline], inner in vision [“vision” does not mean to see something with your eyes but rather purity of mind, clarity of thought, depth of meanings]. The exterior mind is puffed up (cf. ICor. 8.1), the inner humbles itself; the exterior is full of curiosity, desiring to know all, the inner pays attention to itself and desires nothing other than to know God.
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          The mind has a delight in acquiring knowledge and “is full of curiosity, desiring to know all.” This is easy and likable, it is attractive and we find a certain pleasure in this yet “knowledge puffs up” (ICor. 8:1).   Because prayer is more difficult and bought at a high price most people like to spend more time reading than praying. It is so easy to find people (even monastics) who will spend a long time reading about prayer, talking about prayer or going to lectures about prayer , but it is so hard to find people (even monastics) who will spend a long time praying. Do what you can. We indeed have to suffer a lot in prayer, we will be scattered a lot in prayer. “This is normal but you have to keep on going.  Eventually thoughts will calm down”—these words were spoken by a Hieromonk of Philotheou. Yet this leads to humility. Even with inattentive prayer we learn humility.  Through prayer we learn true knowledge or the knowledge of the truth—we see our own deficiency and God’s mercy, love and omnipotence.
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And when prayer is active within by God’s mercy, love and omnipotence; the mind dwells within, the inner man is imbued with the feeling of humility, as St Theophan wrote: the inner [mind] humbles itself. In this state the greatest saint considers himself the least of all men. In this state, faith and hope in God casts out any despair at the thought of one’s weakness and in its place there is peace.
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          But what about reading?  What is our aim in our reading?  Well I would say it is good to be well read but it is better to read well. Do not read for factual knowledge but actual knowledge. Factual knowledge sharpens the mind but actual knowledge warms the heart.  St. John of Kronstadt says that in educating it is extremely dangerous to develop only the mind and intellect and not to pay attention to the heart.  Our reading can bear spiritual fruit such as we read in Galatians: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self—control,” Read with the intention of gathering spiritual fruit and not mere information for the head.  For instance, we can read of the sufferings of Christ and sharpen our love for Him.  We can read of the martyrs and by inspired with faith and zeal.  We can read of the unmercenary and almsgiving saints and implant compassion for others in our hearts.  Again we can read of the humble acts of some of the saints and be moved to humility.
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     Sometimes what one reads can set the tone of their prayer.  At times when prayer becomes exhausting turn back to the things you have found in your reading which warm the heart. In this way let prayer and reading support each other, but give much more time to prayer, honor prayer above all.  Through reading we know about God, but through prayer we know God.
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