Literature Outside the Church: Is it trustworthy food for the soul?

Literature outside the Church: Is it trustworthy food for the soul?

As I still have a little wait for the translation of the life of Heiromonk Ioan, the founder of Sarov Hermitage Monastery, I have decided to again take a tangent to the above mentioned subject regarding literature outside of the Orthodox Church. So then, what should we, as Orthodox Christians do about literature outside the Church? Is it advisable to read literature outside the Church? There is certainly much properly moral and ethical literature both by secular and religious writers outside the Church. In the Church we also find clergy, professors, and well educated laity who want to express themselves in writing. So who can we trust? Without making a direct answer myself, I will point my readers to some comments from St. Ignatius Brianchannov.

In mid-nineteenth century Russia, there were a number of pious Orthodox writers among the educated. One of them, Nikolai Gogol, wrote a book entitled, Selected Excerpts from Correspondence with Friends, which engendered heated debate. Here St. Ignatius Branchaninov1 offers a review of this book. This review was handwritten by the Elder, St. Macarius of Optina, and found in a copy of Gogol’s book in the Optina Monastery library. The Elder St. Joseph of Optina noted that St. Macarius shared St. Ignatius’ view. St. Ignatius writes:

“It is evident that this man has turned to God with a fervent heart. For religion, however. This is not enough. If it is to become a true light for the individual per se and if it is to issue genuine light from him to his neighbor, it requires definitiveness [or preciseness, or to be kept within certain boundaries]. This definitiveness consists in precise cognition of truth, in separation of it from all that is false, from all that only seems true. The Saviour Himself said this: ‘The truth shall set you free’ (Jn. 8: 32). Elsewhere in the Holy Scripture it is written: ‘Thy word is truth’ (Jn. 17: 17). For this reason anyone who wishes to acquire definitiveness studies the Gospel thoroughly and directs his thoughts and emotions in keeping with the Lord’s teaching. Then he can define in himself correct and beneficial thoughts and emotions. Then a person enters into purity, as the Lord after the Last Supper told His disciples, who had already become educated with the teaching of truth: ‘Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you’ (Jn. 15:3). However, purity alone is insufficient for a person: he needs revitalization, inspiration. Thus, for a lamp to give light it is not enough to wash the glass; the candle inside it has to be lit as well. The Lord did likewise with His disciples. Having cleansed them with truth, He brought them to life with His Spirit, and they became light for men. Before they received the Holy Spirit they were incapable of teaching humanity, even though they were pure. This course must be effected with the Christian in actuality, and not nominally: first enlightenment with truth, then enlightenment with the Spirit. Admittedly, a person has in-born inspiration which is more or less developed and proceeds from the actions of the emotions of the heart. Truth negates this inspiration as confused and destroys it so that when the Spirit comes He may resurrect it in a renewed state. If, however, he is guided by his inspiration before he is cleansed with the truth, he will radiate from himself to others a confused and deceptive light instead of a pure one because there lies in his heart not simple good but good mixed more or less with evil. Let everyone look at himself and check my words with the experience of his heart: they are very precise and just, based as they are on nature itself. If these principles are applied to Golgol’s book, it can be said that he irradiated from himself both light and darkness. His religious notions have not been defined; they move in the direction of the heartfelt, the unclear, the instinctive, the emotional, but not the spiritual. Since Golgol is a writer, and in a writer ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh’ (Mt. 12:34), or the composition is a definite confession of the composer, but one which is not understood by him and understood only by a Christian who has been elevated by the Gospel so that in an abstract land of thoughts and emotions he distinguishes between light and darkness in it, Golgol’s book cannot be accepted as pure words of truth either. There is a mixture here. It is preferable that this person in whom self-sacrifice is evident moor in the harbour of truth, where the beginning of all blessings is. For this reason I advise all my friends regarding religion to engage exclusively in reading the Holy Fathers, who acquired cleansing and enlightenment, as well as the apostles, and only then wrote their books from which shines pure truth and which convey to the reader the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Outside of this path, which initially is narrow and sorrowful for the heart and mind, there is everywhere darkness, there is everywhere rapids and abyss. Amen.”

1. St.Ignatius was from the nobility who became a monk, later abbot and then bishop. He was a prolific writer.
2. This excerpt and information in this article is taken from The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, Volume 6, 1988 with very minor editing.