On Knowing and Doing

“Listen my child, and pay attention to my words,” said Elder Daniel. “If you want to become a true and perfect monk, to master the monastic way of life, which is the true philosophy, the art of arts and the science of sciences, and leads man safely to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is necessary from the very outset to learn three lessons. If you pay the proper attention to these and apply yourself and learn them, you will subsequently learn with ease all the other lessons that are necessary for the mastery of the science which you have decided to follow. Or rather, in these three lessons are contained (on them depend) the whole Law, and the virtues, and all the other lessons. These three lessons are the following: The first is called cuttting out of one’s will; the second, humility; the third, obedience. It is easy for one to learn these intellectually; but to learn them in this way is of no benefit. What benefits one is putting them into practice. It is easy for one to read about them in the writings of the Apostles, and of the Fathers and Teachers of our Holy Church, and thus learn about them. But while it is easy to read and learn about them, it is difficult to put them into practice. Many men, especially educated persons, scholars, teachers, bishops, priests have read about them, are reading about them and have learned about them, and many of them have also taught them and are teaching them to others. However, as they did not practice them, they did not derive any benefit at all. Rather, they brought harm upon themselves and upon other, for ‘he who knew his master’s will and did not act according to it shall receive a severe beating, while he who did not know shall receive a light beating.’ Hence our Lord Jesus Christ enjoined on His holy Apostles, and through them on us and on all men of all generations, first to do and then to teach. ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.’ You note that the Lord did not say: ‘that they may see or hear your good words,’ but ‘your good works.’ Similarly, he says: ‘Whosoever shall do and teach, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ He does not say: ‘Whosoever shall teach’ only, but who wil also and in the first place ‘do.’

Elder Daniel to the novice Athanasios, later St Arsenios of Paros. From the Life of St Arsenios written by the Blessed Elder Father Philotheos Zervakos, translated by Constantine Cavarnos in volume 6 of the Modern Orthodox Saints series, pages 43-44.

This instruction is particularly pointed in this period of Renewal Week for Orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy is, one might say, a very bookish thing, judging if only from the bewildering number of volumes required for the celebration of services. But there is a kind of bookishness found in Orthodoxy in the strong reliance on the writings of the Church Fathers not merely as historical data for the writing of theological histories, but as living voices preserving and presenting the Faith continually throughout the generations since their own. We see an interesting thing particularly in the modern editions, whether critical editions or scholarly translations or studies, where the emphasis of the author or editor has precisely moved to a disengagement with the text and a subsequent distancing from the value of the text itself. This is noticeable in the peculiar example of the as yet incomplete Faber & Faber English translation of the Philokalia, which has had the most edifying and lengthy introduction to the work as a whole, written by St Nikodemos the Hagiorite, replaced by a rather lackluster general introduction, and the short introductions to the various Fathers penned by the Saint likewise replaced by new compositions of a less luminous nature. That is, we find that everything written by St Nikodemos in the Philokalia has been removed from this English translation, although his name stands on the cover, inaccurately credited with the compilation. It is St Makarios of Corinth who compiled the Philokalia, and who asked St Nikodemos to edit it, with the latter, as mentioned, also writing a lengthy general introduction and short introductions to each author. Fortunately, a full English translation of St Nikodemos’ introduction to the Philokalia (and a selection of other texts) is available in Constantine Cavarnos’ The Philokalia: Writings of Holy Mystic Fathers in which is Explained how the Mind is Purified, Illumined, and Perfected through Practical and Contemplative Ethical Philosophy (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2008). Setting aside the minutiae of publication details of the Philokalia, we must widen our scope to all spiritually edifying literatue and confront the issue: reading is not practice. (Much less than that is simply owning an unread book!) We may find edification in the gnomic sayings strewn throughout Patristic literature, relishing them as though these were the wise sayings of Christian gurus of a sort. This is not good. The Fathers teach us in order for us to actively repent, to work at changing our lives, not just to become intellectual stores of their sayings. Their words are meant to help us, to guide us along the spiritual path, sometimes gently, sometimes as though they are spurs in our sides. So, let us all make sure, whether we are reading a book or a collection of online materials, that our focus is correct: in our lives, not on the page. An example of this is found again with St Arsenios of Paros:

Father Arsenios often upon hearing the semantron calling the monks to the refectory, while he was reading the Holy Scripture or praying, felt sorrow and wept, because he was leaving spiritual food, which is sweetest, incorruptible, immortal, and was going to eat material, bodily food (p. 56).

May we all get our passions out of the way enough that we learn to cooperate with God to progress to such a point.

Christ is risen!

9 Replies to “On Knowing and Doing”

  1. There is never enough of this, never enough of this. The beauty of the life is in the actions and therein comes the transformation. This is great Kevin. Thank-you. Truly He is Risen!

  2. The list of contents of the Cavarnos Philokalia translation are the following. The volume is composed of 340 pages, making it roughly the size of one of the individual volumes of the Metropolitan KALLISTOS, et alia, translation published by Faber & Faber. The various writings of the different authors included here are happily preceded by Dr Cavarnos’ translations of St Nicodemos’ short biographies from the original Philokalia. The translation style is faithful, lively and contemporary, much less stilted than the Faber & Faber translation. It is only to be regretted that this is a selection, and not a full translation. I am especially pleased that St Mark the Ascetic “made the cut”!

    Proem by St Nicodemos the Hagiorite
    Brief Biography of St Antony [the Great]
    Counsels on the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life
    Brief Biography of St Isaiah [the Anchorite]
    On Guarding the Mind
    Brief Biography of Evagrios [the Monk]
    Monastic Sketch Teaching How One Ought to Lead a Life of Askesis and Quietness
    On Discrimination of Passions and Thoughts
    Chapters on Inner Wakefulness
    Brief Biography of St John Cassian [the Roman]
    On the Eight Evil Thoughts
    Regarding the Holy Fathers of Skete and a Discourse on Discernment
    Brief Biography of St Mark the Ascetic
    Two Hundred Texts Concerning Spiritual Law
    Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts Concerning Those Who Think that Men Are Justified by Works

  3. I am constantly impressed by the practicality of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox read more than any Christians I have been around. Yet they do not separate knowing from doing. Thank you for these words of wisdom.

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