If your stomach is growling at around this season, it is probably because we are in the midst of another fast period. It is the Nativity fast period and while your stomach is empty, your soul should be full. Fasting helps you pray more because it makes more room in your soul. As edification for this period that will culminate in the joy of the Nativity, our spiritual fathers tell us to take on some spiritual reading. In honor of this suggestion here are the Editor’s Top 10 Books for spiritual sustenance:
- 1 The Gospels. It goes without saying that the Word should be read from its Source, The Gospels. But, perhaps you did not know that that Word comes translated from the ancient Greek. Yet all translations are not the same. I love the poetic beauty of the King James’ version and the compatibility of the Orthodox Study Bible. However, as Orthodox we are urged to read from the one sanctioned source for the rest of the Bible versions: The Septuagint. The Septaugint is the Greek source for the Hebrew Old Testament. It is here you can read David’s Psalms in the ancient Greek. The Septaugint includes the Apocrypha, with the connotation of “hidden” or “secret” in the Greek, books such as Tobit that were not included in the subsequent versions of the Old Testament. As far as the New Testament is concerned, manuscripts of this are found in Greek dating from the 2nd to the 15th century AD (some 5,000 are known). But there were versions of the New Testament in other languages as well including Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, and Georgian. As a challenge, try getting your hands on the oldest, original version of the Gospels you can in your language! For readers of English, that would have to be the Tyndale Bible, which is the first comprehensible version in Early Modern English dating from 1526.
- Wounded by Love: Father Porphyrios now a canonized saint shares nuggets of his wisdom through counsels and letters organized by his spiritual children. It is such a heart-warming text, communicated with simplicity and genuine love that comes off the very page. There is no commentary that can do justice to the book; read it and you will see for yourself why this man is now a saint.
- Remember thy first love: This book is not for those feeding on spiritual milk. It is the 5-course steak with potatoes kind of spiritual meal. Compiled by Father Zacharias of Essex, the spiritual child of Elder Sophorony Saharov, in direct succession to St. Silouan the Athonite, it brings together his deep insights into the spiritual journey especially the three stages of the action of Grace in our lives. The penetrating deep insight he gives about lines from Scripture that one has read over dozens of times could only be gleaned by the Holy Spirit. This text is best read as part of a Bible Study group guided by a theologian as it will take a year or more to unpack the richness in these divinely inspired words
- Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: I am convinced this book should be read in psychology classes as well as religious circles. By using Orthodox theology, the prayer of the heart, Elder Thaddeus teaches us through this compilation of his life and writings how to be transformed through our thoughts even if our lives are full of suffering. The Amazon blurb cites: Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica was one of the most renowned spiritual guides of Serbia in the twentieth century. As a novice he lived in obedience to Elder Ambrose of Miljkovo Monastery, a disciple of the Optina Elders. From him Fr. Thaddeus learned the Prayer of the Heart and the selfless love that came to characterize his whole ministry to the suffering Serbian people.
- The Way of the Pilgrim: this classic 19th century text from Russia is a foundational classic for Orthodoxy. It is a diary of a simple peasant whose life is transformed by his meditation on the Jesus Prayer. Short and sweet but powerful.
- Unseen Warfare: This book is originally the work of an Italian Roman Catholic priest, Lorenzo Scupoli (1530 – 1610), a work very much part of the other spiritual writings from the age of the Counter-Reformation. In the 18th century St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain obtained a copy and enjoyed the work so much that he hastened to translate it into Greek while making his own changes, adapting the work for Orthodox readers. These changes included more examples from the Bible and Fathers of the Church. The final Greek version was a great success in Greece.This Greek version fell into the hands of the Russian, St. Theophan the Recluse, who likewise translated the text into his language, and augmented it with his own changes and comments. This resulting work, translated into English, bears the authoritative spiritual care of two of the greatest saints of the Orthodox Church. It a superb guide to the spiritual warfare that every Christian undergoes in their quest to become holier and to draw closer to God.
- Eternity in the Moment: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Arsenie Papacioc: A less-known but just as powerful witness for Orthodoxy for our times, Elder Arsenie from Romania shines light on the issues of our day. Before joining the monastery, he had been a gifted athlete, a talented sculptor, a soldier, a mayor, and a prisoner of the Romanian Communist regime. Prison became a spiritual academy for him. Upon release, he dedicated himself to God. For the next six decades he labored as a monk, in and out of prisoner. Because of his personal experience of suffering, he was able to provide “real” practical advice to guide people to Christ based on the whole person and not just on intellect.
- Mother Gavrilia: The Ascetic of Love: While this book is old and out of print, if you can get your hands on it, it makes a wonderful addition to the clouds of witnesses of modern ascetics. I recommend this as some of the spiritual nuggets by this gentle nun are aimed at women.
- Spiritual Counsels of Father Paisios: Ever since Elder Paisios was canonized, his counsels have become sought out across the world. Any one of the books in this five volume set is organized the same way: around specific themes or topics. My favorites are the first volume, With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man and Vol 3, Spiritual Struggle.
- The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Benedicta Ward. If you are not good at reading through a word-heavy book, this is a good collection for looking up bite-sized morsels of wisdom. Based on the texts and sayings from the oral tradition of the early Desert Mothers and Fathers, Ms Ward collects monastic wisdom from the dawn of Christianity. While she is Anglican and not Orthodox, her version is only English translation of the most complete version of the Apophothegmata Patrum, a compilation of sayings from the desert monks of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine from the 4th to 6th century. Surprisingly, the Desert Fathers were some of the most acute observers of the motions in the human psyche. So much of these morsels of spiritual sustenance still apply today.
Editor’s Note: Instead of purchasing through Amazon.com, purchase your copies through the bookstores of monasteries and Orthodox institutions of theology such as : Hermitage of the Holy Cross Monastery, St. Tikhon’s, St. Vladimir’s, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox bookstore, or Ancient Faith Publishing.