Originally written by I.M. Kontzevich as an introduction to the letters of Elder Macarius of Optina, this essay on spiritual knowledge and learning explains the dangers of studying the works of the Holy Fathers for any other reason than for the love of Truth itself.
At the basis of every construction one must lay the correct foundation. The high quality and durability of what has been created depends on this.
This is true whether it be the construction of a house in the material world, or an acquisition in the sphere of intellectual knowledge, or inward activity in the spiritual life. In a word, in everything where creation takes place, everything depends on the base, the foundation on which it is built. A house may be built on rock or on sand; in the latter case its fall will be great, as we are told in the Gospel (cf. Matt. 7:27).
Our intention is to study the works of the Holy Fathers and, in the most recent epoch, the letters of Elder Macarius, organically linked with the Patristic works.
What must we place at the foundation of our study?
First of all, we must provide ourselves with a clear realization of what the writings of the Holy Fathers are. Besides being canonical and liturgical treasures, they encompass the grace-filled psychological experience of many centuries of Orthodox ascetics. Over the centuries the Easter ascetics, with the aid of the grace of the Holy Spirit, perfected their knowledge concerning the soul of man, the laws governing the life of the soul, and the path of her spiritual ascent. Their writings analyze and point out the correct and only path to the lofty perfection of holiness and the visiton of God, for all times and for all peoples.
Their works show a wondrous oneness of mind, and everyhting organically flows from one thing to another. The Holy Fathers, in the grace of the Holy Spirit, spoke only the truth, and tehrefore their authority for us must be absolute.
Now let us investigate with what attitude we must approach the present task.
The Lord says: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled (Matt 5:6). Here the law of knowledge of higher spiritual truths is made known to us: the goal of knowledge must be truth and for truth’s sake, for the sake of God’s righteousness contained in it. Knowledge must come out of a desire for truth and out of love for it. Then and only then will it be revealed to us.
But there can also be another approach, when truth becomes no longer a goal in and of itself but a means of achieving other goals.
In this case there can be many various motives: an honest yearning to achieve success in life; or else simple vainglory – to make a brilliant display of the wealth of one’s knowledge; or perhaps even plain curiosity – to get a greater smattering of all kinds of information. There can be yet other motivations.
In all these cases knowledge remains superficial, external – it does not penetrate to the depth of the soul and, like the seed in the Gospel parable (cf. Matt. 13: 20-21) that fell into stony ground, it does not bear fruit and can cause only harm. True knowledge of God’s righteousness – of the Gospel commandments – unfailingly draws one to the fulfillment of the Gospel commandments, but mere theoretical knowledge puffs up a man (St. Mark the Ascetic).
No matter what his station in life, such a superficial understanding of truth cannot save a man, be he an educated theologican, a rector of a theological academy, a asenior hierarch of the Church, an ascetic in a monastery, and so forth – not to mention those who live an entirely worldly life.
Taking this into consideration, we do not marvel at the fact that theologicans and hierarchs have fallen into heresy and initiated schisms and disturbances in the Church, and that renowned ascetics have fallen into delusion and perished.
All of this occurs because “the builders have rejected the stone which must be at the head of the corner” (cf. Ps. 117:22). This Rock is Christ and His commandments! Neglect of the commandments of God leads to an increase of passionateness; and every passion, like smoke, obscures our mental gaze, so that it can no longer see the truth.
The most striking example of this is given to us in the Gospel in the person of Judas the betrayer: even his exclusive proximity to the Savior, his apostolic calling, did not save him from perdition. Judas like the other apostles was given authority to work miracles, to cast out demons; he was an eyewitness of numberless miracles and the miraculous deeds of the Lord Himself. As an apostle, Judas knew the mystical meaning of the parables and teaching of Christ, to him the Mysteries of God had been revealed. And, in spite of all this, the passion of avarice remained untreated. But that is not all, it grew to such horrendous proportions that it even moved Judas to betray his Teacher.