If you are like me, you probably take great pleasure in reading books. But can this be a hindrance in our spiritual growth? The current issue of The Orthodox Word has a story about Elder Nikodim who tells of his experience under obedience to Elder Theodosius of the Holy Mountain. He says, "I loved to read books, but the Elder forbade me to read books altogether. Only the Gospel, the Psalter, Abba Dorotheus and the The Ladder - and in that only the chapter on obedience. For nine years he didn't let me read books."
I can't imagine not being allowed to read books for nine years. But as I reflect on it, if I did concentrate on the few he allowed, I might have gained greater knowledge about the spiritual path. I seem to have a tendency to over seek intellectually and take in too much knowledge, which does not give clarity, but only ends up with a confused mind. I think this is the danger that is being pointed out.
Saint Theophan writes about the limitations of book learning:
Books are only for guidance in the spiritual life. Knowledge itself is acquired through deeds. Even that which is known from reading, clear and detailed though it be, presents itself in an entirely different light when experienced through deeds. The spiritual life is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world cannot penetrate.
We must be careful in what we allow to program our minds and to not allow ourselves to let book reading become a pleasure. As Saint Theophan says, our reading should be for our "guidance in the spiritual life". We should be careful when it becomes a pleasure or worse, a means to maintain our false sense of having superior knowledge. Of course, we also have to read books to enhance our skills for our employment or to be a good citizen in what is now a very complicated and technical world. But we know that this is not enough to perform our jobs. Experience is essential. Our reading cannot become a substitute for the experience gained through deeds. As the Saint says, it is only through our deeds we acquire the knowledge we seek. This is just as true in our spiritual life as it is in our workday life.
Saint Theophan's advice is,
Work on yourself and be attentive to yourself. Little by little, you will reach the point where you will begin holding conversations which you should sit down and write out!
This is the ancient wisdom, Heal yourself. Only with this intention will the writings in books have any meaning. We must do as Christ has shown and commanded. Our salvation only comes when we have allowed the Holy Spirit, given to us in Baptism and Chrismation, is allowed to work though us freely guiding all our actions. This is shown by our deeds of which we will be judged on that triumphant day. Often we need to clear our minds cluttered with all the stuff we have read and practice what we have read. This seems to be the path to true spiritual knowledge.
References: The Spiritual Life, p 284 and The Orthodox Word, No 278 p 129