A reader recently e-mailed me about an article that appears on the polemical (if not hyperbolic) website Orthodox Information Center (OIC) entitled, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov.” Those familiar with OIC can already guess the piece’s two-part conclusion: (1) Orthodox/Byzantine good; (2) Catholic/Latin bad. Instead of engaging in a thoroughgoing analysis of St. Francis’s life and teachings, the article’s author—the vagante bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, California—looks for “soundbites” with which to indict Francis for not being, well, “Byzantine enough” in his piety and spirituality. The East, as the story goes, is shot through with “pure mysticism” and “humility,” while the West is mired in “carnality” and “sensuality,” owing—of all things—to the “error of papalism” (or something). People can read this sort of stuff if they desire, but I find it much better to go to the writings of Francis himself (or any other saint or mystic) before drawing any strong conclusions. Yes, there are certain passages his writings which can be cryptic and some of his poetical flourishes may take some off guard, but that can probably be said for most spiritual writings. It would not take much effort to comb through the pages of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent or St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies to find passages which make both men appear deranged. In fact, a great deal of Athonite spiritual writing can leave that impression if not taken in the right context or read with discernment and guidance.
The reason I make mention of this is not to stage a meta-defense of Latin mysticism and asceticism, but to remind readers of something a certain Eastern Orthodox priest said to me on numerous occasions, namely to steer clear of “spiritual literature” if your takeaway is anything other than a desire for true repentance or a feeling of authentic consolation. I am not, and have never been, a big advocate of “spiritual reading” outside of the Bible, and even then I am inclined to read most Biblical books with the guidance of a well-grounded commentary (e.g., St. John Chrysostom on Romans, St. Ambrose of Milan on the Gospel of Luke, and so forth). Moreover, I believe a great deal of spiritual fruit can come from reading certain theological works, such as St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or St. Augustine’s City of God, but to each their own. Perhaps some will accuse me of excess morbidity, but I am much more at home with St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation for Death than I am with contemporary Eastern monastic literature that goes on about canes, getting stepped on by fellow monks, and whatnot. As important as it is to never believe oneself to be “advanced” or “ahead of others” in the spiritual life, the despair I have heard pour out of people’s mouths after they read stuff by Elder Joseph the Hesychast or his followers is positively ghastly.
If I may be so bold as to close these ephemeral thoughts with a recommendation for the Lenten season (which will be here quicker than we expect), let me strongly suggest sitting down with a book of meditations composed by St. Alphonsus, not because Redemptorist spirituality is the “best spirituality,” but because I find its emphasis on the Cross, the Crib, and Communion particularly important at a time of year when—to quote another Orthodox priest I knew—the devil rides us extra hard. There is such a thing as a healthy fear of damnation, though most of live with a sickened sense that such a possibility is no longer relevant to our lives. The Byzantine Rite still captures this healthy sense a tad bit better than the Latin Rite, which is perhaps why the Redemptorists had more than a bit of success adapting their simple but direct piety to the East a century ago. But that’s a topic for another day.