Thursday, March 15, 2012

All I Wanna Do... read the Fathers of the Church, every day, all day.

They are the ones, the only ones, through whom God speaks to me. Now, I must make an account of this, of why that can and is so.

Why would I not be better reached by a more modern writer, like say, Newman, or De Lubac or Wojtyla? Is there any way to really answer this other than to say, I was born this way?

Yes, there is more to say. That's just the beginning of an answer.

The Fathers seemed to provide a perfect synthesis between theoria and praxis, between contemplation of truth as an intellectual matter and contemplation of truth as an affective matter, between polemic and prayer. Need I say more? But I will.

Whereas St. Thomas deals with things superficially (his writings are schematic, not usually more), the Fathers customarily drew out matters much more broadly. I have heard many people complain about Augustine's verbosity- and it is true, especially relative to St. Thomas, who insisted that you do the rest of the work that he merely intended to sketch out. Try distilling the kernels even of the tersest polemical tracts of Sts. Cyril, Athanasius, Origen, Nyssa, etc. You can do it, if you don't mind altering and omitted much of what they present.

In addition to their style of presentation (which is both the result of a style of spirituality and the ancient schools of rhetoric that cannot be found elsewhere), we could add that the Fathers are to be highly recommended because:

1) They lived in a world more like our pluralistic culture than did the Medieval Doctors. Theirs is the literature of struggle, not of triumph.

2) There is a certain exotic charm to be found in their ancient context.

3) Variety of genres which cannot find so equal a balance elsewhere.

So where would I suggest one begin in reading the Fathers? Anywhere really. A personal favourite series of mind is that put out by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (SVSP). That series focuses on the Eastern Fathers. For the Western Fathers (and Eastern too), a good start is what is offered in the Ancient Christian Writers (ACW) series (cheaper and easier to get than the Fathers of the Church series put out by CUA Press).

I'm not worried that in beginning this journey one will go off in the wrong direction. It's all valuable. Of course, you do have to occasionally be guided by secondary literature - stuff like Chadwick's short history, "The Early Church" (Penguin Books). No Father is the Church, but all are important members of the Church, and you can grow in your faith and understanding with them.

More specifically, I could recommend:

1. Augustine's Confessions - very approachable today. (Various Publishers)

2. Many other of his writings, such as On the Trinity, his commentaries on Genesis, his Homilies. (New City Press)

3. Writings of the Apostolic Fathers (students of the Apostles) (Various publishers)

4. Writings of the Desert Fathers. (Various publishers)

5. Athanasius' On the Incarnation (SVSP)

6. St. Cyril of Alexandria's 'On the Unity of Christ' (SVSP)

7. Writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (SVSP)

8. Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom. (ACW)

9. St. John Damascene's On the Divine Images (SVSP)

10. St. John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent. (Classics of Western Spirituality)

11. Writings of Evagrius Ponticus (ACW, Cistercian Studies)

Just a few suggestions. I hope you enjoy!

St. Jerome, a classic motif. Why Renaissance painters never thought he wore a shirt boggles me.


  1. I like the letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement. Short and sweet. The Fathers are all good, but some works are more intimidating than others. I have a copy of Augustine's City of God, but I have never read it end-to-end: the arguments against pagan authors are of lesser interest.

    Sometimes what I do is I just pick passages at random otherwise it's too much work! :D

  2. The first four books of C of G are the most booring: jump ahead, jump all around!

  3. The best part of my thesis research was delving into the Fathers looking for what they said about the Eucharist and how they used the New Testament eucharistic texts in their writings. And among my favourite theology courses were the Christian Spirituality ones (both East and West).

    Keep on encouraging people to get to know the Fathers, Colin!

  4. I had a similar experience in grad school. Thanks, Claire!