My Orthodox Reading List

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I have been Orthodox for ten years now (I was raised Anglican), and during that time I have endeavoured to read Orthodox literature. In the beginning, that meant the lives of contemporary elders (an easy and often inspiring way into leading an Orthodox life) and some Church Fathers. In particular, I was helped by Johanna Manley’s The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, a 1000-page volume of Bible passages and commentaries by Church Fathers (frequently St John Chrysostom). It constitutes a treasury of Orthodox learning.

This book is published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, who seem to be the main publishers of Orthodox literature, based in the United States, which makes postage expensive for those of us who live outside the US, though their titles are also available on Kindle. Lives of contemporary elders are often published by the monasteries where they lived. I tend to avoid academic publishers such as Routledge, whose series The Early Church Fathers looks nice, but is, I think, insanely expensive (in the region of 30 pounds, even for Kindle titles, which cost nothing to print or send). I tried a couple of their titles and found them excessively dry. St Vladimir’s has done better with their series Popular Patristics, though again their Kindle editions are quite expensive (in the region of 10 pounds). The titles from this series are interesting, but they are essentially new translations, with an introduction, of material that can be found freely on the Internet. Also, while Church Fathers are essential to an understanding of the faith, it is sometimes nice to read contemporary writers who are not so concerned with fourth-century heresies or church politics and have simple advice to offer to the lay person on the spiritual life.

People at the beginning of their road as Orthodox faithful often ask what Bible they should use, what prayer book. I know it is common practice among Orthodox to use the New King James Version. Personally, I continue to use the New Revised Standard Version, which was the version used when I was in the Church of England, though I am also an admirer of The Orthodox Study Bible with its notes on Scripture following the Orthodox tradition. For the Psalter, I highly recommend the pocket edition of A Psalter for Prayer adapted by David Mitchell James from the Myles Coverdale translation of 1535 (earlier than the King James Version). Crucially for me, it contains not only the psalms in a beautiful translation, but deep and moving prayers at the end of each kathisma (the Psalter is divided into twenty kathismata or “sittings”, each of which is divided into three staseis or “standings”, making a total of sixty sections; I read one stasis in the evening). These prayers are missing from other editions.

As for prayer books, I’m rather fond of The Orthodox Prayer Book, first printed by “Svit” in 1957 in a bilingual English-Church Slavonic edition, with the text of the liturgy and akathists (long devotional prayers) to Christ and the Theotokos. Another Slavonic prayer book is the Jordanville Prayer Book, which has similar content, but also includes supplicatory canons to Christ, the Theotokos, and the Guardian Angel. Then there is Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians. This monastery does beautiful translations and editions, including their standout editions of The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian and The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Their prayer book is again similar and includes supplicatory canons. For me, which prayer book you choose depends a little whether you lean more towards the Greek or the Russian traditions. I live in Bulgaria, which is Slavonic, but I studied Classics at university, so I’m a bit between the two. A much simpler prayer book is The Ancient Faith Prayer Book, with more varied prayers, but no text of the liturgy or akathists/canons. There is also Orthodox Christian Prayers from St Tikhon’s Monastery, Fr Alexander Schmemann’s A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, and Fr Michael Monos’ Orthodox Christian Prayer Book, but I don’t have these. The one I have used most is HTM’s A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, and I still recite the introductory prayers, the Lord’s Prayer and Creed, according to their translation.

I wanted to give those Orthodox books that most moved me, that I most enjoyed, not because they’re the ones I felt obliged to read, but because they spoke to me as an ordinary Christian pilgrim. They may not be great names (though some of them are), but if I had to leave in a hurry, these are the books I would take with me. I do not include here the Bible, which is obvious, or the four (soon to be five) volumes of The Philokalia, a work I found far too daunting in the early days and am only now beginning to read from beginning to end (two pages a night). The Philokalia in its English manifestation—a valuable service provided by translators G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware—contains some truly wonderful texts, and if I’m honest and could only take one book with me, this is the one I would take (together with A Psalter for Prayer). In extremis. Oh, and maybe Donald Sheehan.

Church Fathers

Orthodoxy sets great store by Church Fathers from St Clement of Rome in the first century to St Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth. It sets great store by tradition. It is almost as if there is nothing new to be said. There is no doubting the enormous sacrifice of these churchmen—St John Chrysostom (responsible for the text of the liturgy) was exiled for his beliefs, St Maximus the Confessor had his tongue and right hand cut off. They defended the Church against numerous (and dangerous) heresies, handing down to us the prayers we use in our services and right belief (take, for example, the Creed, which was written down at two church councils in the fourth century and which we still recite today).

And yet, while respecting tradition, we must be open to the action of the Holy Spirit, which continues to inspire people today. So I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to Church Fathers. I try to find a balance between the two—Church Fathers and contemporary writing. Of the Church Fathers, I have found some disappointing, their style too formal. Perhaps my own spiritual growth has not been on a level with their writings. I was not ready and have simply skimmed the surface without managing to go inside—like walking around a building for which one does not have the key. One can admire it from the outside, but the fact is, despite the grey stone and impressive structure, one is missing the riches inside.

There are some Church Fathers, however, who have spoken to me very directly. People like Ignatius of Antioch in his letters en route to Rome, Cyril of Jerusalem and his catechetical lectures, Gregory the Great (who sent Augustine on a mission to England). And at the top of the list would be the pithy wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century hermits of Egypt, where monasticism began.

These would be my favourite books by Church Fathers, the ones that involved me personally:

1. In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

This is an astonishingly beautiful study by contemporary theologian John Chryssavgis, who acts as an advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch. Rarely have I read such a beautiful book, Orthodox or otherwise.

There are collections of the sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection—both by Benedicta Ward—and Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert. I think people tend to incline towards the one they read first.

2. Fifty Spiritual Homilies of Saint Macarius the Egyptian

Also a Desert Father. I read the edition by Aeterna Press, a useful publisher that makes old translations of Church Fathers available at a low price.

3. Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses & Sayings

This book takes us along the path followed by early monasticism – from Egypt in the fourth century to Palestine and Syria in the sixth, but it is essentially again desert spirituality.

4. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

This book describes the spiritual life in thirty steps and contains one of the best quotes I have ever read (I used it in my book on language and the environment, Stones Of Ithaca): “Love is the progress of eternity.” Wow!

5. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian

There are many people who would say that Orthodox theology is contained in the writings of this seventh-century Syrian ascetic (and briefly bishop).

6. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies

I am now jumping forward seven centuries, from Syria to Greece. These homilies are exquisitely translated by Christopher Veniamin.

7. Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar

This is a contemporary work by Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, but it is basically a summary of Orthodox Church teaching for the student of Orthodox theology. Very enriching. I read a couple of pages each morning, which I think is the way to approach many of these books. They are not novels to be read at night. You need to be fresh for them, your mind clear.

Contemporary Elders

Church Fathers, not so much the hermits, can appear a little imposing, and it can help to approach Orthodoxy through the lives of people not so distant from us. Especially in the beginning, I found reading their lives—and going to visit the places where they lived and to venerate their relics when the opportunity presented itself—very encouraging. Some were monks on Athos, the peninsula in northern Greece devoted to Orthodox monasticism; others are monks in the world. There is even a royal princess, born in Germany and now resting in Jerusalem! Their lives are an example, but spare a thought for their biographers, thanks to whom we are able to read about them. Here are the ones I found most moving, in order of when they lived:

8. The Elder Moses of Optina

If I ever get to Russia, one of the places I would like to go, apart from the Holy Trinity Lavra of St Sergius, is Optina Monastery, famous for its Optina Elders. This lovingly compiled biography concerns one of these elders, Moses, who lived in the nineteenth century. Very touching.

9. Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke

A tale of riches to rags, a German princess who married into the Russian royal family, became abbess of a convent in Moscow, and later died at the hands of revolutionaries. Lovingly prepared by Lubov Millar.

10. My Elder Joseph the Hesychast

Strictness belies the gentleness within. The asceticism of this monk is amazing! This biography has the advantage of having been compiled from the words of Elder Ephraim of Arizona, an important Athonite monk who went on to found numerous monasteries in the United States.

11. Saint Paisios of Mount Athos

My first great elder. Like many Greeks, I fell in love with this elder (now a saint), who before dying asked to be stricken with cancer so he could understand the sufferings undergone by others and constantly put his life on the line for others. He is buried just outside Thessaloniki, at the Monastery of St John the Theologian in Souroti (this monastery has produced numerous books with his spiritual counsels). It is possible to visit his hermitage on Athos near Koutloumousiou Monastery.

12. Archimandrite George (Kapsanis), Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life

This is not a life, but a work written by a former abbot of Grigoriou Monastery on Athos. I was fortunate enough to receive a blessing from him on my first visit to Athos and to have coffee on a balcony hanging over the sea with one of his English translators, Fr Damian. This short little book is a pearl about that most important thing, theosis (or deification).

13. Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart

Another work, not a life. I still remember my visit in 2016 to Ormylia Convent in northern Greece, where Archimandrite Aimilianos was cared for after he retired as abbot of Simonopetra Monastery until his death in 2019. Not only did I receive some very beneficial advice from a visiting monk, two nuns gave me coffee (I was driving rather long distances at the time) and then did that most extraordinary thing—they listened to me. They actually listened to me, and the fact they listened with complete concentration, as if I was the only person that mattered at that moment, I found incredibly healing. Even now, I remember this gesture of theirs. Archimandrite Aimilianos’ writings are similarly healing, similarly pastoral.

14. Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), The Hidden Man of the Heart

Archimandrite Zacharias is a contemporary elder at the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, England. His talks, which centre on that shortest of journeys from the head to the heart, have been transcribed and published by his monastery.

Everyday Saints

15. Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), Everyday Saints and Other Stories

This book was a hit when it came out in 2011 and has sold millions of copies in the original Russian and in translation. It is a lovely collection of anecdotes about life in the Church. My own favourite was the doorkeeper of a monastery in western Russia who got so sick of busloads of tourists that he decided one day to refuse entrance to anyone who couldn’t recite the Creed. The abbot was informed and angrily insisted he open the gate, which he agreed to do. A little act of resistance.

These are my fifteen favourite Orthodox books. You will see that they have to do very much with the ordinary, routine act of living, not high theology. But the list would not be complete without mention of an American contemporary Orthodox writer, Donald Sheehan, and his selected essays, The Grace of Incorruption. I am currently reading this book and have the impression Donald Sheehan is already one of my favourite writers. He gives immense importance to the composition and translation of the psalms, the journey towards blessedness (something Rilke would have understood) contained in the progression of the psalms, and more amazingly brought about by their reading. This would be my sixteenth book, except I haven’t finished it yet. As with the act of translation, the life of a pilgrim is never quite finished.

John D12/26/2022 6:21 am
Response to Peter: Just some clarification. The Coptic church is NOT Orthodox. I give my reasons below. Mainly, because they have broken with Apostolic Tradition and ALL the Church Fathers in their consensus patrum have said so. Introduction In 1984 Pope Shenouda III gave a series of lectures at the Seminary of St. Mark, about the Christology of the Coptic Church. The Coptic Church later decided to publish the lectures for educational purposes, and subsequently they were translated into English to be presented as a paper at a meeting of the Pro-Oriente Group1 in October 1991. This small book bears the signature of Pope Shenouda III and can be taken as the official Coptic Christological Position. Most of the below critical commentary has been compiled from the exegetical and dogmatical writings of the Fathers of the Church. The reason for this is that Holy Scripture must be understood within the Tradition of the Church, which is the experience of the Church, and this experience is handed down to us through the writings of the Fathers. Pope Shenouda quotes many scriptoral passages, but very rarely does he quote any of these exegetical and dogmatical Patristic writings. Recognizing with great respect and love the ancient Tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and especially Pope Shenouda’s steadfast defense of Orthodox Christianity through many struggles his homeland, Egypt, I shall nevertheless venture to give a critical commentary on the most important Christological statements made by Pope Shenouda III in his book, as seen from a Chalcedonian, or Byzantine Christological position. In his book Pope Shenouda often seems to identify the term ”nature” with ”person”, which in my understanding results in a misinterpretation of the Byzantine Christology. Hopefully the following will explain and clarify the Byzantine Christological position on the person and natures of Christ the Incarnate Logos. Due to limited space, I have been forced to paraphrase most of Pope Shenouda’s statements but have done my utmost to retain the essence of his statements without alteration. The statements of Pope Shenouda are in bold, and the commentary in normal typeface and the commentary follows the chapter headings in Pope Shenouda’s book. A Commentary on Coptic Christology By Seminarian Nicholas Vester, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Autumn 2005. "Anyone who believes that the Orthodox Fathers were wrong in condemning the Monophysites, and that the Copts have always been Orthodox, is guilty of blasphemy against the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Synod at Chalcedon, which condemned the Monophysite heresy. He is also guilty of heresy, in that such a proposition presupposes not only that the Fathers of the Church were in error and that this error entered into the conscience of the Church, but that the Orthodox Church has for centuries been "divided" between the two "families" of right-believing Orthodox and the supposedly "right-believing" Copts. Moreover, such a view presumes that our Orthodox Fathers, ignorant of the truth, "divided" the Church over semantics and over word games." Source: Copts and Orthodoxy @ Doxa to Theo, John
Anne12/25/2022 10:15 pm
St Athanasius' "The Incarnation." An absolute must read for every Orthodox Christian. Excellent introduction by C.S.Lewis.
Chris12/25/2022 12:19 pm
I highly recommend Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander
Peter12/25/2022 5:59 am
This is a great list. I've been meaning to read through all of Everyday Saints. I've seen amazing snippets of it. I know this site may not be a fan of Coptic Orthodox ascetics, but these two books are two of my favourite. They demonstrate true, living holiness and martyrish love for God and others inside the Coptic Church: > - about our 3rd most recent patriarch. He performed thousands of miracles. Barely ate, liturgized daily. One of the top selling books in SVS press (most famous Orthodox English press in the world). > - life, miracles and holiness of a martyr who was shot dead in 2013 in North-East Egypt. Christ appeared to him on the morning of the incident.
Sonia Teshu12/25/2022 2:55 am
I suggest works by the noted historian of early church history, John Anthony McGuckin, formerly professor at Columbia University and now on the Faculty of Church History at Oxford University. An archpriest of the Romanian Orthodox Church, his many books include The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, St. Cyril of Alexandria: the Christological Controversy and St. Gregory of Nazianzus: an Intellectual Biography..
John D12/25/2022 1:55 am
Among other Bl Fr Seraphim's "ABC's" is his "The Path of Salvation", St Nicodemos the Hagiorite's "Unseen Warfare", St. John of Kronstadt's "My Life in Christ", St. Innocent's "The Indication of the Way Into Heaven" to name a few. These along with reading the OT and NT and the Lives of the Saints, should be done with regularity before ANY attempts at reading stuff like the Philokalia, anything by St. Maximos the Confessor or any other heavy hitters within the Church. If you're going to ignore my warning, and decide to read the Philokalia, please refer to the stuff I sent on 'the Traditional Path to the Philokalia' last fall-winter.Ch. 96 Forming Young Souls from Father Seraphim Rose; His Life & Works Forming Young Souls | St. Nektarios Orthodox Church of Lenoir City, TN ( This article explains the importance of good literature, art, music, and movies on the formation of a young child’s soul and has many wonderful suggestions throughout. Taken from Not of this World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose by Monk Damascene Christensen (ch. 97, p. 894-909). COUNSELS OF FR. SERAPHIM (ROSE) TO YOUNG CONVERTS Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) Guidance for Laymen on Reading Spiritual Books From the Letters of Archbishop Theophan of On Reading Spiritual Books by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov Excerpts from The Arena on the correct Reading of Spiritual Books by St. Ignatius (Ignaty) Brianchaninov. On Spiritual Learning by I.M. Kontzevich as an introduction to the letters of Elder Macarius of Optina Very Valuable Readings An Excerpt from Man's Spiritual Evolution by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos The Spiritual ABC’s & Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose; Excerpts from his writings and talks on the ABC’s of Orthodox Spirituality from: Signs of the Times as Spiritual ABCs By Hieromonk Seraphim Rose [written 1978]
Scott 12/24/2022 4:13 am
The Prologue of Ohrid
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