Two Classics You Should Read For Your Spiritual Health
In a culture that prizes the newest and latest, and often looks down on anything old, we modern Christians are always in danger of sliding into contemporary fads rather than rooting ourselves in the rich traditions and devotional habits of our forebears in the faith.
C.S. Lewis had such thoughts in mind when he wrote, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself to read another new one till you have read an old one in between.” And when Lewis said old, he meant really old. In fact, he wrote these words in his preface to On the Incarnation—a short text by Athanasius of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century. Lewis himself was recommending Athanasius’s text, so let me start there.
I love Athanasius’s On the Incarnation because it shows us how the early Christians understood Jesus, not just as an individual man who lived in the first century, but as the ultimate reality that sustains the whole of creation. That sounds abstract, but think about some very familiar New Testament passages. John’s Gospel describes Jesus as the Word, the logos in Greek—the cosmic reason or logic through which the Father holds all of creation in existence. Paul, likewise, says in Colossians that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created” and that “in him all things hold together.”
Following John and Paul, Athanasius explains that the Father rescues the world in the same way he creates it: through Christ the Word. If the Father creates through Christ the Word, and then creation becomes corrupted through sin and death, it only makes sense that the Father would also rescue us through the Word. So, Christ’s incarnation—God’s rescue mission—is actually a kind of “recreation.” Sin and death draw us down into nothingness, but Christ pulls us back into life. He creates us again by calling us out of nothingness—just as he did in the beginning.
In one of my favorite passages, Athanasius describes fallen creation as a damaged, dirty painting. That painting, moreover, was originally made in the image of Christ. So, Christ himself must come to “re-inscribe” his image on the painting so that it once again reflects him clearly. I don’t have space to quote the passage here, but every time I read it, I find myself slowing down and praying with Athanasius’s words. And that slow, prayerful, meditative reading—it’s sometimes called divine reading or Lectio Divina—is the best way to approach these old texts.
Let me also recommend Augustine’s Confessions. For Augustine, we humans are fundamentally lovers. That is, our desires and passions—rather than, say, our thoughts and beliefs—make us who we are. Moreover, our desire is bottomless, and so only God, who is infinite, can satisfy our infinite desire. As Augustine prays to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
The Confessions records Augustine’s restless struggle to point his desires toward God and away from finite things that ultimately won’t satisfy. And since all of us are caught up in that same struggle, The Confessions is a great text to pray with. Indeed, we can all cry out to God with Augustine: when will “you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I will forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?”
There’s one last thought I can’t unpack completely but still want to mention. For Augustine, as for Paul, we live and move and have our being within God. In a way, God is Being itself, and therefore, to move toward him is to come more fully alive, more fully into existence. Sinning, then, isn’t just breaking the rules or doing something bad. For Augustine, when we sin, we actually exist less. We slide away from fullness of life toward a kind of hollowness or nothingness.
At one point, before his conversion, Augustine steals some fruit, and he says, “The theft itself was a nothing.” This view of sin and evil has really important implications for our devotional lives. I don’t have space to unpack those implications here, but read The Confessions to find out more!
One last note: try to get the St. Vladimir’s Press edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation (it has Lewis’s introduction) and the Oxford edition of Augustine’s Confessions translated by Henry Chadwick.
May God bless you as you read (and pray!) through these texts!