(One of our regulars here, James I. McAuley, has come up with a basic list of readings from the Church Fathers, in order that we all may be more grounded in our faith. McAuley, an accomplished lawyer, has made a deep study of Church Fathers. As I have often emphasized here, you do NOT have to be a theologian to keep the faith; you need only acknowledge God, take the next right step and be a sign of hope. But I, personally, benefitted greatly from among the Church Fathers, particularly when I was discerning my entry into the Church. It can be particularly helpful in times of great strife and controversy. I know, when I was going through RCIA, on more than a few occasions presenters would make claims that did not set right with me – but when I went to the readings of what the Church actually teaches, all was well. This is a solid introduction to Church Fathers – and I thank McAuley for writing it for us all.-CJ)
By James Ignatius McAuley, Esq.
During these ever-darkening days, it is comforting to hear the word of a friend who tells you to strive to finish the race to Christ. Some of the best words are to be found in the words of our friends, the Church Fathers. However, there are over five hundred such works, and it would grossly impractical to attempt to collect all of these works, especially as such an operation would be financially prohibitive.
I decided to make a list that I believe should be on everyone’s bookshelf and was financially reasonable. I chose the number seven in honor of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Sacraments, and the Seven Angels who stand before the Lord.
The Protoevangelium of James – We do not know the author, but the antiquity of this work, the first devotional book, is at least to the mid-second century (150 A.D.) Its existence around 244 is documented by the great Origen in his Commentary on Matthew. It contains all of the background information on St. Joachim and St. Anne, St. Joseph, St. James, St Jude, and of course, Mary. Why is the book by James, well if you look at old pictures of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, there is a young man in the front leading the way, with Joseph, as an older man, following Mary, who is on the donkey – The young man is St. James of Jerusalem, also known as James the Less (a horrible name that I do not like) and James the brother of Jesus. Knowledge of this book in the west would do a lot to help the breach between Eastern and Western Christianity. An excellent translation is found inside the book Aiparthenos Ever Virgin? by Orthodox Father Laurent Cleenewerck for 21.95
Book 3 of Against the Heresies – In this Book, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (taught by St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was taught by St. John) lays out the first in depth Christian theological treatise, whereby Christ is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. The unusual focus on the Bishop of Rome as the successor of St. Peter is also obvious. Written before the year 200. The best edition is found in Paulist Press’ Ancient Christian Writers Series, Volume 64 for 34.95
Confessions of St Augustine – Charlie has spoken of this book several times. A wonderful book. Many decent editions can easily be found at a reasonable price.
The Praktikos – This is the first work of the trilogy of Evagrius the Solitary, also known as Evagrius Ponticus, or Evagrius of Pontus. It is the first great manual of spiritual warfare and is the first comprehensive list of the Eight Deadly Passions that Gregory the Great will reduce to the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a simple, but comprehensive distillation of the wisdom of the monks as well as the wisdom of the early Church. For anyone in spiritual self-improvement, psychology, deliverance ministries, healing ministries, this book is a must. Written in the late 380s or early 390s. It is easily found from Cistercian Liturgical Press for around $10.80.
The Four Centuries on Love (Charity) – By St. Maximus the Confessor. It is often said that St. Maximus “purified” the thought of Evagrius found in the Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostika. Like the Praktikos, everything is broken into groupings of what are called “chapters” (kephalaia) that are essentially short pithy sayings. These are a distillation of the thought of Evagrius and the other Desert Fathers. A beautiful work that is found from Paulist Press in their Ancient Christian Writers Series (No, 21, $37.95) and their Classics of Western Spirituality Series ($24.95).
Homilies on the Gospel of Luke – This is the earliest surviving “bible study” on the Gospel of Luke from the great Origen. These are the first Christian works to discuss devotion to the infant Jesus. The 39 sermons are reasonably short, easy to read, and will show you why so many Church Fathers and Mothers always go to Origen. It is available from the Catholic University of America Press, Fathers of the Church Series as Volume 94 ($39.95). Following the great Henri de Lubac’s dictum “See Origen at work,” you will learn about the Word of God and how each word has a meaning that interpreters of scripture must humbly take into account.
Commentary on Galatians – Remember the quote from St. John, “Little Children, love one another.” The story behind that quote is found in this volume. This volume, by St. Jerome, is probably the best commentary you will find on the book of Galatians. It is, in my opinion, a reworking of Origen’s lost commentary on Galatians, but done so by Jerome in a more down to earth and practical manner, removing controversial sections. For those who fuss about soteriology (What is that? All the fuss about how you’re saved by faith, grace or works), this is the best starting point for the patristic perspective. It is a good read and easily available. (Volume 121 of Catholic University of America’s Fathers of the Church series, for $39.95, or Commentary on Galatians, Titus and Philemon by University of Notre Dame Press, $40.00)
Are there any other books I would suggest? One very remarkable book would be The Dialogues by Pope Gregory the Great. It gives us a great insight into the liturgical and devotional practices of late antiquity, as well as the first biography of St. Benedict of Nursia. It speaks about reverence for the Eucharist. It also is very clear about the need for prayer for the dead and is the source for what we call “Gregorian Masses.” It is a very easy and enjoyable book to read, without any drama or histrionics found in some patristic works. ($39.95, Catholic University of America Press, Volume 39)
Now, if anyone wants a book that talks about how the Fathers interpreted the Bible, they need to look no further than the first “Summa” of Christian theology, Origen’s On First Principles. This book is a masterpiece of pre-Nicene theology and should be understood as reflecting a less developed Christianity. But, the section on Scripture is excellent. If you buy the edition from Ave Maria Press ($25.00) you will also get the superb introduction by the late great Henri de Lubac.
All of these books are reasonable in size and price. None of them are overwhelmingly long and complex, as is Augustine’s City of God, Hilary’s on the Trinity, or, the not very helpful for our day to day lives, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical Theology. Yes, there are some other very good books, but these are the basics. If you want to understand the faith, you must love Jesus. If you think you know everything about the faith, its doctrine and history, and are sitting comfortably in the fortress of your Catholic piety, then you are setting yourself up for disaster. Approach the faith with humility, fast in hope, and pray in love as the Fathers did and, like them, the storms in Church and society will not shake you.