The influence of reading, listening, and senses On the life of virtue
Thinking and Senses:
Senses are the source of thoughts, for what a person reads or hears bring forth thoughts. What a person sees occupies the mind, then the thoughts of the mind go to the heart in the form of feelings and emotions, and these easily affect the will and turn into action!
The influence of senses is not confined to consciousness, but extends to the subconscious, for all the scenes and readings, which the eye and the ear collect, these lie in the subconscious according to their depth. These appear afterwards in the form of dreams, suspicions or other thoughts, for a thought brings forth another thought or thoughts.
The mind works continually and unceasingly.
According to the nourishment of the mind its thoughts will be. Senses may bring good or evil thoughts, for according to the fuel the fire will be. Take care then of your senses to ensure the safety of your thoughts, and see what thoughts occupy your mind: spiritual, sinful, or worthless temporal worldly things?
The church benefits from senses as a spiritual means:
The icons in the church give us an idea of the life, holiness, struggles, and passions of the saint it represents. When Mahatma Gandhi the preeminent spiritual leader of India visited France, he wept before the icon of the Crucified Lord Christ.
Other influential factors provided by the church are music and hymns, which have their effect on the heart and the mind, and the sweet aroma of incense is another factor. The white priestly vestments, the lighted candles, the movement of the priests and deacons, standing, kneeling down and prostration, all of this affect the eye, bring forth thoughts in the mind, and feelings and emotions in the heart. All other church rituals and readings have similar influence.
Readings have their deep influence on one's life and personality:
• The kind of reading determines the principles and values implanted in the soul. The thoughts of a young person who reads much about liberty will certainly differ from those of a person who reads about commitment and sacrifice or about asceticism and death to the world, about zeal, enthusiasm and struggling. Reading forms the personality of a person.
• Reading also provides the mind with deeper concepts and extensive knowledge. A poet once said about reading in history:
Whoever keeps history in his heart … adds years to his life
• Reading keeps the mind away from trifles, for a woman who is not interested in reading will know nothing but cooking, dresses, parties, and news of the others, whereas a well-informed woman can speak well about various matters. Likewise, a man who knows nothing but cafes, clubs, or places of entertainment is shallow, and his talk is either useless or even harmful, unlike a well-informed person who is interested in reading and studies. That is why we are interested in encouraging women, children, and everybody to read, and encouraging establishing libraries. The father priests and guides are required to guide their spiritual children to useful and suitable types of reading.
• Useful reading affects the spirit and leads it to God. We cannot forget the impact which the reading the biography of St. Anthony, the preaching of St. John Chrysostom, and the poems of Mar Ephraim the Syrian had on Augustine, leading him to repentance. Spiritual reading, if well-chosen to be suitable and useful, lift the reader to higher and deeper levels.
• Reading gives the mind growth and maturity and provides it with new knowledge and thoughts, which it would have accepted simply without argument. The characteristics of early age brackets have changed completely due to the kind of knowledge a child now receives from the community. With the increase of published material in books, magazines, and newspapers, and the kind of knowledge provided thoughts changed, and the level of knowledge developed, and this in turn has its influence on people's lives. See then what kind of deep reading you prefer, is it the scientific and general knowledge, politics, economics, news of crimes, accidents, and deviations, or dogma and faith, spiritualities, or asceticism and biographies of saints? Your reading will affect your life and lead it a certain direction.
Do not think yourself safe from influences, for even great minds are subject to influences.
Origen, the preeminent theological scholar in the third century and for many centuries thereafter, was influenced by Plato and Neo-Platonism, and by his readings in philosophy, and this appeared clearly in his writings about spirits and pre-existence, about angels, salvation and eternal life. He was ex-communicated by the church and by the Ecumenical Councils! Not only the heretics, but their books also are ex-communicated, because reading them is harmful as not everybody can discern what is wrong and refute it. The church did so to the books of magic, collecting and burning them, as we read in (Acts 19: 19), "Many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all." Therefore, for the benefit of readers and faith, church libraries should be purified, and reading should be under guidance.
Moreover, whoever presents certain wrong teaching should provide with it strong refutation thereof. Likewise, those who provide Biblical Criticism should be strong enough to discuss such thoughts.
There are many examples of wrong and misleading knowledge.
Because of such knowledge Wise Solomon said, "He who increases knowledge increases sorrow," (Eccl 1: 18) meaning harmful knowledge that troubles the mind and fills it with doubts. Of such knowledge Festus the Governor said to St. Paul, "Much learning is driving you mad!" (Acts 26: 24) That of course was unfair for St. Paul, but it may apply to others.
The aim of reading may be:
• For mere desire to read
• For study and search
• For fulfilling a certain duty, like students reading to succeed
• For amusement or entertainment, as reading novels
• For developing their intelligence, as in the case of solving quizzes
• For satisfying a certain inner desire
• For replacing a certain lustful or wrong thought with another straight thought to achieve balance
• For filling or rather wasting one's time
• For deeper knowledge of dogmatic and faith subjects, or for teaching others
• For edifying oneself or surpassing others in knowledge
• For spiritual benefit, which is a higher level, to have reading as spirit and life as the Lord said about the words He spoke (Jn 6: 63)
Of what type then are you; and what spiritual benefit do you get from reading?
How to read:
Read with understanding and scrutiny, and do not embrace whatever you read without study or thinking, as if it is written by inspiration! Put before you the words of the apostles, "Test all things; hold fast what is good." (1 Thess 5: 21) "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God." (1 Jn 4: 1) Know that "The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness." (Eccl 2: 14) It is better to weigh whatever you read in the light of the word of God which is able to make you wise for salvation (2 Tim 3: 15).
Do not disseminate what you read.
Some people are not only satisfied with being influenced by certain views, but they also enthusiastically disseminate them around, leading others astray.
Do not admire whatever new views you read.
Be sure first that such new views do not conflict with the established church principles received from the holy fathers, for the Scripture says, "Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers have set." (Prov 22: 28; 23: 10) This is the strong basis of the traditional churches: preserving the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jud 3), not adding to it anything contradicting.
Let your reading be with humbleness.
Sometimes, "Knowledge puffs up" (1 Cor 8: 1), and hearts are lifted, supposing they have attained more and deeper knowledge than the others. They look down upon them and see that they are ignorant. Knowledge becomes a room for boasting, and they lose their humbleness in talking with the others, even with the older or greater than them.
One hears much in meetings, from relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or from media, but what avails is to choose and practice control over what one hears.
God has given you two ears to hear different views and not be bound to one view or to whatever you hear. God has put the brain between both ears to weigh, judge, examine, and scrutinize, and to accept what is suitable and reject what is harmful. Do not then put your brain in your ears, that is, to believe whatever you hear. Seek rather the truth, and remember that the first sin of man was listening to the wrong counsel of the serpent who was more cunning than any beast of the field (Gen 3: 1) King Ahab likewise obeyed the wrong oppressive words of his wife Jezebel (1 Kgs 21). Let not the counsel of Ahithophel cause you harm as we say in the Holy Liturgy [Disperse their counsel, O Lord, who dispersed the counsel of Ahithophel]. Follow only the useful words of advice, sincere reproach, wise counsel, or words that may edify and establish you spiritually and intellectually. Beware harmful words of praise, flattery, or temptation.
Music also has its influence, therefore, the church attached importance to hymns and music due to their deep influence on the soul, and the apostle says, "… speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." (Eph 5: 19)
Let praise songs and hymns be among the spiritual means that edify you, also impressive songs with proper tunes not adopted from worldly songs. Beware "brain washing" by which some fall under certain thoughts that remove away any previous beliefs and implant innumerable doubts and different thoughts leaving no chance for refutation or examining of the new thoughts, for a person subject to such brain washing comes out a completely different person with completely different views. That was the way of communism and similar sects.
Furthermore, choose those friends whom you can listen to and obey, who say the straight word of truth, and are fit as good guides speaking the word of God.
Do not repeat what you hear and pour it in the ears of the others, except after making sure of their soundness and benefit, lest you mislead the others and cause them to lose their virtues. Do not be like a parrot lest you convey rumors or harmful information.
The other senses:
Be on your guard with respect to the influence of your looks. Remember that David's greatest sin began with a look (2 Sam 11: 2), which led to lust then to adultery and murder.
A look may lead to sins of condemnation, envy, or the like, for looks have their impact on heart emotions, and the opposite, heart emotions do form the kind of the look. We cannot forget that the sin of our mother Eve began with a change in the heart that made her look differently and see that the tree was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise (Gen 3: 6).
St. John said about the love of the world, which is enmity to God, "For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." (1 Jn 2: 16)
The senses of touch and smell likewise have their influence. That is why saints were on their guard, keeping their senses and practicing control over them so as not to lead them away from the life of righteousness by such emotions.