The Value and Importance of Spiritual Reading
The Christian spiritual life is a journey that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Christianity requires a community to exist in and teachers from whom to learn the faith, and features a cloud of witnesses cheering us on (Heb 12:1). The Holy Spirit animates the Church and, among other things, gives her the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, fortitude, good counsel, and fear of the Lord, piety. We have an obligation to build on those gifts sealed in us at our confirmation: and one of the most effective ways is spiritual reading. By reading good spiritual books, we can build on each of those seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. In addition, we can come to know the saints better, sit at their feet, and learn from their writings.
There is a wealth of writings that can enrich our souls in many ways. St. John Paul II teaches us about love, marriage, and sexuality in his writings on the Theology of the Body. Saints like Therese of Lisieux and Bernadette show us that holiness is possible for the “littlest” of us. Many saints had mystical experiences that can serve as great lessons to us: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Bosco, Padre Pio, and the children of Fatima. Conversion stories, like St. Augustine’s or Bl. John Henry Newman’s, shine a light on the great value of our faith. The beauty of the Holy Spirit is that He continually blesses the Church with saints, century after century.
Taking a step back, we should be thankful that we live in an unprecedented time in the history of the Church. Literacy is taken for granted, but it was not so in earlier times. Access to books used to be far more limited; in Marsh’s Library in Dublin, for example, books were so rare and expensive that they were chained to desks inside of cages. Compare that to modern times, where we have some of the greatest works of literature and theology available online at our fingertips. How blessed we are! The tradition of the Catholic Church and all the writings of her saints are priceless aids that we need to utilize. Yes, need!
Saint after saint has pointed out the positives of spiritual reading. Reading features rather prominently in the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict. Sundays are to be devoted to reading and meals are to be held in silence, with one of the monks reading to the community. St. Alphonsus Ligouri noted that “we cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions, and particularly in our doubts; but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us lights and directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” Many spiritual masters urged reading the lives of the saints for encouragement and models of holiness. Padre Pio recommended spiritual reading in general, but particularly for difficult times in our lives:
“Help yourself during this troubled period by reading holy books. This reading provides excellent food for the soul and conduces to great progress along the path of perfection. By no means is it inferior to what we obtain through prayer and holy meditation. In prayer and meditation it is ourselves who speak to the Lord, while in holy reading it is God who speaks to us. Before beginning to read, raise your mind to the Lord and implore Him to guide your mind Himself, to speak to your heart and move your will.”
One frequent obstacle with spiritual reading is the question of where to start. There are so many writings of saints, magisterial documents, and enough devotional books and pamphlets to fill a library. Choosing what kind of books to read should have a multi-pronged approach, depending on each individual. I think a great way to organize it is an adaptation of St. John Paul II’s recommendations in Pastores Dabo Vobis. The encyclical was on the training of priests, and he called attention to four basic areas of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Even though most of us aren’t ordained priests, we can still apply this to our spiritual reading habits. Good spiritual reads will ideally aid us in all four of those elements—or at least focus on one or two.
Many spiritual works exhort us to form the “human”; that is, to become the best version of ourselves. To form the spiritual side of us is to draw us deeper into communion with Our Lord. The intellectual aspect is important; we have to know what we believe. It is not opposed to the spiritual side; why would God have given humans such a remarkable intellect if He didn’t intend for us to use it? Lastly, I’d change “pastoral” to “vocational” for those of us among the laity. Vocational books on being a parent, spouse, father, mother, etc. have been coming up more and more.
Many Catholic professionals within the discipline of behavioral science have written books on combating vices, correcting behaviors, and dealing with mental issues. With so much bad secular advice in that field, it’s really helpful to read from a Catholic perspective.
I think fiction novels from a Catholic author or with a Catholic subject have their place here. Although Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory tells the story of a whiskey priest in 1930s Mexico, the story is really about sin, grace, and redemption. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries feature a clever priest-sleuth and a spiritual lesson in every story. And, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a masterful epic with Catholic symbolism at every turn. Willa Cather wrote quite a few books; among them, Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop have strong Catholic influences and characters. Louis de Wohl’s historical fiction novels breathe life into heroic saints.
Books in this realm are perfect for times when we may not have the energy or focus to read a deeper spiritual book—which isn’t to say these books don’t have depth themselves. In a certain way, these fiction stories are case studies on the application of spiritual and moral theology.
A great starting book in this area is Ralph Martin’s The Fulfillment of All Desire. He makes the case for the Catholic faith in an accessible way—relying heavily on the writings of the spiritual masters of our tradition. Another profitable path to pursue is reading biographies of Jesus Christ. They deepen our understanding of Scripture, the Mass, and develop our personal relationship with Him. Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote a three-book series entitled Jesus of Nazareth. Although it has some theological insights that might challenge a reader unschooled in theology, he has many profound reflections that would be valuable to anyone who read it. Fulton Sheen, Frank Sheed, and Romano Guardini also wrote excellent works on the life of Jesus.
In this section are also many works by the spiritual masters down through the ages. One could start with the doctors of the Church, the writings of the Patristic Era, or on a particular theme, like Our Blessed Mother or the Mass.
St. John Paul II opens up Fides et Ratio extolling the complementarity of faith and reason; they are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”[v] Every Catholic isn’t expected to get an advanced degree in theology, but each one of us has to understand what we believe. St. Peter reminds us to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
In that vein, studying apologetics is a good way to learn more about the faith—as long as the focus remains on learning why the Church believes what she does, instead of bludgeoning others with the truth. Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home tells the conversion story of him and his wife, Kimberly, from Protestantism to Catholicism. Just on its own, it’s a lesson in apologetics.
Other good starting points in studying the intellectual side of the faith are Frank Sheed’s Theology for Beginners and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism is probably thought of more as a reference book, and it certainly is useful for that—but it also contains a tremendous amount of spiritual wisdom. In pondering the mysteries of our faith, we can better make connections between what the Church teaches and why the Church teaches it.
The beauty of the wealth of knowledge available to us is there is often a book for whatever need we may have. If we encounter questions about the faith, we have resources to develop our intellectual knowledge. The Catholic blogosphere has a myriad of “Catholic mom” sites where women mutually support each other in their vocations as wives and mothers. There are books too numerous to list that have come from Catholic authors on parenting and authentic masculinity and femininity.
St. John Paul II’s biggest focuses was on marriage and family, and he left a tremendous gift to the Church in his Love and Responsibility teachings. They’re more commonly known as the Theology of the Body. Christopher West has written extensively on this, making the subject matter very accessible; others, like Patrick Coffin and Mary Healy, are following in his footsteps.
Integrating Into Prayer
Even the greatest amount of spiritual reading would amount to a waste of time if it did not affect our souls. How do we make it stick in our spiritual life? First, we should keep Padre Pio’s advice: ask for the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and what God wants to communicate to us in that particular book. Another way to do this is by journaling. Writing down thoughts or insights helps us process new information, as well as helping us remember it. If it’s easier to type than write, one might try starting a blog. Anyone can do it, and there are many free sites available.
One of the hours of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours has spiritual reading and prayer rolled into one: the Office of Readings. It begins with the praying of three psalms/canticles from Scripture, and it concludes with one Scripture reading and one reading from the Church’s tradition. It could be from a saint’s writings, an ecclesial document, a selection from one of the Church Fathers, or a sermon from one of the great preachers in our tradition. You might not have otherwise picked up St. John Chrystostum’s homilies on Our Lady, a portion of Lumen Gentium, or a selection from St. Therese’s Story of a Soul! Praying the Office of Readings provides a healthy dose of Scripture and offers short introductions to 2,000 years of spiritual heritage.
Spiritual reading is a habit practiced by some of the holiest saints in Catholic history, and the same grace is open to us today. Let the Holy Spirit deepen His gifts within you!