Spiritual ReadingFATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.
Holiness is the fruit of prayer, and mental prayer is extremely difficult without the reading of spiritual books.
# 1. A Preparation for Meditation
Saint Augustine says that "he who wishes often to be with God ought to pray frequently and read pious books," and all spiritual writers after him, without exception, have insisted on the necessity of spiritual reading for all those who wish to lead a really interior and supernatural life. Holiness is the fruit of prayer, and mental prayer is extremely difficult without the reading of spiritual books. Such reading provides the foundation on which the work of meditation is to be built up; it affords an immediate preparation for the exercise and ministers the element by which it is to be sustained. It is to the exercise of prayer what oil is to the lamp; it supplies the material from which the flame of fervor derives its nourishment and by which it is kept bright and burning. It is for this reason that the religious orders from the beginning have insisted so much on the necessity of spiritual reading, making it a point of rule, and taking every precaution against the disregard or neglect of it. St. Benedict appointed two monks to go round the Monastery at a fixed hour to see that everybody was "making" his spiritual reading, and St. Ignatius writes in his rules: "The religious should twice a day employ (therein) the time allotted, for examination of conscience, for meditation and spiritual reading; and with all possible care and diligence apply themselves thereunto in the Lord." It is a matter to be regretted that this devotional exercise ii confined mostly to those who have given themselves to the religious life, and that books dealing with the characteristics and lives of the saints, as well as with the principles and laws of the life of union with God find a place in few libraries except those of religious houses. They should find a place on the bookshelves of every truly christian home.
All are called to perfection, to that grade of perfection which consists in conformity with the law of the Gospel, and this cannot be attained without constant and intimate union with Our Divine Lord. For this union spiritual reading forms an almost indispensable condition. The reason is obvious. Prayer being an elevation of our souls to God, and this elevation consisting in acts of the understanding and movements of the will, it is plain that our souls must be as it were steeped in a supernatural element, in order that they may easily and readily ascend to God. If our minds are not familiar with divine things this elevation of the soul will be very difficult. The extent of our familiarity with the supernatural will be the measure of the facility which we shall find in giving ourselves to prayer. Of course this facility depends on more than mere knowledge of spiritual books and our own efforts when we give ourselves to prayer. Even when we have done all that is required on our part, the results may still be poor, for in each case, the successful accomplishment of the exercise of mental prayer is a grace and a gift from God. But although God may also impart knowledge of divine things directly, without the intermediary of books, this is not in accord with the ordinary procedure of His Providential guidance of souls. His grace is meant not to supersede but to raise and elevate nature. He does not as a rule interfere with the regular working of natural laws. The ordinary modes by which new ideas come to our minds are reading and instruction. As our minds are constituted they dwell easily and naturally on those thoughts with which they are stored, and which have the most interest for us. If worldly pursuits, worldly interests, mere natural and material things absorb our attention, and are the main theme of such reading as we indulge in, it is inevitable that our reflections will take the color of these preoccupations and interests when we set ourselves to prayer. It is according to the laws of psychology that in such circumstances our thoughts will tend to run almost entirely on earthly things, things quite foreign to prayer. Our best attempts will issue simply in endless distractions, in virtue of the laws that govern the workings of the human mind. Prayer is not a haphazard thing nor can it issue from the best will in the world unless we take account of the lines on which our minds are constructed and adopt our measures in view of this structure and according to the direction it imposes. If we wish to dwell easily on supernatural' things our memories must be stored with them.
Saintliness is an art; it is always the product of adhesion to certain principles, and is the application of these principles in the conduct of life. If we follow certain methods of action we can become saints, but only on condition that we do follow these methods. If a man wishes to acquire an art he gives himself to a certain well-defined course of training, and to the learning of a code of rules. His success will depend on his assiduity and application. In the same way sanctity is a methodical affair and is never an accident. Now meditation is the introduction to a devout life, and meditation, being a work of the mind, presents grave obstacles unless the mind is equipped for it. The Gospel is the text book of sanctity. For this reason our intelligence must be habituated to the examples of the Gospel by continually dwelling on them. The text of the Gospel receives its illustration and amplification in works dealing with the lives of the Saints and with spiritual themes. Spiritual reading has no other purpose than to store our minds with ideas and our imaginations with images pertaining to the supernatural order. And since our minds dwell with ease and for a length of time only on what interests them, the daily reading of pious books must not be merely an exercise to be got through, but a pursuit to which we assiduously devote ourselves. It will entirely fail of its purpose unless it gives a certain very definite turn to our thoughts and a particular trend to our minds. It should extend its influence beyond the mere space of time which is allotted to it; the manner in which we form our judgments about things and devote ourselves to the occupations of our lives must be largely influenced by it. It is only when understood in this way that it forms a valuable aid to mental prayer. For when the tone of our mind is supernaturalised little difficulty will be experienced in putting ourselves in the proper attitude of soul whenever we place ourselves in the presence of God for the formal exercise of prayer. All the difference between the ability and the inability to pray lies in living or in not living the life of faith. The life of faith consists in thinking and acting with a view to God and estimating the things of this world after the manner of the Saints. If our reading is done with ardor, with a mind that is open to receive the impressions that spiritual books of themselves necessarily convey, we shall gradually form the habit of thinking in a supernatural way. Once this habit is formed, the chief and greatest obstacle to the interior life is swept away.
It is not an easy thing for us to think supernaturally, and an occasional look into a spiritual book will not be sufficient to develop in us the habit of doing so. If we are to keep our judgments sure in a spiritual sense, our outlook on life wise with true wisdom, and our conduct under the guidance and control of motives of faith as opposed to those of worldliness, spiritual reading must come to form the most substantial element in our daily intellectual nourishment. It is only thus that it will effectively counterbalance the evil tendencies of nature by awakening and sustaining supernatural tendencies in the soul. Spiritual reading substitutes, for the maxims and examples of the world, the maxims and examples of Our Lord and the Saints. In a word, it is a kind of daily invitation to look beyond earth to God and the things of God. It must not be the least important, but the most important part of our reading. This does not mean that we are to open none but ascetical works — no, but it means that the impressions or cast of thought that we derive from the reading of these must determine, control and correct the cast of thought that our ordinary reading tends naturally to produce. Our estimate of the ideas that are enunciated or adumbrated in the secular books must be guided and checked by the principles laid down by spiritual authors and not vice versa. This is most necessary if we are to set up an effective barrier to the stream of worldliness that is pouring in on us from every side. Our duties may necessitate that a great part of our time for reading will be given to the perusal of books that are frankly humanistic and unspiritual in tendency, that are purely materialistic in outlook and that value life in accordance with the sum of purely earthly happiness and well-being that it can furnish. Constant reading of these, especially when they are written in an attractive style, and with a certain force and plausibility of argument, will introduce their subtle poison into our minds unless we are careful to apply the antidote of spiritual reading. Furthermore, Christians are obliged to live and move in an atmosphere saturated with worldliness, in a world in which almost every appreciation of things is at variance with the appreciations of Jesus Christ, and their judgments cannot remain unaffected by the prevailing tone and tendency of the environment unless a steady corrective be applied. This corrective is to be found in the use of spiritual books. The baneful spirit of naturalism is nowadays not restricted to a definite number or confined to particular regions: it pervades the whole world. To-day, the words of St. Paul find an almost literal verification: "for all seek the things that are their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ's." The doors of no Christian home can be barred so securely, the walls of no religious house can be raised so high, as to shut out this perverse, anti-gospel spirit. It penetrates with its subtle poison everywhere. Its influence is felt within the best Christian communities. Selfishness is becoming a code of conduct; and men use their genius to discover and bring forward reasons and establish principles that justify their self-seeking. The gospel of the world formulates its own beatitudes, which are faithfully echoed by those who pass as normally good Christians. In unison with the worldling they say: "Blessed are they that have a good time." "Blessed are they that have enough of wealth to satisfy every whim." "Blessed are they that can have their own way in all things and can crush opposition," etc. "Self-sacrifice," the world says, "was all right for men who lived at a time when men could not know any better — people are too enlightened nowadays to entertain any longer these mediaeval ideas of perfection." The air we breathe is reeking with these poisonous thought-germs which tend to destroy the spiritual life of the soul; for it substitutes a narrow, selfish and hard calculation for the childlike trust in a loving Providence so recommended by the Gospel.
Apart from all these adverse influences that come from the world we should still find enough of difficulty in ourselves, enough of obstacles to the formation of supernatural habits of thought. Nothing reveals itself to our consciousness in normal conditions but what is of the natural order. We have no power of discriminating by mere consciousness between what is a natural and what is a supernatural act in ourselves. In fact the supernaturalness of any act of faith or hope or charity that we elicit can never be revealed to our consciousness except, perhaps, in the highest mystical states. If we go back over any of the processes by which God stirred our soul in a special manner at any period of our lives, they will appear to us to resemble any other processes of thought or emotion, differing only in regard of the matter with which they are concerned. We assign the change wrought in ourselves to the eloquence of the preacher, the arguments he used, the clear and vivid way in which he put truths we had often heard before, etc. In a word, the whole thing took place, we think, in a way which we can explain, by the ordinary laws of cause and effect. It is only one that is skilled in interior things that can detect the presence of divine grace operating in all these things, and without the operation of which, they would have proved ineffectual There is, then, a decided tendency in us to look at things and judge of them in a purely natural manner.
Now spiritual reading alone, which puts us in touch with and makes us
acquainted with the temper of the Saints, with their habits of thought,
with their estimate of things, will succeed in counteracting all these
influences, and give a certain insight into the action of God in life's
happenings. Association with the Saints through spiritual reading forms and
strengthens in us the conviction that the one thing of supreme value is,
not to be well off in this world, but to be well established in the state
of grace, to be well with God; that all the world's goods without the
friendship of God are valueless, and that sanctifying grace even without
these goods is sufficient; that the contemplation of divine things is a
more energetic influence than feverish activity; that the accomplishment of
God s will an not the gratification of our own is the chief business of
life; and that a man's greatness consists not in wealth or power or honor,
but in that degree of divine charity with which his soul is informed.
# 2. What we are to Read
If the works of ascetical writers are necessary in order to give us a good grasp of the science of spirituality, it is the lives of the Saints that will give us the stimulus to put what we know in practice. What is concrete appeals to us more readily than what is abstract — and in the lives of these heroic men and women we see christian principles in actual working. Without the records of their lives before us, the life of christian perfection as portrayed in the Gospel would run the danger of appearing to our weakness as an ideal impossible to realize, the evangelical counsel and the teaching of the Lord Jesus would appear as something to admire rather than to practice, and, our natural weakness aiding, the teaching of the Savior would soon lose all practical hold upon our hearts and wills. In the lives of the Saints we have positive evidence that perfection is attainable — and that what is impossible to human nature by itself, becomes possible and is actually realized through the grace of Jesus Christ. These records of the lives of these heroic men and women show that all that is required on our part in order to reach sanctity is humility and the entire submission to the Holy Will of God; they show that when these dispositions of humility and fidelity to the divine will are contributed by man, with the help of grace, the divine action can make the rarest virtues grow and flourish in the soul. The reading of the lives of the Saints saves us from the danger of believing that the gospel outlines an ideal which is practically impossible.
There is another danger from which Spiritual reading preserves us — a danger into which many fall, and which has proved a stumbling block to them on the road to perfection. The danger lies in this. The morality taught by Our Lord is so lofty and so uncompromisingly opposed to the inclinations of our lower nature that, under the promptings of that nature, we should be tempted to whittle down the sayings of the Divine Master, explain away their sense, elude their obvious meaning, prune them of all that is sharp and exacting and seek to give them an interpretation more in harmony with the pleasure-loving, easy, comfortable life which is our ambition. So great is our aversion to what is austere and difficult, so unresponsive are we to the appeal to mortification and self-sacrifice, that this tendency would be sure to manifest itself in us, even if there were question merely of the ordinary christian principles, and the counsels of perfection were left out of consideration. This tendency — to explain away the 'exactingness' of the Gospel — is discernible universally in those who, through a total neglect of spiritual literature, are not conversant with the Saints and their ways, and it is evident also even in those who read the lives of the Saints but who do it in a perfunctory manner or by way of a task. Such persons, judging things by the low standards set by their own lives, are inclined to say, in face of the inexorable morality of the Gospel — "Such and such a principle or maxim of conduct must not be taken in the strict sense." "Putting such principles in practice life would be impossible." "No man could live in the manner required by such a rule." With the example of thousands and tens of thousands of saints, of all ages, of all nations, of all ranks and of both sexes, before our eyes, such questionings are silenced. Christian perfection is possible because so many, even of the tenderest age, mere boys and girls, as for instance St. Pancratius and St. Agnes, have attained to it. In their lives we see in actual working, intense love of God, ardent love of the neighbor, a great spirit of self- denial and an eminent degree of the exercise of the moral and the theological virtues.
There is no one but recognizes the force of example. Any amount of instruction may fail to rouse to stern endeavor the sluggish, those who are not naturally of an elevated, noble or generous temperament. But when the instruction is embodied in a life, which is its living expression, then even the dullest are aroused to energetic action. A great and good life excites admiration in the hearts of all that contemplate it. Admiration begets imitation. We have an inborn tendency to assume the ways and manners of those we admire. Hence it is that books written for boys deal mostly with the doings of the chief character, who is pictured as possessing all the qualities that it is desired should be emulated by the youthful reader, viz: — truthfulness, honesty, fair dealing, judgment and courage. These ideal figures fire the imagination, and the boy reader is filled with the desire to resemble in all things the hero of his book. Reading of this kind plays a large part in forming the ideals of young boys and in determining their estimates of all that is great and heroic. Great harm then can be done, and is done, in setting before the young mind a false standard of manliness and virtue. One is naturally drawn to greatness, and if our idea of greatness is false, it is easy to see to what a perverted notion of what really constitutes a great and manly life a false standard may give rise. That man alone is truly great who is perfect in self-mastery, and who is perfectly submissive to Almighty God; this is the perfectly moral and religious man. It is the Saints only who have fully and adequately realized this ideal. We cannot have what is truly lofty and noble constantly before our thoughts without being drawn to make the effort to reproduce at least something of that loftiness and nobility in our own lives. This does not mean that we are to strive to imitate the personal characteristics or the heroic individual actions or mortifications of the Saints in our conduct. Imitation of the Saints does not mean copying them. The attempt would be futile and end only in caricature and finally in disappointment. We imitate them by shaping our lives according to the principles which governed theirs, and by accepting their practical estimation of things, and not necessarily in making our own the material circumstances and the actual doings of their lives. We are not called upon to do what they did aided by the particular graces that were given them. But we are called upon to judge things as they did and view life and its activities after their manner.
Many find spiritual reading distasteful and insipid. This will be the case especially for those who indulge overmuch or even to any serious degree in romantic literature. Even when the tone of this is not really bad, it exercises a very disturbing effect on the imagination, renders the assimilation of spiritual ideas difficult. The sensuous always appeals to us more readily than the spiritual, and hence those eager to lead a truly interior life must exercise a rigid mortification in the matter of light literature. What is bad or of a dangerous tendency must be wholly shunned by all who aspire even to an ordinary christian life. It is unfortunate that parents and teachers do not understand how utterly unchristian can be the mentality created by the works to which they so readily give their approval, if they find nothing in them openly contrary to faith and morals. For those who aim at intimacy with God, the selection of recreative reading must be much more careful; everything taken into their hands with a view to affording mental relaxation should tend at the same time to elevate and ennoble the mind. Nothing should be provided which would only stimulate and excite the imagination. Books turning upon the interplay of human passions, and without any supernatural background to the dramatic representation of the loves and hates of mankind, vitiate the taste and take away all relish for books that deal with the spiritual experiences of those who have given themselves to the life of intercourse with God.
Books that derive all their charm from the vividness with which they portray the deep emotions of earthly and natural affection are dangerous for souls which have consecrated the love of their hearts to God. The heart of the priest and the nun must be virginal, and should be carefully shielded from everything that would excite in it an interest in the play of human passions. The imagination of those who, turning their back on secular life and renouncing by vow the joys of domestic life, have bound themselves to tend towards perfection, should, as far as depends on their efforts, be kept free from all images of profane love. Then again those who have not had the same call and who, having tasted the joys held out by the world, have experienced the bitterness and disillusionment which too often attends the experiment, will instinctively, in their revulsion of feeling, turn for comfort and consolation to souls consecrated to the service of God. Those who are disillusioned with life will trust to these consecrated souls to establish contact once more between themselves and the supernatural world, with which, in their worldly existence, they had gradually lost touch. If they, whose profession is an exclusive devotedness to the things of God, have nothing to offer to the world-weary ones who look to them for an uplifting, except those very maxims, principles, and views of the world which have proved so bitter a disillusionment, they will have betrayed the legitimate trust that has been reposed in them. Consecrated souls must keep in close touch with God, for the sake of others as well as in their own interest. They must be always prepared in mind and will to be a guide to the supernatural world, for those who are broken by the trials of earth; for it is to that supernatural world and the God Who reigns in it, that the human heart, when crushed under the burden of existence, will immediately turn for healing and hope, if once it has known the goodness of that God. If they, whose function it is to play the part of intermediary with God, allow their minds to be formed to the same pattern as the minds of those who live in habitual neglect of divine things: if they waste their time, dissipate their energies and enervate their imaginations with the same type of literature as fashions the taste and charms the leisure of the worldling, then they cannot fulfill satisfactorily what is expected of them. It is true that sometimes those who are devoting themselves seriously to the cultivation of an interior life, are obliged in the discharge of their duties to make an acquaintance with the books that are in vogue. But while doing this they should hold themselves well on their guard against the seduction of that reading and keep their literary taste pure and uncontaminated. Interior souls should beware of making the perusal of romantic literature a recreation: they should give themselves to it as to a task and regret the time that may have to be spent in it. Where possible an interior soul should renounce all indulgence in light or romantic literature. If one who desires to give himself to spirituality has not a taste for spiritual books, then that taste should be cultivated, for it can be acquired. Its acquisition is, according to Father Faber, clearly a sign of predestination; it is at any rate a powerful help towards a spiritual life. When our minds are by constant reading steeped in the thoughts of God and divine things, it will be easy for us to think of Him, and it will come natural and easy for us to speak to Him and to speak of Him out of our full hearts and well-stored minds.
After one is grounded deeply in spirituality it becomes possible to touch
these works of fiction without being defiled; they will have lost their
appeal; they will be read only through necessity; they will be read not for
amusement but in order that one may be a service to and a guidance to
# 3. How We are to Read
Spiritual reading as an aid to the development of an interior life is an exercise which bears a close affinity to actual prayer. It is not practiced mainly in view of gaining knowledge about things spiritual. Its object is rather to stir up the affections than to equip the intelligence. Reading for curiosity and devouring page after page of spiritual works defeats the very purpose for which spiritual reading is undertaken. There is a wide difference between religious reading and that which is read as an immediate help to mental prayer. The end of religious reading is instruction and enlightenment. It is necessary especially for directors of souls who must, by reason of their office, acquire a profound and scientific knowledge of asceticism and spirituality. The study of mystical, dogmatic and moral theology is religious reading. It goes without saying that religious reading must be supplemented by that which is properly spiritual in the case of those who are charged with the direction of souls: without it their instruction will lack the unction that is discovered in the words only of those whose thoughts move habitually in the spiritual world. The mere exercise of faith does not, of itself, steep the soul in a supernatural atmosphere. The soul's being so steeped in divine things is, as was pointed out, a condition of facility and growth in prayer. Spiritual reading is an invaluable aid to this, on condition that it is done is done in the proper way. Hurried and dilettante reading is to be deprecated. The books taken up should be read through: passing from one to the other, after having read a little in each, disturbs the calm and balance of the soul. A desire to have one's Spirit drawn to and strongly attracted by all that belongs to the interior life should be the motive impulse in spiritual reading. As counseled by the Saints and masters of the interior life its purpose is to affect the heart and will, making them enamoured of heavenly things, of virtues, of divine grace, of purity of soul, of growth in intimacy with our Divine Lord. One must be very dull and miserable not to be powerfully drawn by the beauty of the world of grace as revealed in the soul confidences of the Saints. The characteristics of their intimate converse with God, their union with Jesus Christ, and the marvelous transforming and divinising effects wrought in their souls through this intimacy and this union must, if read in a true interior spirit, excite in the heart of the reader a desire to penetrate, were it for ever so little a space, into this world of happiness and of beauty.
That this be the effect, the reading, as has just been stated, must be made
in a disposition akin to prayerfulness. One should read slowly allowing
oneself plenty of time and allowing what is read to sink well into the
mind, so that the intelligence be penetrated by the truths exposed in the
text and the will strongly drawn towards them. " Read with attention and
application of mind and heart," says St. John Eudes, "weighing, tasting and
digesting at leisure the sense and the substance of the words." If
spiritual reading be hurried through natural curiosity to get through a
great number of books, it will do very little good indeed. Reading should
begin with a fervent invocation of God and should be interrupted and
interspersed with pious aspirations or ejaculatory prayer. It should be
selected in view of one's actual spiritual condition and in accordance with
one's spiritual needs. Reading that has no connection with the soul's
tendencies at the moment cannot prove very beneficial. That the exercise
should yield its full fruits, there should be a close and vital connection
between one's reading and one's mental prayer.
# 4. How to Profit by the Lives of the Saints
"Be ye followers of me," says St. Paul, "as I am of Christ."  The same indeed may be said of all the Saints — they are our models in the way of Christian perfection. It has been asserted with the falsity that habitually marks statements that proceed from a desire to appear clever rather than to express the truth, that the Saints are rather objects of admiration than of imitation. In canonizing the heroes of the christian warfare the Church invites the rest of her children to walk in their footsteps. But by imitation is not meant a slavish reproduction of the circumstances of their lives, of their exceptional austerities, of their personal characteristics and of all that was peculiarly personal to them. This would be an idle effort and would not promote a healthy spiritual life. We are to imitate the Saints in their endeavor to reproduce in their own lives the traits of the life of Jesus. He is the supreme Model of human conduct. He is most imitable. And each one of us is meant to reproduce according to his own personal endowments, his own mental and moral characteristics and his own individual measure of grace, his own personal expression of the human life of Jesus on earth. There can be as many imitations that are different, yet all true in their several measure, as there are individual Christians. Hence the following are the lines of imitation of the Saints that our conduct should pursue, if a profitable use is to be made of the reading of their lives.
Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "Spiritual Reading." chapter 15 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 212-232.
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