Reading in My Spiritual Life
Fr. Thomas Steinke, IVE
There is a natural or perhaps better, a supernatural progression in the spiritual life. One normally begins with lots of vocal prayers, going through many different prayer books and that is a good thing, very pleasing to God. Then, God will give the person a hunger for spiritual reading in addition to their other forms of prayer and then one learns things about their faith very much like they learn things in any other course of study.
Spiritual reading gives God an opportunity to speaks to us so it behooves us to read goods books. What kind of books? First, the reading should be in proportion to where you are at in your spiritual life. I often hear people telling me about the difficulties they are having in understanding the fifth, sixth, or seventh mansions in St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. I say, “get in line.” The vast majority of humanity never reaches these mansions so it will seem like gobbledygook. I think the first four mansions are the ones best proportioned for most people to read. Another mistake is to try to read the theological works of St. Thomas Aquinas without the proper philosophical knowledge to understand them correctly. This could damage the mind by introducing erroneous concepts into it.
In the spiritual life, everything begins in the mind. Because thoughts lead to desires, desires lead to actions, actions created good or bad habits and the only goal of life is to create good habits, i.e. to become virtuous.
The best books to read are the ones that provoke reflection, arouse affections, and keep us mindful of God’s presence. Some people waste so much time reading about the problems in the Church or politics, not bad to know, but they don’t nourish the soul. The primary purpose of spiritual reading is to help us with our mental prayer, to furnish us with a subject of conversation with God.
I like the advice of St. Alphonsus Liquori. He says, “above all I counsel you to read the books that you find best calculated to excite your devotion, and to move you most powerfully to unite your soul to God . . . In general, I advise you to lay aside works that are hard to be understood, and to read books of devotion written in a plain and simple style! Be careful also to read the subjects that you know will contribute most to your perfection.” Often the best barometer of whether this particular book is good for you to read is your own judgment on whether the book is helping you grow spiritually. Is it fruitful for you?
Often the best barometer of whether this particular book is good for you to read is your own judgment on whether the book is helping you grow spiritually. Is it fruitful for you?
Everybody should make some time for spiritual reading. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot of time, just try to grasp a few pearls each day and put them in the reservoir of your mind so that you can think about them from time to time. In the spiritual life, everything begins in the mind. Because thoughts lead to desires, desires lead to actions, actions created good or bad habits and the only goal of life is to create good habits, i.e. to become virtuous.
I thought the following paragraph by Fr. Edward Leen sums up the greatest benefit of spiritual reading. He says that:
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.
Fr. Thomas Dubay in his book Seeking Spiritual Direction lists the following benefits from a sound reading program:
Fr. Dubay's Spiritual Reading Benefits
1) Quality books enlighten the mind with divine truth.
2) Excellent books are an antidote to the constant assault of the spirit of the age.
3) Solid input via books and conferences equips us with the wisdom to help others (Col 3:16).
4) It prepares for and feeds our prayer life.
5) Motivation: he says that extensive experience in spiritual direction shows the great effect outstanding books have on sincere people.
One should not only read, but also meditate or think about what we are reading. Other names for meditation are discursive prayer or the prayer of reasoning. Fr. John Hardon defines meditation as a “form of mental prayer in which the mind, in God’s presence, thinks about God and divine things . . . The objects of meditation are [the] mysteries of faith [and] a . . . better knowledge of what God wants him or her to do.”
The best books to read are the ones that provoke reflection, arouse affections, and keep us mindful of God’s presence.
The best fruit of meditation is a determination/prayer to eliminate a vice or foster a virtue.
Meditation has no other purpose than to fill our soul with knowledge of the things of God, of the beauty of heaven, the horror of hell, of the things we must do to become saints. The mind spontaneously seeks the truth, which is what the Catholic Church teaches. Frank Sheed in his classic book Theology and Sanity says: "Sanity . . . means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God, which it is theology’s business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to lead to disaster. There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment."
We should meditate on the things of God because when the mind sees the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel message, it presents it as the best thing we can do with our life. St. Thomas Aquinas defines devotion as “the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God” and he says that, “the cause of devotion is meditation.” And remember Scripture says that “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). The best fruit of meditation is a determination/prayer to eliminate a vice or foster a virtue. That’s how one becomes a saint.
 P. Marie Eugene, I Want to See God: A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality, (Chicago: The Fides Publishing Association, 1953), 193.
 de Liguori, Saint Alphonsus. The Saint Alphonsus de Liguori Collection, The True Spouse of Jesus Christ, Chapter 17: On Spiritual Reading, [30 Books] (Kindle Locations 70183-70189). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Edward Leen (2015-08-19). Progress Through Mental Prayer (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 2156-2159). Aeterna Press. Kindle Edition.
 Fr. Thomas Dubay, Seeking Spiritual Direction, (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1993), 140-141.
 Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary, “Meditation,” http://www.therealpresence.org/cgi-bin/getdefinition.pl
 Dom Eugene Boylan. Difficulties in Mental Prayer (pp. 9-10). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Sheed, Frank (2014-02-03). Theology and Sanity (p. 1). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 82.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 82, a. 1.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 82, a. 3.
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