If you’re anything like me, the ideal beach read is an obscure nineteenth century hardcover whose binding, already disintegrating, will surely be finished off by the sand. Summer is the season in which your carefully selected “to read” list is entirely demolished by the serendipitous books that materialize at roadside library sales or flea markets. With the burdens of daily life lifted, or at least mitigated by the long, sunny days, we naturally allow ourselves to focus on more enjoyable reads.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with indulging in an easy palate-cleanser, summer can also be the perfect time to develop a better understanding of our beautiful (and extraordinarily well-documented!) Catholic faith. We have two thousand years of source material at our hands, and while we’ll never make it through all of it, we can try. If we’re going to spend time reading: whether to commit information to memory, learn, or seek entertainment, it might as well be for the glory of God.
Here are some samples from my favorite genres:
The most important and efficacious type of reading is spiritual reading that brings us closer to God. Whether as a companion in adoration or among creation, Scripture, Catechism, devotionals, and the writings of the saints should form the cornerstone of our intellectual foundation in the faith.
While there is an overwhelming amount of spiritual reading available, I find summer the perfect time to read the mystics. Their engrossing visions read almost like movies. Lately, I’ve been particularly captivated by the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Many may be familiar with her visions of the Passion, which recount the gospel in heart-wrenching detail, but did you know she also had visions of the events of nearly the entire bible (including Creation itself!) and the lives of the saints?
She notes this touching event from the life of Saint Anthony:
“From the blessed sacrament there issued, as it were, a little monstrance which, attracted by his burning prayer, approached him in a stream of light and hovered in the air above him. From it came a lovely little Jesus, sparkling with glory, and rested on the saint’s shoulder, tenderly caressing him.” [Anne Catherine Emmerich: Scenes from the Lives of the Saints, Angelico: 2018]
The vivid imagery of private revelation provides a rich supplement to our lifelong study of the faith.
My perennial favorite genre, and one that encapsulates almost all others: historical forces are conditioned by philosophy, science & technology, literature, politics, etc. Church history provides a wealth of informative and inspiring accounts for every niche interest.
While not written by a Catholic, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century serves as an excellent primer to the Middle Ages, the height of Christendom.
As for historical fiction, Trianon: A Novel of Royal France supplies a much-needed Catholic telling of the French Revolution. The book, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, rehabilitates the institution of the French monarchy and makes obvious the Masonic identity of the revolutionaries, all the while telling a compelling love story.
Biography is an excellent genre because it liberates itself from the chains of statistics and theory, and focuses instead on the narrowest yet most complex cross-section of a time period: the individual human being.
Each individual contains multitudes. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “When a man dies, an unknown world passes away.” Analyzing an era or place through the lens of a sovereign person’s thoughts, decisions, and reactions is one of the most accessible and natural ways to approach a topic. After all, if we traveled to that particular setting, we too could only experience it from the vantage point of an individual person. People are the best primary sources, if not always for accuracy, for meaning.
Mark Twain was a self-proclaimed atheist, but you wouldn’t know it from his biography of Joan of Arc. Written in 1896 – a decade before she had even been beatified – his thoroughly hagiographic portrayal of Joan highlights her supernatural courage.
Memoirs add an additional layer of intimacy to an account. Memory is a tricky concept, and sometimes unreliable. As historian and memoirist Joachim Fest says:
“What memory has preserved is never, strictly speaking, what actually happened. The past is always an imaginary museum. By and large, one records less how it actually was than how one became who one is. And that is not only the weakness, but the justification of memoirs.” [Joachim Fest, Not I. Other Press: 2014]
Fest’s own memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, of his family’s resistance under Nazi rule is a testament to the white martyrdom required of Catholics in every age.
Holding the Stirrup is a moving memoir by Baroness Elisabeth von Guttenberg, whose illustrious contacts throughout her century-long life included Bl. Karl von Habsburg and Claus von Stauffenberg. It’s a beautiful eulogy of the once-great Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic zeitgeist, and a tale of perseverance in the Faith through world wars and disintegration.
I think narrative travel writing is one of the most enjoyable genres, and works especially well in audiobook format. Its personal perspective and colorful anecdotes memorably transport the reader to any atmospheric destination. My favorite of this genre is Twain’s uproarious The Innocents Abroad, chronicling his odd foreign adventures on the Grand Tour.
Luckily for us, there is a robust tradition of Catholic travel writing, which often incorporates elements of pilgrimage.
Hilaire Belloc is the definitive Catholic voice in this genre. His travelogue The Path to Rome recounts the pilgrimage he made on foot all the way from France to the Eternal City. Any good travel writer will rightly have you questioning the meaning of life while laughing about it, and Belloc does so with aplomb as he marches toward every Catholic’s ancestral home.
There is so much Catholic literature to choose from that it’s difficult to narrow down. My top pick would have to be Evelyn Waugh’s sweeping family drama Brideshead Revisited, complete with surprising conversions, intricate family drama, unbreakable university friendships, and an eponymous English estate.
Something about the happy, carefree summer days always gives me the courage to consider the end times from a place of relative safety.
Fr. Robert Hugh Benson imagines the charismatic, media tycoon Antichrist in his 1907 novel Lord of the World.
Fr. H.B. Kramer’s masterful The Book of Destiny is the ultimate factual roadmap to the prophecies of the Apocalypse.
The intersection of faith and science has inspired countless books on Eucharistic miracles, the Shroud of Turin, and other topics.
Most of my scientific reading centers around psychology. Fr. Narciso Irala’s Peace Be With You is a readable, helpful guide to approaching psychology as Catholics. He emphasizes the importance of prayer in healing psychological trauma, and a strong spiritual grounding as the basis for mental health. The book also includes practical exercises the reader can employ in any setting, including such back-to-basics concentration methods as tracing shapes (hint: doodling is good for you!)
So Many Books, So Little Time
Especially in today’s climate, Catholics must realize that not all published books are worth reading. The Church’s Index of Banned Books forbade the reading of scandalizing or heretical books as a matter of safeguarding against sin and error. Edifying Catholic books were given the episcopal stamp of approval in the form of an imprimatur.
This principle needs to be applied to all of our media consumption. A book (or an article or a social media post) should be a vector for Truth, and we should spend our limited time wisely.
In his book on Purgatory, Fr. Martin Jugie lists the writing of good Catholic books as a meritorious act that can accelerate a soul’s ascent to Heaven. So too, to some degree, can reading and sharing good books be counted toward our eternity.
This is hardly a definitive list! So, how about you? What topics do you like to read about over the summer? What are some of your favorite Catholic books?