What do you say? The reading of these good books does not concern you? But I find this duty more incumbent on you, than on those living in the security of the cloister. For you who sail on the open sea, whether you will it or not, are beset by a thousand occasions of sin. Thus the aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity. A religious cannot be wounded, because she is far from the combat. But you who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.
— Saint John Chrysostom
For the past twenty years, I’ve been doing my best to commit to daily spiritual reading. Some days have gone better than others. In fact, some years have gone better than others. But I have done my best to stay the course. In that time, I’ve learned a few things about the process. I’ve learned some basic things, such as how hard it is to make the time for spiritual reading, but how good it makes me feel when I’ve done it — kind of like jogging for the soul. I’ve also noticed that spiritual reading is better for my psyche than any motivational book. It helps me to grow in faith and to deepen my relationship with God, which in turn has strengthened every other area of my life. And although at first I thought that my spiritual growth would come mostly by studying theology, I’ve found that there is also a great intellectually and emotionally challenging component to reading other spiritual material, such as biographies of saints and books on prayer.
But in addition to these basic lessons, I’ve learned a few other things that run a little deeper than the obvious. We’ll look at those here and in the pages ahead.
Life in the Trenches
One need only watch the news for five minutes to know that this world has become a bastion of paganism more and more emboldened in its persecution of those who choose to follow Christ. Everywhere we turn, secularism is the new religion. Worse, the world is fast becoming, not merely secular, but anti-God — and not only anti-God, but anti-everything-that-even-remotely-relates-to-God.
Daily we are bombarded from every angle with messages that are clearly designed to remove us one step further from our Faith or to cripple us within it. Whether social situations at work or school, the news, television shows, movies, books, advertising, or — the ultimate temptation — social media, the influences on our daily lives do virtually nothing to draw us closer to our calling as Christians to live the life of Christ.
The only way to shield our hearts and minds from the lies of a hostile culture is to fill them with reinforcements before we head out to battle each day. Additionally, the more we fill our hearts with the love of Christ, the greater the light we bring to the darkness around us. Spiritual reading arms us for all those daily battles with negativity, temptation, and sin, filling our minds, hearts, and souls with truth, building us in Christ, and strengthening us for combat.
Spiritual reading brings us closer to Christ and provides a peace and joy that the world can never offer. Of course, prayer and the sacraments are also critical to our interior life. Unfortunately, although time in prayer is wisely spent, many claim that they spend hour after hour in prayer and it does no good. They may attend Mass, pray the Rosary, offer up many rote prayers, and even speak from their heart to our Lord; but they often complain that their efforts are to no avail, and they still feel alone in the world.
Sitting (or kneeling) in a room, praying our hearts out, while laudable, can be like sitting on one end of a telephone just talking away, with no input from the other side. But couple that time with spiritual reading from some solid books, and our faith and joy will improve exponentially.
Spiritual reading offers God’s perspective. This is obviously true with regard to Sacred Scripture; but it is also true when we read from any of the countless books written by those with great wisdom and grace whose hearts and minds are united with the Magisterium of the Church.
Spiritual reading provides us with a Person to know; a Person with whom to communicate; a Person to whom we can listen in prayer because, with a better understanding of who He is, we can actually hear His voice when he speaks to us. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in his On Spiritual Reading, quotes Saint Jerome as saying, “When we pray we speak to God, but when we read, God speaks to us.” And Saint Isaac the Syrian asserts, “From reading the soul is enlightened in prayer.”
Spiritual reading helps us to build a relationship with Christ. Reading Sacred Scripture and the classics helps us to know and to love a God who actually trod the ground we tread, who suffered the things we suffer, who ate and slept just as we do.
We know that spiritual reading can keep us grounded because we have many brothers and sisters in Christ who have been through what we’re going through, fought the same battles we face, and would recommend to us the same solution I’m here to recommend: spiritual reading. Although we have neither time nor room to discuss every friend of Christ who endured an environment hostile to his faith, it seems fitting to examine the lives of two such individuals, one who lived far from us in time, but perhaps not so far in spirit; and another who, like many Catholics today, endured hostility toward her faith even in the sanctuary of her home.
Both of these amazing people would credit their perseverance to God’s grace and the openness of their hearts and minds to the wisdom offered through spiritual reading.
Saint John Chrysostom
We live in a world where Christ is ridiculed and laughed at, even despised and spat upon. Often, we wonder how our Judeo-Christian heritage could have fallen so far. But ours isn’t the only era to experience such derision. Saint John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century, shortly after Constantine converted and turned Rome into a Christian nation. John’s father died when he was only an infant; devoted to her only child, his mother “felt she was called of God to devote herself wholly in the training of her son and to shield him from the contaminating influences of the pagan city of Antioch.” As a young boy, her son received the best education available. As a young man, he lived as a hermit, separating himself from the secular hostility of his culture. He spent this time committing the entire New Testament to memory. This practice served him well throughout his life. Eventually, he returned to society and was ordained a priest. Shortly after his ordination in Antioch, he gave a series of eloquent sermons to fearful crowds who worried about the possibility of retribution from Emperor Theodosius after they had demonstrated against a new tax. John’s popularity grew, but so did the alliances forming against him.
After twelve years in Antioch, where he gained great popularity because of his speaking ability and his command of Sacred Scripture, John was appointed bishop of Constantinople, enduring great opposition from the powers that be. He was continually the victim of intrigue, lies, and defamation of character. He was accused of supporting one side of feuding clergy over another and was eventually exiled from Constantinople by the emperor Arcadius. His banishment was short-lived, however, as the public threatened to burn the royal palace down unless he was allowed to return.
But John faced exile again for denouncing pagan practices among the ruling class, including the wife of the emperor. In fact, much of his world was affected by pagan practices, against which he preached repeatedly in his homilies.
Throughout his service, John continued to preach that people needed to know the Faith and to practice it. In Eastern Orthodoxy, he is called the Great Ecumenical Teacher because he spoke so profoundly on both the Old and New Testaments while thundering against pagan practices and pastimes. He is known as the Father of Catechesis because he spent much time teaching people the Faith and guiding them to practice spiritual reading, so that they might ward off temptations, particularly those temptations encountered by Christians in a pagan culture.
Here are just a couple of his admonitions:
Moreover, if the Devil does not dare to enter into the house where the Gospel lies, much less will he ever seize upon the soul which contains such thoughts as these, and no evil spirit will approach it, nor will the nature of sin come near. Well, then, sanctify your soul, sanctify your body by having these thoughts always in your heart and on your tongue. For if foul language is defiling and evokes evil spirits, it is evident that spiritual reading sanctifies the reader and attracts the grace of the Spirit. (Homily 32 on John)
This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe? (Homily 9 on Colossians)
This advice should be applicable to each and every one of us, struggling to keep our bearings as we face a pagan culture day after day.
Unlike John Chrysostom, Elisabeth Leseur did not benefit from a high-class education. She came from an upper-middle-class family and had a moderately Catholic upbringing, having attended Catholic school and received the sacraments as a girl. As a young lady, she married Felix Leseur, a well-educated, well-to-do doctor, in 1889 after a brief engagement. Shortly before their marriage, Elisabeth learned that Felix was no longer a practicing Catholic. In fact, he was a self-proclaimed atheist and became well known in Paris as the editor of a newsletter that promoted atheist and anticlerical beliefs.
Although he promised that he would respect Elisabeth’s Faith, Felix set about almost immediately to destroy it, and he nearly succeeded. For a time, Elisabeth even stopped attending Mass. Fortunately, at the height of his influence against her Faith, Felix handed his wife a book that made her think twice about the arguments it offered. Rather than be influenced by the poverty of such a book, Elisabeth turned to masters of Catholic thought. Here is what her husband says of her in his “In Memoriam”:
To counterbalance my anti-Christian library, she gathered together one composed of the works of the great masters of Catholic thought: Fathers, Doctors, mystics, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila and many more. Above all she read and reread the New Testament, the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles; she never passed a day without meditating upon some passage from it. She thus acquired a reasoned and substantial faith. Knowing the opposing arguments, possessing her own replies to them, and strengthening perpetually the foundations of her belief, by the grace of God she established her faith indestructibly.
More than just reading books, Elisabeth took great pains to apply what she read to her life. She never spoke to her husband about her Catholic Faith. She did not try to convince him of the truth. Rather, she offered all to God, who helped her to live the truth. The beauty within her became evident to everyone she met.
That is exactly what we desire to do: to live our Faith. To experience the peace of knowing that we are not of this world but are to spend this life sharing the light of Christ with others. Elisabeth was so successful in that vein that, after years of offering up her suffering silently and making sacrifices for her husband, she offered her very life to God for his salvation. Upon her death, her husband not only returned to Catholicism but also became a Dominican priest!
Elisabeth armed herself each day to do battle in her own home — not with arguments or smugness, but with love. There was no more effective weapon she could have found to help her win the war.
Arming for Battle: The Church Militant
We may not feel called to memorize the entire New Testament like St. John Chrystostom, but meditating daily on Sacred Scripture will provide us with the strength we need to face the enemy. Saint Paul tells us:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:11-17).
We need to be armed for battle. At all times, and especially during these crazy times in this vale of tears, we need to lay our foundation in Christ Jesus. I pray that spiritual reading plays a part in helping you build and strengthen that foundation.