What is Spiritual Reading?
It is something that could be done at home, although at times also at work, outside office hours. It consists in reading from the New Testament for a few minutes and from another spiritual book, for about fifteen minutes in all.
This practice constitutes another contact with the invisible supernatural world, for the Holy Spirit is the principal Author of the Bible. St. Josemaría gives this advice concerning the practice of reading the Gospels: “If you wish to get close to our Lord through the pages of the Gospels, I always recommend that you try to enter in on the scene taking part as just one more person there.”
It is much better to read only a few lines of the New Testament intensely — that is, trying to get some message out of it — than to read many pages without being able to tell what we have read afterward.
If the other book for spiritual reading — aside from the New Testament — is well chosen, it will contain some sparks of the Light emanating from the concealed Truth. A well-chosen book is one that is faithful to the teachings of the Church (the Magisterium) and is suitable for our spiritual lives. Such a book will likely be recommended or approved by our spiritual directors.
Now, books land in a home in a variety of ways: they may be purchases or gifts or lent by a friend, and so forth. It is not a matter of reading anything available, but what is truly helpful for our spiritual growth and will enable us to help others in their spiritual challenges.
It is important to devote time to spiritual reading. If prayer is the flame of the sanctuary lamp, as explained by St. Francis de Sales, then spiritual reading is the oil that feeds it. Referring to the practice of meditation, Eugene Boylan observes, “One reason why so many fail at mental prayer is that they are trying to make a fire without fuel — they have given up regular spiritual reading.” And St. Josemaría tells us, “By reading . . . I build up a store of fuel. It seems a lifeless pile, but I often find that my mind spontaneously draws from it material which fills my prayer with life and inflames my thanksgiving after communion.”
St. Josemaría adds, “Don’t neglect spiritual reading. Reading has made many saints.” This statement holds a great truth. Unfortunately, however, it is also true that reading has confused and distorted the minds of people who read books indiscriminately. For this reason he added, “Don’t buy them without the advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful. How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of trash!”
We get news and all kinds of information in abundance from different sources. We are bombarded with commercial messages all the time. In contrast, we very seldom hear anything about God and supernatural realities. Our minds need to be nourished with something better than earthly things. We need a few minutes of spiritual reading every day, for “man does not live on bread alone” (see Matt. 4:4).
St. Josemaría advises:
Naturally, to be careful about selecting books for reading is perfectly compatible with having interest in the culture. The Christian affirms that the same author must have a hunger to know. Everything, from the most abstract knowledge to manual techniques, can and should lead to God. For there is no human undertaking that cannot be sanctified, that cannot be an opportunity to sanctify ourselves and to cooperate with God in the sanctification of the people with whom we work. The light of the followers of Jesus Christ should not be hidden in the depths of some valley, but should be placed on the mountain peak, so that “they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” [Matt. 5:16]
In other words, spiritual reading is important not only for our own spiritual development, but also for the help we are to give to those we manage to reach in our apostolic efforts. The love of our neighbor, which stems from our love of God, impels us to be capable of enlightening the minds and enkindling the hearts of those near us with the light of the Gospel, and no one can give what he does not have.
In our spiritual lives and in our apostolates, we need to form and address the mind, the will, and the heart. This is why we should read sound spiritual books that belong to these different categories. It might be good to alternate them. For instance, after reading a doctrinal book, such as the Compendium of the Catholic Church, it would be ideal to read Friends of God by St. Josemaría Escrivá, which is more ascetical in content; and afterward a book such as Man, the Saint by Jésus Urteaga, written with youthful passion; or Jesus as Friend by Salvatore Canals, which has a very serene prose with much spiritual drive. Depending on our circumstances, we will need books that largely address the mind or the will.
Debunking the idea that the Church is needlessly “afraid” of ideas — that all philosophical and moral positions are essentially harmless — the well-known Professor James Stenson explains:
To the Church, a person’s loss of grace, along with the faith that might lead him back to it, is an unimaginably tragic disaster. No physical calamity, no merely temporal suffering can compare with this loss. . . .
The Church has seen, time and again in history, that ideas can have profound and far reaching consequences. It has witnessed how doctrines contrary to Christian belief have led to people’s personal misery and even to social catastrophe. . . . For generations, the Church has seen people embrace doctrinal aberrations to rationalize and justify their appetites, especially in sexual morality and the drive for power.James B. Stenson, Reading: Learning to Choose (London: Scepter Publishers, 1984), 19–21.
We should, therefore, learn how to choose the books we read by paying attention to our mother, the Church. For our benefit and guidance, she gives ecclesiastical approvals, the nihil obstat and the imprimatur, to the editions of the Bible and to other doctrinal books touching on faith and morals.
It is not always easy to be faithful to the practice of daily spiritual reading. Excuses such as lack of time or the urgency of other things seemingly more important often crop up. It is again a matter of faith. The things of God should be given priority. For that, readiness to exert the necessary effort is required. St. Josemaría has described well the usual inner struggle involved in fulfilling the plan of life:
If you are struggling, and even more if you are really struggling, you should not be surprised at feeling tired or at times having to go against the grain, without any spiritual or human consolation. See what someone wrote to me some time ago, and which I kept for those who naively consider that grace does away with nature, “Father, for a few days now I have been feeling tremendously lazy and lacking in enthusiasm for fulfilling the plan of life. I have to force myself to do everything, and I have very little taste for it. Pray for me so that this crisis may pass, for it makes me suffer a lot to think it could make me turn from my way.”
I answer only: did you not know that Love demands sacrifice?
It is worthwhile to conquer ourselves in order to nourish our souls with the light of the Gospel. It will give us peace and strength to face the daily challenges of life.
This article is from a chapter in The Little Manual for Spiritual Growth. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.