Spiritual Reading for Lent – and Life

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, Napa CA, 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

As Catholics, we know that the purpose of our lives is to become saints. We can find numberless opportunities over years to progress along the path to heaven in cooperation with the grace of God. You know many of the means already: prayer, the sacraments, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. A near-indispensable addition is spiritual reading, which is something anyone who can read can do. As Saint Josemaría Escrivá put it: “May your behavior and your conversation be such that each person who sees or hears you may say, ‘This man reads the life of Jesus Christ.’”

Which means start with the Bible. The majority of American Catholics are only exposed to the Bible for approximately ten minutes at Sunday Mass. In addition, only a few are familiar with the great Catholic spiritual classics. Our senses of sight and hearing are assaulted by a daily barrage of stimulation that appears to be designed by the devil, or at least by his many friends here on earth, all intended to keep us immersed in the world of the ephemeral and to distract us from thinking about the supernatural life. To fortify us in this seemingly unequal struggle against the culture of death, spiritual reading is an important weapon.

Consider the example of St. Augustine, who heard a child’s voice chanting Tolle lege (Pick up and read!) and opened the Gospel to a passage that changed his life, and the course of Christian civilization as a result. St. Anthony of Egypt, the founder of monasticism, was so moved by the story of the rich young man in the Gospel that he followed Christ’s injunction to, “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow Me.” St. Ignatius of Loyola, recuperating in his bed from grave battle wounds, threw away the equivalent of today’s pulp fiction and started spiritual reading that inspired him to radical change, leading to the founding of the Jesuit order, the great champions of the Catholic Reformation.

Nearer our own time, we have John Henry Newman, whose immersion in the early Church Fathers persuaded him of the truth of the Catholic Faith. Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern Catholic author of the 1950s and 60s, made a point of reading at least twenty minutes of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae each day, and her writings are suffused with the common sense (and even irony) of the Angelic doctor. These are, of course, many more such examples.

St. John Paul II, in his apostolic blueprint for our century, Novo millennio ineunte (“At the beginning of the New Millennium”), urged us to “Contemplate the face of Christ.” One of the primary means he pointed to is Sacred Scripture. This all-time best-seller, by far the most quoted book in history, must be our favorite book, and must be read and meditated upon for at least a few minutes each day.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

We could call the Bible the never-ending book since once we finish it, we simply begin it again, over and over, until God calls us to Himself. The most important thing we can do is to learn how to live from it and make daily resolutions to that effect. Over time we will find the stories of the Bible, especially from the New Testament, as familiar as the story of our own life. And we will begin to live in Christ, being soaked in His words and example.

In addition to fueling our meditation, the Bible is a primary text for our work of evangelization. To make sure that Scripture is never far away, get a large Bible for home and a pocket-sized New Testament (like those Pope Francis had distributed in St. Peter’s Square) to carry with you or a Bible app on the smartphone or tablet. And it’s helpful if the home version has a commentary concentrating less on scholarly disputes and more on the practical, spiritual, or ascetical sense of Scripture. Of course the commentary should be faithful to the teaching of the Church.

Your New Testament reading should be supplemented with the many good books on Christ and his life, such as Frank Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus or Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ, Guardini’s The Lord, or more recently Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.

To complement the daily reading of Sacred Scripture, you should also incorporate the reading of a spiritual book, normally recommended by your spiritual director, which can include works from the Magisterium of the Church, lives of and books by the saints, works of theology, and a plethora of Catholic spiritual classics.

Work on just one book at a time, for brief periods a day, reading it from beginning to end, and perhaps taking notes or otherwise highlighting particularly striking points that can later be brought to silent prayer or to conversation in spiritual direction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says (quoting from Guigo the Carthusian, a popular medieval spiritual writer): “Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.””(2654) Good spiritual reading, seriously entered into, will lead to more and better prayer, greater self-denial, and an increased desire to evangelize family, friends, and the culture.

Years ago I compiled a list of spiritual reading: the Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. All of the books on this list provide excellent spiritual nourishment, although they vary widely in date, genre, style, and approach. Everyone has special favorites and will find certain approaches more fruitful than others. But any Catholic seeking good spiritual reading can’t complain of a lack of possibilities. In a rich tradition like ours, there’s much more than even a committed Catholic can take in over a whole lifetime. Happy reading!

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I often reflect on these words of Erasmus, in the preface of his 1513 edition of the New Testament, published for the first time 60 years after the invention of printing and after 30,000
    titles had issued from the presses:

    “I think, and rightly so, unless I am mistaken, that that pure and genuine philosophy of Christ is not to be drawn from any source more abundantly than from the evangelical books and from the Apostolic Letters. … If we desire to learn, why is another author more pleasing than Christ Himself? … And He, since He promised to be with us all days, even unto the consummation of the world, stands forth especially in these writings, in which He lives for us even at this time, breathes and speaks. I should say almost more effectively than when He dwelt among men. .. We embellish a wooden or stone statue with gems and gold for the love of Christ. Why not, rather, mark with gold and gems and with ornaments of greater value than these, if such there be, these writings which bring Christ to us so much more effectively than any paltry image? The latter represents only the form of the body–if indeed it represents anything of Him–but these writings bring you the living image of His holy mind and the speaking, healing, dying, rising Christ Himself, and thus they render Him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon Him with your very eyes”

    • olhg1

      I don’t understand why Erasmus, and his writings have not been more greatly publicized. This excerpt is magnificent. I guess he followed a tradition of not using the Name of Jesus (Christ…Christ…Christ…Christ), and I can’t figure out why. The “evangelical books…Apostolic Letters” are filled with that Proper Name. Perhaps living at a time when religious strife abounded, the Roman Catholic teaching that Revelation comes to us from Sacred Scripture AND Tradition brooked no “Sola Scriptura” dissension. IMO, something similar is presently occurring in the Church, but involving TRADITION and traditions.

      • Howard Kainz

        Catholic University of America Press recently published Truth and Irony Philosophical Meditations on Erasmus, by Terence J. Martin. A great antidote to Luther. I published an endorsement of it for CUA Press, and highly recommend it.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Erasmus’s NT preceded Luther’s 95 theses by 5 years. No one had heard of sola scriptura, when he published.

        He certainly hoped that his text would be the basis of vernacular translations: “Indeed, I disagree very much with those who are unwilling that Holy Scripture, translated into the vulgar tongue, be read by the uneducated as if Christ taught such intricate doctrines that they could scarcely be understood by very few theologians, or as if the strength of the Christian religion consisted in men’s ignorance of it. The mysteries of kings, perhaps, are better concealed, but Christ wishes His mysteries published as openly as possible. I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish but also by Turks and Saracens. … Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind!”

  • Bobo Fett

    CS Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain” is a great book I have nearly memorized over the years. It is deep and yet simple and so straightforward. These lofty aesthetics just leve me bored and unmoored. Lewis drew from aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine and seemed to understand simplicity and depth at just the right places, instead of going on these little devotionl scruples side trips like most catholic books. So it doesn’t dwell on Mary and saints and rosaries and scapulars and peripheral stuff. It dwells on God and the importance of our response to Christ, so it might not appeal to many devotional catholics. But I love it and it has greatly saved me when Francis and prior popes were pushing me away from God altogether.

  • Mike17

    “And it’s helpful if the home version has a commentary concentrating less on scholarly disputes and more on the practical, spiritual, or ascetical sense of Scripture. Of course the commentary should be faithful to the teaching of the Church.”
    Any recommendations?

  • Harry

    … start with the Bible. … To fortify us in this seemingly unequal struggle against the culture of death, spiritual reading is an important weapon.

    Yes. Start with the Bible. And yes, it is only a seemingly unequal struggle against the culture of death. Contemporary bigotry, which lethally victimizes the child in the womb, the elderly and the disabled, like American slavery and like Jew-gassing, is doomed. It is only a matter of time. Such violent assaults of human life and human dignity make war on God Himself. God is never defeated.

    The big question for us is whether or not we play the role in this great battle God had in mind for us. In His perfect Providence, God hand-picked you to live at this time, during the greatest holocaust of innocent human life life in the history of the world, at a time when lethal bigotry has never been so entrenched. You. God looked over all centuries the Church would make its way in this world and decided He had to have you right where you are, knowing the people you know, with the sphere of influence His Providence has given you. Are you going to fulfill the assignment He has given you in this battle, one that you and only you can fulfill?

    You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you; and have appointed you.
    – John 15:16

    And just how much does God expect of us? Spend some time reflecting on John 13:34-35:

    A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.

    And who, primarily, are we to love? Christ, of course, in His least brethren. And who would that be? Well, somewhere near you is a place where strangers the world refuses to make welcome, people written off by the world, are taken and killed. They are like the beggar Lazarus Christ tells us about in the Gospel of Luke. The rich man doesn’t do anything cruel to Lazarus. He just lives as though what was happening to Lazarus wasn’t happening. Things didn’t end so well for the rich man.

    Have we basically lived as though what is happening to these helpless strangers the world refuses to make welcome isn’t happening? God Himself became a child in the womb. We need to do what we can for Christ in His least brethren.

    Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.
    – Mt 25:45

    • Harry

      A few more thoughts.

      First, forgive me for the following disastrous sentence in my previous post:

      God looked over all centuries the Church would make its way in this world and decided He had to have you right where you are, knowing the people you know, with the sphere of influence His Providence has given you.

      It should have been

      God looked over all the centuries the Church would make its way through in this world and decided He had to have you right where you are, knowing the people you know, with the sphere of influence His Providence has given you.

      Maybe I just shouldn’t re-read what I posted the day before. ;o)

      Bishop Austin Vaughan, who became a prominent figure in the pro-life movement as the first American bishop to be arrested for blocking abortion clinic entrances, was, I believe, greeted, thanked and cheered by countless voices never heard on this earth when he arrived at heaven’s gates.

      I heard a recording of a talk he gave on the eve of a scheduled “Rescue” event. He was explaining his decision to participate in civil disobedience. He pointed something out that made a deep impression on me: In the Gospels, when Christ is talking about those who were ultimately damned, it was never for the bad things they did; it was always for the good things they failed to do.

      Christ’s description of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is a primary example of this. His account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is another.

      God’s goodness, mercy and love are infinitely greater than our capacity for evil. It is impossible to sin so greatly that God won’t welcome us back from the moment we are sincerely repentant. This is why it is the refusal to repent that is an unforgivable sin.

      Christ paid the debt for our evil deeds. Maybe that is why they aren’t even going to be mentioned according to His account of what the last judgment will be like in Matthew 25. That event, according to Christ’s description of it, will be all about the reward to be given to those who responded to the love He showed us, and the eternal punishment of those who are placed on His left hand — damned not for their evil deeds, but for the good they failed to do. God can pay the debt for our sins Himself, but what is He supposed to do about our lack of response to the love He showed us in doing so through the humiliation and agony of crucifixion? We have to respond to His love ourselves. He can’t do that for us.

      And how do we do that? Christ couldn’t have made it more clear: By loving Him and caring for Him in the least of His brothers and sisters. We are to love one another as He has loved us.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        If I may Harry the unforgivable sin is also referred to by the Apostle John regarding those we need not pray for in that some sins are unforgivable. That has always been difficult to comprehend. If as you suggest it is refusal of divine mercy which has to be true it points to sin against the Holy Spirit who provides the pure gift of merciful grace to turn from sin and seek forgiveness. It is then in my view that sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus says is the one sin which is unforgivable.

        • Harry

          Hi, Father,

          Thanks. I am just an amateur and very much appreciate your remarks. Yeah, I always thought the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit was to refuse to repent — God always honors our free will.

          Yes, 1 John 5:16 is mysterious.

          How do you interpret Heb 6:1-8 ? It sounds a lot like one can get into a situation where being restored to grace is impossible.

          Somehow I think it is still the case that there is no unforgivable sin besides the refusal to repent, but, of course, I am open to accepting whatever has been the consistent belief of the Church.

          I have some software that lets one find in the writings of the Early Church Fathers where a given verse was referenced. I will have to see if there is anything for 1 John 5:16 and Heb 6:1-8 when I get a chance to do so.

          God bless!

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            The best I came up with on Heb 6:1-8 is the comment by one of the French scholars of L’Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem who translated the Jerusalem Bible which says in reference “The irreparable apostasy of rejecting Christ and not believing in the power of his sacrifice to save.” [footnote 6 d.]

          • Harry

            St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily IX, on Heb 6:

            [8] What then (you say)? Is there no repentance? There is repentance, but there is no second baptism: but repentance there is, and it has great force, and is able to set free from the burden of his sins …

            See also Augustine’s On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Chap. 22.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Not quite so amateurish Harry. I’m impressed. My thought also goes to the words of Catherine of Siena in her Dialogues in which Our Lord tells her that He would have forgiven Judas for betraying His Son if he turned to Him for forgiveness but Judas believed his sin was greater than His mercy. That seems to reconcile both John Chrysostom and the French biblical scholar’s interpretation.

          • Jim in Pittsburgh

            Where can I get that software, Harry?

      • Jim in Pittsburgh

        Is the Bidhop Vaughn tape available, Harry?

        • Harry

          Somebody probably has one. It has been years and years since I listened to it. I don’t have one.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    I begin Fr with a note of humor or perhaps some inexplicable truth. Cervantes and Ignatius of Loyola sought military glory as young men and both avidly read the gospel of heroic knight errantry Amadis of Gaul. Cervantes was severely wounded fighting Turks at the Battle of Lepanto and later authored the perennial classic Don Quixote. Ignatius was severely wounded fighting Gascony and while recuperating was offered the Gospels as supplement to Amadis. We know how wonderfully that turned out. On a more serious note I highly recommend for anyone interested in a deeper prayer life The Living Flame of Love by Saint John of the Cross. Contemplation according to Saint John’s account is not quite as complicated as many of us including myself may have thought.

    • Michael DeLorme

      I tried three different times to read “Spiritual Canticle” never got through it; the relationship of symbol to what was symbolized seemed excessively arbitrary and even forced.

      But, yes, “Living Flame of Love” was a thorough pleasure, by contrast. Still need to tackle “Dark Night” and “Ascent.”

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Yes Michael that has been my experience until I recently returned to the Living Flame which exactly follows the pattern given by Guigo the Carthusian cited by Fr McCloskey. In the Living Flame St John of the Cross says the desire to be alone and to pray without words simply and without effort jettisoning all images thoughts and peacefully allowing God’s spiritual language to affect us interiorly [in language we do not consciously comprehend] is the transition from meditation to contemplation. Many of us who have long practiced prayer reach that stage but don’t realize it because we think we are not accomplishing anything whereas we are actually engaged in true contemplation.

        • Michael DeLorme

          My understanding is that the recommended order of reading is: “Ascent of Mt. Carmel” “Dark Night of the Soul” “Spiritual Canticle” and “Living Flame of Love;” but that St. Therese disagreed and thought the second two should be read before the first two.

          I’m not at all familiar with Guigo the Carthusian; I’ll have to check him out and see what his opinion is on the matter.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Great article, Father.