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