Spiritual Reading…

(from a September 5, 1971 conference)

Down the centuries of history, most people built up fairly satisfactory rules regarding their diet, and long experience taught even primitive people what foods were poisonous and what were nutritious and which were remedies for various ills.  Today, in particular, people are very diet conscious and very careful not to eat things that upset their health or sense of well-being.  I think the mind is more delicate than the stomach, and it would be surprising if the modern craze for reading everything and watching everything, good or bad, were not responsible for disorders of the mind or, at least, of moral outlook.  People poison their minds with things untrue and even evil by what they read or listen to or watch.  Whether this really does harm people is one question.  What is certain is that prayer suffers if the mind is dissipated with worthless reading and listening and watching.

There are two things, then, to do to nourish prayer.  One is to cut off any interests that harm it, and the other is to feed it with the things that nourish it.  I will not speak now about the need for moderation in what we read and in the entertainments we enjoy, but will simply say something about spiritual reading.  We need this to supplement what we receive through the reading of Scripture at Mass and listening to preaching on the Word of God.  Everything that goes into the mind stays there, even if we cannot recall it. . . . Good things we read or hear also remain and have after-effects, even if we do not remember them consciously.

Spiritual reading [therefore] is an important element in shaping our minds to the likeness of Christ, the Word of God.  One of the instructions St. Paul gave to Timothy, his auxiliary bishop, so to speak, was that he must pay attention to reading. . . .

How do we approach spiritual reading?  Not in the same way as we approach reading a newspaper or reading a study book or reading for information as such.  The right frame of mind for spiritual reading is one in which we really do seek spiritual light: not the satisfaction of receiving interesting information, but we really seek to hear God speak to us.  This means that spiritual reading is not quite the same as ordinary studious reading.  We have to do it with a calm and serene mind.  We should have what I should call metaphorically a kind of gentle spiritual smile about us as we do it.  Our spiritual reading must not be forced or heavy-going or clever.  It should be quiet and attentive and simple, with the expectation of receiving light from God rather than from our own concentration and effort.  We should not read too fast, nor too much at a time.  We should be ready to pause and absorb anything good that comes to us.  We should even break into spontaneous prayers about it if we feel moved to do so.  We need not make an effort to remember what we read in this particular spiritual exercise.  It is, you see, a kind of prayer itself.

We must read humbly, devoutly, simply and reverently, making a spiritual exercise of it, which we can really regard as time spent in God’s presence.  It is not, in my opinion, necessary to puzzle over difficult passages, but we can just pass them by.  I am not talking now about our serious reading about our faith and Catholic affairs; we need to study them.  But spiritual reading is a listening to God with a view to prayer, and is often intermingled with prayer.

What are we to read?  We are to read whatever good spiritual book we find most helpful at any particular time.  Of course we have our off days, and we should not chop and change too often.  But the exercise of spiritual reading should as far as possible be a pleasant, peaceful one.  Holy Scripture is the best spiritual reading there is.  When we read this, God is indeed speaking to us in a very special way.  But there are many good spiritual books that help us, and we find out as we go through life the ones that are the most helpful.  There is no harm in always using the same book, or even the same chapter of it if it continues to feed our souls.  Some people have a book for life and keep returning to it.  The Imitation of Christ [by Thomas a Kempis] has supported crowds of saints for years.

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