By Fr. David Hottinger, PES - Pastor
From the bulletin for the Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2023)
Parish School of Prayer Pt 2: Spiritual Reading
Sometimes, adjectives are just puffery. A lazy carpenter produces few wares but calls them “artisanal” and sells them for more (“small-batch artisanal!”). The candied popcorn someone gifted us the other day; did they charge more because the corn is certified “Gluten Free”? Likewise, we need to be careful about “spiritual reading.” Hopefully it’s not just a way to make our ordinary reading to make it sound more, well, spiritual. “Oh, you’re still doing regular reading? I’ve moved so far beyond that…”
By all means, lose no esteem for your “unspiritual” reading. Reading expands the mind. By reading we feed on the thoughts of others, and ideally the masters: those whose thoughts have the power to inform, educate, challenge, enlighten, inspire, entertain, but also (if we are not discerning) to mislead, anger, and manipulate us. By reading we have someone’s mind within our hands. Or, we place our minds in the author’s hands, depending.
What we call spiritual reading is similar. It is reading, after all. But in a more intentional way, and hopefully in a more prayerful way, by it we place ourselves, heart and mind, at the feet of the Master, Jesus Christ, the Teacher of the Nations and Source of all Truth (check out the image of Christ above the main entrance of our church!). It is spiritual reading (not worldly) in the sense that the text we select is one apt to nourish our soul, enlighten our minds with spiritual truths, and inflame our hearts with holy love.
Many texts can be employed in spiritual reading. A book length life of a saint is a great way to start. Or, the spiritual diary of a holy person. Maybe a work on prayer by someone experienced in the art. Perhaps even a theological text—I know some who derive great spiritual fruit reading from St. Thomas’ Summa. What works for some might be an obstacle to another. For some, reading the autobiography of St. Therese is like pouring gasoline on the fire of their hearts. For others, it’s like a dessert that’s too rich to eat more than a bite or two. Objectively, the Sacred Scripture is the best food for spiritual reading. Some, however, have difficulty engaging it on their own. There are so many good options here; the important thing is to find what works for you… provided, of course, the author is a faithful witness to the true Faith. Allow no junk food or poison to enter the soul!
How do you know spiritual reading is “working”? When, like at Emmaus, your heart is burning within you (Lk 24:32). The point of spiritual reading is to throw logs (if not gasoline) on the fire of our effective love for the Lord. I say “effective” because it ought to move and inspire us to act. The first act spiritual reading ought to inspire is prayer: holy thoughts, desires, and words addressed to God. St. Ignatius is a good example here. While stuck in his bed of recovery, he was powerfully inspired by his reading of the lives of the saints to “do great things for God.” And when he finally got out of bed, that’s exactly what he did. For the rest of his life!
Which is to say that the holy thoughts and desires inspired by our spiritual reading should not remain mere desires. As the seeds or the makings of holiness, once watered by prayer, we need to allow them to put down roots and bear fruit in our lives through our deeds.
For the process of germination to take place, our manner of engaging spiritual reading must be far more leisurely than ordinary reading. We are not reading to finish. We are reading to be nourished. You are free to take things a paragraph at a time, to jump around or re-read as needed, pausing now and then to ponder, chew, ask questions, and above all to lift up your mind and heart to God in dialogue. Good spiritual authors often do this in their writing—think of St. Augustine breaking into prayer and praise throughout his Confessions. Good spiritual readers will do likewise.
The important thing with spiritual reading is to do it. Every day! Even if only for ten minutes (but of course, a half hour would be better!). I do my spiritual reading immediately before the light is out for the night, with the hope that its content will inform my thoughts during the night and help me to greet the new day with a recollected soul and, perhaps, some holy logs still burning there in the hearth-o-the-heart. Remember here, as elsewhere, the rule holds true: we are what we consume.