“Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book”
(Saint John Bosco)
I don’t really recall a time when I didn’t have a great interest in spiritual reading, a practice I recommend very much indeed.
My mid to late teens were a period when my spiritual life began to deepen quite considerably; prayer deepened and I began to read spiritual works, something I have not stopped since. When I buy a book, I always inscribe my name and the date on the inside frontpage and so now, looking back through some of my books, they provide something of a timeline of what I was interested in at particular times.
Moving house several years ago, I realised I needed to have a major clear-out and so a great number of books were disposed to; some went to recycling, while a number of others found their way to the parish. All of these were books I was unlikely to need to read again – they had already served their purpose for me.
Of the books I kept, there was a much greater likelihood that I would need to refer to any one of these at some future point – whether to obtain an accurate quotation, to check a fact or simply to remind myself of something particular.One particular book in my library is priceless – to me, at least. Entitled ‘The Apparitions of Lourdes’, it was written by a man called Jean-Baptiste Estrade – he knew Bernadette well and he was present at most of the appearances in the Grotto at Lourdes, so his testimony is very much that of a true eye-witness. He documents facts that he personally saw and heard and which I have not seen reported elsewhere. The book is very, very old now and it’s pages are yellow and a little brittle, so it needs to be handled with some care.
There are also a great many small prayer books, often designed with a particular purpose in mind – visits to the Blessed Sacrament, for example; or for making the Stations of the Cross. I don’t use any of these all the time, but I use many of them some of the time, depending on the circumstance.
Also among the books of my library are titles on particular topics – the lives of some of my favourite Saints; devotional works written by favourite authors (especially St Alphonus, Father Lasance and Father Gabriel of St Mary Magdalene OCD); and numerous books on Lourdes and Fatima, including some which are now long out of print. Notable amongst these is a copy of ‘The Documents of Fatima and the Memoirs of Sister Lucia’ – a very well researched and incredibly comprehensive volume, but now available (and only from time to time) second-hand. This one has been very useful in refuting some of the more ludicrous nonsense written about Fatima and the silly quotations mis-attributed to the Blessed Virgin.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are also a number of Bibles, each one a different translation; as well as several books of the Psalms – again, each one translated differently. A current favourite amongst these is ‘The Revised Grail Psalms – a liturgical psalter’, prepared by the Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey; this one also seems hard to get hold of, but I managed to find a second-hand (but immaculate) copy on the Oxfam website.
My most recent book arrived yesterday – ‘The Devotion to the Sacred Heart’, written by Fr John Croiset SJ in the 1700s, while St Margaret Mary was still alive; indeed, she was well-acquainted with this book and fully approved of what it contained. A very full volume, I suspect this is the probably the best available work on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So what is the value of having all these spiritual books?
Spiritual reading provides a bulwark for prayer; it supports the life of prayer and adds something to it. It frequently adds new insights to prayer and it encourages devotion and piety.
St Pio of Pietrelcina is quoted as having said –
“Don’t consider me too demanding if I ask you once again to set great store by holy books and read them as much as you can. This spiritual reading is as necessary to you as the air you breathe.. The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder… What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection.”
And St Athanasius of Alexandria had this to say –
“You will not see anyone who is truly striving after his spiritual advancement who is not given to spiritual reading.”
A lady called Evelyn Underhill, highly regarded within the Church of England in the early part of the Twentieth Century as a stout authority on the spiritual life, noted that –
“Spiritual reading is a regular, essential part of the life of prayer, and particularly is it the support of adoring prayer.”
Some excellent reasons for spiritual reading, then.
But further to this, there are other reasons, too.
It allows a moment of respite from a world which does not have the spiritual life as it’s focus – indeed, which can be quite antagonistic toward the spiritual at times. The world offers distractions which are, for the most part, empty and meaningless – as a general rule, for example, what good does endless television offer to the soul?
Reading – more broadly, as well as of the spiritual variety – allows us a little space, a little ‘time-out’ to actually think about things. It offers the mind some much-needed silence, even if only for a little while. And these days, silence is indeed golden in the midst of a world crammed full of relentless noise and activity. I very much treasure the time I have available to sit and read.
Spiritual reading encourages and assists us in learning more about aspects of our faith, looking into things a little deeper and at our own pace; it also means we take our faith out of the Church and place it squarely in the midst of our personal lives.
And once there, we can begin to do something good with it.