Spiritual Direction and Reading: December 2002 Archives

More on Spiritual Reading


More on Spiritual Reading

I really like much that is said at The 7 Habitus, for example:

In any case, at various times, I have tried to read both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, without much success. I have to admit I canít make heads or tails out of St. John and reading St. Teresa brings itís own problems for me. First, there is the guilt that I feel for being such a spiritual slug in the face of such holiness. Then, there is the heightened tendency to selfish introspection (ďLetís see, am I in the first mansion or can I claim to have progressed to the second mansion?Ē And ďWill I ever be able to make it to the third mansion?Ē) that is not at all healthy. I view this inability to read these two great saints as a grave personal shortcoming, but there it is.

It so amply demonstrates my point re: St. Thomas Aquinas. I, for one, do not see this a grave shortcoming--I see it as a manifestation of God's grace. Jesus told us "My Father's house has many mentions." God doesn't want to put us all into a cookie press and squeeze out identical cookies--rather, we are gingerbread people, each exactly equal in His eyes, but carefully, deliberately decorated with grace--some of us like chocolate, others (yes, I gasped when I discovered this reality) do not.

I do believe that St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila present insuperable difficulties to a great many people, even to Carmelites. That is why my Carmelite group is reading St. John of the Cross together. Forty minds puzzling away with guidance and help are far more likely to come to some comprehension of the work than a single mind on its own. But, being confused and led astray by entry into these wilds is not a personal shortcoming--it is rather a sign of God's particular will for us. For example, I have a personal distaste for many of the legends that surround St. Francis of Assisi. I can't tell where the truth is in that bramble, and so, rather than denigrate the Saint and many of his followers, I conclude that I have absolutely no inclination toward Franciscan Spirituality--it is confusing to me. This isn't a shortcoming, but a clear signpost that God has granted that says simply--don't go here--it is not, for whatever reason, for you.

That is why I don't see that my impression of St. Thomas Aquinas is particularly deleterious. There are those who are called to him, and others who are warned away.

And here is another important point, which if I read correctly, confirms and supports all that is said above:

So there are saints that we might have great difficulty reading or might never be able to read and appreciate, depending on our spirituality. But you see, we donít have to read St. Teresa, we donít have to read St. Thomas, and we donít have to read St. Francis to be good and faithful Catholics and Christians. We can understand that they all have something to teach us about the truth of our faith, and they have given the Church the great legacy of their individual wisdom, but not all of us will be able to read all of them with the same benefit. Each of us is different and drawn to God in a certain way and it is important for each of us to try to discover that way and do our best to grow within it.

Absolutely true! In fact, for some of us, as I said, we may be warned away from some of these. And it may be that with time we grow into approaching them. For the longest time, the prose of St. Louis De Montfort, the seeming excesses he describes, and just his mode of expression was so utterly aliment to me that I couldn't read more than a sentence or two without revulsion--yes, very strong reaction, but remember I had a long road to walk from being a Baptist to acknowledging any sort of Marian Devotion. However, with time, God led me to a place where I not only see the value of St. Louis, but I recommend him highly to those trying to learn more about devotion to Mary.

So--spiritual reading, as with all things in the spiritual life, is a matter of careful discernment. One does not plunge willy-nilly into anything and everything. In fact, often reading can be used as a substitute for the more important matter of prayer. We become attached (to use St. John's terminology) to spiritual reading, and thus what can be a very good thing becomes a barrier in the way of God's grace for us. Anything to which we become attached--blogdom, books, a certain kind and place of devotion, a certain church--literally anything that we are not willing to let go with joy, becomes a roadblock on the way to God. These seemingly minor things serve as well as great sins to keep us from approaching God. After all God is the All in All, to want anything less is to completely miss the point. Spiritual Reading should not become a way to sidestep correct prayer and contemplation of God. Spiritual Reading should always lead us TO Christ, not just BY Him.

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Spiritual Reading


Yes, we're back to this topic, and I want to thank the few people who ventured some suggestions for a Spiritual Reading list. I'd like now to propose my own and a sort of careful parsing of what we mean by "spiritual reading."

Spiritual reading seems to come under a number of categories. The list I shall prepare will be the aspect that most concerns me--becoming a contemplative and growing in union with God. However, there are other matters as well--there is spiritual reading for apologetics, defense of the faith, and growth in knowledge of the faith. There is spiritual reading simply to remind one that this world is not the final destination and important things exist beyond the surfaces. There is spiritual reading that simply supports us by reminding us that we are not alone. Many of the suggestions from others fall into one of these three latter categories--by no means less important than the one that I choose to focus on; however, being a Carmelite, I choose Mary's part, not Martha's and these latter three, while good and worthwhile seem to be more Martha than Mary. I welcome other conclusions.

My list of A-1, must-read, literature for the nourishment of the contemplative consists of the following works:

(1) The Holy Bible--in any translation that fosters your own reading of it. As I have said many times here, I have my own favorite, but it does not appeal to all for any number of reasons. The best translation is the translation that invites you to read. And I would encourage reading of the Bible that extends far beyond the daily Mass readings. I would encourage systematic, daily, and complete reading of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. But for prayer, meditation, and the encouragement of contemplation, I would encourage the reading of the Gospels. It would seem that you could follow a yearly reading plan and use each pericope for a daily hour of prayer, or perhaps you could invest the time to read one gospel a month in rotation, thus immersing yourself in the story of Jesus twelve times a year--three times for each gospel. As this percolates down into the soul, it effects a transformation that transcends anything you can begin to imagine.

(2) As all the great saints and contemplatives seem to recommend it, and my own reading has shown it to be a powerful influence, The Imitation of Christ is second on my list of required works. The remainder of my corpus of recommendations must necessarily be ranked third, without fine division between the works; however, this work seems to have fostered much of the work that follows. It was instrumental in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and of a great many others. It is written in a brief aphoristic style that allows one to take a single section, paragraph or phrase and use it for meditation and daily living. If one could live out the recommendations given in this small volume, one would be well on the way to sanctity.

(3) The following works all seem to be useful for the nourishment of the contemplative within and for approaching union with God.

The Way of Perfection St. Teresa of Avila's small book of advice to her nuns. I would recommend the study edition available from the Institute for Carmelite Studies (see left-hand column). This edition provides extensive notes and questions that help an individual make sense of what St. Teresa is telling us. One complaint about some spiritual works is that they don't seem to speak to us today in our own language. The times seems to have overrun them and we have trouble penetrating the writing and the metaphor to make sense of what the author is trying to tell us. The study edition will help. The Way of Perfection is by no means the best of St. Teresa's work--it is digressive and the line of thought seems more like a bowl of spaghetti than a line. But along with the Autobiography it makes a very good starting point for understanding St. Teresa's "method" of prayer. After finishing this at some time, both the Autobiography and The Interior Castle are necessary works. I would recommend the translations from ICS, as the older, E. Allison Peers translations tend to preserve archaic words and some very convoluted sentence structures that make the work more obscure and difficult than it need be.

St. John of the Cross--quite simply--everything. Get the ICS translation by Kiernan Kavanaugh and Ottilio Rodriguez, or, if you are in the fortunate position of reading Spanish fluently, read them in the original. San Juan has not been named the national poet of Spain for no reason. The ICS translation has a useful introduction that list a recommended order for the works, but a short start might be The Sayings of Light and Love These aphorisms are tightly compressed sayings, much like those of the desert fathers, that focus the attention on necessary motions of the spiritual and sensual life for the increase of contemplation.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul. Again, the ICS translation is superior to any other translation available. It preserves the original order of the work and defines it by its three stages of development and growth. The introduction and notes throughout help enormously in understanding why this little Flower is a Doctor of the Church. If you are fortunate enough to read French fluently, there is an electronic edition available on-line (see left-hand column). I found the French to be fairly crisp and readable and having the advantage of being in French where some of the locution and metaphors seem more natural. One complaint often levied at the work is that St. Thérèse tends to be saccharine in her writing, and by implication in her spirituality. At one point in the work she describes herself as "Jesus's toy." Such metaphors are disorienting in nearly every translation I have seen except for the complete one available from ICS. St. Thérèse's sister, Pauline, did an unfortunate job of bowdlerizing the original work for publication shortly after her death. Many translations follow some portion of this evisceration, resulting in a picture of St. Thérèse as a holy wimp. Believe me, that is not so. Any young woman who could do what she did before pope Leo XIII in defiance of all convention and rules could hardly qualify as any sort of wimp.

The Way of a Pilgrim is a work of Eastern Spirituality, and thus a trifle alien to those of us in the West; however, it is a powerful work that tells the story of a man who seeks union with God and is advised to pray constantly. The prayer recommended is the Jesus Prayer and the Pilgrim's advisor means literally constantly. I do not know the efficacy of the method as a lifestyle, but I do know that I employed some part of its technique for a period after 9/11/01 as I attempted to say a prayer for every victim of the tragedy and all the potential victims of its aftermath. This was the time during which wore out my chotki and have yet to replace it. (Sharon, if you are reading, thank you very kindly for the gift of that original--it served long and well.)

Now, without the long digressions--which are to come later--the following list encompasses the remainder of my recommendations for top-notch spiritual reading for the contemplative life:
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Attend the long retreat if you have an opportunity--or get Thomas Green's work from Ignatius Press A Vacation with the Lord
St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life
St. Louis de Montfort True Devotion to Mary
Jean-Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection Practice of the Presence of God
Fr. Augustine Baker Holy Wisdom
St. Catherine of Siena Dialogue
Walter Hilton Scale of Perfection
St. John Cassian Conferences
Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Lives of the Desert Fathers

This list is the starter. It has left off a great many works of Eastern Spirituality as they tend to be alien to us Latinate types, but they are well worth reading. It has also left off a great many useful and powerful works. I shall add to the list as soon as I am able to annotate this portion. I have already tried your patience with this ever-increasing list of opinions so I will not trouble you longer. I welcome response, dialogue, and comment as I cannot and do not claim to be anything approaching a final arbiter, much less a true expert in these matters.

Oh, and for those who prefer works on the lighter side that still provide something of an uplift and example, you cannot do better than the fictionalized biographies by Louis de Wohl. My favorites include Lay Siege to Heaven (St. Catherine of Siena), Set all Aflame (?) Afire(?) (St. Francis Xavier), and The Spear (Cassius Longinus). Others cover the lives of St. Ignatius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. But we'll talk about some of these when I digress on the question of Catholic Fiction and the much-maligned and redefined "Catholic Novel."

All of our reading should be of the very best. We have no time to waste on anything less than that which uplifts us and focuses us squarely toward Our Lord and God. Still, reading even B-list books is better than even a smidgen of television. So, overall better (and I sicken to say it) Tom Clancy than Dharma and Greg or (with a visible shudder) Friends.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Spiritual Direction and Reading category from December 2002.

Spiritual Direction and Reading: October 2002 is the previous archive.

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