On Reading Great Spiritual Works

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Mr. Bogner has just finished St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castles and so I took it upon myself to rudely go over to his place and push him about a little. It's what I do best.

There is absolutely no point at all in reading great spiritual books if you think the point is to have read them. That is not the point at all. Everyone in the world could read The Interior Castles and it wouldn't make a bit of difference if their only purpose was to have invested a bit of time in a good bit of spiritual reading. Now there is the possibility that reading a good spiritual book is something akin to prayer and getting at God obliquely, but more often than not it is very precisely a way of avoiding deep prayer and yet feeling good about what we are doing.

The rule in my community is that there is no point in reading simply to say you have read. If what you read does not change your life (particularly if it is a great work of spirituality) it was slightly less a waste of time than reading Agatha Christie, slightly more profitable. But ultimately your time would have been better spent cleaning the bathroom really well (or doing something else that truly reflects your vocation as parent, spouse, etc.).

The point of any great spiritual reading is to change your life. If you get through a great work of guidance and spirituality and are not asking yourself "How do I get there?" for some time afterward, you have missed the point. Great spiritual reading should be done in much the same way lectio is done. Read a little bit. Figure out what is being said literally, and then pray over what you have read to figure out how it applies to the here and now. Then ask God for the grace to implement whatever practical application you have derived from the reading. Reading any great spiritual work in such a way could take months, or perhaps even years. And that is perfectly all right, what else were you going to do with the time? Some do better with continuous rereading, rather than a single slow reading. But whatever you do, the great treasures of spirituality are not to be taken as any other book.

The same is true of the great works of theology. Although there are probably portions of the Summa that are of lesser relevance to the world today, the vast majority of this compendium is not so much to be studied for its own sake. Rather, the real treasure in the Summa are its insights into the nature of God, which, when properly prayed over tend to lead one to long for God and to seek ways to be closer to Him.

So those who are being called to read a book--do so. And as Harold Bloom likes to say, "Let the book read you as well." That is, open yourself to the insights and to the disciplines that are being fostered and ask God continually for the grace to implement them in your life. Put yourself under the microscope and examine in detail where you are failing and ask God to heal those broken places. Look carefully and see your strengths and thank God for them humbly because they are not your own, but gift--given to be properly used for the Glory of God.

Spiritual reading is unlike any other sort of reading. You are not reading for information so much as you are reading for formation--formation of a right spirit and a mind directed to God. This does not happen with the usual way we tend to read things. Let the great works percolate in, let the books fill you with their wisdom, let the Holy Spirit speak. Then unite will to faith and ask for the grace to perservere in the practice of the presence of God as you have learned from the great spiritual masters.

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Thanks Steven for your commentary on "Reading Great Spiritual Works." This is something that has been on my mind since my earliest days as a member of our Carmelite community. You have stated that POV so well, that I've taken the liberty of passing a copy (less your tongue-in-cheek joust with Mr. B) to our local leaders. One of them already has emailed me his wholehearted approval. Again, thank you!

I have been working on the same book for almost a year. I wish it were because I was following this good advice and not because I'm just undisciplined in my reading.

Seriously, I feel a little better now about my impulse to, when I come to the last page of a really good book, turn it immediately to the front page and read it again. But perhaps this would not be necessary if I read more slowly and deeply -- one deep reading instead of two quick passes.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 3, 2004 7:48 PM.

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