What is Spiritual Reading?
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
We can begin by describing [spiritual reading] in terms of what it is not, and that is easy. Spiritual reading is not secular reading. But more positively, spiritual reading is that reading whose purpose as writing is to assist the believer to better know, love, and serve God and thereby become more God-like, which means more holy, especially in his life of prayer and the practice of Christian virtue. Notice I said that spiritual reading is that reading whose purpose as writing is to assist the believer. Why put it just that way? Sounds odd! The reason is that there is a sense in which any kind of reading, even the most obviously secular, like the daily papers or a popular novel may, and by now I have been told, is considered spiritual reading when my purpose in reading is spiritual. By that standard, reading Time or Newsweek or worse, provided a person could say, “my purpose is spiritual,” makes it spiritual. Not so. You cannot canonize the secular.
I am not here then speaking of spiritual reading in that broad sense. Spiritual reading in our consideration is writing that was written with a spiritual purpose and not only one that may happen to be read with perhaps a religious intention in mind. Quite frankly, all our reading---even the most secular---should be spiritualized, but that is not the same as spiritual reading.
Concretely, the forms that this kind of spiritual reading can take are not as numerous as may seem. I will reduce them to five---just five: the Scriptures, or the Bible; the teachings of the Church, or Sacred Doctrine; the History of the Church in general, or any one of the myriad of aspects of the Church’s passage through time; biography, or the lives and thoughts of saintly persons, either by themselves or by someone else; then, in a class by itself, any kind of reflection on any of the preceding categories which may be learned or personal, scholarly or practical, or any combination of these. You will notice where I placed the last category---in the last place.
Why is Spiritual Reading Necessary?
Spiritual reading is necessary as the normal way of nourishing the Christian faith, which means getting food for the mind so that the will and affections might love and serve God accordingly. I say the normal way, allowing for exceptions that simply prove the rule. We must take the ordinary means to preserve our physical life, and the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means, none is more basic than food for the body. Without eating, the body dies. And it is no comfort to say I am alive now and there is food outside of me. Either that food gets inside of me or I die. Being near me is not enough. I can be surrounded by food and starve.
So too, we must take the ordinary means to preserve our supernatural life, and again the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means, none is more basic than food for the mind to nourish the Faith. Without food for the mind, the Faith withers and dies. And there is no mental nourishment for the soul more available and accessible and providable than spiritual reading, as just described. Not to nourish the mind and, in the mind, the Faith with this food is to tempt Providence, which means to tempt God.
Pause for a moment to reflect on the millions of thought hours spent daily in a single large American city literally devouring the pabulum dished out in such truckloads to the people. Then ask yourself how many of these people spend one tenth of one percent of their mind-life a day reading, say, the inspired text of the Bible or the documents of the Church or the life of a saint, and you begin to see how urgently necessary it is to convince ourselves and those under our care that they must do spiritual reading. Otherwise, they will spiritually die, and they are dying.
If we further reflect on the other millions of, shall I call them thought hours, that people spend watching television or listening to the radio, the urgency of what we are saying becomes even more imperative. There must be, absolutely must be a steady diet of sound nourishment for the soul at the risk of losing one's spiritual life, and that is the verdict of Christian history. However, this necessity is not only for survival, it is also and especially for spiritual growth. If I wish to have God on my mind during the day, I must read about God and what He has to say. That is why He spoke. It would, in effect, be telling God, “Well, I've heard that. Come to think of it, there are some writings they tell me You inspired. How interesting!” And then not even pay God the courtesy of reading what He said.
If I wish to talk to God in humble and easy conversation I must read about what God is, what He has done and is doing in ages past and today, so that I might have something to talk about when I am in prayer. As we know now from experience the surest way of lapsing into silence is to enter a person’s company having nothing on my mind to say. If I wish to develop a strong Catholic Faith that is clear and sound and unalloyed, I must read what the Catholic Church teaches, since Her teaching comes to me especially in written form. But let me make sure I read what the Catholic Church teaches. If I read, which I should, what others tell me about what She teaches or explain to me either God’s revelation or the Church’s doctrine, let me again make sure they are persons who themselves are faithful to the Church, and who love the Church. Not everyone who writes about the Church loves Her.
Moreover, if I wish to make sense of what is happening in the Church today I must read about what happened in the Church yesterday. If I am to be inspired by the Mystical Body of Christ, I must know this is not only the post-conciliar territory in which I live; it is not only that short span of time which I call today. The Mystical Body has a history. It has had centuries of suffering and persecution. It has struggled and fought with error, and has marvelously not only survived, but thrived, on opposition. If I am to be strong in my faith in this century, I'd better know something about what the Faith of believers before me taught them. Otherwise, as so many are doing today, we are liable to barter our Faith for a mess of pottage (Genesis 25:29-34). All of this means I must read the history of the Mystical Body and identify myself in spirit with the by now millions who have believed before me, with the hundreds of thousands who shed their blood in defense of the Faith that I treasure. I will thus be inspired to do my share in preserving and extending and nourishing the Faith by laboring in the Church’s apostolate.
If I wish to become holy, I must read about holy people. Their faith will strengthen mine. Their trust in Divine Providence will encourage mine. Above all, their victory over self, the world and the evil spirit will spur me on to victory. How we need this encouragement! Only saints reproduce saints.
There is such a thing as supernatural genealogy. Unless I read the lives of saintly people, their sentiment, their trials and victories, how can they reproduce themselves in me?
I still have a few simple implications. By now one implication should be clear enough: Who needs spiritual reading? Everyone who wants to become Christlike! There is no choice. The Savior is not for nothing called the Word of God. We seldom think of Him as also---how I like the phrase---the Written Word of God, written in the Gospels which describe His life and in the apostolic writings His life inspired; written in the Church He founded and of which He continues as Her invisible Head; written in the saintly men and women who are faithful images of what their Master had been. This Master is unique. He not only teaches. He reproduces. All of this is ready to be read by us, if only we are willing to read. Christ, we are told by Saint John, is the light that shines in the dark. And, if we are honest, we must admit how dark the darkness is. We need Him, the Light of our own world, to enlighten us about how we are to serve Him, so that we might love Him and bring others to love and serve Him too.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.
Previously titled, "Spiritual Reading: Who Needs It?".