The Importance of Spiritual Reading
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
I am afraid that for many Catholics the term “spiritual reading” is either a strange expression, and they are not sure what it means, or they have heard that monks and nuns do it — whatever it is. But spiritual reading is neither strange nor exotic, as by now centuries of Christian experience testifies. In order to do some justice to this very practical subject, I propose to ask a series of questions and answer them as we go along. My hope is to end up with one good answer to the one question which is the subject of our reflections: spiritual reading — who needs it?
Why is reading, any reading, important? Why is reading influential? What is spiritual reading? Why is spiritual reading necessary? Then a few closing words about implications.
Why Reading is Important
We begin to get some idea about the importance of reading from the simple fact that so many people are doing it. Thousands of newspapers throughout the world, some with daily circulation of more than a million; thousands of periodicals, some with monthly circulation of many millions; thousands of books published annually, some by now with a publication history that is astronomical. Reading must be important, seeing the influence that the printed word has had on human civilization.
A good date for dating the beginning of the modern world is the dawn of the Age of Print. Man’s history will never be the same. But the real proof for the significance of the printed word is the seldom realized fact that when God began what we call His public revelation, first to the Jews and then to the people of the New Israel who followed Christ, He made sure that the substance of this revelation was not only communicated orally, but was written down under divine inspiration. The existence of the Bible, written in an age when very few people could read or write, is a lasting testimonial to what the Holy Spirit thinks of reading. He first of all made sure that the Semitic people discovered what we call phonetic writing about 2,000 B.C. and then provided to inspire persons to set down on parchment what God wanted all mankind to know about the divine mind and will until the end of time. God invented writing to make reading of Scriptures possible.
Why is Reading Influential?
Not only is reading important, but perhaps more than any other means of social communication, it is, in my judgment, the most influential. This calls for some explanation in view of the marvelous discoveries of the electronics media — the telephone and telegraph, radio and television, the film and radio and their derivatives. I have no intention of making any competitive comparisons between the written word and other means of transmitting ideas or attitudes from one person to others. My intention is the more practical one of emphasizing why the written, generally the printed, word is so influential.
Reading is so influential because the ideas expressed in a piece of good writing are concentrated; they are not diffused. Again, what is published is, by the law of economics if for no other reason, done professionally by persons who know what they are saying and say it intelligently and persuasively, even when they may not be writing truthfully. The written word, being in competition with other written words, is done carefully and, by and large, in such a way that a maximum of thought goes into a minimum of content. Moreover, what is being read is normally done in solitude — the mind of the writer affecting the mind of the reader in a quiet, reflective and by definition sympathetic mood. If I don’t like what I’m reading, I simply close the book and the author never knows.
Whereas when I am speaking, I know exactly when somebody in the audience does not want to listen. If they are kind, they go to sleep. Some manifest their being bored or displeased in more dramatic ways. But not so with a reader. The one who reads wants to be told. Still again, what is read remains written. Whence for all times has remained as part of our Faith the famous words of Pilate: “Quod scripse scripsi” (What I have written, is written). Consequently, it can be read and reread years, centuries later. What is written, as every author hopes, is written not only for his own generation but for generations yet unborn.
Finally, unlike other forms of discourse, the written word can be gone over and analyzed. It can be studied and scrutinized and as a consequence it can have an impact on the human spirit that is incalculable. It is therefore understandably indelible. Somewhere years ago when I began studying Latin, there was a phrase written which you may be sure I memorized: “Verba volant, scripta manent” (Spoken words fly, what is written stays).
What is Spiritual Reading?
We can begin by describing it 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 St. 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.