Friday, April 5, 2013

Counsels of Perfection: Spiritual Reading

This reading from Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers starts a new part of the book called "The Means".

In Part One, the main focus was on what prevents us from getting closer to God.
In Part Two we emphasize time-tested spiritual practices that give us the opportunity to make God more present in our lives.   This seems very appropriate to the joyful Easter season! 

When I was college age I used to read lots of books about how to write.   A lot of them said something along the lines of "Just show up every day; apply your seat to your desk chair.  Inspiration may not come, but at least you've provided the ordinary conditions to receive it"  

Most spiritual practices are like that, I think.   God is always there desiring to give us what we need.   But we have to do our part, even if that part is a small one.  That is true of any relationship.    Even a completely helpless baby has a part to play in his relationship with his parents and siblings.  

If we do our best to eliminate as many of the obstacles as are under our control, and make ourselves ready by practicing what we are told to practice in Scripture and throughout the history of the church, we are more likely to actually receive the graces made so freely available to us: 
good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over (Luke 6:38)

Chapters 1-3 are about Spiritual Reading:  Its Advantages, How to Engage in It, and What to Read.

Key point to remember:  

"Spiritual reading is primarily an instrument of perfection and holiness.  The acquisition of knowledge, even spiritual knowledge, comes only second in importance."

Advantages of Spiritual Reading:

"First of all, it is a salutary pause in the hurried lives which most of you lead."

Do occupations estrange you from God?  No, not in themselves.  It is holy and perfecting to be busy in your state of life, so long, and this is very important, as all those activities are "supernaturalized" in their motives.

"These occupations are the duties of your state; consequently they are the expression of the will of God in your regard."
However, many women, he says, who essentially are doing everything for God, feel starved in their devotion.  They pray, but it has become one more thing on the checklist of duties.   This is no way to carry on a loving relationship, Msgr suggests.    Spiritual reading is a way of spending quality time with God, listening to Him.   If you only can spare 15 minutes a day, 15 minutes is sufficient, but it should be a primary part of your spiritual practice, right after the morning and evening prayer and the practice of the essential duties of your state in life. 

How is this?   He says that when you pray out of your own personal resources, you are drawing from a well that becomes dry if not replenished. 

"Therefore, you must frequently renew your wardrobe of ideas.  ... the author of the pious work which you will read, plays the part of a very rich friend, who opens up his treasures and shares them with you."
Other advantages:
  • He says that a book can be picked up any time, and it does not pressure you -- you can take what works and leave the rest.   Its "personality" doesn't sway yours as an actual preacher might.  
  •   Since we live in the world, spiritual reading is particularly important as a counter-balance to worldly influences.  It gives us a chance to breathe a different air from our own daily life. 
  • In itself, making a commitment to spiritual reading is a statement of our priorities in life.  It is difficult to carve out the time, and there are some, he says, who are so busy about the true necessities of life that they can't afford even 15 minutes.  But most of us CAN afford that much time, at least some days a week, and doing it is a testament to what we value.  
How to Do Spiritual Reading:

Devotional reading is not like reading a novel.   The words are meant to sink in deeply to your interior self.    Normally, we read with a bit of a barrier, which is probably good when we are reading secular books and have to sort out the wheat from the chaff.    And in these times, perhaps we skim.  I know I do.

Neither is it like reading an informational text.  
"...There are two kinds of knowledge.  One resides solely in the mind:  it is cold and sterile.  The other resides in the heart, and having partaken of its warmth, is warm itself and luminous.  It is this latter knowledge, impelling us to action, self-reform, and the practice of good deeds, that we must have in view when making our spiritual reading."
Specific advice:

  • Read slowly and seriously.
  • Don't set yourself a certain amount of pages or chapters per day, since the Holy Spirit will be directing you -- it is better to set a certain amount of time and pause, as St Ignatius recommends, where you find fruit. ... that is, on things that especially strike you or seem to have to do with what is going on in your spiritual life.  
  • Learn to digest your reading --- that is, read it more than once if necessary, and repeat it to yourself until you are sure you understand its substance (narration, anyone?)
  • Compare your conduct with the maxims mentioned by the author.   
  • Make specific resolutions accordingly (there is more on this in next week's reading).  
  • You may want to check out the idea of Lectio Divina, because that sounds like the approach he is essentially recommending.    Some add "operatio" or a practical resolution to the four steps of lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer, dialogue with God), and contemplatio (defined here as restful stillness in His presence).
What to Read:

(a starter list)

First, the Gospels.  "They are the best reading for you and your family."  If you have no time for anything else, don't skip reading and meditating on the life and words of Our Lord Jesus Christ daily.   He mentions a page a day, but that seems to contradict what he said above about not counting pages.  I think the point is to make sure your devotions are centered around Christ above all, and indeed this is the key note of Catholic spiritual practice, though as he remarks ruefully, unfortunately many Protestant laity get this crucial element down better than many Catholic laity.    But it should not be that way!   Anyone who wants to be a serious Christian needs to be immersed in the life of Christ just as His own mother Mary was. 

If you literally have no time to read at all, pray the Rosary mindfully and seriously!   You will then be meditating on the major mysteries of our Lord's life, death and resurrection.    This was the equivalent of spiritual reading for many illiterate folk throughout history.  (he did not say that but I think it has often been said so I am not going out on a limb there).  

After the Gospels, here are some other works he recommends.  I linked to free online editions wherever possible but you may be able to find better versions.  I just grabbed the first ones I could find. 

Recommended Spiritual Reading

All these books were old even in Msgr Lejeune's time, and you can see there is a preponderance of French authors (and Jesuits!).  I think the French part is because he was writing to French women, and the Jesuit part is because so many of the classic spiritual works for the laity were written by Jesuits, and he explains the fact that he only chose older works by saying he would not want to slight his contemporaries by only mentioning a few of them.  The ones I know about are definitely very good, so I am guessing the other ones are good, too.

In Addition:  

I have said it before, but St Josemaria Escriva is one of my favorite contemporary spiritual writers for the layperson, and you can get excerpts of his books sent daily by email.     Many also love Pere D'Elbee's I Believe in Love, a retreat based on the teachings of St Therese of Lisieux.    The Catholic missal Magnificat is nice for daily Mass readings plus parts of the Liturgy of Hours.   Or you can find the Liturgy of Hours and Mass readings and reflections at Universalis.    Check out the free app Laudate for an e-device version of the Universalis site. 

If you have any other ultimate favorite books or resources for spiritual reading, please mention them in the comments! 

1 comment:

  1. Oh, thank you for this! It was just the reminder and encouragement I needed!

    And I'd add to your list Dallas Willard. In his kindness, intelligence, and devotion, he reminds me very much of St. Francis de Sales.


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