Life is busy. In our quest for productivity we often carve out time to read self-improvement books and business books, but when it comes to improving our spiritual lives, we need to approach reading in a different way. Fr. Shawn Aaron LC gives some wise advice.
Q. Often we look at reading as a means to learn or improve, hence the rise of the self-help genre, or the innumerable business books one sees being read on trains and planes. Is Spiritual Reading like this? Or should we approach it from a different paradigm?
A. This is a broad subject, for starters. Spiritual reading is “Faith seeking understanding”, to quote St. Anselm. In broad strokes we could say that spiritual reading should nourish all three of the theological virtues in my life. It is not information for the sake of information but information that nourishes these virtues and all the moral virtues.
Self-help books give us techniques about how to better ourselves in particular areas. There is a place for this. “The Temperament God Gave Me” by Art and Larraine Bennett is very insightful and helpful but would not constitute Spiritual Reading in the proper sense. Spiritual reading nourishes a relationship with God, the Church, his children, the world and the living of the theological virtues in relation to each.
Spiritual reading provides knowledge about God and about who I am in relationship to God, and about communication between us. In this regard, Scripture can and should be included in spiritual reading.
At times there will be practical applications but this a corollary of what is being revealed. It is a relationship and not a technique or a series of practical applications.
Q. What are some books that are helpful in introducing us to God?
A. Spiritual reading must always have its roots in scripture and help reveal scripture to me. Besides revealing God, his actions in my favor and his criteria for my life, it also reminds me of who I am to God, my ultimate destiny and how I should relate to the world and others while on the journey. The Catechism should also be part of spiritual reading since it helps me see what we believe as Christians and why we believe it. Again, you can see that it nourishes and reveals.
Often good books for spiritual reading will be about the Spiritual life per se, and about prayer, since this is often where people feel they need guidance. It can feel ‘practical’ but again, prayer is a relationship and the conversation between lovers; no two saints pray alike. Such books should point us in a direction and give us criteria for maturing in our relationship with the Lord.
It is good to ask why the “classics” are classics. There is something about them that is universal and helpful for the above. At times it is helpful to have more contemporary authors help us even understand the classics.
Q. How do you select books that will help you pray?
A. This is where a spiritual director can be helpful. No two people pray alike. Consider that each apostle had a different temperament and a different relationship with Christ. Peter and John are so different even though they saw many of the same things. Much can be determined by what our Lord is already doing in the spiritual life of a person, ways that he is inviting them to go deeper, to increase something or decrease something. So, one will have to consider where the person is in their walk with the Lord and what our Lord is doing.
I have found that a book that helps one person falls flat for another. It is good to develop a list of books that are appropriate for different stages of the spiritual life. Scripture is good for all stages but not all scripture can be understood in some early stages and care must be taken in choosing scripture from the Old Testament (again, a Spiritual Director will help here).
Q. When you are sitting down with a book, when does reading become prayer?
A. When does anything become prayer? The moment something moves my heart to speak to our Lord, to praise him, to repent or to reflect deeper on a truth that has just struck me, etc… The same can happen with a sunset, a talk or even a tragic moment. Things can move me to lift my heart. In that moment, I stop reading and let prayer take its course.
It is always good to dedicate the time of reading to our Lord invoking the Holy Spirit simply and making it a time of active listening. In this sense it is also prayer in a broader sense but is not to take the place of meditation.
Here is a list of books for spiritual reading compiled from recommendations of Regnum Christi spiritual directors (Legionaries, consecrated women and lay members).