A few times in these posts I’ve recommended that people read good books to strengthen their faith. Reading books has always constituted an important part of my spiritual practice. I would rather read than just about anything. Reading prayerfully is a way to engage my mind in God. Prayer should involve some kind of emptying, turning one’s focus away from mundane things, towards the higher things. There are lots of types of prayer. Verbal-types such as the rosary seek to point the mind and heart to God through the repetitious use of holy words. Many like their prayer to be a kind of conversation with God, either praising Him or beseeching something of Him, asking Him questions, and so on. Of course, there is lectio divina, which is my preferred kind that I referred to above – reading prayer. And, then there is probably the most unique form, contemplation, which involves a real emptying of the mind by means of a centering prayer or some other method – or none.
The Catholicism is a ‘community religion.’ I know that’s a strange thing to say. What I mean is that it is one that doesn’t see the spiritual life as a “journey of the alone to the alone,” as the pagan philosopher, Plotinus, described it. And, although Protestants believe in the importance of ‘church,’ they don’t give it the importance Catholicism does. They have always felt that we Catholics set up barriers between ourselves and God by means of the saints, the angels and the priesthood. Our view, however, considers these to serve a purpose analogous to the humanity of Christ, as a ladder, an icon, a path, and a sign, to God. If we are supposed to strip away everything that is not God between us and God, we would have to get rid of the flesh of Christ, because even it is not God. That sounds like a horrible idea to me.
We have lots of intercessors and lots of spiritual helps out there. That’s great. God created a whole huge universe, and if it were the case that only one thing only in the whole universe could help us on our way to God, that is to say, the Bible, would that not be a sad statement about the goodness of creation? No, all of heaven and earth proclaim the greatness of the Lord – if you know how to read it. Since most of us don’t know how to read it, we should perhaps concentrate on reading some plainer things, like books.
I am a big fan of the Bible. I consider myself a ‘Bible Christian.’ I know the Bible quite well; I have read it several times all the way through and certain of its books myriad times. I hope to come to know it better and better. Augustine said that we should try and memorize it! I am a long way away from that, alas. One of the ways I live out my life as a Bible Christian is by reading what the saints and various great theologians have said about it. I like reading the Church Fathers most of all. Most of their writings are commentaries on the Bible. Of course, Augustine is my favorite, and you can read his excellent commentaries on the Book of Genesis, the Psalms, and the Gospel of John, for instance. But there are a lot of other Church Fathers who have written a lot of excellent things about the Bible. St. John Chrysostom left many homilies on different parts of the Bible. Many wonderful commentaries by St. Jerome, by Ambrose and by Eastern Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, etc. Going up in time, I could recommend the commentaries and homilies of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Bible is the central book of Christianity, no doubt. But it can be a hard book to figure out at times. It’s not important how we figure it out; what’s important is that we figure it out.
Other great spiritual books aren’t exactly about the Bible, but they are nevertheless about God. Some of the greatest have been works of mystical theology, such as those of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. One can only go wrong with works like these if one fails to keep a few things in mind: 1) they represent a way to God, but not the only way – perhaps not the way God intends for you, 2) there are many great spiritual works and you should read from a variety of approved authors, 3) no work of mystical theology is imposed upon the Church as a whole as a law for it, even if it is ‘revelation,’ 4) a religious is not a lay person and a lay person is not a religious. For my part, I am rather partial to the writings of the Dessert Fathers. I also get a lot out of St. Theresa of Avila, but there are lots of other mystics whose works I hope to read in time to come.
Another type of book to read regularly are saints’ lives, hagiography. There are innumerable good ones. What you will like will depend upon your needs and your interests. Some people like very historically weighty ones. I tend to like these ones because I want to know everything about the world in which the saint lived. Others like to go light on the history and heavy on the edification. You might like the stories of martyrs – either from the Early Church or from the 20th Century. Or, you might like the lives of contemplatives, miracle-workers, teachers, missionaries or humanitarians. It’s often a good idea to find saints whose lives are a like yours: whether you are a doctor, a teacher, a catechist, a priest, a lawyer, a husband or a mother, there is a saint for you.
The best books are written by angels. Not, angel-angels, but messengers of God, which is what the Greek word, angel, means. The best books are written by people who are able to play a sort of mediatory role for us with God. They are able to pass on great truths to us because they have gained these great truths from God Himself. These authors become like lenses, focusing God’s light toward us. Books enable us to share in the communion of the saints, the communion of the whole Church, triumphant, suffering and militant.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.