By: St. Alphonsus Liguori
To a spiritual life the reading of holy books is perhaps not less useful than mental prayer. St. Bernard says reading instructs us at once in prayer, and in the practice of virtue. Hence he concluded that spiritual reading and prayer are the arms by which hell is conquered and paradise won. We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions, and particularly in our doubts; but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us lights and directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will. Hence St. Athanasius used to say that we find no one devoted to the service of the Lord that did not practice spiritual reading. Hence all the founders of religious Orders have strongly recommended this holy exercise to their religious. St. Benedict, among the rest, commanded that each monk should every day make a spiritual reading, and that two others should be appointed to go about visiting the cells to see if all fulfilled the command; and should any monk be found negligent in the observance of this rule, the saint ordered a penance to be imposed upon him. But before all, the Apostle prescribed spiritual reading to Timothy. Attend unto reading. Mark the word Attend, which signifies that, although Timothy, as being bishop, was greatly occupied with the care of his flock, still the Apostle wished him to apply to the reading of holy books, not in a passing way and for a short time, but regularly and for a considerable time.
The reading of spiritual works is as profitable as the reading of bad books is noxious. As the former has led to the conversion of many sinners, so the latter is every day the ruin of many young persons. The first author of pious books is the Spirit of God; but the author of pernicious writings is the devil, who often artfully conceals from certain persons the poison that such works contain, and makes these persons believe that the reading of such books is necessary in order to speak well, and to acquire a knowledge of the world for their own direction, or at least in order to pass the time agreeably. But I say that, especially for nuns, nothing is more pernicious than the reading of bad books. And by bad books I mean not only those that are condemned by the Holy See, either because they contain heresy, or treat of subjects opposed to chastity, but also all books that treat of worldly love. What fervor can a religious have if she reads romances, comedies, or profane poetry? What recollection can she have in meditation or at Communion? Can she be called the spouse of Jesus Christ? Should she not rather be called the spouse of a sinful world? Even young women in the world that are in the habit of reading such books are generally not virtuous seculars.
But some one may say, What harm is there in reading romances and profane poetry when they contain nothing immodest? Do you ask what harm? Behold the harm: the reading of such works kindles the concupiscence of the senses, and awakens the passions; these easily gain the consent of the will, or at least render it so weak that when the occasion of any dangerous affection occurs the devil finds the soul already prepared to allow itself to be conquered. A wise author has said that by the reading of such pernicious books heresy has made, and makes every day, great progress; because such reading has given and gives increased strength to libertinism. The poison of these books enters gradually into the soul; it first makes itself master of the understanding, then infects the will, and in the end kills the soul. The devil finds no means more efficacious and secure of sending a young person to perdition than the reading of such poisoned works.
Remember also that for you certain useless books, though not bad, will be pernicious; because they will make you lose the time that you can employ in occupations profitable to the soul. In a letter to his disciple Eustochium, St. Jerome stated for her instruction that in his solitude at Bethlehem he was attached to the works of Cicero, and frequently read them, and that he felt a certain disgust for pious books because their style was not polished. He was seized with a serious malady, in which he saw himself at the tribunal of Jesus Christ. The Lord said to him: "Tell me; what are you?" "I am," replied the saint, "a Christian." "No," rejoined the Judge, "you are a Ciceronian, not a Christian." He then commanded him to be instantly scourged. The saint promised to correct his fault, and having returned from the vision he found his shoulders livid and covered with wounds in consequence of the chastisement that he had received. Thenceforward he gave up the works of Cicero, and devoted himself to the reading of books of piety. It is true that in the works like those of Cicero we sometimes find useful sentiments; but the same St. Jerome wisely said in a letter to another disciple: "What need have you of seeking for a little gold in the midst of so much mire," when you can read pious books in which you may find all gold without any mire?
As the reading of bad books fills the mind with worldly and poisonous sentiments; so, on the other hand, the reading of pious works fills the soul with holy thoughts and good desires.
In the second place, the soul that is imbued with holy thoughts in reading is always prepared to banish internal temptations. The advice that St. Jerome gave to his disciple Salvina was: "Endeavor to have always in your hand a pious book, that with this shield you may defend yourself against bad thoughts."
In the third place, spiritual reading serves to make us see the stains that infect the soul, and helps us to remove them. The same St. Jerome recommended Demetriade to avail herself of spiritual reading as of a mirror. He meant to say that as a mirror exhibits the stains of the countenance, so holy books show us the defects of the soul. St. Gregory, speaking of spiritual reading, says: "There we perceive the losses we have sustained and the advantages we have acquired; there we observe our falling back or our progress in the way of God."
In the fourth place, in reading holy books we receive many lights and divine calls. St. Jerome says that when we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us. St. Ambrose says the same: "We address him when we pray; we hear him when we read." In prayer, God hears our petitions, but in reading we listen to his voice. We cannot, as I have already said, always have at hand a spiritual Father, nor can we hear the sermons of sacred orators, to direct and give us light to walk well in the way of God. Good books supply the place of sermons. St. Augustine writes that good books are, as it were, so many letters of love the Lord sends us; in them he warns us of our dangers, teaches us the way of salvation, animates us to suffer adversity, enlightens us, and inflames us with divine love. Whoever, then, desires to be saved and to acquire divine love, should often read these letters of paradise.
How many saints have, by reading a spiritual book, been induced to forsake the world and to give themselves to God! It is known to all that St. Augustine, when miserably chained by his passions and vices, was, by reading one of the epistles of St. Paul, enlightened with divine light, went forth from his darkness, and began to lead a life of holiness. Thus also St. Ignatius, while a soldier, by reading a volume of the lives of the saints which he accidentally took up, in order to get rid of the tediousness of the bed to which he was confined by sickness, was led to begin a life of sanctity, and became the Father and Founder of the Society of Jesus—an Order which has done so much for the Church. Thus also by reading a pious book accidentally and almost against his will, St. John Colombino left the world, became a saint, and the founder of another religious Order. St. Augustine relates that two courtiers of the Emperor Theodosius entered one day into a monastery of solitaries; one of them began to read the life of St. Anthony, which he found in one of the cells; so strong was the impression made upon him, that he resolved to take leave of the world. He then addressed his companion with so much fervor that both of them remained in the monastery to serve God. We read in the Chronicles of the Discalced Carmelites that a lady in Vienna was prepared to go to a festivity, but because it was given up she fell into a violent passion. To divert her attention she began to read a spiritual book that was at hand, and conceived such a contempt for the world, that she abandoned it and became a Teresian nun. The same happened to the Duchess of Montalto, in Sicily. She began also by accident to read the works of St. Teresa, and afterwards continued to read them with so much fervor, that she sought and obtained her husband’s consent to become a religious, and entered among the Discalced Carmelites.
But the reading of spiritual books has not only contributed to the conversion of saints, but has also given them during their whole life great aid to persevere and to advance continually in perfection. The glorious St. Dominic used to embrace his spiritual books, and to press them to his bosom, saying, "These books give me milk." And how, except by meditation and the use of pious books, were the anchorets enabled to spend to many years in the desert, at a distance from all human society? That great servant of God, Thomas a Kempis, could not enjoy greater consolation than in remaining in a corner of his cell with a spiritual book in his hand. It has been already mentioned in this work that the Venerable Vincent Carafa used to say that he could not desire a greater happiness in this world than to live in a little grotto provided with a morsel of bread and a spiritual book. St. Philip Neri devoted all the vacant hours that he could procure to the reading of spiritual books, and particularly the lives of the saints.
Oh! How profitable is the reading of the lives of the saints! In books of instruction we read what we are bound to do, but in the lives of the saints we read what so many holy men and women, who were flesh as we are, have done. Hence, their example, if it produce no other fruit, will at least humble us and make us sink under the earth. In reading the great things that the saints have done, we shall certainly be ashamed of the little that we have done and still do for God. St. Augustine said of himself: "My God, the examples of Thy servants, when I meditated on them, consumed my tepidity and inflamed me with Thy holy love." Of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure writes: "By the remembrance of the saints and of their virtues, as if they were so many stones of fire, he has inflamed with new love for God."
St. Gregory also relates that in Rome there was a beggar called Servolus; he was afflicted with infirmities, and lived on the alms that he collected: he gave a part to the poor, and employed the remainder in purchasing books of devotion. Servolus could not read, but he engaged those whom he lodged in his little house to read for him. St. Gregory says that by listening to these spiritual readings Servolus acquired great patience and a wonderful knowledge of the things of God. Finally, the saint states that at death the poor man besought his friends to read for him; but before breathing his last he interrupted the reading, and said: "Be silent, be silent, do you not hear how all paradise resounds with canticles and harmonious music?" After these words he sweetly expired. Immediately after his death a most agreeable odor was diffused over the room, in testimony of the sanctity of the beggar, who left the world poor in earthly goods, but rich in virtue and merits.
But to draw great fruit from spiritual reading:
It is, in the first place, necessary to recommend yourself beforehand to God, that he may enlighten the mind while you read. It has been already said, that in spiritual reading the Lord condescends to speak to us; and, therefore, in taking up the book, we must pray to God in the words of Samuel: Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. Speak, O my Lord, for I wish to obey Thee in all that Thou wilt make known to me to be Thy will.
In the second place, you must read not in order to acquire learning, nor to indulge curiosity, but for the sole purpose of advancing in divine love. To read for the sake of knowledge is not spiritual reading, but is, at the time of spiritual reading, a study unprofitable to the soul. It is still worse to read through curiosity. What profit can be expected form such reading? All the time devoted to such reading is lost time. St. Gregory says that many read and read a great deal, but, because they have read only through curiosity, they finish reading as hungry as if they had not been reading. Hence the saint corrected a physician called Theodore for reading spiritual books quickly and without profit.
To derive advantage from pious books it is necessary to read them slowly and with attention. "Nourish your soul," says St. Augustine, "with divine lectures." Now to receive nutriment from food, it must not be devoured, but well masticated. Remember, then, in the third place, that to reap abundant fruit from pious reading, you must masticate and ponder well what you ready; applying to yourself what is there inculcated. And when what you have read has made a lively impression on you, St. Ephrem counsels you to read it a second time. Besides, when you receive any special light in reading, or any instruction that penetrates the heart, it will b e very useful to stop, and to raise the mind to God by making a good resolution, or a good act, or a fervent prayer. St. Bernard says, that it is useful then to interrupt the reading, and to offer a prayer, and to continue to pray as long as the lively impression lasts. Let us imitate the bees, that pass not from one flower to another until they have gathered all the honey that they found in the first. This we should do, although all the time prescribed for the reading should be spent in such acts; for thus the time is spent with greater spiritual profit. Sometimes it may happen that you draw more fruit from reading a single verse than from reading an entire page.
Moreover, at the end of the reading you must select some sentiment of devotion, excited by what you have read, and carry it with you as you would carry a flower from a garden of pleasure.
My Lord, I thank Thee for so many helps and lights that Thou gives me, in order to make me a saint, and to unite me always more closely to Thee. When will the day arrive on which I shall see myself freed from all earthly affections, and entirely united to Thy heart, which is so enamored of my soul! I hope for all things from Thy infinite mercy. My Jesus, I cannot bear to see myself any longer ungrateful to Thy love, as I have hitherto been. Create a clean heart in me, O God. Lord give me a new heart that will think only of pleasing Thee. This desire that Thou gives me makes me hope for Thy grace. My God, I believe in Thee, and for Thy faith I would give my life a thousand times. I hope in Thee through the merits of Jesus Christ; without them I should be lost. O Sovereign Good, I love Thee; and for the love of Thee, I renounce all things, and embrace every pain and every cross that Thou wishes to send me. I have offended Thee, but I feel more sorrow for having offended Thee, than if I had suffered every other misfortune. I now sigh only for Thy grace and love. My God assist me, have mercy on me.
Holy Virgin, assist me by thy prayers, which obtain from God whatever thou asks. My Mother, recommend me to thy Son; do not forget me.