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Spiritual Reading ~ Its Advantages (Part One)

Painting by Marie Spartali Stillman

From Counsels of Perfection for Christian Mothers by the Very Reverend P. Lejeune

My daughters, let me suggest spiritual reading as a first means of becoming fervent. Under this heading I include all reading which enlightens the mind and determines the will to do good: But you must not imagine that manuals of religious instruction or works of apologetics are the best books for spiritual reading.

It is light rather than edification that such books bring, and it is just the contrary that must be sought for in spiritual reading. Spiritual reading is primarily an instrument of perfection and holiness.

The acquisition of knowledge, even spiritual knowledge, comes only second in importance. The field thus limited is, however, very vast: books of piety, the lives of the saints, and biographies containing useful lessons will furnish excellent material for spiritual reading.

This said, it is now my intention to show the principal advantages of spiritual reading. First of all, it is a salutary pause in the hurried life which most of you lead.

Your lives are very active, and filled with occupations which consume almost all your time. Do these occupations estrange you from God? Are they obstacles to perfection? No, certainly not, provided they are spiritualized by a superior principal and supernatural intention.

These occupations are the duties of your state; consequently they are the expression of the will of God in your regard.

Why, then, does not all your exterior activity sanctify you? Why do you complain of making so little progress, despite the scrupulous observance of the duties of your state

Why? Because there is not within you that interior life which is the soul of the exterior life; because the thought of God, the love of God, and eagerness to please God play little or no part in your lives. Thus is explained why your lives, apparently so complete, are, in reality, so barren.

You know well that I speak the truth when I touch this tender wound. How often we priests receive the confidences, I should say the griefs, of excellent mothers. These women, devoted to their duties, never shunning sacrifice, nevertheless lament because their relations with God are not what they should be. They feel that their spiritual life is at a standstill.

What is needed to fill up this great and deplorable void in their lives is God, installed in their hearts, animating all their acts, and communicating to these acts a dignity and a supernatural value.

To think of God only in the morning and at night, when we recite a few prayers mechanically, is indeed a poor program for the spiritual life. Can we thus attain the end for which God has created us, for which He descended upon earth, and instituted the Holy Eucharist?

You understand, then, my daughters, that God must play the principal part in our lives. Hence we do great injustice to ourselves when we offer to God an exterior piety arising solely from routine.

Let me propose to you an easy means of finding, in your relations with God, this charm, this cordiality, for which you have so ardently yearned, but which have not yet found.

Devote at least a quarter of an hour every day to pious reading. Let it take the form of a talk, an intimate conversation with God, and I promise that it will not be long before you will witness a happy change in your lives. You will joyfully realize that these apparently vulgar actions, to which you devote yourselves each day, will take on a new form, and henceforth have a purpose. You will then taste those joys of the love of God which the saints have celebrated.

In short, spiritual reading, if methodically practiced, will effect a complete transformation in your lives. You are free to use this means or to reject it; but if you reject it, you are evidently content to remain in your present barren state.  In this case cease to lament; you are not sincere.

My daughters, I now address those of you who are serious in the practice of piety, whose love of God is efficacious, and who prove this fact by binding themselves to a rule of life, approaching the Holy Table frequently, and devoting to their prayers all the time at their disposal.

To you also, spiritual reading will be of the greatest utility. It should not be merely an ornament in your lives, but rather an exercise incumbent on you despite all caprice. It constitutes one of the essential parts of your spiritual life, and I shall prove this assertion with very little difficulty.

No doubt you are aware, my daughters, that your personal wardrobe, let me say, of ideas and sentiments is not very extensive, and that unless you renew it frequently, it will soon be exhausted.

Left to yourselves, you will always revolve in the same plane, think the same thoughts, and perhaps never find a new habiliment in which to dress them. Therefore, you must frequently renew your wardrobe of ideas. Someone must whisper new sentiments into your ears each day.

Now spiritual reading can render you this service. 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. You will enrich yourself, then, with the spirit of the saints you will absorb their sentiments; you will be benefited by the fruits of their experience.

It is useless to insist further on the advantages of spiritual reading; you already sufficiently appreciate, I hope, the immense advantage which your natural poverty will find in this participation in the riches and wealth of the saints.

To my mind, the best and the least fatiguing of preachers is a good book. It is not importunate when you leave it, and you may return to it when you wish; it is not indiscreet, since it gives advice without knowing whether or not it will be followed; it is not susceptible to jealousy, since it accords you the liberty to reject its counsels, or to prefer those of another.

It would be a grave error to believe that the preaching of a good book is intended only for those specially consecrated to God. When we exhort certain persons to do some spiritual reading every day, they look at us with astonishment and exclaim; “Do you advise spiritual reading for me, the mother of a family who has to live in a whirlwind of duties in the midst of the world? This advice would be good for a religious, or for those who live in the solitude of the cloister.”

This objection is by no means new. St. John Chrysostom, in his day, answered it as follows: “What do you say? The reading of these good books does not concern you? But I find this duty more incumbent on you, than on those living in the security of the cloister. For you who sail on the open sea, whether you will it or not, are beset by a thousand occasions of sin. Thus the aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.

A religious cannot be wounded, because she is far from the combat. But you who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.”

Meditate also, my daughters, on these lines which St. Francis de Sales wrote to Madame Brulart, an accomplished woman of the world: “I wish that you would not permit a day to pass without giving an hour, or a half hour, to the reading of some spiritual book.”

And in another letter to the same lady he says: “Read as often as you can, but only a little at a time, and, above all, read with devotion.”

In his Introduction to a Devout Life, the Saint completes this counsel: “Have always before you some good and pious book, and read a little in it each day with devotion, as if you were reading letters which the saints had sent you from Heaven, to show you the way and encourage you to follow it.”

“Every effort we make to forget self, to leave self behind us, and to devote ourselves to the labor of making every person with whom we are bound to live, happy, is rewarded by interior satisfaction and joy. The supreme effort of goodness is,—not alone to do good to others; that is its first and lower effect,—but to make others good.” Rev. Bernard O’Reilly The Mirror of True Womanhood, 1893

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