Spiritual Reading

St Bernard of Clairvaux said that “Spiritual reading and prayer are the arms by which hell is conquered and paradise won.”
Spiritual reading
is devoted to the reading of lives of saints, writings of Doctors and the
Fathers of the Church, theological works written by holy people, and doctrinal
writings of Church authorities. It is different from lectio divina which focuses on Holy Scripture.

All the founders of religious orders have strongly recommended this holy exercise and most have included it in their daily horarium (timetable).  In addition to the assigned daily time for the sisters’ spiritual reading, our community is also blessed to have reading during our meals in the refectory.  This is an ancient custom, in which one of the religious reads while the others take the meals, so as to elevate their minds and hearts to God. {For those of you who might worry about the sister given this task- how will she ever last until she gets her food too – never fear!  She does not faint out of weariness!  She is relieved half-way through the meal by the second reader, so that no sister has to read for too long…}

 In our Dominican Constitutions, it is written that “After Grace…the Lector shall read some verses from the Holy Scripture…For the remainder of the time, she shall read some instructive and edifying book chosen by the Prioress.”    This is a delightful job for a sister, but also a serious duty.  The constitutions go on to say: “The Lector must always bear in mind that she has been chosen to minister spiritual food to the Community, while they are being refreshed corporally.  This act of charity is a privilege, and the Sister appointed must endeavour, both by careful preparation, and by clear, pleasing reading, to make the subject as profitable and intelligible as may be to the hearers.”

The opportunity for the sisters to listen to spiritual classics in the refectory is priceless.  In this way, they are able to listen to hours and hours of good books each week, that they would otherwise not have the time to read on their own.  A variety of reading is chosen and one is always interested to see what is coming next for table reading.  Just this year, our sisters have been edified by numerous books in the refectory, among others – the lives of our Holy Father St Dominic, our Holy Mother St Catherine, as well as the Angelic Doctor St Thomas Aquinas.  They have also thoroughly enjoyed such books as Merry in God, about a saintly Jesuit in World War I, and have equally heard with pleasure A Catholic Teacher’s Guide…  Suffice it to say, with some books it is a temptation not to wait until the next meal to continue hearing the reading, and not to peek between meals to see what happens next in the book!

Pope St Pius X recommended spiritual reading as a means of holiness and explains:
“Everyone knows the great influence that is exerted by the voice of a friend
who gives candid advice, assists by his counsel, corrects, encourages and leads
one away from error. Blessed is the man who has found a true friend; he that
has found him has found a treasure. We should, then, count pious books among
our true friends. They solemnly remind us of our duties and of the
prescriptions of legitimate discipline; they arouse the heavenly voices that
were stifled in our souls; they rid our resolutions of listlessness; they
disturb our deceitful complacency; they show the true nature of less worthy
affections to which we have sought to close our eyes; they bring to light the
many dangers which beset the path of the imprudent. They render all these
services with such kindly discretion that they prove themselves to be not only
our friends, but the very best of friends. They are always at hand, constantly
beside us to assist us in the needs of our souls; their voice is never harsh,
their advice is never self-seeking, their words are never timid or deceitful.”
 Spiritual reading is not just something that is useful to those who are in the convent or monastery – but is also essential for those who live in the world.  St Alphonsus explains very well the necessity of this reading, daily if possible, and the advantages it offers to the soul.
“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.
Spiritual ReadingThe
reading of spiritual works is as profitable as the reading of bad books is
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.
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?…..  To some the reading of books on Mystic
Theology may be pernicious (also); for it may incline them to seek after
supernatural prayer, and to abandon the ordinary method of mental prayer by
considerations and affections: thus they may be left without one or the other.  For no one should seek to attain the prayer
of contemplation unless God clearly calls him to it.  Hence, St Teresa after death, appeared to one
of her nuns and directed that the Superiors should forbid the religious to read
her books of visions and revelations, saying that she had become a saint not by visions and revelations,
but by the practice of virtue.
But let us
return to the subject, and consider the great blessings that the reading of
spiritual books brings to the soul.
In the first place, 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
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.”
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
third place, spiritual reading serves to make us see the stains that infect the
soul, and helps us to remove them.
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.”
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 Jesusóan 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 husbandís 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.
If you ask
me what book is most useful for you who are religious, above all I counsel you
to read the books that you find best calculated to excite your devotion, and to
move you most powerfully to unite your soul to God.  Of this character are the works of St Francis
de Sales, of St Teresa, of Father Granada, of Rodriguez, of St Jure, of
Nieremberg, of Pinamonti and other similar books…In general, I advise you to
lay aside works that are hard to be understood, and  to read books of devotion written in a plain
and simple style. Be careful also to read the subjects that you know will
contribute most to your perfection. Among the rest, read frequently 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
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,
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.
derive advantage from pious books it is necessary to read them slowly and with
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.
when you receive any special light in reading, or any instruction that
penetrates the heart, it will be 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.
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.
~from “On Spiritual Reading,” The True Spouse of Jesus ChristSt. Alphonsus Liguori