Spiritual Reading

As regular visitors to this blog are aware. I really enjoy a good book. It seems that I’m not alone. Reading has for millennia been seen as a source not only of increasing knowledge but of spiritual transformation itself.

Centuries ago, St. Alphonsus Liguori (b. 1696) wrote this as an introduction to his thesis On Spiritual Reading:

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.

Put in more contemporary lanuage, Marjorie Thompson puts it this way:

The purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular text. The manner of spiritual reading is like drinking in the words of a love letter or pondering the meaning of a poem. It is not like skittering over the surface of a popular magazine or plowing through a computer manual. We are seeking not merely information but formation. – quoted in MINEmergent 2 Nov. 2011

There is great power in a good book. This is why it is so important for me to read critically, not simply accepting what is said as fact. So I ponder the language used, wonder at the symbolism, and delve deep into the underlying assumptions of the author. I read so that I can be changed, so that I may grow, and so that I may be empowered and energised in all areas of my life and faith. I may, meanwhile, gain some knowledge or perspective, but, in the end, I am hoping I will be transformed.

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