How I won’t grow spiritually, but you might: New efforts to keep it simple.
There are three elements in spiritual reading which will generally put me off. I am going to enumerate them because your own case may be very different. These elements are characteristic of five otherwise perfectly fine new books on spiritual growth from three publishers which have been sitting on my desk for some time. If you are not like me, you may love to acquire one of these books that I’ve decided not to read. So I feel guilty about holding back.
Just Like Me, or Not?
In the first place, I avoid spiritual direction from those who are not sent by the Church (that is, ordained) to give it. I’d rather profit from direction given to me by a priest with proper jurisdiction, including Confession, even if that direction is less astute than what I might get elsewhere. I regard this as a sound principle, but one reason it works for me is that I instinctively assess everything against what we call the “mind of the Church” anyway. I am fairly introspective, too. In consequence, I have never received counsel from which I could not benefit, though the benefit has sometimes come through adjustment or even negation of some of the counsel I received.
And yet many have profited from the spiritual advice of parents, friends, teachers, and more formal spiritual guides, both lay and religious. There are certainly hundreds of women saints (obviously not ordained) who have been brilliant sources of spiritual guidance. And anyone who has read much of my own work knows that I am not slow to offer spiritual advice as a layman. (I am, in a certain limited grain-of-salt sense, offering it now.)
In the second place, I tend to be unmoved by constant references to the experience and words of the saints when they are used to make an author’s point, rather than to let the saint’s life speak for itself. I personally will profit far more from an excellent biography of a saint, unfiltered by the author’s need to advance his own spiritual thesis. And of course, the written works of brilliant spiritual directors and saints, especially doctors of the Church, come from persons whose soundness and insight have been certified by the Church, and have stood the test of time.
Still, it must be acknowledged that many people do not naturally spend large amounts of their time reading, or may not easily extract useful spiritual principles from detailed accounts. Books which survey a number of key spiritual points, bringing in the saints as examples, can be very helpful to many readers.
And in the third place, I don’t find brief and breezy spiritual “how to” books particularly useful. Sinking spiritual wells through reading and reflection on different texts over time, allowing each to speak to my own current state of mind and soul is—for me, at least—a better way to foster holiness than running through the ten infallible steps to spiritual growth. The latter process is simpler but less capable of speaking to my own particular needs at any given time.
But again, flooding the plain with a sound overview of the basics is certainly a good thing, both at an early stage and as a refresher. And as each author has a slightly different approach to explaining fundamental spiritual principles and methods, finding one who does so in a way that particularly suits the reader can be extraordinarily helpful. An author who has had similar experiences can also become a trusted friend over the years, as he or she writes on one topic after another. When it comes to spiritual benefit, each of us is his or her own unique case. I need to say frankly of my own tendencies: “That’s just me.”
Five New Guides to the Spiritual Life
Let us proceed, then, to a brief survey of five recent books designed to foster spiritual growth:
Johnnette Benkovic: Experience Grace in Abundance: Ten Strategies for your Spiritual Life — Benkovic is the popular host of two EWTN programs, and heads an apostolate of spiritual direction for women. This book is not completely new, as there was a first edition in 2003. But Sophia Institute Press brought out a second edition in 2015. Like most of these books, the text is divided into brief subsections, so you always know where you are. The author uses engaging stories from her own life or the lives of others to illustrate her major spiritual points. The first part, on our relationship with God, offers strategies which cover self-worth, prayer, the sacraments, the cross, and hope in God. The second part, on our relationship with others, offers strategies for justice, love, practicing and seeking forgiveness, and knowing and sharing your faith. The instruction is fairly systematic throughout. Sophia Institute Press, 280 pp.
Julie Onderko: Discover Your Next Mission from God — Onderko is the founder and president of the apostolate Catholic Finish Strong, which seeks to form “spiritual athletes” through presentations, retreats, video interviews, and blogging. This explains the emphasis on “mission” in the book. This is a briefer and more selective treatment of the spiritual life, less than half the word-length of Benkovic’s, with an emphasis on our personal spiritual discernment of God’s will. It covers guidance and direction, understanding the formative effects of one’s past, personal prayer, the sense of mission, trust in God’s plan, the power of witness in what may seem to be an “ordinary” life, and the importance of leaning on St. Joseph (the “Guardian of Christ’s Mission” and our own), and of following the Blessed Mother. Sophia Institute Press, 163 pp.
Kevin Vost: Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know — Vost holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, has taught at several colleges, loves Thomist philosophy, and writes books such as the one I mentioned last Summer on The Seven Deadly Sins. Actually, he loves the Dominican order generally (as do I), so in this book he seeks to impart a Dominican slant on spirituality with the help of the many saintly members of the Order of Preachers who have graced Catholic history. These figures are used to illustrate his own organized series of points about the spiritual life, which he considers under three headings: “Dominican Doers and the Apostolic Style”; “Dominican Thinkers and the Contemplative Style”; and “Dominican Lovers and the Charitable Style”. The Dominicans have been called the Hounds of the Lord. Vost concludes that it is our turn to let the dogs out. Sophia Institute Press, 236 pp.
Paul Thigpen: Saints Who Battled Satan: Seventeen holy warriors who can teach you how to fight the good fight and vanquish your ancient enemy — The title and subtitle of this book clearly indicate its militant perspective on the spiritual life. It’s an aspect for which Thigpen, a convert, is well-known, having previously collected together a Manual for Spiritual Warfare. The book surveys salvation history from the point of view of spiritual battle, with chapters on Eve, Mary, St. Joseph, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, St. Anthony, St. Benedict, and eleven other saints ending with St. Padre Pio. Each chapter focuses particularly on the different ways these figures battled Satan. This provides an engaging survey of an important aspect of Catholic spirituality. Two appendices offer scenes of saints in battle and quotations illustrating “saintly wisdom for the battle.” Unique in this crop of books is a thorough index. TAN Books, 251 pp
Peter Kreeft: How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint — Kreeft is a professor of Philosophy at Boston College, and a writer frequently featured by Ignatius Press. The sub-sub-title indicates that this is very much a derivative work: “A festooning of Abandonment to Divine Providence”. This is the brilliant and time-tested spiritual guidance of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ, which should be on every Catholic’s spiritual shortlist. To “festoon” is “to adorn with ribbons, garlands, or other decorations”, and what Kreeft does is distill the advice of the great eighteenth-century spiritual director into thirty-five bite-sized chapters, in his own typical light and cheery manner. On the one hand, this sacrifices the exquisite style and breathtaking penetration of the original; but on the other, it does convey the fundamental principles in less than ten percent of the words used in the original (which consists of 452 large and dense pages, though broken up nicely into individual spiritual counsels and letters). Ignatius Press, 170 pp.
It ought to be obvious that I would read the original (and have done so, at least twice). I wrote about Fr. Caussade’s incomparable achievement the last time I read it in 2011 and 2012 (see Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ: Abandon Yourself to This Book and Self-Abandonment in the Winter of Our Discontent and also Sister Marie-Thérèse’s Trials). With great hope, I include the link to the original below, along with the others. But as I mentioned before, in the deep and commodious spiritual universe of Catholicism, that’s just me.
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