Tastes in spiritual reading and devotional books (mostly mine)
I confess that, for spiritual reading, I don’t use much but Scripture any longer. This is hardly an indication of virtue, though it could be a sign of approaching death. Over the years I’ve read quite a few of the most famous spiritual works by saints and doctors, some of them more than once, and of these I could recommend many. There was a time that I preferred them even to Scripture as a means of spiritual development. The instruction is clearer, and in some stages that is paramount. But now, when I am thinking about what I want to read next as part of my prayer time, I most often turn once again to the Word of God.
Coming at this from another angle, I seldom read living authors for spiritual reading, especially lay persons who (like myself, at times) make a semi-professional habit of offering spiritual instruction. I understand that most of the saints did not wait to write down their thoughts until after they had died, though I take it as an excellent sign when they wrote only under obedience (unlike some I could name…). But if we reach back into the past for fine spiritual texts, at least we know whether they have stood the test of time.
Given these prejudices, you might imagine correctly that a great many more spiritual books come across my desk than I am interested in reading. In fact, since the rebirth of sound Catholic publishing in the 1980s, and with the steady increase in good new Catholic books that has followed year by year, I sometimes think there are more Catholic spiritual books than anyone could possibly be interested in. There are books of all kinds, from dense tomes which require a strenuous and disciplined study, to fare so light that the whole text might better have been reduced to a single tweet
Neither of these is ideal for spiritual reading, of course. But the abundance is so clear that one old preacher put the matter this way:
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. [Ecclesiastes 12:12-14]
This was a man who had a dim view of human vanity, but crotchety as he was, he did have a point. Nonetheless, I must demur. Perhaps a more helpful point is that each person must find the type of spiritual reading which is most helpful to him or her in doing exactly what the preacher commanded. According to the mind of the Church, this is an important responsibility.
It so happens that new books designed for spiritual reading tend to roll off the presses at this time of year. I am sure that many of them are worthwhile. Once again I recommend keeping up with publishers such as Ignatius, Sophia Institute, and Scepter (among others) to watch for useful titles. But today I will mention only the one book from the current crop which has passed the acid test of being of immediate interest to me.
You may already know that Christopher Blum of the Augustine Institute has been busy translating the writings of the great seventeenth-century French Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, and arranging his thoughts into brief meditations. I called attention to Bossuet’s Meditations for Lent back in early 2014 (Bishop Bossuet: Get him before Lent begins). Now Sophia Institute Press has released a new collection entitled Meditations on Mary. This makes an excellent companion during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
I suppose Bossuet appeals to me because there is nothing breezy and self-helpish about his writing. Call me a snob, but I abhor semi-literate texts that are broken up by highlighted points which communicate the lessons the author insists that I get through my thick head. In spiritual reading we are not primarily summarizing a subject, still less preparing for a quiz. By contrast, as with magnificent writers such as Augustine and Newman, the quality of Bossuet’s prose is surpassed only by the depth of his insights. Happily, this comes through clearly in Blum’s fine translation.
Here, then, is a brief sample from the very first meditation, entitled “The True Eve”. These sentences follow immediately upon Bossuet’s citation of the Fathers of the Church on the importance of Mary:
We must not think that such faithful servants of Jesus Christ wanted to lessen the honor due to their Master by associating Mary with him in this way. Truly, we misunderstand God if we think that his glory would be diminished by being shared with his creatures. God is not like us: in giving away a part, he retains the whole. If this seems strange, consider that God is the only one who can give without loss. He does not act as we do, for we divide our cares among many so that the burden on each may be less. It is not so with the living God. When he joins his creatures to his work, it is not to unburden himself, but to honor them, and so all of the glory remains his. When the Fathers taught us that Mary was associated in a singular way with the great work of the Son of God, they in no way diminished the Savior’s glory.
There are just twenty-four meditations, but each one is full of such gems. They usually run to about a thousand or twelve hundred words, with the longest about two thousand. (The extract above is about 150 words, so this gives you an idea.) So this is not a survey of a particular type of spirituality; it is not a series of recommendations for self-improvement; it is not catechetical instruction; it is not apologetics; and it is not something to add to your library of Catholic information.
It is a book designed for periods of brief reading followed by deeper reflection and prayer. One can, of course, do other kinds of spiritual reading. In fact, nearly anything can be read spiritually to good advantage. Sometimes I read even academic theology that way! (It takes a kind of dogged persistence.) But Bossuet’s meditations on Mary definitely capture the essence of the art. If your spirituality runs along lines similar to my own, get Bossuet—not before Lent this time, but before Christmas.
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