The Value of Spiritual Reading

“I will consider the wondrous things of Thy law.”

-Psalm 118:18

Spiritual reading is a great help to prayer, and it is on this account that St. Paul, writing to Timothy, recommended to him “to attend to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13). 

St. Athanasius esteems it so necessary for one who would walk in the path of God that in an exhortation he made to religious he says, “You will see no one truly intent on God’s service who is not also given to reading.  We can neither practice nor leave it off without receiving profit or prejudice.” 

St. Jerome also testified to the esteem he had for it when, writing to Eustochium, he said, “Let sleep surprise you with a book in your hand, and let the Holy Scripture receive your reclining head.”

In short, all Saints in general recommend unto us spiritual reading, and experience, moreover, shows us clearly the profit of it because history records innumerable wonderful conversions which God has wrought by this means.

St. Ambrose, exhorting us to apply ourselves as much as we can to spiritual reading, says: “Wherefore do you not employ the time you have to spare in spiritual reading?  Wherefore do you not return to take a view of Jesus Christ?  Why do you not speak to Him?  And why do you not hearken to what He says to you?  For we speak to Him while we are in prayer, and we hear Him speak while we read the Holy Scripture.” 

Let this, therefore, be the first means we adopt to profit by spiritual reading: let us believe that it is
God who speaks to us and that it is He who dictates to us what we there read.  “Read the Holy Scripture in such a manner as always to bear in mind that all the words that are therein are the words of God, who would have us not only know His law, but also fulfill it.”

What the Saint says elsewhere furnishes us with another very profitable means, and many pious reflections. 

“The Holy Scriptures,” says he, “are like so many letters sent to us from our own country; let us therefore read them with the same eagerness that a man would read the letters he receives from his native country from which he has been a long time absent and from which he is far away. Let us read them to see what news we receive from Heaven, which is our true country, to see what they tell us of Our Father’s brethren and friends that are there, to see what they say of that place to which we so earnestly desire to go.”

St. Gregory, writing on the same subject, says that Holy Scripture is like a looking-glass, which we ought to set before the eyes of our soul, to behold our interior, in which it is very easy to perceive what of good or bad there is within us and how near we are to perfection, or how far off.

For sometimes it sets before us the admirable exploits of the Saints, to excite us to imitate them, that the sight of their victories and triumphs may augment our courage in temptations and sufferings; sometimes it speaks also of their falls, that we may know what we ought to avoid.

It sets before us the example of Job, whose virtue increased amid temptations, as foam does amid the waves and billows of the sea; it also represents to us David, who fell at the first attack.

The constancy of the one helps to strengthen us in the greatest trials, and the frailty of the other teaches us always to have a humble far, even in prosperity and amid the consolation that grace brings along with it, and never to presume upon ourselves or our own strength, but to conduct ourselves always with all imaginable precaution. 

St. Austin speaks in like manner: “You will make a good use of Holy Scripture if you use it as a looking-glass, that your soul, beholding herself therein, may correct what is bad, and perfect what is good in her.”

And what they say of Holy Scripture may also be applied to all kinds of spiritual reading.  St. Bernard also instructs us how we may profit by spiritual reading: “He who sets himself to read,” says he, “does not so much seek to learn as to taste the things of God. For the bare knowledge of the understanding is dry and barren if it warms not the will and excites not that fervor which renders the reading profitable and fruitful.”

He teaches us also that “we must take care to keep in our minds all day long some passage that we have that day read, that we may afterwards digest it the better, by calling to mind and often re-examining it.  And this [reflection] must be something also that agrees with the good purposes and resolutions you have made before and that may be proper to strengthen the and hinder your mind from distracting or dissipating itself upon other thoughts.”

For as we do not eat only to spend the time that is taken up in it, but that the food we take may sustain and nourish us all the day after, so we must not apply ourselves to spiritual reading, which is the spiritual food of our souls, only to employ the time allotted for it, but we must perform it so as to make our profit by it in the whole day.

For this purpose it will be very advantageous to us if we lift up our hearts to God before we begin to read and beg His grace that our reading may become fruitful, that it may penetrate our heart and take such root in it and so fortify it, that it may render us more fervent in virtue, that it may show the deceits of the world and make us more firm and constant in what regards our spiritual advancement. 

St. Gregory never applied himself to his spiritual reading without first preparing for it by prayer and reciting this verse of the Psalmist: “Depart from me, ye wicked, and I will search the commandments of my God” (Ps. 118:115). 

This article is taken from a chapter in The Soul Sanctified  which is available from TAN Books.



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