Dear Father John, My spiritual director recommended that I do some spiritual reading. He said spiritual reading is just reading about spiritual things. I don’t have a lot of extra time, and I am finding it hard to motivate myself to squeeze this new obligation into my schedule – it’s hard enough for me to get my daily meditation in! Can you give me some advice?
It sounds like you have found a wise spiritual director. If daily meditation is like the bread-and-butter of your spiritual diet, spiritual reading is your multi-vitamin supplement. First let’s reflect on why that is the case, then we can make some practical recommendations for squeezing it into your schedule.
What Is Spiritual Reading?
Spiritual reading consists of reading something that explains some aspect of Catholic truth in an attractive, enriching way. Its function is to help reinforce and deepen our Christian view of ourselves and the world around us. In previous eras, popular culture itself was imbued with the Christian world view, so even popular books and dramas would reinforce the Christian value system. But now that is not the case. Instead, our minds are flooded every day by messages (advertisements, films, TV shows, news, music) that directly contradict the Christian world view. That will have its effect on how we think and what we value. In fact, this is one of the reasons the Church is suffering so much from so-called cafeteria Catholics. They get their Catholic formation from secular sources (The New York Times, Newsweek…), and so they simply can’t understand why the Church would ever be against such popular and seemingly reasonable propositions like artificial contraception, artificial reproduction, and gay marriage. Because of this ongoing flood of secular ideals, we have to consciously nourish our minds with authentic Christian teaching in order to avoid being poisoned. That’s what spiritual reading can do.
Spiritual reading is either instructive or refreshing. It either informs our minds so that we learn to think and understand more and more in harmony with Revelation, or it refreshes what we already know/have learned by making it shine out more clearly once again. In either case, it counteracts the seductive, secularizing messages that saturate our cultural atmosphere. This is why it’s such an important spiritual discipline. It plants seeds of Christian truth in your mind, and they grow and germinate in your subconscious as you go about your daily business. These seeds often flower during your daily prayer and meditation; in fact, spiritual reading frequently provides topics, ideas, or insights that are excellent material for Christian meditation.
Spiritual reading differs from plain reading not only in the content, but also in the method. You don’t need to spend a lot of time doing spiritual reading; fifteen minutes a day is fine. And you don’t need to read fast. The idea is simply to taste, chew on, and swallow some healthy Catholic concepts every day. The difference between spiritual reading and meditation is the end result. The goal of your meditation is to converse with the Lord about what matters to him and what matters to you. The reflection and consideration that forms part of your meditation is meant to spur that conversation in your heart. The goal of spiritual reading is to inform your mind; it doesn’t finish with a prayerful conversation (though that can sometimes pop up spontaneously, which is fine!).
A lot of the books we have been recommending on this Web site are prime material for spiritual reading. But if you’re not a reader, or if you think you don’t have time, you can also get creative. Good Catholic novels (novels imbued with a Catholic world view, where characters exemplify Christian virtue in a realistic but inspiring way) can serve as a kind of spiritual reading. Listening while you drive or exercise to recordings of spiritual talks, homilies, or conferences (or books on tape, or even good Catholic podcasts) can also do the trick.
The point here is that we all need to be always growing in our knowledge of the faith, because if we are not growing, we’re withering.
Yours sincerely in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD