Spiritual Reading Makes Saints
Don’t neglect your spiritual reading. Reading has made many saints.
—Saint Josemaría Escrivá, The Way
Shortly after I became a Catholic, I stumbled upon a book that highlighted traditions of the Faith that had been followed for some centuries. Some were small-t traditions, and others large-T traditions. My husband is a cradle Catholic, but there were a lot of things I was reading about Catholic traditions that didn’t ring a bell with him. Regardless, I dove in head first. I began to attend daily Mass. I read books by the stack, trying to make up for lost time as a Catholic. I created a prayer routine and went to Confession monthly. As we had children, we celebrated baptismal days and feast days. We had our home blessed, and I began to sprinkle holy salt around the bedrooms. We began to make the Sign of the Cross more reverently. We read Bible stories, sang religious songs, watched videos about the Faith, and hung a holy-water font near the front door. I took great pains to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s in our little domestic church. Our little ones loved all the celebrations. But I became stressed in my zeal.
This was the point at which I realized something was missing. I was learning the hows and the whys. But there was little connection between my head and my heart.
In the spring of 2004, I walked into a little Catholic bookstore, and my interest was piqued by two books that were jointly featured on every endcap in the store. Little did I know at the time that Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla was to be canonized within weeks. I had never heard of her. But as I made my way around the store, I was met at every turn with her biography and a companion book called Love Letters to My Husband. Something about the joy in her eyes and her captivating smile attracted my attention, and I picked up the book of her love letters. I was fascinated by the genuine love and concern this woman showed for her husband. I was able to surmise through skimming that she had young children and a husband who traveled — as I had at that time. I was a stay-at-home mom with three children under the age of four, and my husband traveled almost weekly. So I purchased both books and began reading the love letters that night. This was the first book I ever read that provided an intimate look into the mind and heart of a saint.
I found a letter Gianna wrote to her husband when he was out of town. Although I didn’t mind my husband’s traveling, I must admit I was a bit jealous of all the “alone” time I imagined he was getting in his hotel room. Of course, he complained about this time as being lonely, but I could not even imagine the thought as I stood amid the mess and chaos of little people twenty-four hours a day, desperately longing for silence. Reading Saint Gianna’s letter gave me an entirely new perspective. She showed me that my consideration had been more for my own comfort than for my husband’s. This was the first time I saw what it looked like to have a truly generous heart toward one’s spouse. Saint Gianna showed me that I could reach for something higher than myself:
It’s about 10:30 pm and our beautiful little ones are sleeping tranquilly after enjoying the sunshine almost all day long. I say “almost” because it rained for a little while this afternoon. It’s calm and clear now, though, and I can see the beautiful starry heaven. Adelaide, Cecco, and Zita left half an hour ago, happy after spending a lovely day with beloved nephew and niece. I’m thinking of you traveling right now, your heart here with us. Dear Pietro, it would be so wonderful to be able to be together, united, all of the time. Luckily, your vacation begins in only ten days: what joy!
In another letter, she talks about their little son, Gigetto, and his sister, and then follows up with her concerns for her husband’s welfare:
He’s as lively as ever, as is Mariolina. They couldn’t sleep last night because of the storm — peals of thunder, torrents of rain, wind — it sounded like the end of the world.
They couldn’t go outside today either, because of the bad weather. Patience. . . .
Ciao, Pietro, take care of yourself and don’t tire yourself too much.
When I first read her letters, I admit that I found them a bit over the top. Who thinks like this? But after mulling them over for a while, I realized how unbelievably self-centered my concerns had been. When my kids were “as lively as ever,” I often considered them unruly. And when my husband was away for a few days to a week, I was jealous. I wanted to head off to a hotel for a few days and sit in business meetings while he took care of the kids!
And frankly, the culture backed me up on that. According to the culture, I was sacrificing my livelihood, my career, to raise my children. My husband enjoyed the fun and excitement of the children while still pursuing a career! I should back up and clarify that my husband and I had agreed to this choice. In fact, I was even the more dominant voice in the conversation. My mother worked, and I always felt that when I had children, I’d like to be home to raise them myself when they were young. I’m not condemning mothers who choose to work, but I felt this to be my firm calling as a mother. That said, it’s impossible to describe the strain caused by the juxtaposition of my passion for raising my children with the bitter undertones that made their way into my thoughts and even began to cast a shadow over my soul.
The culture advised me, “You have a right to a career! You, too, have gifts to offer to the world! Your husband has the easy job. He’s living the good life while you slave over the house!” I didn’t feel good about having conflicted feelings. But, frankly, my bitterness was condoned and validated at every turn.
That is, until I read Saint Gianna’s letters. Here was an educated woman who basked in the privilege and joy of motherhood. She loved and supported her husband and believed that they were truly one unit, working together to obtain the same goal — heaven.
This woman turned what I considered the loneliness of raising my children with a traveling husband into a family adventure full of grace and purpose!
I wanted her joy.
And it occurred to me that clinging to all that bitterness was a choice. I could live my motherhood as a martyr, as an unappreciated victim, or I could choose to love my children and my husband and to live my life accordingly.
To this day, I am so thankful that God allowed me to have a little peek into the heart and soul of such a lovely woman. And His timing could not have been better. Through Saint Gianna’s example, I was completely transformed as a mother. Not to say that I haven’t fallen here and there, but my perspective was changed through my experience with Saint Gianna — and through the time I’ve spent with numerous saints since.
There are many saints who had the benefit of being mentored by a close friend, relative, or colleague who was a saint. Think of Saint Augustine, who was transformed through the influence of Saint Ambrose. Or Saint Clare, who was graced with the friendship of Saint Francis.
Most of us aren’t lucky enough to be personally mentored by a saint, but we can seek guidance through spiritual reading.
This article is from a chapter in How to Read Your Way to Heaven, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post: modified detail of Reading Virgin Mary in the Temple, artist unidentified, 1647, photographed by Wolfgang Sauber, 23 August 2016, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons.