PART 1 - The Sources of the Interior Life and Its End (cont)
Ch 16: Spiritual Reading of Scripture, of the Works and Lives of the Saints
Among the great means of sanctification offered to all, should be included spiritual reading, especially that of Holy Scripture, of the works of the masters of the interior life, and of the lives of the saints. In this chapter we shall discuss this subject, and point out the dispositions necessary to draw profit from such reading.
Error, heresy, and immorality often come from the influence of evil books, but "the reading of Sacred Letters," as St. Ambrose says, "is the life of the soul; Christ Himself declares it when He says: 'The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life'" (John 6:64).(1)
It was this reading that prepared St. Augustine to return to God when he heard the words: "Take and read." A passage from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (2) gave him the decisive light which tore him away from sin and led him to conversion.
St. Jerome relates in a letter to Eustochium how, at the time when he was beginning to lead the monastic life near Antioch, he was led by a very great grace to the assiduous reading of the Scriptures. The elegance of profane writers still pleased him greatly; by preference he read the works of Cicero, Virgil, and Plautus. Then he received the following grace: during sleep he beheld himself, as it were, transported before the tribunal of God, who asked him severely who he was. "I am a Christian," Jerome replied. "You lie," said the sovereign Judge. "You are a Ciceronian; for where your treasure is, there is your heart also." And the order was given to scourge him. "Upon awakening," writes St. Jerome, "I felt, indeed, that this had been more than a dream, that it was a reality, since I bore on my shoulders the marks of the stripes I had received. Since that time I have read the Sacred Scriptures with greater ardor than I formerly read profane books." This experience explains St. Jerome's statement to Eustochium in another letter: "Let sleep surprise you only reading; fall asleep only on Sacred Scripture."
From what book Can we better draw life than from Scripture, which has God for its Author? Especially the Gospels, the words of our Savior, the facts of His hidden, His apostolic, and His suffering life should be the living teaching to which the soul must ever turn. Christ knows how to make the loftiest and most divine things accessible to all by the simplicity with which He speaks. His word does not remain abstract and theoretical; it leads directly to true humility, to love of God and neighbor. Each word tells us that He seeks only the glory of Him who sent Him and the good of souls. The Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew (chaps. 5-7) and the discourse after the Last Supper in St. John (chaps. 14-18) should be read frequently.
If with humility, hope, and love, we read the divine words of Scripture, which are spirit and life, they contain for us a special grace that daily inclines us more to imitate the virtues of Christ, His meekness, patience, and heroic love on the cross. Besides the Holy Eucharist, the true food of the saints is to be found in the Scriptures: the word of God, transmitted by His only Son, the Word made flesh. Hidden under the letter is the living thought of God, which, if we are docile, the gifts of understanding and wisdom will make us penetrate and taste more and more.
After the Gospel, nothing is more nourishing than the divinely inspired commentary on it, the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. They are the teachings of Christ lived by His first disciples, who were given the task of training us. These teachings are explained and adapted to the needs of the faithful. In the Acts is found the heroic life of the new-born Church, its diffusion in the midst of the greatest difficulties, constituting a lesson in confidence, valor, fidelity, and abandonment. Where, other than in the Epistles, can we find more profound and living pages about the person and work of Christ (Col. I), the splendor of the life of the Church and the immensity of Christ's love for it (Eph. 1-3), about justification by faith in Christ (Rom. 1-11), about the eternal priesthood of Christ? (Heb.,1-9)
If the ethical part of the Epistles is considered, where can we read more pressing exhortations to charity, to the duties of our state, to perseverance, to heroic patience, to sanctity, and surer rules of conduct for all, - superiors, equals, inferiors - also for the weak, for the guilty, and for false teachers? Where can we find a more vivid exposition of the duties of all Christians in regard to the Church? (I Pet. 4 f.)
Every Christian should know certain parts of the Old Testament, in particular the Psalms, which are still the prayer of the Church in the Divine Office, that prayer of reparative adoration for the contrite and humbled sinner, of ardent supplication and thanksgiving. Interior souls ought to read also the most beautiful pages of the Prophets, which the liturgy of Advent and Lent places before us, and in the Sapiential Books, the exhortations of uncreated Wisdom to the practice of the principal duties toward God and neighbor.
New lights and new strength will be found in the Scriptures, especially in the Gospels, when they are often reread with respect and love. God has put inexhaustible virtue in His word. When a person who has read a great deal and is tired of almost all books, approaches the close of life, he turns again to the Gospel as to the true prelude of the light which enlightens souls in eternal life.
Next to the Scriptures, the reading of the spiritual
works of the saints greatly enlightens and warms the soul, because
these works, though not composed under infallible inspiration, were
written with the lights and the unction of the Holy Ghost. We should
not ignore the chief spiritual works of St. Augustine,(3) St.
Jerome,(4) Cassian, (5) St. Leo,(6) St. Benedict,(7) St. Gregory the
Great,(8) St. Basil,(9) St. John Chrysostom(10) Dionysius,(11) St.
Maximus Confessor,(12) St. Anselm,(13) and St. Bernard(14) Very useful
also is an acquaintance with what most concerns the interior life in
the writings of Richard of St. Victor(15) Hugh of St. Cher(16) St.
Albert the Great,(17) St. Thomas Aquinas,(18) St.
Bonaventure.(19) Profit may always be drawn from the Dialogue
of St. Catherine of Siena,(20) the works of Tauler,(21) and those of
Blessed Henry Suso, (22) Blessed Angela of Foligno,923) Blessed John
Ruysbroeck,(24) Thomas a Kempis, the probable author of The
Finally, one should also read the spiritual writings of Bossuet,(32) those of the Dominicans, Louis of Granada,(33) Chardon,(34) Piny,(35) and Massoulie,(36) those of the Jesuits, L. Dupont,(37) Lallemant,(38) Surin,(39) De Caussade,(40) and Grou,(41) the works of the writers of the French school of the seventeenth century, Berulle,(42) Condren,(48) Bourgoing,(44) St. Vincent de Paul,(45) Olier,(46) Venerable Boudon,(47) those of Blessed Grignion de Montfort,(48) and St. Alphonsus Liguori.(49)
We do not speak of more recent writers, whose principal works are known to all.
To the reading of books of spiritual doctrine should be joined that of the lives of the saints, which contain alluring examples that are always admirable and often imitable. Their deeds were often performed in most difficult circumstances by men and women with a nature like ours, who at the beginning had their weaknesses and defects, but in whom grace and charity gradually dominated nature by healing it, elevating it, and vivifying it. In them especially, we see the true meaning and import of the principle, that grace do s not destroy nature (in so far as it is good), but perfects it. In them, especially at the end of the purgative and illuminative ways, we see what is in the unitive life the true harmony of nature and grace, the normal prelude of eternal beatitude.
In these lives we must seek especially what is imitable, and in what is extraordinary we must see a divine sign given to draw us from our lethargy and make us understand what is most profound and most lofty in an ordinary Christian life when the soul is truly docile to the Holy Ghost. The sufferings of the stigmatics thus recall to us what our Savior's passion should be for us and how we ought daily to say with more meaning at the end of the Stations of the Cross: "Sancta Mater, istud agas, Crucifixi fige plagas cordi meo valide." The extraordinary grace which enabled many saints, as St. Catherine of Siena, to drink deeply from the wound of the heart of Jesus should recall to us what a fervent Communion should be for us, and how each of our Communions should be substantially more fervent than the preceding one in our ascent toward God.
The examples of the saints, their humility, patience, confidence, overflowing charity, are more efficacious in making us practice virtue than abstract doctrine is. "Universals do not move."
We ought to read especially the lives of the saints written by saints, such as that of St. Francis of Assisi written by St. Bonaventure, that of St. Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua, her director, and the life of St. Teresa by herself.
A prayer well said before we begin to read will obtain for us the actual grace to read Sacred Scripture or spiritual books with a spirit of faith, avoiding all useless curiosity, intellectual vanity, the tendency to criticize what we read rather than to profit by it. The spirit of faith will make us seek God Himself in spiritual works.
We must also, with a sincere and keen desire for perfection, apply to ourselves what we read, instead of being content with a theoretical knowledge of it. Then, even while reading what has to do with "the little virtues," as St. Francis de Sales calls them, we shall reap great profit, for all the virtues are connected with the highest of all, charity. It is also well for advanced souls to reread occasionally What is suitable for beginners; on second reading they will see this teaching under a superior light and will be astonished at all that is virtually contained in it, as, for example, in the first lines of the little catechism on the reason why we were created and placed in the world: "To know God, to love Him, to serve Him, and thus to obtain eternal life."
It is also well for beginners to catch a glimpse of the extreme loftiness of Christian perfection, without, however, covering the ground too quickly and trying to go faster than grace. Perfection should at least be partly seen, because the end to be attained, which is last in the order of execution, is first in the order of intention or of desire. One must from the beginning wish to attain sanctity, since we are all called to that sanctity which would permit us to enter heaven immediately after death. No one, in fact, will go to purgatory except for sins which he might have avoided.
If beginners and the advanced have a keen desire to sanctify themselves, they will find what is suitable for them in Holy Scripture and in the spiritual writings of the saints. While reading, they will hear the teaching of the interior Master. That this may be so, they must read slowly and not devour books; they must be penetrated with what they read. Then spiritual reading will be transformed little by little into prayer, into intimate conversation with the interior Guest. (50)
It is also well after a few years to reread the very good books which have already done us much good. Life is short: we should be content to read and read again whatever bears the mark of God, and not to lose our time on things that are lifeless and of no value. St. Thomas Aquinas never wearied of rereading the conferences of Cassian. How many souls have gained greatly by often rereading The Imitation! To be profoundly penetrated by one such book is far better than to read all spiritual writers superficially.
Moreover, as St. Bernard says, we should read with piety, seeking not only to know divine things, but to taste them.(51) St. Matthew (24: 15) says: "He that readeth, let him understand." Let us ask God for the light to understand clearly. The disciples of Emmaus did not understand the meaning of the prophecies until Christ opened their minds. This is why St. Bernard says to us: "Let prayer interrupt reading," then truly this reading will be a spiritual food and will prepare the soul for prayer.
Finally, we must begin without delay to put into
practice what we read. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.
7:24, 26), our Lord declared: "Everyone therefore that heareth these
My words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his
house upon a rock. . . . And everyone that heareth these My words, and
doth them not, shall be like the foolish man that built his house upon
the sand." "For not the hearers of the law," says St. Paul, "are just
before God; but the doers of the law shall be justified." (52) Then
reading bears fruit. In the parable of the sower we are told:
"And other some fell upon good ground; and being sprung up, yielded
fruit a hundredfold. . . . But that on the good ground, are they who
in a good and perfect heart, hearing the word, keep it, and bring
forth fruit in patience." (53) According to this parable, some
spiritual reading may produce thirtyfold, other sixtyfold, and still
other a hundredfold. Such was, for example, the reading which
Augustine did when he heard the words: "Take and read." He
opened the epistles of St. Paul, which were lying on the table, and
read these words (Rom. I 3 : 13 f.): "Let us walk honestly, as in the
day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities,
not in contention and envy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ!' From
that moment his heart was changed; he retired for some time into
solitude and asked for baptism. This was truly the hundredfold, which
since then has nourished thousands of souls.
1. Sermon 35.
2. Rom. 13:13.
3. Confessiones, Soliloquia, De doctrina christiana, De civitate Dei, Epistola 211, Enarrationes in Psalmos, In Sermonem Domini in monte (Matt. 5), In Joannem, etc.
4. Epistolae; especially ep. 22, to the virgin Eustochium.
8. Expositio in librum Job, sive moralium libri XXXV; Liber regulae pastoralis; Homiliae in Ezechielem.
9. De Spiritu Sancto; Regulae.
10. Homiliae, De sacerdotio.
11. De divinis nominibus; De ecclesiastica hierarchia; De mystica theologia.
12 Especially his Commentaries on Dionysius, his Liber asceticus.
13. Cur Deus homo. His meditations and prayers are rich in doctrine and unction.
14. Sermones de tempore, de sanctis, in Cantica Canticorum; De consideratione; De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae; De diligendo Deo.
15. Benjamin minor, seu de preparatione ad contemplationem; Benjamin major, seu de gratia contemplationis; Expositio in Cantica Canticorum.
16. De vita spirituali; Ex commentariis B. Hugonis de Sancto Charo, O.P., super totam bibliam excerpta, Currante Fr. Dionysio Mesard, O.P., Pustet, 1910. An excellent work divided into four parts: on the purgative life; on the illuminative life; the unitive life; the spiritual life of priests.
17. Commentarii in S. Scripturam, especially In Joannem; Comm. in Dionysium; Mariale; De sacrificio missae.
18. Commentarii in Psalmos, in Job, in Canticum Canticorum, in Matth.; in Joannem; in Epist. S. Pauli; In Summa theologica, IIa IIae, de virtutibus theologicis et moralibus nec non de donis in speciali. De perfectione spirituali; Officium SS. Sacramenti; Expositio in Symbol. Apost. et in Orationem dominicam.
19. De triplici via (seu Incendium amoris); Lignum vitae; Vitis mystica, ltinerarium mentis ad Deum; Breviloquium.
20. Dialogue; Letters.
21. Sermons; critical edition in German by Vetter, 1910. The Institutions were not drawn up by Tauler, but contain the summary of his doctrine.
22. Die Schriften der heiligen H. Suso, published by Father Denifie, O.P.
23. Visionum et instructionum liber. This book speaks especially of the divine transcendence and of Christ's passion.
24. OEuvres (trans. from the Flemish by the Benedictines of St.
Paul at Wisque). Cf. especially Le miroir du salut eternel; Le livre
des sept clotures; L'ornement des noces eternelles. Ruysbroeck is
certainly one of the greatest mystics, but he can be comprehended only
by advanced souls.
26. Abecedario espiritual, 1528. See especially Vol. III, which served as a guide to St. Teresa.
27. The Spiritual Exercises, a method to reform and transform the soul by conforming it to the divine Model. See also The Tale of the Pilgrim and the Letters of St. Ignatius Loyola.
28. Obras de Santa Teresa, editadas y anotadas por el P. Silverio de S. Teresa, 6 vols.,Burgos, 1915-20; Letters of St. Teresa. All interior souls can and should read The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa.
29. Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, edited by P. Silverio, 5 vols.,
30. Oeuvres published by the Religious of the Visitation of Annecy. The Introduction to a Devout Life describes the purgative life and shows how devotion and sanctity may be practiced in all states of life. The Treatise on the Love of God lifts souls even to the unitive way. Les vrais entretiens spirituels, composed for the Visitandines, do good to all religious souls.
31. Oeuvres, 12 vols., Paris, 1905. Disciple of Berulle and of Condren, St. John Eudes links up the interior virtues with the devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. One should read La vie et le royaume de Jesus dans les ames chretiennes; Le coeur admirable de la Mere de Dieu; Le memorial de la vie ecclesiastique.
32. Elevations sur les mysteres; Meditations sur l'Evangile; Traite de la concupiscence; Lettres de direction; Les etats d'oraison.
33. The Sinners' Guide; Memorial of the Christian Life.
34. La croix de Jesus, new ed., 1937; Les meditations sur la Passion.
35. Le plus parfait (abandonment); La presence de Dieu; L'oraison du coeur; Etat du pur amour; La clef du pur amour; La vie cachee.
36. Traite de la veritable oraison, ed. Rousset (1900); Meditations de saint Thomas sur les trois voies, ed. Florand (1934).
37. Guide spirituel; De la perfection du chretien en tous les etats; De la perfection du chretien dans l'etat ecclesiastique; Meditations sur les mysteres de notre foi.
38. La doctrine spirituelle, a very substantial work which shows how, by purity of heart, docility to the Holy Ghost, the frequent and loving remembrance of God present in it, the soul reaches contemplation, an act of living faith enlightened by the gifts.
39. Les fondements de la vie spirituelle; La guide spirituelle, in which the doctrine of Father Lallemant is developed; Traite de l'amour de Dieu.
40. Abandon a la divine Providence, an admirable book which has done great good to many souls; Instructions spirituelles sur les divers etats d'oraison.
41. Maximes spirituelles; Meditations en forme de retraite sur l'amour de Dieu; Retraite spirituelle; Manuel des ames interieures. The doctrine set forth in these works is identical with that of Father Lallemant.
42. Oeuvres completes, 1657 and 1856. Cf. especially Le discours de l'etat et des grandeurs de Jesus.
43. L'idee du sacerdoce et du sacrifice. Condren completes Berulle, by showing in Jesus, the adorer of the Father, the principal priest of the sacrifice to which we ought daily to unite ourselves.
44. Verites et excellences de Jesus-Christ (meditations).
45. Correspondance; Entretiens, published by Father Coste, 1910.
46. Le catechisme chretien pour la vie interieure (the crucifying virtues, the way of close union with our Lord); La journee chretienne; Le traite des Saints-Ordres; L'introduction a la vie et aux vertus chretiennes.
47. Le regne de Dieu en l'oraison mentale.
48. Traite de la vraie devotion a la Sainte Vierge; Le secret de Marie.
49 Opere ascetiche, new ed., Rome, 1933. Various editions in English.
50. St. Benedict (Rule, chap. 48) says that reading thus made is the
first degree of the ascending series: "Reading, thought, study,
meditation, prayer, contemplation." Cf. Dam Delatte, The Rule of St.
Benedict (a commentary); tr. by Dam Justin McCann, 1921.
51. "When reading, let him seek not so much learning as savor." In spec. monach.
52. Rom.2: 13. Jas. 1: 22: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only."
53. Luke 8:8, 15.