Spiritual Reading for the First Saturday of Advent ~ St Alphonsus Liguori

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Spiritual Reading


To a spiritual life the Reading of Holy Books is, perhaps, not less useful than Mental Prayer. St. Bernard says that reading instructs at once both in prayer and in the practice of virtue. Hence, he concluded that Spiritual Reading and Prayer are the weapons by which hell is conquered and Heaven is won.

We cannot always have access to a Spiritual Father for counsel in our actions, and particularly in our doubts; but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us light and direction to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the Divine Will. St. Athanasius used to say that no one is found devoted to the service of God who does not practise Spiritual Reading. Hence all the Founders of Religious Orders have strongly recommended this holy exercise to their Religious. But above all the Apostle, St. Paul, prescribed Spiritual Reading to Timothy. Attend unto reading. (Tim. iv. 3). Mark the word attend, which signifies that although Timothy, being a Bishop, was greatly occupied with the care of his flock, still the Apostle wished him to attend to the reading of holy books, not in a passing way and for a short time, but regularly and for a considerable time.

The reading of spiritual books is as profitable as the reading of bad books is noxious. The first author of pious books is the Spirit of God, as the author of pernicious writings is the devil. Consider some of the great blessings the reading of spiritual books brings to the soul.

As the reading of bad books fills the mind with worldly and poisonous sentiments, so pious reading fills the soul with holy thoughts and good desires. He that keeps the mind filled with devout thoughts, such as spiritual maxims, examples of the virtuous actions of the Saints, will, not only during prayer, but at other times also, be accompanied by these thoughts, and by them be kept almost continually united to God. St. Bernard explains this by a beautiful similitude in his exposition of the words seek and you shall find (Matt. vii. 7), when he says: “Seek by reading books of devotion, and you shall find in Meditation; for reading, as it were, puts the food in the mouth, which is afterwards masticated by Meditation.

The soul that is imbued with holy thoughts in Reading is ever and always prepared to banish its internal temptations. St. Jerome advised his disciple, Salvina: “Endeavour to have ever in your hands a pious book that with this shield you may repel all the arrows of bad thoughts.”

Spiritual Reading serves to make us see the stains that infect the soul, and helps us to remove them. The same St. Jerome recommends Demetriade to avail herself of Spiritual Reading as of a mirror. As a mirror exhibits the stains of the countenance, so holy books show us the defects of the soul. St. Gregory, speaking of Spiritual Reading says: “There we perceive the losses we have sustained and the good things we have acquired; our falling back or our progress in virtue.”

In the reading of holy books we receive many lights and divine calls. St. Jerome says that when we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us. St. Ambrose says the same: “We address Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read.” In prayer God hears our petitions, but in reading we listen to His voice. We cannot, as I have already said, always have at hand a Spiritual Father, nor often hear the sermons of sacred orators, to direct us and give us light to walk well in the way of God. Good books supply the place of sermons. St. Augustine writes that good books are, as it were, so many “love-letters” the Lord sends us. In them He warns us of our dangers, teaches us the way of salvation, animates us to suffer adversity, enlightens us and inflames us with Divine love. Whoever, then, desires to acquire divine love and to be holy, should often read those letters of Paradise. Oh, how many Saints have, by the reading of a spiritual book, been induced to forsake the world and to give themselves to God! St. Augustine, St. Ignatius, St. John Colombino, and many more. “My God,” exclaims St. Augustine, “the examples of Thy servants, when I meditated on them, consumed my tepidity and inflamed me with Thy holy love.”

But to draw great fruit from Spiritual Reading:

(1) You should recommend yourself beforehand to God that He may enlighten the mind while you read. It has already been said that in Spiritual Reading the Lord condescends to speak to us; and therefore, in taking up the book, we should pray to God in the words of Samuel: Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth (1 Kings, iii. 9). Speak, O my God, for I wish to obey Thee in all Thou shalt make known to me to be Thy will.

(2) You should read, not in order to acquire learning, or to indulge curiosity, but for the sole purpose of advancing in divine love. To read for the sake of mere knowledge is not Spiritual Reading, but rather, at that particular time, a study unprofitable to the soul. It is still worse to read through curiosity, as certain people do, who devour books, seeking only to finish them in a short time in order to gratify curiosity. All the time devoted to such reading is time lost. St. Gregory says that many read, and read a great deal, but because they read from curiosity they rise from the reading as hungry as if they had not been reading.

(3) You should therefore read pious books slowly and with attention. “Nourish your soul with divine reading,” says St. Augustine. Now, to receive nourishment from food it must not be devoured, but well masticated. Masticate and ponder well what you read, applying to yourself what is there inculcated. And when what you read makes a lively impression on you, St. Ephrem counsels you to read it a second time. Imitate the bees that will not pass to another flower until they have gathered all the honey to be found in the first.

(4) When you receive any special light in your reading, or any instruction that penetrates the heart, it will be very useful to stop, and to raise the mind to God by making a good resolution, or a good act, or a fervent prayer. And at the end of your reading select some sentiment of devotion excited by what you have read and carry it away with you as a flower from a Garden of Delights.

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