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Brookline Carmel Bulletin                        

July 23, 1961


Cogitatio Sancta

(Holy Meditation)


Spiritual Reading


Another exercise of asceticism that is indispensable in the life of a man committed to prayer is Spiritual Reading.  This well-known saying (of St. Bernard?) is axiomatic among spiritual authorities:  when we pray we speak to God; when we do spiritual reading, God speaks to us.  Mental Prayer is a dialogue.  God must speak to us, too.  In a previous ‘Cogitatio Sancta’ (Discovering God’s Will, March 26, 1961), we spoke of the manner in which God makes known to us His mind.  Here we have to consider the content of His message.


God speaks to us out of the storehouse of our own knowledge.  If it is meager in quantity and quality, our prayer will be shallow and poor.  The friendship that exists between God and ourselves will be nowhere as warm, rich and invigorating as it could and should be simply because God cannot be articulate in disclosing to us Himself and His holy Will.  When we speak we want to convey our thoughts exactly; we want to lend precision to our words, the true shades and fine delineation of meaning; we want to give the proper cast and tone to all our utterances.  Again, we want to be completely at home in the subject under discussion.  Two things, then, when it comes to communicating with others, we find particularly frustrating:  first, to be obliged to converse with someone in a language of which we have acquired only a smattering; second, to have to listen to or speak at length about a topic concerning which we know practically nothing.  Our prayer will lack the intimacy and sense of communion that is the trademark of all true friendship unless we are highly conversant with the things that are closest to the heart of God.  Without the latter, how can we persevere in prayer, how derive fruit from it?


Spiritual reading makes us knowledgeable in the things that pertain to God, as He is in Himself, and in His designs upon humankind.  It lays up for us a treasury of ideas, concepts, insights, intuitions and, to be sure, naked facts.  These God is able to draw upon at will.  He can select those which best suit His purpose and impress them upon our consciousness when we are at prayer.  He can clothe them with an ‘appeal’ that makes us seize upon them avidly, and with an urgency that moves us powerfully, though sweetly, to do what is apropos in our regard.  In this way He can achieve the work of transforming us into the likeness of His Son.


Human knowledge follows a psychological law of simplification.  Given a welter of experience, the human mind strips the data of all that is individual, concrete, contingent, and lays bare the general, the abstract, the necessary.  What follows is acquired contemplation, a simple, loving gaze at the essentials, at fundamental laws and truths.  The more we read about divine realities the greater our likelihood of comprehending the hidden, lofty ways of God.  Wide spiritual reading offers a multiplicity of instances of God’s interpersonal dealings with men.  The easier it becomes for us to discern the immutable patterns that constitute the basis of all His works, therefore.


Moral resemblance to Jesus Christ, contemplation:  these are the connatural ends of mental prayer.  And we have seen how conducive to these ends spiritual reading is.  It goes without saying; progress in prayer goes hand in hand with spiritual reading.


Besides providing the means by which God may speak to us in prayer, spiritual reading instructs and advises us directly.  True enough, the written word cannot be as effective in this as the spoken word.  But as the saying goes, Verba Volant; scripta manent (Words vanish into thin air; writing lasts).  When we read we can drink in the thoughts slowly, reflectively.  We can re-read and recapture; we have time to mull over what is being said.  Then we draw our own conclusions, our own practical norms for daily living.  This is better than being told outright what to do.  What we discover and formulate for ourselves weaves itself into our moral fabric, something we could hardly expect of what is commanded point blank.  The Ten Commandments keep us from sin by way of restraint.  Spiritual reading keeps us from offending God by nourishing our love for Him and our desire to be one with Him.  Spiritual reading gives us the truth concerning God, and the truth is what sets us free.


We can never learn so much about God that we can dispense with spiritual reading.  As a subject, God is inexhaustible.  But there is such a thing as an evolution in our spiritual diet.  It is best to start off with the standard classical spiritual works.  Later on, only the best and most penetrating authors, men with wide experience in prayer can be read with profit.  We must spice our reading with the best of the current literature, for our spiritual life must unfold in the present, in the midst of modern problems and developments.  Sacred Scripture is always useful.  With some, as with the Little Flower in her later life, the inspired word is the only reading that inflames the heart.


We ought to do spiritual reading daily; we need to do it when our minds are alert.  If we are faithful to our reading we’ll neither abandon prayer, nor see our ideals lost or tarnished. 


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