Do you know this “eat this, not that” series of books? The idea is to help you make good choices in food and drink to avoid hidden calories that will tank your health. Well, Rosie had the thought that we could do something similar with books for the Library Project*.
Today I thought I’d look at spiritual reading, since so many of our readers do ask me for suggestions. Sometimes I’m at a conference with all the booksellers or even just walking by the table at the back of the church, and I just feel like fainting at the sheer quantity of unnecessary and clearly unhelpful stacks of spiritual reading. Sadly, so much of publishing has become putting out new material, whether it’s worthy or not.
Usually I simply pay no attention. It’s all a matter of trust, and why would I trust just any old book to be my spiritual reading? After all, this is my soul we are talking about! But a while ago Leila Miller (of Little Catholic Bubble) posted on Facebook about a hugely popular (and hugely promoted) book by Matthew Kelly called Rediscovering Catholicism. She took the book to task for a serious theological defect, found in his prologue, in the form of a sort of parable that leaves the reader with the mistaken idea that Jesus did not willingly die, but was unwillingly sacrificed by the Father.
I agree with Leila Miller. I would not read this book on that basis alone and neither should you. Her post made me start thinking of what you should read instead.
Read tried-and-true books to discover what the Church teaches. It’s just all too easy for a zealous author to allow error to creep into his work if he’s not steeped in authentic and tested theology (and philosophy for that matter — we have an interesting discussion going on in the comments of this post about our Book Club’s reading of Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy; did you know that the admirable Dietrich Bonhoeffer was unable to prevent a Kantian modernism to take hold of his theology? Imitate his courage, perhaps, but not his thought!).
If you are looking for inspiration, be sure to read books that are either by saints or clearly base what they are saying on the words of saints and Scripture and the Church Fathers! (In our book, The Little Oratory, we take great pains to show you that what we write about is traditional and grounded in Church teaching.)
So, here is a short list of my favorites — books that are my real bosom friends — in foundational spiritual reading. As always, if you buy from our Amazon links, we get a little cash. Thanks!
- Saint Pope John Paul II had his own project to help you rediscover (or discover) Catholicism, and that seems like a better bet, hmmm? The Catechism of the Catholic Church sounds like just another dry tome that wouldn’t interest you, but on the contrary, you will love it. You can certainly look up any question that you are wondering about (e.g. “What does the Church teach about stealing?” or “What are Sacraments?”), but I really suggest simply starting at the beginning. Until you do, you just can’t imagine how beautifully this book presents Salvation History, entwining it with what Reason can discover about man and his journey to God — and God’s work in saving us. The section on prayer is a masterpiece. And everything in between is a masterpiece. Read this instead of that other one! (I’ve linked to the paperback edition because it’s the only one I’m sure contains the footnotes and complete text. I think you would be wiser to invest in a hardback version, but mine is so old that it no longer corresponds to what I see on Amazon, and what I see is confusing. This one seems right… If you can buy it in person, that would be great — you want to be sure you have all the references!)
- The heart of Catholicism is the Mass. Of course, read Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (and read along with us!). And Ratzinger‘s as well (ditto!). I highly recommend Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper for an extended Biblical treatment of the Mass.
- Would you like to pray, but just can’t? Maybe you just don’t get what prayer is? Difficulties in Mental Prayer by Dom Eugene Boylan will help. I’ve read it many, many times over. It sits by my bed. It isn’t just about prayer. Very gently, Boylan helps you prepare your soul to pray, and then shows you what prayer is.
- This Tremendous Lover. Is Jesus a feeling? This book, also by Dom Eugene Boylan, helps you discover where you find the real Jesus. It gets you out of your head, by which I mean feelings!
- The Soul of the Apostolate, by Jean-Baptiste Chautard. This book helped me discover the interior life. We know we must be charitable — “do apostolate” or “ministry” (although I don’t like that word, because ministers are ordained, but we all have to evangelize) — go out and “be Christ” to others. But how? What is the key? Without the interior life, we are mere activists, and more, what we do ends up being just for show or to make us feel good. We need the interior life.
- Of course, The Interior Castle is the classic on this topic. St. Teresa of Avila is a wonderful guide.
- Introduction to the Devout Life, by Francis de Sales. How to live as a Christian in the world!
- The Story of a Soul, by Thérèse de Lisieux. Did you know that “The Little Flower” — as she is called — is a Doctor of the Church? The deceptive simplicity of her spirituality contains the key to holiness.
- Perhaps this book can help us understand the previous two, or serve as an introduction: Searching for and Maintaining Peace, by Father Jacques Philippe. My thought is that this tiny, unassuming book is the real “mom’s book of spiritual help” we are looking for. With great affection and gentleness, Fr. Philippe helps us be reconciled with our defects — without which we would be incapable of receiving God’s grace!
- Or, if you just don’t get St. Thérèse (but think there’s something about her you should get — and there is!), try this: I Believe in Love, by Fr. Jean C. J. d’Elbée. Sappy title, strong content. This book is a series of meditations, so it can be a good “self-led” retreat for you if you want to do something like that.
- Saint Joseph, Shadow of the Father, by Andrew Doze. I recommend this deep meditation if you wonder about God the Father and your devotion (or lack thereof) to Him. Especially recommended for you if you have a father-wound, a sadness that’s the result of a lack of relationship with your father.
I could go on and on, and probably will revisit this list. If you are ever at a book sale and find this gem, which is out of print, snatch it up: The Well of Life, by Georges Chevrot. Not only is this an amazing book for spiritual reading, but it will pattern you for reading Scripture in a deeper way: Can you imagine, a whole book on the one meeting of Our Lord with the Woman at the Well? (Joh 4: 1-42) Beautiful.