Spiritual reading is the reading of those things that help one make progress in the spiritual life, done precisely with the aim of nourishing and strengthening this life. It differs from vocal prayer, meditative reading, and study, inasmuch as it presupposes in the reader a disposition that is more receptive than active. However, insofar as it gives him new matter for consideration, it serves, at least as a moral cause, to bring about a certain actualization of the reader's internal faculties in the direction of contemplation.
Aim . God has given man a share in His own life and has thereby raised him to the supernatural order. Thus, the preservation and constant growth of this divine life, with a view to possessing it eternally in heaven through the direct vision of God, the Supreme Good, is the essential problem of the spiritual life. The aim of spiritual reading, therefore, is to have man know as many aspects of this life as possible and thereby to facilitate the accomplishment of his supernatural destiny. The need and importance of devoting part of his time to spiritual reading, then, arises from human indigence, since man is in constant need of instruction and new impulses if he is to make progress in the life of virtue and apostolic activity. This need grows along with growth in profane culture, since there must be not only an ever more adequate knowledge of the problems and concerns of the spirit, but also a strengthened ability to rebut error and to protect oneself against spiritual loss through absorption in secular interests.
Matter . Books for spiritual reading embrace the Bible primarily, which contains God's own words; then the writings of the Fathers, and Doctors of the Church, who have developed the Biblical expression of God's teaching; and, in general, every work that serves to explain Catholic teaching about human perfection or to manifest its realization in the lives of the saints.
The Bible. The Bible is the principal book for spiritual reading since it contains the principles and rules of Christian perfection, especially as these are exemplified in the life of our Lord. The four accounts of the Gospel, then, comprise the most important part of the Bible for the purpose of spiritual reading, since they contain not only the narration of what our Lord did and taught, but also the manner wherein He fulfilled the prophecies. Moreover, these accounts represent His life, not only with respect to His personal perfection, but also with respect to His perfection as the king and savior of the human race. Yet to appreciate God's whole plan of salvation, one should strive to read the whole Bible, from the first page to the last.
The Fathers. The Fathers of the Church developed their teaching by exploring the content of the Bible. While their writings are in general a rich source for spiritual reading, the organization of excerpted material in St. Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain ) is of special value. There the reader can find the Fathers' own explanation of the social context of Christ's words and actions and can see the relation between this social context and his own, as well as the symbolic meaning of many of Christ's words.
The Doctors of the Church. While many of the Fathers are also Doctors of the Church, there are many Doctors who are not Fathers. They are important for spiritual reading, not only because of their analyses of Christ's teaching, but also because of the discipline in logic contained in their writings. Very few persons have the habit of logic so perfectly as to avoid all the pitfalls of sentimentalism even during the time devoted to spiritual reading. By serving to discipline the mind, then, the Doctors of the Church serve also to discipline the emotions, and this discipline helps to remove the obstacles to thorough penetration of the doctrine presented.
History. Historical accounts, too, can be suitable for spiritual reading. This is true especially of the history of the Church, wherein one can read the history of salvation and the spread of Christ's mystical body throughout the world. Inasmuch as the saints reflect Christ's own perfection and His constant work of sanctifying souls, the accounts of their lives, too, are good sources for spiritual reading. In this regard, however, one must make a careful selection. Extremely poetic and rhetorical reports of the lives of the saints militate against, rather than serve, the purpose of spiritual reading, since they not only misrepresent the true holiness of the particular saint, but also distort the mind of the reader by focusing attention on what is not genuinely holy in this person's life or by emphasizing what can have a sensational appeal.
Dispositions . The personal advantage of spiritual reading presupposes certain dispositions in the reader. First among these are the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Faith is needed so that the reader is ready to accept God's word without questioning its truthfulness. Hope is necessary as a foundation for perseverance in the practice of spiritual reading, as well as for a habitual readiness to rely upon God's help for the penetration of what is read. Charity is needed so that the reading may be motivated by love for God, and that joy and peace may predominate in the course of the reading; a person engaged in spiritual reading must be preoccupied with what is good rather than with what is evil, and must have considerable freedom from both internal and external agitation. Among the moral virtues, piety has a special importance, since the reader must be habitually disposed to accept God as the principal teacher; the Apostles, Fathers, and Doctors as secondary teachers under God; and other authors as teachers who share in a lesser degree the excellence of the foregoing authors. Studiousness causes a person to apply what he reads to himself and inclines him to penetrate what he reads, rather than to read many books without really delving into their meaning. Humility, of course, is a most basic disposition, since it causes the reader to recognize his true spiritual condition and thereby prevents him from adopting an unrealistic view of what he reads, for instance that involved in fantastic comparisons of himself with certain saints, as though he had the same degree of perfection.
Benefits . The two principal advantages of spiritual reading are habitual encouragement to strive for perfection in one's thoughts, words, and actions; and a disposition for frequent meditation based upon what has been read. From meditation, the soul can be raised to contemplation, the most perfect act of man's mind, inasmuch as it involves union with God. Spiritual reading, then, becomes a source of contemplative prayer, wherein charity is inflamed and wherein the soul here contemplates, in the darkness of faith, the Supreme Good, whom it will contemplate forever in the light of glory.
Bibliography: r. garrigou–lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. m. t. doyle, 2 v. (St. Louis 1947) 1:247–55. a. royo, The Theology of Christian Perfection, tr. j. aumann (Dubuque 1962). j. eudes, La Vie et le royaume de Jésus dans les âmes chrétiennes (Oeuvres Choisies de Saint John Eudes 1; Paris 1931). e. bertaud, "Dialogues Spirituels," Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 3:834–850; "Entretiens spirituels," ibid., 4.1:763–774. e. bertaud and a. rayez, "Echelle spirituelle," Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 4.1:62–86. t. camelot, "Lecture et oraison," La Vie spirituelle (Paris 1919–); title varies, 78 (1948) 640–659. j. de ghellinck, Lectures spirituelles dans les écrits des Pères (Paris 1935). a. lefÈvre et al., "Écriture sainte et vie spirituelle," Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 4.1:128–278.