I have always admired people of deep prayer and wanted to be more like them. Some of the most impressive are women I’ve met who spend a very early quiet hour with God before their young kids wake up or before heading off to work every day.
I am yet to be able to claim that as my habit. And I know I’m comparing apples with oranges here, but I still sometimes wish I had an app which enticed me to put in hours of mental prayer in a similar way that my Runkeeper app keeps me going on my daily walks.
I’m deeply encouraged by St Teresa of Avila’s advice in her autobiography, Life, that reading a spiritual book is a good substitute for mental prayer if one finds it hard to pray. I find that keeping a dedicated mental prayer time can be both the easiest thing in the world, and the hardest, but I can always pick up a book and read. And not infrequently, as St Teresa also found, the reading can turn into praying.
The early Church fathers spoke highly of spiritual reading especially, but not only, the reading of Scripture. St Jerome described holy reading as a weapon against temptation, “Endeavour to have always in your hand a pious book” he counselled. Apparently, according to St Isadore, “When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us”. Much more recently St Josemaria Escriva advised his followers: “Don’t neglect your spiritual reading. Reading has made many saints.”
I do lots of holy reading but lots of other things too; fiction books, popular science blogs, gardening or cooking magazines. People sometimes ask me how I find time to do it. It’s just what I do. I can find snippets through the day and sometimes an hour or more each night. Reading might be my ‘core competency’ in life, the one thing I am really best at and a habit I doubt I will ever outgrow.
Of course I know that reading about God is no substitute for a living relationship with God, cultivated regularly, any more than reading Gardening Australia is going to get my root-bound rosemary repotted, or reading an email from my husband is a substitute for his embrace.
But can God communicate with a person very deeply through their spiritual reading? Yes, of course. That’s the whole point of all Lectio Divina. One example I really love is of the convert St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) who requested baptism after reading St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. She devoured it cover to cover in one night, and closing it, declared, “This is truth”. She later joined her Discalced Carmelite reform.
Video: The Discalced Carmelites of Wolverhampton, UK
Reading does lots of things for us: it fosters a habit of silence, expands knowledge, cultivates compassion and empathy, and the ability to think and reflect. And a book stashed in the handbag provides a handy escape from the gossip magazines usually on offer in a waiting room or at the hairdresser’s.
But take silence. We know from experience that periods of silence can feel restorative to us. But there’s physical evidence of it being good for us too, from recent studies. One 2013 study on mice found that exposure to two hours of a silence a day led to the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain concerned with learning, memory, and emotion.
The ability to carve out moments of silence is one thing; to be comfortable with silence is another. Cardinal Robert Sarah says both are essential. In his recent book The Power of Silence, he writes that the “the great things in human life are experienced in silence, under God’s watchful eye”. There is an “interior rest and harmony [from which] can flow only from silence,” and in silence man finds his greatest freedom. Without it, “life does not exist”.
Reading is not a habit I ever set out to acquire; if anything I think I caught it from my mum, who quickly despaired of being able to keep me in books. I don’t know how many I’ve read but it must be thousands. I have read a lot of good books, bad books, average books and completely cheap and nasty books. As a teenager I read James Herbert and Virginia Andrews along with Chesterton and Tolkien. Through trial and error I learned what good reading is and good reading does, knowledge for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
If you want any pointers on where to go for spiritual reading, the Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan by Fr John McCloskey, a varied list of 100 older and newer classics, is a good place to start. And writer Brandon Vogt has augmented this list nicely with his own recommendations and those of others.