Restoring the Balance: Spiritual Reading

Rev. Reid Hennick

Now if there is one thing for which modern conditions have produced a special necessity, it is the regular practice of spiritual reading.

So wrote the Cistercian abbot Eugene Boylan in 1946 in This Tremendous Lover as he surveyed the world’s collapsing spiritual infrastructure. Whereas reading or some other form of instruction was always necessary, he continues:

... oral instruction, the common opinion of men, the example of our neighbours, and the trend of life in general play a smaller part in the formation and instruction of Catholics than they did formerly. People do not go to hear sermons now as they used to; religion is not talked about, at least with any accuracy; our neighbours often have ideals that are far from Catholic (if indeed they have any at all); and there is little in our general surroundings that is of direct help to incite us or to help us to find God.Eugene Boylan, This Tremendous Lover, (Newman Press, 1947)

In short, by leaving God out, our newfound environment cannot but lead us away from Him. It is positively inhospitable to spiritual growth. On our part, therefore, “there is an urgent need for some personal effort to restore the balance by keeping the realities of eternity before the mind”.Boylan

Spiritual reading is the called-for corrective. In fact, for the educated Catholic:

... it is well nigh essential for their progress if not also for their salvation. To our mind, this practice ranks equally with mental prayer and the other exercises of devotion in importance, and in fact, it is so closely connected with these other exercises, especially the essential one of mental prayer, that without it—unless one finds some substitute‚—there is no possibility of advancing in the spiritual life; even perseverance therein is rendered very doubtful.Boylan

Spiritual reading, however, demands exertion over and above the “attentive and assiduous reading of spiritual books”.cf. Antonio Royo Marín, The Theology of Christian Perfection (Priory Press, 1962). It calls for a distinct deprivation.

The Chief Corrosive

Of the many forces at play in our estrangement from the divine, some are particularly corrosive. In the abbot’s estimation at the time of his writing, chief among them was the newspaper. He based his analysis on both its content and the very structure of the medium itself: "[o]ne long series of items which could hardly be more efficiently designed to concentrate [the] attention upon this world and upon the things of this world.” While one may dispute the accuracy of much that is printed, “one cannot deny that what is printed is presented in a fashion that tends to grip the reader’s imagination.”Boylan

The information age has revealed the true extension of this critique. Indeed, from a twenty-first century standpoint, the newspaper’s captivating power is negligible when compared to the audio-visual barrage of WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix. There is nothing more subversive to the life of recollection than this Silicon Valley apparatus. Again, along with its soul-crushing content, its very method of delivery crushes the soul.

The Ingredients of Thought

To properly assess the dangers involved here, we must be alert to our psychological makeup. In this regard, Plato and Aristotle’s insights are indispensable.

Man is a rational animal. Accordingly, there is a certain duality to his nature. Because he is rational, his mind deals in universals—intangible objects of thought; because he is animal, his senses deal in singulars—material impressions of the here-and-now. Nevertheless, his cognitive experience is deeply unified. His intellect can transcend mere sensory data and uncover the meaning of things in themselves, and such thinking is always aided by his senses. Herein lies the importance of the imagination.

The imagination furnishes thought. It is our storehouse of singulars, our seedbed of pre-articulated musings. A well-ordered and tamed imagination facilitates the mind’s probings; an overburdened and frenetic one inhibits them. Whereas the steady, organic experiences of life leave a benevolent impression upon the imagination, the insistent, artificial entanglements with modern media choke it into submission. Once submitted, the imagination—and, therefore, the mind—is occupied territory. Inopportune and sometimes unseemly suggestions wedge themselves into consciousness and harness our God-bound thoughts to the allure of the present moment. We then become prisoners in the realm of singulars.

What is “the source of all the evils and errors in the intellectual life of today”?Boylan It is the loss of the ability for deliberate and sustained abstract thought. This is not to say that we no longer think but that, because of an overstimulated imagination, we think in a haze of distractions. We are, as T. S. Elliot put it, ...distracted from distraction by distraction”.T.S. Eliot, 'Burnt Norton', Four Quartets (Faber, 1959).

Who Is To Blame?

Is this only an inevitable consequence of living in the information age? Is this “death of the spirit… the price of progress”?Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (University Press of Chicago, 1987). No! We are not hapless victims of circumstance. What Fr Francis Remler opined about suffering in general answers to our modern malady:

We do not hesitate to assert that probably half, if not more, of present-day miseries would quickly disappear from the face of the earth if people could be universally induced to fulfil faithfully just two conditions, and they are, that they live according to the dictates of right reason and common sense, observing the fundamental laws of health and well-being, and that they make an honest effort to shape their moral conduct according to the Ten Commandments and the maxims of the Gospel.Fr. F.J. Remler, Why Must I Suffer? (Loreto Publications, 2003)

Truth be told, our past indiscretions suffice to explain our besieged imagination at present. Are our unwanted compulsions really so inexplicable? Might not our anxieties about the future have something to do with fear-peddling websites? Our fault-finding with gossip on social media? Our fantasies with lewd television shows? At the very least, might not our mental fog have something to do with an uninterrupted flow of text messages?

The self-inflicted trauma brought about by patronizing these distraction-dispensing outlets is obvious. Refusing to modify our relationship with modern media is a manifest dereliction of duty, both natural and supernatural. If we cannot unplug from the matrix altogether, we must adjust our behaviour in it. This is imperative, a sine qua non if we are to take up the practice of spiritual reading, or one that will bear any lasting fruit. For spiritual reading by itself cannot possibly drown out such cacophony. The unrestrained immersion in modern media produces a distaste, not merely for the things that really matter, but also for the style and manner in which those things are presented in spiritual books. The result is that when one does by an effort force oneself to open a spiritual book, it requires a still greater effort to keep it open, and not to close it with a yawn.Boylan

Shaking ourselves from such inertia—in actuality, a byproduct of intemperance—is not easy. (Alas, if only we had the appetite for something else!) Even so, spiritual reading, that activity we find so distasteful at first, contains in itself the momentum we so desperately need.

The Antidote

St Thomas Aquinas teaches that "...the most effective remedy against intemperance is not to dwell on the consideration of singulars”. Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 142, a. 3. Hence, we are to “focus on the opposite of ‘singulars’—namely, ‘universals’.”Kevin Vost, The One-Minute Aquinas (Sophia institute Press, 2014). In other words, we successfully counter our complacent imagination by cultivating the life of the mind instead. We achieve this through spiritual reading since, of all occupations, those of an intellectual type are particularly apt for controlling sensuality. The reason is that the application of one faculty weakens the exercise of the other faculties, in addition to the fact that intellectual operations withdraw from the sensual passions the object on which they feed.Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology (Sheed & Ward, 1980).

The imagination relishes singulars. It craves these sensuous short-term pay-offs and, if allowed to feast, carves into our habit of thought ever-deepening channels of diversion. Yet these detours never lead to a truly satisfying destiny. In contrast, though the pleasures wrought from spiritual reading are doubtlessly less exhilarating, they are infinitely more rewarding. For they feed the deepest cravings of the mind. Spiritual reading ushers us into the realm of universals. It encourages ruminations on the true, the good, and the beautiful, irrespective of our impatient appetites. It helps us transcend the pestering present moment and assess all experience as pointing to eternity. We Catholics read to keep the super-natural before our minds, to develop and maintain the sense of the reality of the things we know by faith, to keep our attention on the eternal life of our soul rather than on our temporal interests, and above all to keep alive within us the memory and the presence of our Lord, so that we may live in touch and in union with him, talking to him, working with him, resting with him, always praying to him and in him.Boylan

Which Will It Be?

As Dom Boylan strongly implied more than 70 years ago, in our times, spiritual reading is a practice more of precept than of counsel. But abiding by this precept entails more than having a book in hand.

As was His wont when preaching, Our Lord comes to us not in the midst of any city or forum, but on a mountain and in a wilderness; instructing us to ... separate ourselves from the tumults of ordinary life, and this most especially, when we are to study wisdom.St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew.

Spiritual reading both requires and further enables our separation from the mundane, our active rejection of “whatever hinders the mind’s affections from tending wholly to God.”II-II, q. 184, a. 2. In this vein, St Paul exhorts us: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things.” (Phil 4:8) "No man can serve two masters.” (Mt 6:24) So which is more likely to keep our "hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7)—the New Testament or Netflix? Because it will not be both.

View all the articles from Ite Missa Est