August 27, 2010

Spiritual Reading, Part II

By Fr. Joshua Allen *

In my last column, I began a "Top-10" list of spiritual books. This column is a continuation and a conclusion of that list. You might be surprised by the more contemporary selections, and perhaps you will be reassured by the classics! In any event, I hope you enjoy the recommendations:

6) The Way, The Furrow, and the Forge by St. Josemaria Escrivá. This might be cheating. Technically these are three separate books, but the edition I have is only one volume, so I count it as one book. I read a little bit of this book every day. It is in "list" format: about 3000 points that are no more than one or two sentences grouped according to theme. So, if you are looking for a reflection on humility or on patience, you can just flip to that section. I decided to pick up this book because of a series of reflections on the readings for Mass I had read written by Fr. Francis Fernandez called In Conversation with God (another book my cousin gave me). Fr. Fernandez is a priest of Opus Dei, and he quotes St. Josemaria frequently in his book. So, I decided to go to the horse’s mouth, and I have not been disappointed. Warning: do not read these books unless you are prepared to change your life and try to be a saint.

7) The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This is one of the books on my list that crosses over between great literature and great spiritual reading. The Divine Comedy is divided into three separate parts: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. This is not a novel; it is an epic poem written in middle Italian. So, choose a translation carefully. Some recommendations: don’t look for one where the words rhyme. There is rhyme and meter in the original Italian, but in English, you want a good translation, not a flowery one where the translator has altered the meaning to achieve a rhyming scheme. Also, look for a version that has explanatory notes, because there are a lot of references to Italian figures you could not hope to know. Some might argue that this is not a spiritual book. I disagree. Be sure not to just read the Inferno. I think the work gets better as it goes along. I will never forget reading the 8th Canto of the Purgatorio and envisioning the souls at the end of the day singing a hymn (the Te Lucis) to the God they will one day see—a hymn that I sing every night before I go to bed. St. Bernard’s reflections on Mary at the end of the Paradiso are some of the most sublime ever written. This is a hard read, but it is worth it.

8) Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine is my favorite saint. I am absolutely certain that he was behind my reversion to the faith; this is the first book I read on the way home. The Confessions is the conversion story of St. Augustine, though the last three chapters are profound reflections on philosophical and theological concepts. The Confessions is written as a monologue addressed to God, so interspersed within the actual biography of Augustine are beautiful soliloquies on his love of God, reflecting on the divine interventions in his life that so shaped his life. Augustine is the biggest influence on my style of writing and of thought. There are many books by St. Augustine that I love. The title of my column, Led Into the Truth, comes from a dialogue he wrote called The Happy Life. This is the only book on my list that I think every Christian should read.

9) Commentary on the Gospel of John by Adrienne von Speyr. This is a massive work, divided in English into four volumes. Adrienne von Speyr was a Swiss mystic. She was the influence that shaped the theological thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, another of my favorites. But Adrienne von Speyr never actually wrote any books. She instead would meet with Balthasar her spiritual director and she would dictate the visions she had seen. Some 105 books of these transcriptions were published under her name. The Commentary on the Gospel of John is her magnum opus, and it is not a quick read. Just about every sentence will lead you to deep prayer and reflection. She proceeds through the Gospel line-by-line; her reflections are both profound and vast. I first decided to read von Speyr after reading some Balthasar. A friend in seminary had read her book on Mary and was in love with it, so I took the plunge with the series on John. This is another book that I read a little bit of every day. The thing that inspires me is the profundity with which she is able to expound upon a single bible verse. This is really what our prayer is supposed to be like—a single instance of the intervention of God in the would should have the depth to occupy our minds and our hearts forever. Adrienne von Speyr is able to do this, and that is very attractive to me. Plus, her section on the Prologue is sublime beyond description.

10) Parochial and Plain Sermons by John Henry Cardinal Newman—soon to be Blessed John Henry Newman! This book was originally published in 10 small volumes, but the version I have is one massive tome almost too big to manage. I decided to pick up this book after the retreat my first year at Mount St. Mary’s, led by Archabbot Lambert Reilly of St. Meinrad’s Archabbey in Indiana. He was a self-avowed devotee of Cardinal Newman. He quoted him from memory frequently and really inspired me to read some of his work. I really can’t recommend him enough. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua is the story of his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in terms of the shift in his religious thought. The Sermons, however, were given when he was still a member of the Church of England. If you read them without knowing this, you’d never know the difference: Newman was so close to Catholic that it seems inevitable that he would convert (although the Apologia describes a more tumultuous road). I was hooked after I read a short sermon called "Hidden Faults." I thought it was going to be about the things we never tell other people about, but instead, it was about Psalm 18:12, "Cleanse me from my hidden faults." It is about the purification of the faults that we do not even know we have. As we in grace begin to overcome those most obvious faults, we discover that there are others lurking below the surface, perhaps even as the genesis of the faults that were more obvious and easier to cleanse. The individual sermons are relatively short and manageable, but this is not really a book that you sit down and read cover-to-cover. I browsed through it looking for topics of interest, and I recommend you do the same.

So that’s the list! There are some really notable omissions from the list, including St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, and Thomas à Kempis. Also, there are really only a couple of books that would be considered to appeal to a popular audience.

What makes a great spiritual book? There is certainly a substantial personal aspect to be considered. Each of the books on this list has changed the way I think about things—they have given me a deeper insight into Jesus Christ or into the way that prayer works or into the way that God’s action moves our lives. Your list would almost certainly be different—and I am always looking for good recommendations, so fire away. Happy reading, and happy praying!

Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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