St. Jerome said that when we pray, we speak to God, but when we read good spiritual books, God speaks to us.
For centuries, Christians have been discerning God’s “voice” through the printed word in titles such as The Confessions by St. Augustine, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis (Ignatius) and The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (Tan Books). These and many other Catholic classics are still in print today, offering the faithful priceless opportunities to grow in wisdom.
For example, Confessions contains Augustine’s famous line: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” And The Imitation of Christ reminds us well: “Jesus Christ must be loved alone with a special love, for he alone, of all friends, is good and faithful. For him and in him, you must love friends and foes alike, and pray to him that all may know and love him.” The Lord does the reminding in Dialogue of St. Catherine: “There cannot be love of me without love of neighbor, nor love of neighbor without love of me.”
Despite some classics being geared toward specific types of people, there is nonetheless a universal character to their contents.
The Story of a Soul (Tan Books), for example — which is St. Thérèse’s autobiography — is particularly valuable for young women, but there is no shortage of men and women of all ages who derive great benefit from it. The faithful can find meaning in the young nun-saint’s thoughts on love — “It is love alone that counts” — or picture how she describes the soul’s journey: “I pictured my soul as a tiny barque, with a graceful white sail … and I resolved never to let it withdraw from the sight of Jesus, so that it might sail peacefully and quickly towards the heavenly shore.”
General appeal is characteristic of the classics revisited here.
Holiness for All
An Introduction to the Devout Life (Tan Books), written by St. Francis de Sales in the early 1600s, has lost none of its value over the years, according to former Major League Soccer All-Star Eddie Gaven. The 27-year-old father of two has treasured the book since his reversion to the Catholic faith in his early 20s. One of the things he appreciates most about the book is the breadth of topics presented by St. Francis de Sales.
“The interior life is covered extensively, with special emphasis on prayer and the reception of the sacraments — but there is also a wealth of practical advice on how to live a life of virtue in our secular duties and occupations as well,” Gaven told the Register. “The book is written in an authoritative yet gentle style, convincing the reader that whatever his or her vocation may be, the way to happiness in this life — and the next — is by leading a devout life here.”
Gaven believes that Devout Life is most helpful for the laity — a point St. Francis de Sales makes early in the book:
“It is not merely an error but a heresy to suppose that a devout life is necessarily banished from the soldier’s camp, the merchant’s shop, the prince’s court or the domestic hearth. … Wheresoever we may be, we may and should aim at a life of perfect devotion.”
For the former professional soccer player, who is living out his vocation as a husband and father, that universal call to holiness is an inspiration: “I’d recommend the book to anyone who has a sincere desire to become holy, but especially the laity. That’s a central theme of the book: Sanctity is for everyone, not just for religious and priests.”
Vocation and Virtue
Father Joseph Lee, academic dean at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., has gained a great deal from The Spiritual Exercises (Tan Books) of St. Ignatius of Loyola. At the advising of Servant of God Father John Hardon, Father Lee used the book as a framework for a 30-day retreat — a retreat that turned out to be life-changing.
“I had been considering a priestly vocation, but was uncertain of the authenticity of the call,” Father Lee told the Register. “Thirty days with St. Ignatius and The Spiritual Exercises helped to dispel doubts and to clarify my vocation.”
Father Lee sees The Spiritual Exercises as a perfect book for young men and women discerning their vocations in life.
“The Spiritual Exercises are both very practical and versatile, which gives you the freedom to see and pursue exactly what God is concretely calling you to do,” said Father Lee.
That action is imparted by St. Ignatius with such lines as: “Love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.”
Whatever calling one might have, knowledge of the Catholic faith remains essential. This reality prompted Father Lee’s second book endorsement: The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, No. 2 (Catholic Book Publishing).
This is the timeless catechism that reminds readers of the answer to: “Why did God make you?” Answer: “God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world — and to be happy with him forever in the next.”
“This specific version of the Baltimore Catechism, organized by Father Bennett Kelley, is succinct yet substantial,” Father Lee affirmed. “It is meant especially for middle-schoolers, but it’s for almost anyone. I’d even recommend it to seminarians, who receive extensive theological training. Our future priests need to be able to answer questions from a man at the bus stop with relevance, precision and simplicity. It is vital that every Catholic in this country hear the same words, speak the same language, understand the same definitions and thus love the same faith. This classic catechism provides a wonderful model for doing that.”
According to Father Lee, this edition of the Baltimore Catechism captures the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and distills them in a way that modern readers can understand. In addition, the edition’s illustrations are seen by the 36-year-old priest “as accurate visual depictions of the truths of our Catholic faith.”
Peace and Providence
Sister Mary Annunciata, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, finds great comfort in the pages of Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence (Tan Books). This classic is a collection of letters written by Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade to Visitation nuns in the 1700s. It is still relevant to modern consecrated religious, according to Sister Annunciata, who is currently taking classes at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (known as the Angelicum) in Rome.
“Father de Caussade teaches us how to abandon ourselves into God’s loving hands, no matter what we are dealing with in life — and, in fact, through whatever we are dealing with in life,” the 39-year-old Dominican stated. “He wants us to see that all the details of our lives come from God — or are at least permitted by him for our greater good.”
Father de Caussude wrote of how the peace that the faithful soul finds in God is not lost by outward events: “The soul of faith, knowing God’s secret, remains ever at peace. All that happens to it, far from frightening it, reassures it. So intimately persuaded is it of God’s guidance that it takes everything as a grace.”
One passage that Sister Annunciata finds helpful involves patience: “Patient endurance of obscurity, darkness, dryness, insensibility and helplessness offers a means more effective [for living a supernatural life] than any other. This sorrowful state is the particular remedy God makes use of to end merely human activity.”
Sister Annunciata notes that “if we try to trust that God is active in our lives, even in these painful experiences, he will draw us closer to himself in the midst of them. A little trust allows him to do wonders for us.” She enjoys rereading the book in order to be reminded of its faith-filled truths. “My copy of Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence has numerous sticky notes in it, marking especially effective passages. I often return to these passages for guidance, and sometimes I even start at the very beginning of the book and read straight though the whole thing one more time,” she said.
Sister Annunciata has drawn great benefit from the book as a religious sister, but she recommends it to everyone who is serious about becoming holy. “Abandonment of our lives into God’s hands is one of those concepts that is never outgrown in the spiritual life, so de Caussade’s book is always useful for making the most of this practice.”
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.