5 Great Books of Catholic Spirituality to Have in Your Library
Confessions, The Story of a Soul, The Seven Storey Mountain, He Leadeth Me, and The Book of Pastoral Rule
In my last article, I promised to suggest 10 great books to have in your personal library to aid your spiritual life. I have to admit that the composition of this list was so much harder than I had expected. My criteria for these suggestions was fairly simple: first, what books have helped me grow spirituality and what books do I think might be generally helpful to Catholic people today. Here is my list:
1. Confessions by Saint Augustine.
There are many editions and translations out there, but I would recommend a recent translation by Sister Maria Boulding, OSB, edited by Fr. David Meconi, SJ (Ignatius Press, 2012).
In the English language, the word “doctor” has two meanings: first, a learned person, one who, through study, has learned and who can teach what he’s learned. And second, a doctor is a healer.
Doctor, teacher, and healer are three words that exemplify the great Augustine of Hippo, bishop and Doctor of the Church. In many ways, Augustine is the model of what it means to be human and Confessions details that journey to being a human being truly alive in Christ. Painfully aware of the effects of original sin in the world, Augustine recognizes what Saint Paul the Apostle states in his Epistle to the Romans: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Augustine in the Second Book of his Confessions, recognizes that sin, at its essence is nothing more than what Patristic scholar Fr. David Meconi, SJ, describes as “self-sabotage.”
Augustine tells the story of when he was a young man and he and his friends, in an act of adolescent mischief, steals some pears. He steals them, even though he really didn’t want them. Augustine writes:
My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree and carry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late at night… We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs (Confessions, II.iv.9).
Augustine, the Doctor, understands sin as much as one can understand the absurd, which is what sin ultimately is. God has given us the path and we choose to go our own way. He gives us the means to fly and we choose to crawl. This Doctor of the Church knows our fallen human nature. He writes:
I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.
How often are we like this in our lives? You see, there’s a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do in life, and in most cases, it’s fairly obvious. To say that’s there’s shades of gray in a situation is to admit that there is black and white, good and evil. In and through prayer, through developing a Catholic conscience, we can learn what’s sin and what’s virtue. But, like the young Doctor, we fall into sin, suffering that threefold alienation that sin really is, alienation from God, from others and from ourselves. And only a threefold reconciliation with God, others, and self that comes in the shape of the Cross of Grace we can find peace.
And yet, it is this knowledge, his experience of life that leads the Doctor to be a healer. Augustine knows that the human heart is restless until it rests in God. He knows all is Grace and that we are totally, completely dependent on God. He trusts that even a poor sinner like him, a sinner like you and me, even though original sin distorts the image of God in which we are created as if we are in a fun house mirror, we never truly lose that likeness. Christ comes to save. Again and again, through his life, he knew that the divided self can only be healed through, with and in Christ Jesus. And, in his ministry as bishop, as pastor, he offered that healing, the healing that only the presence of Grace, that free and undeserved gift of God in our life, can bring.
We are sinners, redeemed by God’s grace, and need to make our prayer that of Augustine:
You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
Confessions is a book that can change your life!
2. The Story of a Soul by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
Again, like Augustine, you can find many different translations and editions in English. The one I recommend is Story of a Soul: Study Edition, translated by John Clarke, OCD and prepared by Mark Foley, OCD (ICS Publications, 2005).
In a previous article, I had professed my great love for the Little Flower and her “Little Way” and mentioned why I truly believed her to be one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. I don’t want to repeat that, but, sufficed to say, after a recent pilgrimage to visit Lisieux, to see the home where she was raised, to be in the beautiful basilica erected in her honor (and where her saintly parents’ relics are) and to pray in the Carmel where she herself is entombed, was a tremendous experience. To see the places that the Little Flower describes in her autobiography was truly moving. Her wisdom is beyond compare. Read her words, the words of a young nun who died at the age of 24 in 1897:
I understand and I know from experience that: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ Jesus has no need of books or teachers to instruct souls; He teaches without the noise of words. Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each moment; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do. I find just when I need them certain lights that I had not seen until then, and it isn't most frequently during my hours of prayer that these are most abundant but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.
Simple, lovely, practical and holy — the Little Flower is as much a Doctor of the Church as Augustine. Both are healers and wise persons.
3. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.
I would recommend the 50th anniversary edition from Hartcourt, published in 1998, with the introduction by Robert Giroux.
This will be, no doubt, a controversial choice in this list of spiritual classics. I contend that the early Merton, with his books like The Sign of Jonas (1953) offers both an insight into the spiritual life of a man of the world who becomes a Trappist and into a unique time in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. And, at the risk of starting an argument in the comments, I have some serious reservations about some of Merton’s later writings. To be honest, I put off reading this book for many years. When I was in the seminary, Thomas Merton was not read at all and was, in fact, more famous for his unfortunate death than any profound spiritual insights that might benefit someone in this new millennium. A fine priest whom I had as a spiritual director at the time suggested that I read The Seven Storey Mountain when I went on retreat, as I did for many years, at the Trappist Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. I took his advice and I am very glad that I did.
Merton’s journey may not resonate with everyone and, to be even more honest, some may find his style of writing a bit indulgent, but I can assure you that his insights into the Catholic faith, detailed at this early stage of his vocation, are priceless. Read what Merton, then known as Fr. Louis (his name in religion) has to say about the Eucharist:
I did not even know who Christ was, that He was God. I had not the faintest idea that there existed such a thing as the Blessed Sacrament. I thought churches were simply places where people got together and sang a few hymns. And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst, and sacrificed by us, and for us and with us, in the clean and perpetual Sacrifice, it is He alone Who holds our world together, and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction. And I tell you there is a power that goes forth from that Sacrament, a power of light and truth, even into the hearts of those who have heard nothing of Him and seem to be incapable of belief.
Merton’s autobiography is very worth reading. In it, he writes:
“What do you want to want to be, anyway?”
“I don't know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
“What you should say” — he told me — “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
Don’t we all?
4. He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testimony of Faith by the Servant of God Walter J. Ciszek, SJ, with Daniel L. Flaherty.
This is an extraordinary book. First published in 1973, it is the story of a priest who was captured by the Russians in World War II and was convicted as a spy for the Vatican and sent to Siberia to work in a labor camp. For 15 years. In the midst of brutality, he was able to offer his pains and suffering to Christ and grew in prayer, faith and in his priesthood. There is so much in He Leadeth Me from which a Catholic to learn. Fr. Ciszek writes:
No matter how close to God the soul felt, how blessed it was by an awareness of his presence on occasion, the realities of life were always at hand, always demanding recognition, always demanding acceptance. I had continuously to learn to accept God’s will—not as I wished it to be, not as it might have been, but as it actually was at the moment. And it was through the struggle to do this that spiritual growth and a greater appreciation of his will took place.”
This is a great book about trusting in God’s Providence, something that I, as a chronic worrier and compulsive planner, have a very hard time doing. This great Servant of God writes:
Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God's will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see His will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things.
Certainly, good advice for worried Christians!
5. The Book of Pastoral Rule by Pope Saint Gregory the Great.
This is a real gem, and I urge not only priests and religious to read this patristic text, but all Christian people can benefit from it. The edition that I would recommend is from the Popular Patristic Series, translated by George Demacopoulos and published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2005.
Pope Saint Gregory was, above all, a priest and a bishop and the advice that he gives is applicable to pastoral ministry today. This Doctor of the Church was on fire with the love of God for souls. In a troubled age like ours currently, Pope Saint Gregory the Great can be a guide to the ordained and a comfort to the lay and religious faithful. He writes: “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely” and further states: “those who do not speak the words of God with humility must be advised that when they apply medicine to the sick, they must first inspect the poison of their own infection, or else by attempting to heal others, they kill themselves.”
These are just five suggestions and, in my next article, I will have five more, coming from some of the great Doctors and Saints of the Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Benedict, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Francis de Sales, and Saint Catherine of Siena. Please let me know what your choices would be!