5 More Classics of Catholic Spirituality for Your Library
Classic Books by five saints: Francis de Sales, Benedict, Catherine of Siena, Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas
In my last piece, I mentioned that I would suggest 10 good Catholic books that might be good additions to one’s library. The first five mentioned were rather diverse, with titles from Doctors of the Church like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Gregory the Great, as well as two 20th-century writers — Thomas Merton and Walter Ciszek. No doubt, there are some who would certainly disagree with my choices, and, of course, they have every right to do so. These are very subjective. They are merely books that have really helped me in my spiritual life, and it was my hope that they would also help you, should you choose to pursue reading them.
With the remaining five, I decided to go with some real non-negotiables. All of these books are by canonized saints and all of them are, I think, essential for a firm grasp in the western Catholic spiritual tradition. So without any further ado, here are my last five choices (and please note that they are in no particular order).
1. Introduction to the Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales. This is a true classic and offers sublime wisdom about living as a Christian in the world.
There are, of course, many different editions available in English. I would recommend Vintage Press’ 2002 edition with the introduction by the late Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.
Saint Francis is a powerful, pastoral, practical saint. Writing as a bishop of a large, diverse diocese in an area overrun by the effects of the Protestant Reformation, he offers great advice and can serve as a real spiritual director, even for us in the 21st century. He delves right into the truth of our human condition in our fallen world: “Ordinary purification, whether of body or soul, is only accomplished by slow degrees, step by step, gradually and painfully.” And, “Do not let us be disheartened by our imperfections. Our very perfection lies in diligently contending against them, and it is impossible so to contend without seeing them, or to overcome without meeting them face-to-face.”
The key for Saint Francis de Sales is humility, rooted in the truth. He writes: “I would neither play the fool nor the wise man. For if humility prevents me from playing the wise man, simplicity and frankness prevent me likewise from playing the fool. If vanity is contrary to humility, duplicity, affectation and pretense are contrary to frankness and simplicity. If some great servants of God pretended to be fools in order to appear mean before the people, we must admire them and not imitate them. They had some very personal and extraordinary motives for doing such deeds. Hence no one must draw any conclusions for himself from them.”
2. The Rule of Saint Benedict. The longer I am a priest, the more I realize that the closest relatives to us who are diocesan priests are, in my opinion, Benedictines. I have been blessed to know and minister with and learn from some fine Benedictine monks throughout my priesthood and I have learned some valuable lessons on living the Christian life from those who live The Rule of Saint Benedict.
There are, like all of the books on this list, many editions available of The Rule. An edition I found very helpful is Abbott Patrick Barry’s 2004 edition from Hiddenspring Press. Fr. Dwight Longenecker has some fine works bringing together the spirituality of the Little Flower and Saint Benedict, two of my favorites, in his work, St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way (OSV, 2002). With all the talk about Dreher’s The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2018, reprint edition), don’t we owe it to ourselves to actually read one of the single most influential works in the history of humanity, The Rule itself?
There is so much in The Rule that both religious, clergy and lay faithful can learn. One thing I would like to mention that particularly resonates with me is what Benedict writes on obedience in Chapter 5:
This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness. For the obedience shown to superiors is given to God, as he himself said: Whoever listens to you, listens to me (Luke 10:16). Furthermore, the disciples’ obedience must be given gladly, for God loves a cheerful giver (II Cor 9: 7). If a disciple obeys grudgingly and grumbles, not only aloud but also in his heart, then, even though he carries out the order, his action will not be accepted with favor by God, who sees that he is grumbling in his heart. He will have no reward for service of this kind; on the contrary, he will incur punishment for grumbling, unless he changes for the better and makes amends.
3. The Dialogue by Saint Catherine of Siena. One of the finest of the Doctors of the Church, Catherine is a model for all those who want to see true reform in the Church and to live their own unique vocation well. Saint Catherine, a Dominican, sought veritas (truth), and she knew that it was only to be found with, through and in her love, Jesus, who is Truth itself.
The Doctor of the Church powerfully writes down her conversation with the Lord:
Know, dearest daughter, how, by humble, continual and faithful prayer, the soul acquires, with time and perseverance, every virtue. Wherefore should she persevere and never abandon prayer, either through the illusion of the Devil or her own fragility, that is to say, either on account of any thought or movement coming from her own body, or of the words of any creature. The Devil often places himself upon the tongues of creatures, causing them to chatter nonsensically, with the purpose of preventing the prayer of the soul. All of this she should pass by, by means of the virtue of perseverance. Oh, how sweet and pleasant to that soul and to Me is holy prayer, made in the house of knowledge of self and of Me, opening the eye of the intellect to the light of faith, and the affections to the abundance of My charity, which was made visible to you, through My visible only-begotten Son, who showed it to you with His blood! Which Blood inebriates the soul and clothes her with the fire of divine charity, giving her the food of the Sacrament [which is placed in the tavern of the mystical body of the Holy Church] that is to say, the food of the Body and Blood of My Son, wholly God and wholly man, administered to you by the hand of My vicar, who holds the key of the Blood. This is that tavern, which I mentioned to you, standing on the Bridge, to provide food and comfort for the travelers and the pilgrims, who pass by the way of the doctrine of My Truth, lest they should faint through weakness. This food strengthens little or much, according to the desire of the recipient, whether he receives sacramentally or virtually. He receives sacramentally when he actually communicates with the Blessed Sacrament. He receives virtually when he communicates, both by desire of communion, and by contemplation of the Blood of Christ crucified, communicating, as it were, sacramentally, with the affection of love, which is to be tasted in the Blood which, as the soul sees, was shed through love. On seeing this the soul becomes inebriated, and blazes with holy desire and satisfies herself, becoming full of love for Me and for her neighbor. Where can this be acquired? In the house of self-knowledge with holy prayer, where imperfections are lost, even as Peter and the disciples, while they remained in watching and prayer, lost their imperfection and acquired perfection. By what means is this acquired? By perseverance seasoned with the most holy faith.
There is just so much that one can glean from Saint Catherine. Here, the edition I would recommend is translated by Suzanne Noffke (Paulist, 1980).
4. A Pilgrim’s Journey: The Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola. A Pilgrim’s Journey was published by Ignatius in 2004, with introduction, translation, and commentary by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ.
This book offers a wonderful look into the mind and heart of the man who founded one of the most influential religious communities in the history of the Church, the Jesuits, and who gave us men who have shaped the intellectual, pastoral, and spiritual history of the world over the past 500 years. Ignatius, a man of the world, feels called by the Lord to set the world on fire with his passion, his intellect, his imagination, and his will, always in his heart being soldier for Christ and pilgrim. Saint Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises have completely added a rich, new dimension to Catholic spirituality.
I must admit that I am very partial to Ignatius, having studied at the Roman university that he founded for many years (The Pontifical Gregorian University), but one who wishes to know the Catholic spiritual tradition cannot discount the role and example of the founder of the Society of Jesus.
5. Saint Thomas Aquinas. I would be remiss in listing anything in the Catholic life without mentioning Saint Thomas Aquinas.
One book that I have found helpful to understand the Doctor Communis on prayer is Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings (translated, edited, and introduced by Simon Tugwell, OP, published by Paulist Press, 1988). This is a text that gathers together Saint Thomas’s writings on prayer, as well as that of Saint Albert the Great, into one, accessible volume. Selections from Aquinas’ scriptural commentaries on Saint John, Saint Matthew, and Saint Paul are here, as well as items from the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Summa Theologiae, De Veritate, and the Sentences. Even someone Jesuit-trained like me can learn from this fine book from the sublime wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
As I have mentioned, this is only a smattering of what I could have recommended. Each of the 10 books recommended are only that, recommendations. I could have mentioned authors like Faustina, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, Thomas à Kempis, John Paul II, and Aelred, but simply ran out of time and space. What books have helped you grow spiritually? Please let me know!