Are You a Glutton for Catholic Books?

A warning from St. John of the Cross on possible hidden dangers to your spiritual life.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. John of the Cross”, 1656
Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. John of the Cross”, 1656 (photo: Public Domain)

I’m an avid book reader, but I pretty much never read for pleasure. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading, and get a lot of pleasure from it—but most of my reading is for learning and utility’s sake.

As an editor and a writer, I’m puzzled that I ever got into this position. I hated reading growing up. My poor dad had such a difficult time getting me to read a single page. It was always “work” to me, rarely leisure. I can remember every year in the first, second, and third grades when our classes competed to see who could read the most books. They called it a “reading train,” and every book read received a train car, making the train longer and longer—the longest one winning. Each year I simply went through my books and reported the same ones, and they weren’t more than a few pages. A short kid’s biography of Michael Jordan (mostly pictures), a month’s issue of Highlights magazine (same), or some other effortless “book” was what I reported. I looked really smart, but it was all pretty empty cover-to-cover.

There’s many more stories like this, and I hated writing, too. Like the time my dad had me do a book report at home. Eventually, he acquiesced to have me just do a report on a single chapter. In middle school I pretty much skipped the expectation of paying attention in English class. My editors must hate me. But I got through it all, and ended up in college, and that’s when things really took off in my reading interest. Suddenly, I liked what I was reading—and it was almost fiction. I probably would never have read The Chronicles of Narnia if they were the size of Harry Potter books. And, oh… I’ll likely never read Harry Potter because it’s an opportunity cost to my other studies. In any case, I have never claimed to be a great reader (I’m slow) or a great writer (ask my editors).

Despite this, I read so much more than I ever thought I would. Why? I have to. It’s first of all a matter of salvation for me. I’m a sinner, and I really strive to understand the mysteries of our faith and the lives of the saints as much as possible. Secondly, it’s a matter of survival. I don’t have a ton to write about unless I’m reading proportionally. If I read at all for self-interest, it’s probably a food menu or a guitar tab.

Again, in college, I began to read much more—as a matter of survival, again, because… grades. But I did enjoy what I was learning about: aviation, then business, then theology. Somewhere in that last degree I began blogging and the rest is history, but the need to read stuck. So a month or so ago I began reading the works of St. John of the Cross, and now I realize I’m even more worthless that I thought I was. Have you ever read St. John’s works? If you’ve read Dark Night of the Soul, you know you know what I’m talking about. I’m one of his “beginners” and most anyone who’s honest with themselves would say the same.

As a reader, what I found in the third chapter and similar language elsewhere really convicted me. John discusses the sins of avarice and gluttony, devoting his careful words specifically to readers. He tells us of these beginners:

They will hardly ever seem content with the spirit God gives them. They become unhappy and peevish owing to a lack of consolation they desire to have in spiritual things. Many never have enough of hearing counsels, learning spiritual maxims, and reading books about them… they will now put these down, now take up others, exchanging and re-exchanging. 

And later he adds, “All their time is spent looking for spiritual satisfaction and consolation; they can never read enough books; one minute on one subject, the next on another, always in search of pleasure.” He says the same of those who buy elegant rosaries, and decorate with sacred art.

I was pretty alarmed to see this included in the words of St. John. What does reading books have to do with avarice and gluttony? Aren’t there bigger issues? After a short time, the message hit me like a stack of books.

St. John’s coverage of the seven deadly sins in Dark Night is directed to the spiritual versions of the seven cardinal sins. Therefore, he makes many comments to those who seek spirituality in vain with sinful character and intent. See, spirituality comes with many temptations same or similar to temptations of the flesh. One of these is lust. John helps us understand that we can have a lust for spiritual things by seeking spiritual devotions (like reading and writing) for gratification and sensual pleasure.

If this isn’t making sense, think of prayer. Satan wants you to dislike prayer by tempting you to become angry, and better yet, by tempting you with the sensual gratifications that come from spiritual exercise. Ever been angry after prayer, fought on the way home from Mass, on the way to Mass or some other spiritual function? This has happened to all of us, right? By relating your spiritual life to anger or tempting you to rely on enjoyment in spiritual exercises, Satan is able to use lust against you. There’s a way to combat this, by the way, and that is by simply ignoring the part of you that wants to pray and contemplate, and simply do these things out of obligation. The bottom line is: you get enjoyment, good, but don’t rely on it.

John makes a helpful clarification for us: “What I condemn is possessiveness of heart and attachment to the number of objects.” John is less concerned with the amount of books we read and more concerned with the intent that we read with. Developing spiritual poverty is entirely based on intent. We can own massive libraries, but they aren’t for show. Anyone who owns a million Catholic books and never reads (or doesn’t share them) them is likely guilty of some form of spiritual avarice or gluttony. Our intent should be focused on how these items aid our devotion and growth, little else, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the next book out of a desire to be gratified.

Why? This is what John’s “Dark Night” is all about. Eventually, there will come a period where we will gain little to no spiritual enjoyment from prayer, reading, devotions, Mass, and other spiritual exercises. If we base our desire to perform and take part in these activities out of sensual pleasure or gratification, when when we encounter the night, we will surely be sifted like chaff in the wind. This is one reason many falter quickly after their conversion or reversions—they depend on their spiritual enjoyment more than their spiritual obligation. But, when we do things out of obligation, we are far better off. If we get enjoyment from our spiritual reading, great. But don’t rely on that gratification.