What are we to read? In my post Mud to Mysticism I mentioned maturing in the spiritual life. I would like to provide a suggested reading list of books that have helped me overcome certain obstacles to prayer and conversion. My students often ask me what I read during my time in the monastery. I would like to suggest five books from the vast intellectual tradition of our Catholic faith that are a good starting point. For each book that I have listed below, I have provided a hyperlink to either a free PDF or a link to where you may purchase the text.
1. Introduction to the Devout Life- St. Francis de Sales
2. The Abiding Presence of the Holy Ghost in the Soul- Fr. Bede Jarrett, O.P.
3. The Life and Kingdom of Jesus- St. John Eudes
4. Five Loaves and Two Fish- Servant of God François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận
5. The Way of Trust and Love- Fr. Jacques Philippe
I am actually just half way through Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. This book is a classic that has been used by spiritual directors for centuries to help people turn away from sin and form the concrete habit of prayer. Even though I have studied philosophy and theology, I find new insights in Introduction to the Devout Life that I have not come across in other spiritual works. Namely, St. Francis does not mince words about our affection for sin. Many Christians turn away from sin, but do not know how to systematically detach from former habits and longings. This book provides step by step instructions on how to lose the taste for vice, as well as step by step instructions on how to move from basic prayer to meditation.
Another great book with step by step instructions on how to deepen one's prayer life is The Life and Kingdom of Jesus by St. John Eudes. This is a rare book that literally jumped off the bookshelf at me and it has been a favorite ever since. One evening during the Year of Faith, I was looking for a book to help me renew my baptismal promises. I had to call my home parish to actually find out the date of my baptism, because I never recorded it. Once I found out the date, I proceeded to check to see if it was a feast day of any saint. August 19, the date of my baptism, is the feast of St. John Eudes, a lesser known 17th century French priest. So as I was scanning the library that night, low and behold, I run across two books by St. John Eudes. I pick up the thicker one, The Life and Kingdom of Jesus, and I flip to the back to see if there is a table of contents where I might quickly discern what the book was actually about. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discover various prayer exercises written by St. John, including "Exercise for the Anniversary of Your Baptism." Let's recap. I only just discovered there was a random saint on the anniversary of my baptism. That same day I discovered that random saint wrote an exercise for the renewal of baptism vows. There are no coincidences with God.
So The Life and Kingdom of Jesus, not only includes an explanation of the life of Christ and how to conform our lives to His, it also includes a treasury of prayers. The other prayer I found particularly beautiful was the prayer of thanksgiving for after confession. The book is intense, but easy to read and I highly recommend it.
For those who struggle with suffering and daily anxiety, I highly recommend Five Loaves and Two Fish by Servant of God Cardinal Thuan. If you don't know the story of Cardinal Thuan, a dear friend of mine, Sr. Maria Thuan, O.P., wrote a marvelous article. In short, Cardinal Thuan was imprisoned in communist Vietnam and survived by exercising the virtue of hope. He converted just about every guard he came in contact with and he continued to celebrate mass, with no altar available, using the palm of his hand. He actually got the guards to smuggle him hosts and wine. Cardinal Thuan left us a huge legacy, but one charism he had in particular was living the grace and joy of the present moment. He teaches us how to exercise patience and encounter God moment by moment in daily struggle.
Another book to help us grow in patience and trust is The Way of Trust and Love by Jacques Philippe. Fr. Jacques Philippe is a present day renowned spiritual writer and member of the Community of the Beatitudes. This book uses the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux to teach us how to develop a personal relationship of trust with God. I have to admit I'm not the biggest devotee of St. Therese, I cannot really relate to the little flower, I am more of a St. Augustine type of Catholic. BUT Therese is a doctor of the church and Jacques Philippe does an excellent job making her wisdom accessible. This book helped me recognize my woundedness in both my relationships with others and with God Himself. It is really helpful to help us gain greater intimacy and dependence on God.
Finally, I would like to recommend Fr. Bede Jarrett's The Abiding Presence of the Holy Ghost in the Soul. If you want your mind blown and your life changed, read this book. It is one of my favorites. Fr. Bede Jarrett has a marvelous way of describing the Holy Spirit and His charisms. In particular he helps us understand the virtues we received at confirmation and how to tap into them in our daily lives. But Fr. Bede also helps us gain the vocabulary to speak to the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in our souls. He teaches us to continuously call to mind that the Godhead, all three Persons, are really and truly present in our souls, therefore we truly have the kingdom of God and all its treasures in us at this very moment. If we can learn to turn inward to the God who dwells in us, by virtue of our baptism, then we can truly learn to see God and allow Him to be more operative in our daily lives.
So these are just five of hundreds of books that compromise the Catholic patrimony on the spiritual life. They have helped me a great deal and I often find myself going back to quotes from them. I highly recommend these books to beginners in particular, to help us move beyond "Now I lay me down to sleep" to a dynamic relationship with God. These books give us a more advanced vocabulary to both speak to God, and to understand the movement of our souls. They also give us the tools to pray more faithfully and to overcome daily obstacles in prayer. In short, these books can help us move closer to God.