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What is “spiritual reading”? How do Busy People find Time for this?

Dear Father John, My spiritual director recommended that I do some spiritual reading.  He said spiritual reading is just reading about spiritual things.  I don’t have a lot of extra time, and I am finding it hard to motivate myself to squeeze this new obligation into my schedule – it’s hard enough for me to get my daily meditation in! Can you give me some advice?

It sounds like you have found a wise spiritual director. If daily meditation is like the bread-and-butter of your spiritual diet, spiritual reading is your multi-vitamin supplement. First let’s reflect on why that is the case, then we can make some practical recommendations for squeezing it into your schedule.

What Is Spiritual Reading?

Spiritual ReadingSpiritual reading consists of reading something that explains some aspect of Catholic truth in an attractive, enriching way. Its function is to help reinforce and deepen our Christian view of ourselves and the world around us. In previous eras, popular culture itself was imbued with the Christian world view, so even popular books and dramas would reinforce the Christian value system. But now that is not the case. Instead, our minds are flooded every day by messages (advertisements, films, TV shows, news, music) that directly contradict the Christian world view. That will have its effect on how we think and what we value. In fact, this is one of the reasons the Church is suffering so much from so-called cafeteria Catholics. They get their Catholic formation from secular sources (The New York Times, Newsweek…), and so they simply can’t understand why the Church would ever be against such popular and seemingly reasonable propositions like artificial contraception, artificial reproduction, and gay marriage. Because of this ongoing flood of secular ideals, we have to consciously nourish our minds with authentic Christian teaching in order to avoid being poisoned. That’s what spiritual reading can do.

Spiritual reading is either instructive or refreshing. It either informs our minds so that we learn to think and understand more and more in harmony with Revelation, or it refreshes what we already know/have learned by making it shine out more clearly once again. In either case, it counteracts the seductive, secularizing messages that saturate our cultural atmosphere.  This is why it's such an important spiritual discipline. It plants seeds of Christian truth in your mind, and they grow and germinate in your subconscious as you go about your daily business. These seeds often flower during your daily prayer and meditation; in fact, spiritual reading frequently provides topics, ideas, or insights that are excellent material for Christian meditation.

Getting Practical

Spiritual reading differs from plain reading not only in the content, but also in the method. You don’t need to spend a lot of time doing spiritual reading; fifteen minutes a day is fine. And you don’t need to read fast. The idea is simply to taste, chew on, and swallow some healthy Catholic concepts every day. The difference between spiritual reading and meditation is the end result. The goal of your meditation is to converse with the Lord about what matters to him and what matters to you. The reflection and consideration that forms part of your meditation is meant to spur that conversation in your heart. The goal of spiritual reading is to inform your mind; it doesn’t finish with a prayerful conversation (though that can sometimes pop up spontaneously, which is fine!).

A lot of the books we have been recommending on this Web site are prime material for spiritual reading. But if you’re not a reader, or if you think you don’t have time, you can also get creative. Good Catholic novels (novels imbued with a Catholic world view, where characters exemplify Christian virtue in a realistic but inspiring way) can serve as a kind of spiritual reading. Listening while you drive or exercise to recordings of spiritual talks, homilies, or conferences (or books on tape, or even good Catholic podcasts) can also do the trick.

The point here is that we all need to be always growing in our knowledge of the faith, because if we are not growing, we’re withering.

Yours sincerely in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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Art for this post on spiritual reading: Detail of The Magdalen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden, before 1438, National Gallery, London, United Kingdom, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • woodyjones

    Can’t see the other comments, but for Catholic novels, if no on e else has mentioned it, I highly recommend “The Cypresses Believe in God”. There is so much in there that is very edifying that I can only mention one, maybe trivial, example, but one that actually has translated into practice for me: the protagonist’s mother, Carmen, times her cooking dishes (at least the simple ones like boiling eggs) by the number of Hail Mary’s the proper amount of time takes. I have adopted this practice for my stretching exercises and it works really well to keep presence of God. The book is so edifying. The end will break your heart, but there is a sequel…

  • Lee Anne

    I am reading St Augustine’s Confessions. It is interesting and amazing how much his life was just like ours today. He made mistakes and questioned the wisdom of his parents at times. I can’t decide if it makes me feel better about myself or hopeless to change.

    • prayingtobehumble

      Your last statement describes exactly how i feel right now looking back at all the times I failed God, myself and other poeple. I hope the next readings we will going to make will help us to know more about ourselves and help us attain heaven in our hearts..

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