when we pray the psalms and come across such passages as "O Lord of
hosts! My soul longs, faints with yearning for the courts of the
Lord" (Ps. 83:2),
we envy the psalmist his great desire for heavenly things. We find it
difficult to remain honest and yet complain to God that he has left us too
long in this vale of tears.
St. Benedict's admonition "to desire eternal life with all
spiritual longing" is a hard saying for us, and few of us can in all
sincerity make this desire of the fiber of our lives. When we pray
we feel a little guilty about not being quite honest with God, we feel
that we have something of the hypocrite and Pharisee about us. We tell God
that we love him, yet we are not completely satisfied to be in his
presence; we have little to say. When the clock tells us that our time for
private prayer is finished we are usually more than ready to quit.
St. Jerome said, "When you pray you talk to your Bridegroom;
when you read he talks to you." Perhaps we lack the greatness of the
psalmist's and St. Benedict's desire because we listen too little to God.
We cannot come into contact with God, even though it be just the touching
of the hem of his garment, without receiving of his power. And when he
speaks to us, and plants his words and thoughts in our hearts, how much
more intimate is our union with him, and how much more do we receive of
the power and grace and love which goes out from him!
It is true that even though we listen with "awestruck ears to
what the divine voice" speaks, we often forget his words; yet not all
If God has touched our souls through reading, our desire for him and
heavenly things must necessarily increase and grow. And a great desire to
love is already a great love. With the poet we can then complain to God in
all sincerity, "When shall we have to eat the things that we have
barely tasted ?"
Spiritual reading, like prayer, is
more a work of the heart than the head.
We miss the very purpose of spiritual reading if we read many books in
order to acquire a fund of information on spiritual topics. Our reading
should be directed to stir the heart rather than to fill the head. To
inflame the heart and bring it to relish divine things it is necessary
that our reading resemble prayer; our reading will be spiritually fruitful
only in proportion to our loving union with God while we read. The heart
must respond to the voice of the Lord inviting it, must stop occasionally
and surrender itself, must "taste and see that the Lord is
sweet" (Ps. 33:9).
For St. Benedict, prayer was all but impossible without spiritual
reading; indeed, the one was hardly distinguishable from the other. After
exhorting us "to listen willingly to holy reading," he
immediately urges, "to apply oneself often to prayer."
Commenting on these texts, one of the old abbots wrote that "prayer
does not differ from reading, nor is reading different from prayer."
Just as we often make the mistake of thinking that we have to say a
great deal in order to pray well, so we may be inclined to think that in
order to attain sanctity we must read many holy books. Though St. Benedict
had his monks spend four hours a day in spiritual reading, yet he would be
the first to deny that it was necessary to read volume after volume.
As in prayer, the important thing is that we love much, not that we
read much. The heart refuses to be stuffed and gorged; and it also refuses
to be rushed. The heart will love generously, with all its strength, if we
slowly; otherwise it soon wearies. It is much better to read only a
few pages slowly and to read them with great devotion than to devour
volumes in haste.
However, the same is true of spiritual reading as of prayer; the
more of it we do well, the more quickly we run the way of perfection.
Condensed from �Nothing But Christ,
A Benedictine Approach to Lay Spirituality. . Fr. Kilian McDonnell�s
latest book, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian
and Cosmic Order of Salvation , is available at our web site: