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Digest Your Devotion: Why Skimming Your Spiritual Reading Doesn't Work - by Lorraine Espenhain

Digest Your Devotion: Why Skimming Your Spiritual Reading Doesn’t Work


If we want to draw fruit from our spiritual reading, we must make sure that we are reading properly; otherwise, our reading is in vain.
Part 4 of ‘The Necessity of Spiritual Reading’ series

Many years ago, when I was leading a women’s group at my local church, I was teaching on the importance of spiritual reading on a daily basis, especially when it came to the Sacred Scriptures.

A woman approached me at the end of the meeting and said, “I read the Bible every single day, but I don’t get anything out of it.” I asked her how she read it.

“Before I get out of bed, I open up the Bible, read a chapter, close it, and then get dressed,” was her reply.

I then explained to her that she was not reading the Bible properly, and that to read it improperly is akin to not reading it at all.

 How to Do it Right

If we want to draw fruit from our spiritual reading, we must make sure that we are reading properly; otherwise, our reading is in vain.

First, before opening up any spiritual book, we must remember to ask God to open up our hearts and minds so that we will hear His voice and be sensitive to whatever it is that He desires to teach us through our reading.

St. Alphonsus Liguori counseled those who came to him for spiritual direction as follows:

“It is, in the first place, necessary to recommend yourself beforehand to God, that He may enlighten the mind while you read. It has been already said that in spiritual reading the Lord condescends to speak to us; therefore, in taking up a book, we must pray to God in the words of Samuel: ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. Speak, Lord, for I wish to obey Thee in all that Thou wilt make known to me to be Thy will.’”

Each time I read a spiritual book, I pray, “Open up my eyes, Lord, and help me to see things in your word that could not be seen otherwise. Show me your holy will.”

When we pray to God before we read, we are showing Him our utter dependence upon Him for all things, even for spiritual understanding. Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit would take from what is His and make it known to us.

People who fail to pray before they read forget that without the aid of the Holy Spirit, they are not going to understand fully whatever it is that God desires to teach them.

2014-07 4 Prayers & Devotionals 2

To open up a spiritual book without first praying to God is to ignore the Holy Spirit, our Teacher, who is sitting right there with us in order to instruct us.

Sometimes, when I know that one of my daughters is going to need help in Math because she is about to learn a whole new concept, I’ll sit down next to her in order to teach her, only to hear her say,“You can leave because I can do this all myself. I don’t need your help.” I’ll leave, and 20 minutes later, she’ll be calling me because she needs my help after all.

While none of us would ever dare say to the Holy Spirit, “You can leave because I can do this all by myself. I don’t need your help,” we fail to realize that every time we pick up a book and neglect to ask for His assistance, we have said those words, if only in our hearts!

What’s Your Intent?

The second thing we need to keep in mind is our motive. Simply put, when we pick up a spiritual book in order to read, our motive must be right, and here is where many tend to stumble.

When reading a spiritual book, we do not read in order to acquire knowledge, or to indulge our curiosity; we read for the sole purpose of advancing in God and becoming more like Christ!

To read for the sake of merely acquiring knowledge is not spiritual reading. When this is the motive, one’s reading will be unprofitable to the soul. There is a huge difference between reading to stimulate the mind and reading to nurture the soul.

What have I gained if I can boast that I read 100 spiritual books a year, yet I’m nothing like Christ? Regarding this matter, Thomas Kempis wrote the following in The Imitation of Christ:

It isn’t learned talk that saves a man or makes a Saint of him; only a life well lived can claim God’s friendship. For myself, I would sooner know what contrition feels like than how to define it.

Too many people are reading spiritual books only for the sake of stimulating the intellect rather than being changed from within. What profit can be expected from such reading?

St. Gregory often taught that many people read and read a great deal, but because they have read only to acquire knowledge or to indulge their curiosity, they finish reading as hungry and as unchanged as if they had not been reading at all. In fact, he once corrected a physician named Theodore for reading spiritual books quickly and without profit.

I know people like this, and I’m sure you do too. They have nothing but head-knowledge. They’re book-smart, but spiritually untransformed.

They can quote this and that, but their lives resemble very little of Our Lord.

Less Reading, More Ruminating?

To derive advantage from pious books it is necessary to read them slowly and with attention. St. Alphonsus Liguori taught that in order for us to receive nutrients from our food, the food must be slowly chewed and properly digested.

You don’t just shove food into your mouth, snap it in half and then send it down the hatch! You chew it thoroughly so that it will be digested properly and you will receive all of its nutrients.

This same principle must be applied when it comes to spiritual reading. When we read, we must reflect and think carefully how we can apply to our lives what we are reading. This is how we listen to God speaking to us through our reading. St. Ephrem even counseled that when what we have read has made a genuine impression on us, we should go back and read it a second time.

Liguori believed that when reading, one should imitate the bees. Although bees pass from flower to flower, they do not move on to the next flower until they have gathered all the honey that they have found in the first. This is how we should read a spiritual book if we want to profit spiritually from it.

In my own life, I have drawn more fruit from reading a single verse and meditating on it, or scribbling about it in a journal, for an hour than from reading an entire page in 10 minutes.

As you have heard me say in many of my articles, it is better to read one sentence and say, “I have learned” than it is to read an entire book and ask, “What have I learned?”

When selecting spiritual books to read, we would all do well to keep in mind St. Josemaria Escriva’s counsel, which is as follows:

“Books: don’t buy them without advice from a Christian who is learned and prudent. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful… How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arms, and it turns out to be a load of rubbish!” The Way 339.

Can you imagine the scenes that would take place if God decided to get comical and turn to garbage everything that we read, listen to, or watch if it was material that kept men from the truth, distorted the truth, or corrupted them altogether?

We would see people jogging in the park with garbage on their heads instead of headphones. We would see men in suits sitting on trains staring intently at the sewage being held in their hands.

We would see entire families staring fixedly at a pile of rank garbage in the living room instead of a television.

Fake vs Real Products

When picking up a spiritual book, we need to exercise caution. Not everything that looks like truth is truth. Some stuff is just plain counterfeit. Several months ago, I went to my local hair salon and purchased a bottle of shampoo and conditioner.

When I ran out, instead of returning to the salon to purchase more, I made the mistake of buying it online from a store selling it. When I used the product, I found that it was not only irritating my scalp, but it was damaging my hair considerably.

I called up my hair stylist and complained to her about the product that the salon was selling. She asked me where I purchased my replacement. When I told her that I had purchased it online, she told me that I must never do this, as there are many people who are selling imitation products.

These people walk into a hair salon, buy up all of the bottles of product, take it home, water it down, change it, and then pour the imitation product into similar-looking bottles so that they can re-sell it at a higher price over the Internet.

My stylist told me that if I wanted the “real deal,” I needed to purchase the product at the salon, because then they could guarantee its authenticity.

This is where the imprimatur comes in. In the Catholic Church, the nihil obstat and imprimatur are declarations that a book is free of doctrinal or moral error. It is an official declaration by a Church authority that a book or other printed work may be published.

You will find the imprimatur in the beginning pages of the book. If you want what you are reading to be guaranteed of its authenticity, then look for the imprimatur.

Lorraine’s Favorite Books

As I wrap up this series on spiritual reading, I wanted to leave you with a list of my favorite spiritual books – books which have changed my life, made me fruitful, moved me on to spiritual maturity, and transported me to higher realms in God.

Compiling this list was very difficult, as there are so many wonderful books available – books that I have yet to read myself! But I wanted to share with you some of my all-time favorites thus far.

So, pick up a book, start reading…

… and watch where Heaven will take you!

  • The Holy Bible – God
  • My Catholic Faith – Most Rev. Louis LaRavoire Morrow, S.T.D.
  • The Baltimore Catechism
  • The Catechism of the Council of Trent
  • The Imitation of Christ –  Thomas Kempis
  • Dark Night of the Soul – St. John of the Cross
  • Forty Dreams of St. John Bosco – TAN Books
  • The Cure of Ars – Abbe Francoise Trochu
  • The Story of A Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux – St. Therese of Lisieux
  • Saint Bernadette Soubirous – Abbe Francoise Trochu
  • Our Lady of Fatima – William Thomas Walsh
  • St. Teresa of Avila – William Thomas Walsh
  • Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila – St. Teresa of Avila
  • The Way of Perfection – St. Teresa of Avila
  • Interior Castle – St. Teresa of Avila
  • Conversation With Christ: The Teachings of St. Teresa of Avila About Personal Prayer – Peter Thomas Rohrbach
  • Introduction To the Devout Life – St. Francis de Sales
  • Anything written by St. Francis de Sales
  • Anything written by St. Alphonsus Liguori
  • Any book on any life of a Saint
  • The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – Fr. Michael Mueller, C.SS.R.
  • Prayer: The Key to Salvation – Fr. Michael Mueller, C.SS.R.
  • The Prodigal Son – Fr. Michael Mueller, C.SS.R.
  • The Little Catechism of the Cure of Ars – St. Jean-Marie Vianney
  • Purgatory – Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J.
  • Chief Truths of the Faith – Fr. John Laux, M.A.
  • Mass and the Sacraments – Fr. John Laux, M.A.
  • Catholic Morality – Fr. John Laux, M.A.
  • Catholic Apologetics – Fr. John Laux, M.A.
  • The Secret of the Rosary – St. Louis De Montfort
  • This Tremendous Lover – Dom Eugene Boylan, O.C.R.
  • The Last Four Things: Death Judgment Hell Heaven – Fr. Martin von Cochem, O.S.F.C.
  • Catholic Prophecy: The Coming Chastisement – Yves Dupont
  • All For Jesus – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • The Blessed Sacrament – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • This Precious Blood – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • Growth In Holiness – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • Spiritual Conferences – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • The Foot of the Cross – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • The Creator and the Creature – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • Bethlehem – Fr. Frederick William Faber, D.D.
  • The Life of Jesus Christ Volumes 1 – 4 – Anne Catherine Emmerich
  • The Way of Divine Love – Sr. Josefa Menedez
  • Self-Abandonment To Divine Providence – Fr. J.P. de Caussade, S.J.
  • The Spiritual Combat – Dom Lorenzo Scupoli
  • The Three Conversions In the Spiritual Life – Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
  • How To Make a Good Confession – John A. Kane
  • The Hidden Treasure: Holy Mass – Saint Leonard

About Lorraine Espenhain

Born in Philadelphia, PA, Lorraine now lives in New Mexico. She is a wife, homeschooling mother, religious instructor, and freelance writer with 200+ articles on Catholic.net. She also has her own children’s column at Agua Viva, her diocesan newspaper. Meet Lorraine
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