Part 2 of ‘The Necessity of Spiritual Reading’ series
“Just as the reading of spiritual books has led to the conversion of many sinners, so the reading of bad books is daily leading to the ruin of many young people.” St. Alphonsus Liguori
At some point in his life, St. Jerome decided to withdraw from the splendor of Rome in order to retire to Palestine. There, he spent his days and nights in fasts, vigils, prayer, and harsh penances. But even in a life of such severity, he still had a fault which was very detrimental to his spiritual progress.
This was his immoderate love for secular books and a certain repugnance for reading holy books because of what he considered to be the uncultured literary style in which they were written. Jerome was very attached to the works of Cicero, and he would spend much of his time reading Cicero’s works.
Scourged to Sanctity
The Lord applied a severe remedy in order to get St. Jerome to come to his senses by sending him an infirmity which reduced him to the point of death. When he was about to die, the Lord carried him in spirit to the judgment seat. When he appeared before Christ, the Lord asked him, “Who are you?”
Jerome replied, “I am a Christian, and I profess no other faith than yours, O my Lord.”
“You are lying,” replied the Divine Judge. “You are a Ciceronian!” Then Jesus ordered Jerome to be scourged. The pain of the blows caused the saint to weep and ask for mercy, crying out in a loud voice, “Have mercy on me, O Lord!” Even the angels who stood before the judgment seat of Christ began to implore mercy for him.
Then St. Jerome swore and promised with all the ardor of his soul that never again would he read secular writings, but only holy books. At this point he returned to consciousness, to the astonishment of those present who had believed him dead. When St. Jerome came to himself, his eyes were full of tears, his shoulder bruised, and his flesh wounded from the severe blows he had received. After this, he gave himself up with great fervor to the reading of holy books.
This is not to say that if we pick up a secular book every now and then, we can fully expect to be “taken out to the woodshed” in the same manner as St. Jerome. You will note that Jerome was punished because of his immoderate attachment to the reading of secular books, while giving no time whatsoever to the reading of holy books.
Staying on Guard
But when it comes to the reading of secular books, St. Alphonsus Liguori taught that the Christian needed to be on his guard, for Satan is very clever. Satan knows how to hide and disguise poison in a book. “Just as the reading of spiritual books has led to the conversion of many sinners, so the reading of bad books is daily leading to the ruin of many young people,” he often taught.
But what exactly did he mean by the term “bad books?” Liguori was not just referring to books that contained vulgar, obscene, inappropriate, and unsuitable material for a Christian to read, nor was he referring to religious books that were condemned by the Holy See because they contained heresy.
Liguori believed that it was a deception of the devil for one to spend his time reading secular books of any type, whether they contained inappropriate material or not. “If such a man or woman meditates on a secular work, will this draw them to Christ? What spiritual fervor can a Christian have who devotes himself to such books?” he asked.
He was convinced that time spent reading a secular book was time that was being taken from the reading of a spiritual book. Because of this, he was convinced that people who made it a practice in their lives to read nothing but secular books were usually not virtuous.
Again, this is not to say that if a man reads a secular book, he is sinning against the Lord Jesus Christ, but we always want to be on our guard against creating an imbalance in our lives when it comes to reading.
I have piles and piles of books in my home, but I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority of them are religious books. Like you, I enjoy a good secular read. There are many wonderful classics from which we can (and do) draw spiritual truths. Like many, I have shelves which contain many of the literary classics.
Cultivating Inner Vigilance
But if I were to make it a practice in my life to read only those secular books at the expense of religious books, my devotion to Christ would wane. This has happened to me many times. Every now and then, I’ll go through a stage where I neglect Bible reading and other spiritual reading in order to spend time devouring secular books. Sometimes weeks and even months will pass like this. I find myself enjoying so many of the stories that I don’t even realize that it’s been months since I’ve read a spiritual book.
When this happens, I find myself thinking less and less on Christ and His Kingdom. Over time, Christ, who was the center of my life, moves into my peripheral view in a blurry form while the world and all that it has to offer now becomes that new center. When I go to Mass, I’m there, but I’m not there, as my mind is on other things. I cease to pray, as there is nothing in my reading material to kindle that desire in me.
When we move away from spiritual reading and prayer, it’s just a matter of time before the “old us” comes out. The next thing you know, you’re losing your temper, saying and doing things that you never would have done if you had remained vigilant in prayer and spiritual reading.
This is because if you don’t nurture the spirit within you through prayer and spiritual reading, your “flesh” is going to get the upper hand in your life, and you’re going to find yourself walking in its power instead of in the power of the Spirit.
Good, but Bad
This is why we have to always guard against creating an imbalance in our lives when it comes to the books that we choose to read. “Bad” doesn’t always mean sinful. “Bad” can also refer to something that is good, but ends up having a bad effect on us because of an imbalance in our lives. One piece of cake is good; but if all I do is eat cake at the expense of nourishing food that can give my body what it needs to be sustained, I’m going to suffer the consequences because I have created an imbalance in my life.
When it comes to the reading of filthy, obscene, and vulgar books, these things should not even be in the home of anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian. The problem, however, is that because our culture has become over the past several decades so desensitized to sin and things which are offensive to God , what is offensive to Him doesn’t even cause many to blink an eye. Like the proverbial frog which slowly boils to death in a pot of water, we’ve become used to filth in our society; we’ve acclimated to it.
I have walked into many Christian homes and been appalled at some of the movies, books, and music that I’ve seen in their living rooms.
Little by little, Satan, through the media, has introduced ideas to society, which has led to a desensitization to things which are offensive to the holiness of God. If you watch television programs long enough which contain inappropriate material in them, eventually what is vulgar will become socially acceptable.
This is why people can eat popcorn, watch filth on their screens, call it “art,” and think nothing of it. The same can be said for books and music. People do not realize that this is a process, initiated by Hell, which has been carried out in their lives little by little over time.
We need to stop, take a good look at what we have in our homes in the way of movies, books, and music, and ask ourselves, “What does this do to the Spirit of God? Does it offend Him? Does it grieve Him? How does this material look when held beneath the glaring light of God’s Eternal Word?”
The 4 Step Scenario
St. Alphonsus Liguori taught that each time a man picks up a bad book (and you can apply this same principle to bad movies and music) the following scenario will eventually take place if the man does not repent:
Step 1: Man reads a bad book.
Step 2: Poison from the book seeps into his mind and begins to reshape his thinking, causing his mind to become more and more desensitized to things that are offensive to God. Now, the man’s mind has been conquered.
Step 3: After the man’s mind has been conquered, his will becomes infected, weakened and conquered as well.
Step 4: The man’s soul is killed because the poison in the book eventually leads the man into sin.
According to Liguori, “Satan finds no means more efficacious and secure of sending people to Hell than the reading of poisoned works.” One can only imagine what he would say if he could see what people are watching on television, at the movies, and what they listen to on the radio. The poison is everywhere!
Gold in the Dust?
Liguori argued that although many books might not be considered heretical, vulgar, or obscene, if they are useless, they are still bad. To him, if a book did not profit a man spiritually, it was useless. He counseled those who came to him for spiritual direction that books which are useless to the soul take one away from those occupations that are profitable to the soul, distracting men from, rather than leading them to, the things of God. This is why we need to strive for balance in our lives.
In a letter to one of his spiritual children, St. Padre Pio also admitted to falling into this same trap. Although he was never attracted to reading material that could be used by Satan to sully his moral innocence and purity, where Satan did deceive him was by persuading him to read books that, although not obscene, were useless when it came to nourishing his soul.
Much time was devoted to reading books that satisfied him intellectually and recreationally, but did nothing to edify him spiritually. By devoting his time to the reading of such books, he was squandering time that could have been spent doing things that edify spiritually. In his mind, time spent reading books that do not nourish one spiritually was lost time.
In that same letter, St. Padre Pio wrote that God was merciful to him by revealing this deception of the devil to his heart. He often wondered where he would be if God had not mercifully intervened regarding this deception. In all likelihood, he would be where many are today.
The sobering reality is that much of what many Christians read today is keeping them at a spiritual standstill. It may be keeping them entertained and amused, and it may even be stimulating them mentally and intellectually, but it is not helping them to acquire a single virtue, because it is doing nothing to edify them spiritually.
While it is true that in many secular books we sometimes find useful thoughts, St. Jerome wisely said in a letter to another disciple: “What need have you of seeking for a little gold in the midst of so much mire, when you can read pious books in which you may find all gold without any mire?”
In Part III we will discover that just as the reading of bad books has led to the ruin of many souls, so the reading of spiritual books has led to the conversion of many sinners.