Arthur Middleton draws our attention to four spiritual classics and the benefits of reading them
Sources of nourishment that can assist us towards maturity in the Christian life are called the spiritual classics because they have stood the passage of time and have sustained the lives of generations of Christians. There is so much of value in them for Christians today in the form of sound advice from spiritual masters who have travelled the road before us, immersed in Word, Sacrament and prayer. They have drawn maps to help others on the same journey. Consult a wise priest or spiritual adviser for help and guidance about such reading.
I mention four such classics. The first, Introduction to the Devout Life, is by a French bishop of the seventeenth century, a great pastor and spiritual counsellor. He explains his purpose in a preface: ‘My intention is to instruct those who live in towns, in families, and whose circumstances oblige them to lead to all intents and purposes an ordinary life.’
The second comes from a monastic writer in a fifteenth-century Europe of change and decay, but also a Europe of change and reconstruction. In a time that has similarities to our own in its social, economic, political and religious instabilities, Thomas à Kempis wrote
The Imitation of Christ. Like Mother Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love, it illustrates an important point that the greatest religious discoveries are made where the pressures are greatest. Julian of Norwich is described today as a woman of hope in the midst of death, despair and destruction, and this hope rests on something outside herself, on the Lord who is with us, ‘our protector while we are here’. She has absorbed the essence of Scripture into her very being and can therefore express it as a living wisdom that has been distilled into her very life.
A fourth book, from the Russian Orthodox experience, is autobiographical. The Way of a Pilgrim (trans. R.M. French) is primarily about a man who wants to know and experience prayer at first hand. It illustrates how he draws his inspiration for prayer from the reading of the Bible and the Philokalia, a collection of sayings from spiritual masters in the Orthodox Tradition. These sayings are concerned with the interior life of contemplative stillness and union with God.
Sources of insight
The purpose of reading such books is to discover insights concerning oneself, the true self, and what changes are needed if spiritual growth is to bear fruit. At the same time we are seeking a deeper knowledge and awareness of God and what it means to be a follower of Christ. Once these insights are given we must respond to them and let them affect us, allowing God to translate them into the different situations of our lives. The fact that Thomas à Kempis was a monk and Julian of Norwich an anchorite, and the Pilgrim had a pattern of life peculiar to himself, does not imply our copying them in the way they lived. It is the spirit and principle of their discipleship that we must grasp. This was rooted in an ever-deepening awareness and transformative knowledge of God that they communicate in a living way and is of general application to all Christians.
Such writing speaks to the reader not merely as the transcript of a mere author, a storyteller, philosopher or even a friend. It speaks in some way as one’s own self. Therefore if what is read is listened to, things will be said that may not be written in these books. This will be due not to those who have written them, but to the One who speaks in each one of us. Hence the appeal of such works to a wide and varied circle of readers, because they have touched the deepest springs of prayerful thought and personal devotion.
George Eliot said that even though à Kempis was a monk with a different pattern of life, nevertheless he was born of the same humanity, and lived under the same silent far-off heavens with the same desires, the same strivings, the same failures and the same weariness. The secret of the Imitation’s charm lies in the fact that it is the faithful transcript of a soul, just an ordinary soul, gifted with no special endowments of intellect, favoured by no special opportunities of birth nor visited by any special fervours of ecstasy of spirit. He was faithful in the following of Christ and was gladdened by fellowship with God. ND