The Laity Speaks
Welcome back to “The Laity Speaks”, a recurring feature here at The Catholic Book Blogger. This feature is the companion to “The Clergy Speaks” and takes us to the other side of the pulpit to hear prominent lay people’s answer to the same question. That question is: What five books would you recommend as must-reads for Catholics today? I left the responses open to current or classic books with the only restriction being that the Bible and the Catechism could not be used as they are a given.
This week I welcome Michael Novak.
Michael Novak, retired George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. Michael Novak resides in Ave Maria, Florida as a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is the Author of 45+ books on culture, philosophy, and theology. Michael is founding director of First Things and writer for many publications. Ever since his book The Open Church hit shelves in 1964, Michael Novak has been a voice of insight on American and Catholic culture.
This weeks column is a little different. In 2011 Michael penned Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation with William E. Simon. Chapter six of that book dealt specifically with Michael’s recommendations on spiritual reading. With the cooperation of Michael Novak and publisher Encounter books, what follows is that chapter in it’s entirety.
Chapter 6 – Imbibing the Wisdom of the Ages—Spiritual Readings For the Lay Catholic
There is no doubt that full concentration on the love of God, and the habit of prayer (“Pray always,” in every instant of every day), are the most crucial elements of a fruitful Christian life. But the single best nourishment of prayer and love for God is sound, deep, quiet, considered reading of the works of great guides of the soul.
In the first thousand years of the history of the Christian Church, as in the thousands of years of Jewish history, the heart of this reading was the Word of God in Scripture. Our forebears called this the lectio divina, divine reading, soaking one’s mind in the Word of God, letting the soul absorb the Word of God. How else would we come to know what pleases God, unless we study what He himself has told us?
It must be remembered that for thousands of years those who reflected deeply on prayer – and were free by their conditions of life to spend nearly all day, every day, in prayer and study and writing – were monks and other particularly dedicated religious persons. But often even they were among the very few literate and educated persons of their time (especially in the long centuries before the printing press). For this reason, it was often they who also had to lead armies, write laws, and imagine and create and run civic institutions. They may have been consecrated religious persons, but they by necessity also took on very active secular, lay roles. They, too, needed to learn how to pray in the midst of very busy, detailed, lay work.
When I [Michael] think back over my own sixty years of spiritual reading and fifty years of active lay life, I recall with special fondness a half dozen or so authors who were of abiding help to me. I have been driven back to their work again and again. Always there is nourishment there.
Some of these books use the language of the monastery, as in a line like “go back to your cell in solitude,” when what they mean may be as simple as “withdraw your mind inwardly a bit, be alone with yourself a moment, take stock, rest with God, take a deep breath of God.” In other words, attend to your inner life, not alone your outward life. Both are one, outer and inner. But the outer one has the habit of making more noise and stirring more emotion and arousing strong passions. To keep in touch with the inner life takes much more practice. The outward life all too quickly fascinates and absorbs us, demands less of us. It is too often an escape and a distraction.
There are many writers who are more contemporary than the ones we like best. But these are rarely as deep and lasting. In fact, the contemporary writers have usually acquired what depth they have by learning from the classical writers. Contemporary writers (like me) burn out like meteorites. The classics endure across the generations. “When you have a choice, choose the classics,” someone once told me [Michael]. I don’t remember who, but I often breathe a word of thanks to him).
Thomas Merton was an activist layman until he felt seized by a call to full-time prayer and study among the Trappists. His autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was almost mandatory reading for my generation. His The Seeds of Contemplation and other books were aimed at teaching those of us in lay life how to pray with the ancient wisdom acquired by the monks and nuns down the ages, who made prayer their full-time occupation.
Recently, I [Michael] was being driven to a lecture by a young laywoman who said quietly to me that she loves to pray. She prays three or four hours every day, she told me, and would love to do more, if she could. So Thomas Merton was quite right in imagining that there are legions of lay people who hunger to know more than they do about prayer. Now monks are not the only literate and learned ones. Millions of lay people have higher schooling, too. They need to sharpen their minds, and go out exploring into the night where no one sees God, and they need guides and teachers.
Here are some passages from a shorter book Merton wrote called Life and Holiness, just a taste. The idea is to read each of them. . . Pause. Read again. Let them soak in. That is how spiritual reading is best done. It is a bit different from other reading. It is not just for information. It is for feeding and shaping the soul. It is for making its insights a part of your own inner life. It is for changing our own inner life. Not just to read—and forget. But to let it get under the skin, go inside, become a forming influence. Here, then, is one set of pearls from Merton:
If we are called by God to holiness in life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is), then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.
Our time needs more than devout, Church-going people who avoid serious wrongs (or at least the wrongs that are easily recognized for what they are) but who seldom do anything constructive or positively good. It is not enough to be outwardly respectable. On the contrary, mere external respectability, without deeper or more positive moral values, brings discredit upon the Christian faith.
If we are to be ‘perfect’ as Christ is perfect, we must strive to be as perfectly human as he. . . . Hence sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than other men. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.
To love is to be fully committed to the Church’s work of salvation, the renewal and dedication of man and his society to God. No Christian can remain unconcerned in this work. Today, the dimensions of the task are as wide as the world itself.
Each one becomes perfect, not by realizing one uniform standard of universal perfection in his own life, but by responding to the call and the love of God, addressed to him within the limitations and circumstances of his own peculiar vocation.
In Christian sanctity, a certain human weakness and imperfection are altogether compatible with the perfect love of God, as long as one acquires humility from the experience of one’s own wretchedness and thus learns to place an ever more total and perfect trust in the grace of God.
For . . . true lovers of God, all things, whether they appear good or evil, are in actuality good. All things manifest the loving mercy of God. All things enable them to grow in love. All events serve to unite them closer to God. For such men obstacles no longer exist. God has turned even obstacles into means to their ends, which are also his own.
The second book of spiritual reading we have found exceedingly helpful, even for opening at random and accepting what Providence shows us is The Imitation of Christ, a classic first published in 1418. In the last 600 years, no one has published a better way to learn concrete things to do during each day, in order to shape one’s own inner life to be more like that of Jesus Christ. “To put on the mind of Christ” was the deepest wish of the Apostle Paul. This is the most marvelous how-to book ever written on the subject. One reason it is has remained fresh for so many centuries is that it concentrates on the inner life more than on outward circumstance.
The Imitation’s author was Thomas à Kempis, born near Cologne, Germany, in about 1380, an affable young priest, scholar and writer, much influenced by the revival among lay people in the Lowlands who tried to live as much like the first Christians of Jerusalem and Antioch as possible.
Our guide Thomas divides his book into four parts: Thoughts helpful to the life of the soul; the Interior Life; Internal Consolation; and an invitation to the Eucharist. His is not a book to be read once. Each time one reads it, one discovers in it new wisdom, and new answers to questions one at first didn’t even know how to ask. To put on the mind of Christ is a lifetime’s work.
Perhaps it might nourish our souls to taste, thoughtfully and with open hearts, the advice young Thomas offered us, based on his own experience.
It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without Whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays.
No man deserves the consolation of heaven unless he persistently arouses himself to holy contrition. If you desire true sorrow of heart, seek the privacy of your cell and shut out the uproar of the world, as it is written: “In your chamber bewail your sins.” There you will find what too often you lose abroad.
If you do not know how to meditate on heavenly things, direct your thoughts to Christ’s passion and willingly behold His sacred wounds. If you turn devoutly to the wounds and precious stigmata of Christ, you will find great comfort in suffering, you will mind but little the scorn of men, and you will easily bear their slanderous talk.
When consolation is taken away, do not at once despair but wait humbly and patiently for the heavenly visit, since God can restore to you more abundant solace.
THE VOICE OF CHRIST
MY CHILD, I will teach you now the way of peace and true liberty.
Seek, child, to do the will of others rather than your own.
Always choose to have less rather than more.
Look always for the last place and seek to be beneath all others.
Always wish and pray that the will of God be fully carried out in you.
Behold, such will enter into the realm of peace and rest.
In one short moment God often gives what He has long denied. At times He grants at the end what He has denied from the beginning of prayer. If grace were always given at once, or were present at our beck and call, it would not be well taken by weak humankind. Therefore, with good hope and humble patience await the grace of devotion.
God, eternal, incomprehensible, and infinitely powerful, does great and inscrutable things in heaven and on earth, and there is no searching into His marvelous works. If all the works of God were such that human reason could easily grasp them, they would not be called wonderful or beyond the power of words to tell.
To write about spiritual reading, of course, is actually to address the subjects that those readings dwell on. So it is a good way to talk about several substantive topics, too, not just to recommend readings.
For example, there is the difficult subject or prayer – a practical guide about how to do it, and the different types of prayer, and the different exercises one can do to learn to pray in each of these ways.
There is also the subject of how contemplation and meditation – growing out of the slow, absorptive reading that leads quietly into prayer – are related to action. Especially practical action for the People of God, that is, for the Church in all its mundane tasks. Of what use are these worldly actions, if they do not give off eternal resonance?
Allow us then to introduce a few more writers whose work is of extraordinary assistance in learning how to live a lively inner life. There are two great women writers, Doctors of the Church both of them, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
In travels all around the world, Michael has found only one or two churches that did not have among the statues of saints around their walls a statue of St. Thérèse. She must be among the most beloved of all saints. Her teaching is stated with great simplicity, and also depth. Her book The Story of a Soul is filled with sound advice, especially about how to exercise an ever fuller love for God and your immediate neighbors, your co-workers, members of your own family. Here are a few passages from that autobiographical work:
[I]f all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection.
I can truly say that Suffering opened her arms to me from the first, and I took her to my heart. . . . [A]s Our Lord made me understand that it was by the Cross He would give me souls, the more crosses I met with, the stronger grew my attraction to suffering. . . . [T]his was precisely the flower I wished to offer to Jesus, a hidden flower which keeps its perfume only for Heaven.
Though my suffering seemed to have reached its height, yet my attraction thereto did not grow less, and soon my soul shared in the trials my heart had to bear. My spiritual aridity increased, and I found no comfort either in Heaven or on earth; yet, amid these waters of tribulation that I had so thirsted for, I was the happiest of mortals.
As for St. Teresa, the woman who excelled in unstoppable determination, few have ever written so well about the inner life, within which in silence and often in darkness and aridity, the soul learns to discern the will of God, and to love God in the darkness of unseeing. Read especially her Soliloquies. One single quote may whet your eagerness to take her as a guide. She was the great inspirer and teacher of St. Thérèse and, a century later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Oh, my soul! Let the will of God be done; this suits you. Serve and hope in His mercy, for He will cure your grief when penance for your faults will have gained some pardon for them. Don’t desire joy but suffering. O true Lord and my King! I’m still not ready for suffering if Your sovereign hand and greatness do not favor me, but with these I shall be able to do all things.
In our day, when relativism is so rampant, and love of material pleasures has so dulled the soul, the tendency to find emptiness in the place where God used to be is very pronounced. That is why we need teachers of prayer who understand this darkness and this emptiness, who embrace human suffering. God exceeds the “frequencies” on which our senses broadcast; our senses cannot find Him. In fact, any person who would look on God directly would be overpowered by blinding light and the deafening ring of emptiness. If you want to go the God who exceeds the capacities of our senses, you must go by a dark way empty of our senses. St. Teresa, like her friend and teacher St. John of the Cross, are our People’s best guides in a century like ours, an age of being and nothingness, formlessness, blindness, deafness.
Let us now turn to a number of writers far less well known, whose ability to penetrate to the heart of the mystery is extraordinary. These are writers you have perhaps never heard of. They are North Stars, as if intended for dark times like ours. We are thinking of a marvelous, very tiny book called Abandonment to Divine Providence. This book immediately issues a sharp challenge. Are you willing to throw yourself completely – now – into the Lord’s will, inscrutable as it often is? Are you willing to trust completely? Are you willing to let go?
Short as it is, the book is full of practical lessons about how to learn to trust. How to taste the dark and often bitter pleasures of throwing ourselves upon the daily, minute-by-minute will of God.
All I want is for you to carry on as you are doing and endure what you have to do—but change your attitude to all these things. And this change is simply to say ‘I will’ to all that God asks. What is easier? For who could refuse obedience to a will so kind and so good? By this obedience we shall become one with God.
If we have abandoned ourselves, there is only one rule for us: the duty of the present moment. The soul is as light as a feather, as fluid as water, simple as a child and as lively as a ball in responding to all the impulses of grace. We are like molten metal which takes the shape of the mold into which it is poured, and can just as easily assume any form God wishes to give us.
This is the essence of the matter, isn’t it? Isn’t it the secret to the life of Mary the Mother of God? “Be it done to me according to Thy Word.” Isn’t it the secret to the life of Our Lord? “Not my will, but Thine be done.” It may be impossible to understand what is happening in our lives. But it is not impossible to trust the Lord who throws you into what you cannot understand.
Then there is that wise and wonderful Irish monk of the 20th century, Eugene Boylan, who bequeathed to us two exceedingly lovely books: This Tremendous Lover and Difficulties in Mental Prayer. Because prayer in the mind (in imagination and, finally, in intellect) is so crucial to the fruitfulness of our actions and the integrity of our lives – so crucial, and yet so difficult – here are two very helpful hints of his.
Be it noted that God often gives during the day, even in our most active moments, the graces that He withheld during the time of prayer. In fact, for a soul who takes care to accept and to adapt himself to all the workings of God’s Providence, especially when He seems to set obstacles in its path, His ways, however unreasonable they may seem at first, are in fact full of a most wonderful tenderness and merciful bounty.
Above all, the absolute and essential necessity of humility for progress in prayer should be emphasized. God made the world for His own glory, and He will not give His glory to another. . . All the works of our supernatural life come from Him.
Dom J.-B. Chautard was a very busy abbot, forced by circumstances to be active in worldly and practical things, and so he was especially serious about finding ways to infuse his activities with the strength of the gospels. What is the sense of pretending to build up the Church in practical ways, if there is no soul in it? The fire of the gospels is the crucial element in Christian action. Dom Chautard set down his highly useful reflections in The Soul of the Apostolate, another very short book. One tiny morsel:
No matter what my condition may be, if I am only willing to pray and become faithful to grace, Jesus offers me every means of returning to an interior life that will restore to me my intimacy with Him, and will enable me to develop His life in myself. And then, as this life gains ground within me, my soul will not cease to possess joy, even in the thick of trials.
There is one last prayer we cannot conclude this chapter without. It is a prayer that Michael’s wife liked so much that she had it framed for their front hallway, and sent other framed copies to their children. It is a tough prayer. It had to be, because Karen suffered all her life from what Winston Churchill called “black dog” – a congenital tendency to depression, triggered in recurrent cycles by the tiniest of setbacks or failures. She very often was plunged into emptiness, darkness, and even the physical pain of intense despair. Perhaps these few words (which for those who have studied her paintings and prints would not need to be spoken) will help to explain the comfort and guidance that St. John of the Cross often brought to her, as they have to many down the ages.
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, Desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at possessing everything, Desire to possess nothing. In order to arrive at being everything, Desire to be nothing. In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure, Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not, Thou must go by a way wherein thou knowest not. In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not, Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not. In order to arrive at that which thou art not, Thou must go through that which thou art not.
Karen was not afraid of the dark. She accepted it as a friend and teacher. She hated the suffering it brought her. But she welcomed it as a necessary condition for coming closer to the Vision.