Reading has long held an important place in the lives of Christians. First of all, we read the Bible as a way to hear God’s word for us. In its pages we not only find the story of his dealings with humanity and his great acts of salvation in Israel and in Jesus, we also receive his own self-disclosure: the things he cares about, the life he wills for humanity and his whole world, and the relationship he desires to have with us. In addition to the Bible, we also have a long practice of what has usually been called “spiritual reading” or, to use a fancy Latin phrase, lectio divina. We could certainly use this name for much of our Bible reading, but it also refers to our reading other helpful works by those who have reflected on the truths of the Gospel and their lives with God.
Any of us could benefit by getting acquainting with a whole treasure trove of spiritual classics. There are lists everywhere. I’ve often found great suggestions in Eugene Peterson’s annotated list in Take and Read (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) Recently I have been reading selected books from two wonderful series: Classics of Western Spirituality (published by Paulist Press since 1978) and the Library of Christian Classics (from Westminster John Knox from 1953 to the late 1960s). Many lists can be found online as well, such as this reliable post.
The Christian practice of spiritual reading is about deepening our life with God, investing in and learning the ways of prayer and attentiveness to God. It is not about accumulating information or tallying up the number of authors or books you’ve read (a temptation I personally have to guard against). It’s also not just about passing time in the evening when there’s nothing on TV. It’s a deliberate discipline that almost certainly will be very rewarding. Given the nature and strangeness of the task, we might need a little bit of guidance as we put it into practice.
In 1735, John Wesley wrote a preface to one of the classics (Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ) in which he gave advice for spiritual reading that is still very helpful for us. Here’s a summary of his five tips:
- Pick a time every day for your reading and stick to it.
- Prepare for reading by taking care to have pure intentions and praying for God to show you his will.
- Read attentively, not in a hurry, and read the whole book from beginning to end (this may take weeks or months depending on the time you have). But it’s also worthwhile to go back over passages that are especially helpful to you.
- Make sure you’re getting heat, not just light, as you read. In other words, spiritual reading is an activity of our affections, not just our minds. In Wesley’s words, “that reading is useless which only enlightens the understanding, without warming the affections.
- End with a brief prayer to God, that he “would so bless the good seed sown in your heart, that it may bring forth fruit unto life eternal.”
(from John and Charles Wesley: Selected Writings and Hymns, edited by Frank Whaling (Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist, 1981), p. 88-89)