Not long ago, I sat listening to the words of my university’s honored commencement speaker, Peggy Noonan, who entreated us to do something after we graduated that day: “You must not stop reading books. That’s all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books.” I thought that to be a simple message—but refreshingly concrete and unique. As she pointed out, to get to graduation day my peers and I had read a number of books. Most were works assigned as required reading for a course rather than for leisure. Continuing to read after a life in school would benefit us, Noonan said, as we moved through life to new places, with new people, and into new positions.
As a Catholic, I took Ms. Noonan’s advice as an opportunity to seriously take up spiritual reading. I previously had taken advantage of my Catholic high school’s library to some degree, but I often had to let spiritual reading take second place behind the demands of other commitments. This continued in college with the much larger university library collections. There seemed to be no time to read for the sake of reading, spiritual or otherwise. While I may not have had much choice at the time, I know that when the faithful disregard the great literary works of Catholicism, we do ourselves a great disservice. With its full and ever-expanding breadth of writings, the Church encourages the faithful to enrich themselves through the works of popes, saints, and the Magisterium, along with theologians, mystics, clergy, and religious (see CCC 133). These can offer many insightful perspectives on the Faith, but they cannot replace reading the Bible! As St. Jerome remarked, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!” Similarly, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the Word of God as “food for the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.” (Dei Verbum, 21) We may spend years studying books for school and for professional development—how much more should we pore over the Word of God “to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified”? We nourish ourselves with physical food multiple times a day, shouldn’t we do the same with spiritual nourishment?
When I worked in a Catholic bookstore, my boss shared this insight from St. John Bosco: “Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book.” Customers might have wandered in to buy a rosary or Catholic memorabilia, but many times I noticed them stop in front of a display of books on family life, spirituality, or healing prayers. As I assisted them with their selections, many would share their favorite devotions or ask for guidance in selecting a title. The customers were seeking writings by those whose experiences they could relate to—authors whose work would speak to our customers just as Sacred Scripture speaks to each of us and motivates us to seek and undertake the will of God. On other occasions, customers would simply be looking for something new to deepen their spirituality and share what they learned with their family and friends.
I have observed that the benefits of supporting Catholic bookstores extend in many ways: not only does it help a business to continue providing accessible, quality literature, but it also offers customers the chance to find something meaningful and wholesome that will be useful in subsequent questions, reflections, and experiences long after the first reading. Consider dusting off your Bible or picking up that Catholic book on your table. Spend a few moments and allow yourself to be touched by the author’s message and then share the experience with loved ones. Start a book club with friends and neighbors to discuss a spiritual work and apply it to your day to day life. The words of an approved source can galvanize, console, clarify, educate, or guide your spiritual formation. As Ms. Noonan reminded us, continual reading throughout our lives, especially of spiritual works, will give our lives greater depth and meaning. Start by picking up the book.
Questions for Reflection: Is there a spiritual book or book from the Bible you’ve been meaning to read? How has a book or Scripture passage impacted your life?
Over the past week (November 13-19), many parishes in America have been celebrating National Bible Week, annually organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to help us grow deeper in love and knowledge of the scriptures in service of our faith. It’s also a fitting way to cap off the Jubilee of Mercy which officially ends on November 20. To commemorate the occasion, the bishops have chosen as the week’s theme, “The Bible: A Book of Mercy.”
The Bible is not just a moral guide, a historical document, or literary achievement. While it may be all those things, it’s so much more for us as Catholics. As the Catechism states, the Bible is where “the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength” (CCC 104). I’d like to reflect on three areas in the Word of God where we can all find nourishment: prayer, study, and mission.
“When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray you speak to God”. – St. Augustine
The same Holy Spirit who inspires the scriptures also awakens the desire in our hearts to pray. In my experience, it’s often the case we hear (rightly) about the importance of reading and praying with the Bible, but we’re not exactly sure how to do so. That’s where the time-tested practice known as Lectio Divina, or “Sacred Reading,” is a truly wonderful spiritual gift to the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made a special point of mentioning lectio divina in Verbum Domini, n.86-87.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I shared the method of lectio divina with the RCIA class I lead and challenged them to give it a try. The next week, one of the participants said how much it helped his experience of praying with the Bible, especially how to begin and conclude a time of prayer, and how to spend the time between.
If you don’t know where to start or passage to choose, try just using the Gospel of the day in the Church’s calendar of readings at Mass. That’s a great way to provide continuity day-to-day as well as connect us to the prayer of the universal Church.
“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” – St. Jerome
While it’s certainly true that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus, the saints and great teachers of the Church through the ages constantly testified that a faithful study of the Bible leads to real intimacy with God. Undertaken in a spirit of humility and truth, study is even an act of love.
In this spirit, the USCCB highlights that this year marks the 51st anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which was a monumental statement on the place of the Bible in the life and teaching of the Church. National Bible Week provides us with a good reason to read Dei Verbum, or at least part of it. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, check out the first section on “Revelation Itself”. It contains the essential foundation of our faith that God is the source of all revelation and that “through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men” (n. 6). In other words, if we want to know the Lord’s will for us, we have to turn to the scriptures.
“Faithfulness in mercy is the very being of God.” – Pope Francis
In Pope Francis’ Wednesday catechesis series quoted above, our Holy Father makes the point that the Bible is truly a book of mercy, and that mercy is always accompanied by a call to mission. The words of scripture resist our all too human and artificial attempts to separate beliefs from action. One of the things my bishop, Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, is fond of repeating is, “Just because it’s the end of the Year of Mercy does not make it now the Year of Judgment or Severity!” If we lose contact with the words of scripture, we run the risk of losing touch with the concrete Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that the Bible continually challenges us to make an everyday part of our lives.
If you are looking to go deeper in the Bible or just need help getting started, you can check out the great resources available at places like the Catholic Apostolate Center Prayer and Catechesis page and the USCCB’s National Bible Week website to help guide your journey.
As I finally sit down to write this post, I once again have that awful realization that I’ve let my tendency to procrastinate get the best of me. And, once again, I beat myself up over it because I know I’ve failed to follow through and honor my word: “You have a college degree! You should know how to properly manage your time! You’re better than this! Stop being such a failure!” and on, and on. It’s a cycle of self-deprecation that so many of us fall into, particularly young adults.
When I did some investigation on St. Jerome, whose feast is today, I laughed at myself over that train of thought. Most well-known as the biblical scholar who revised the Latin Bible (generally known as the Vulgate), this Doctor of the Church was also incredibly hard on himself when he failed. Butler’s Lives of the Saints says of Jerome:
He was, as someone has said, no admirer of moderation whether in virtue or against evil. He was swift to anger, but also swift to feel remorse, even more severe on his own shortcomings than on those of others. A pope is said to have remarked, on seeing a picture of Jerome striking his breast with a stone, "You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you."
I suppose we young adults are in good company when we, too, are hard on ourselves for missing the mark.
It’s really no wonder Catholic young adults have such difficulty accepting those times we fall flat on our faces. Fresh out of our academic careers, whether high school or college, we’re used to very high expectations on our performance. We tend to gauge our self-worth on quantifiable “goals”: our GPAs, extracurricular involvement, “likes” on Facebook, retweets on Twitter, number of job interviews, etc. Every time we miss the mark we’ve set for ourselves, it somehow translates to utter personal failure.
This, of course, is foolishness. It’s all well and good to be involved and occupy our time with things. St. Jerome himself said, “Be ever engaged, so that whenever the devil calls he may find you occupied.” It’s another thing, though, to obsess over being occupied and, thus, increasing our chances at “being successful”. We know it in our heads, but fail to grasp it in our hearts, often at great detriment to our interior lives.
All of these “real world” struggles have a profound effect on our spiritual well-being. As soon as we begin to think poorly of ourselves for underperforming in worldly things, we become overly critical of our spiritual shortcomings. We keep failing at (insert your habitual sin(s) of choice) and beat ourselves up every time. This can be even worse for the soul than the particular sin itself; we begin to believe that we’re not worthy of being fixed.
So what is one to do? I’m no spiritual guru, but I can share a few things that continue to help me overcome this recurring sense of unworthiness.
1. Daily Prayer- It goes without saying that daily prayer is essential. Even if you start with “Hey God, it’s me again. I’m sorry I keep failing at this. Please help”, you’ll reap the benefits immediately. Like with any other relationship, frequent dialogue is of primary importance.
2. Mass- The Eucharist is literally the greatest physical thing in the world: Christ in the flesh. We have the opportunity to receive Him every single day; take advantage of it. And while you’re at it, take a leap of faith and try out…
3. Reconciliation- Yes, the oft-dreaded Confessional. Admittedly, I absolutely hate going—but I sure love leaving! While it’s hard to do, it’s like anything else in life: the greatest reward comes from the greatest sacrifice. Take a leap of faith if you’ve been away for a while. The “spiritual car wash” really is one of the greatest gifts God offers us.
4. Spiritual Direction- Regular dialogue with a spiritual guide provides an objective view of our journey. It takes a level of openness and vulnerability, but having someone to walk with gives us much-needed encouragement and accountability.
5. Patience- St. Francis de Sales said it best: “Have patience with all things; but, first of all, with yourself.”
We’re humans, and fairly young ones at that. The expectation we place on ourselves to be perfect is so unreachable because we’re inherently imperfect. We’re constantly developing, growing, falling down and getting back up again. It’s only God who can make us perfect; we just keep getting in His way.
The next time you go all St. Jerome on yourself, drop that stone and look instead to the One who is Perfection itself. He’ll help you back up on your feet every time.
Ad Infinitam Dei Gloriam
Jay Schaefer is the Webinar Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center and a civil engineer in the Baltimore Area.