Many people will select a spiritual text to read during Lent for personal edification, devotional practice, or just-plain pleasure. Sometimes, it is a combination of those reasons. For those who don’t read books on a regular basis and find reading tedious, committing to completing a Lenten book can be an almost penitential practice, or a form of self-flagellation. For most though, the practice is richly rewarding and joyful, providing spiritual growth.
Regardless of why you choose spiritual reading, the sheer volume of those old canonical and classic Christian books can be overwhelming to the casual shopper looking for a Lenten read. Clearly, our Christian predecessors were not shy with the pen.
The glut of contemporary Christian writing is even more overwhelming because of the ease and economy of today’s on-demand printing and the almost costless-to-produce e-book. You might even say that the amount of contemporary Christian writing being produce suggests a spike in “sinful vanity” among Christians, who long for the accolades of authorship.
Nevertheless, this all leads us Lenten-reading Christians wondering how to wade through the inky waters to find a fulfilling, meaningful text. A Mother Cabrini fan might look to what the Saint read for guidance.
“In Weakness Strength: The Life and Missionary Activity of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini,” biographer Segundo Galilea gives us a glimpse into some classics that Mother Cabrini studied. It is important to note that this is a snapshot of a moment in the Saint’s life, and not a comprehensive analysis of her lifetime reading habits. Nonetheless, Galilea tells us:
In effect, Mother Cabrini, since definitively leaving Sant’ Angelo, has no true spiritual master. Her reading consisted of very few books, always the same. We would say today that they were not always the best of Christian spirituality. The rest of the sisters shared the same reading material, which was basic in the novitiate of Codogno. We know they read and re-read, (in addition to the Bible), The Imitation of Christ by a’ Kempis, The Spiritual Exercises by Saint Ignatius, the Treatise on Perfection by the Jesuit Alphonsus Rodriguez, The Holy Nun by Saint Alphonsus Liguori, The Religious Solitude by Pinamonti.
Galilea makes an editorial judgment when he says, “We would say today that they were not always the best of Christian spirituality.” Finding books that are “not always the best” is hardly ideal, but at least it is not spiritually harmful. Today, one must tread carefully lest you finding yourself pages-deep into a text of hogwash pretending to be living water.
To avoid potential soul-damaging or misleading Christian writing, as a general rule avoid these themes in contemporary Christian texts:
- Anything that espouses the “prosperity gospel.” The Gospel doesn’t draw blueprints for getting rich or reward tithing by fattening wallets.
- Books about Jesus by non-believers in Christ’s divinity. Those who think Jesus was just human, but also a “wise man” or “life-affirming” or “a social revolutionary,” are shallow thinkers. If Jesus wasn’t God, then he was a liar, a con-artist, and a lunatic. So if someone thinks he’s “wise” and “not-God,” they are not really listening to what Jesus said of Himself.
- Texts that say we shouldn’t do things that Jesus himself did. Jesus often drank wine, dined with sinners, promoted uneducated fisherman into leadership positions. If an author says these things are “un-Christian” for us to do, that author thinks he/she knows better than Jesus.
- Any texts that read the Gospel as a “Manual on How to Avoid Hell.” Even if you are among the decreasing number of Christians who still believe a loving God would sentence someone to eternal punishment after having one-shot during a short life to “get it right,” focusing on this illogical, cruel fate isn’t healthy. Plus, you run the risk of becoming puritanical. Remember, Christ talked about love, hope, faith, and forgiveness more than anything else.
- Books written about people who’ve “been to heaven or hell and returned.” This news lede from an NPR story says it all: “Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy’s story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of ‘The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,’ Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story was all made up.”
What then should one read for Lenten edification? Look for a book endorsed with a cover-blurb (or blurbs) from a notable authors or theologians. If all of the blurbs’ authors seem to be respected Christian thinker and writers who avoid the topics and themes listed above, then the book might be authentic and faith-affirming.
Biographies of saints are always good idea too, as they are often aspiring and relatable. Be certain they are honest about the Saint’s human faults and struggles in equal measure to their sanctity, or otherwise you run the risk of feeling unequal and somehow falling short. Remember, Saints fell short at moments, too. You could start with a biography of Mother Cabrini, the most accessible being Segundo Galilea’s “In Weakness, Strength” (mentioned above).
Also, look to modern Christian writers who have withstood the test of decades (modern meaning the last one-hundred years, as opposed to contemporary, which here means the last decade or two). Writers like Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, Fulton Sheen, and Henry J. M. Nouwen.
Specific recommended modern and contemporary texts include:
- Seven Story Mountain. Thomas Merton’s acclaimed autobiography.
- And the Risen Bread: Selected and New Poems, 1957-1997. By activist-priest Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
- Crossing the Threshold of Hope. John Paul II’s very frank, straight-forward answers to some of faith’s most perplexing questions.
- God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest. By Edward L. Beck.
- Paul: A Novel. A powerful novelistic account of the Apostle by Christian novelist Walter Wangerin
What matters most is to select a text that appeals to your spiritual needs and interests this Lent, while being certain that the text is not one that could damage your relationship with God. Literary pop culture already does a good enough job of separating us from God, so why have our spiritual literature add to that burden. Once you’ve selected your text and double-checked the authenticity of the author and subject, simply enjoy it as a Lenten grace. And have fun.
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College