One solace we find in times of testing and during a global pandemic is the comfort of spiritual reading. From the Sacred Scriptures to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from books about and from the saints, from the wise priest or the careful and diligent scholar, we cherish the gift of the printed page (and in whatever else an electronically read or audibly listened form it may take), we abide in Christ, gird the loins of our spirit, and ponder life’s mysteries with words that those wiser can provide. Is it thus true that in reading, we can be guided into heaven at the end of our days? The authors of the three books reviewed here would argue that we can.
How to Read Your Way to Heaven
Vicki Burbach, author of the practical and inspiring “How to Read Your Way to Heaven,” says “Yes, you can read your way to heaven.” Burbach is a wife and mother of six children and a passionate adult convert to the Catholic faith. She moderates an international book club at SpiritualDirection.com and in this book invites us to take an intentional journey through the greatest Catholic books ever written.
St. Josemaría Escrivá once observed, “Reading has made many saints.” Burbach would agree that “spiritual reading is reading that has as its end, our union with God. This end makes spiritual reading far different from and superior to all other kinds of reading.” As with physical exercise, Burbach sees spiritual reading as “exercise for the soul. Most people would agree that physical exercise is necessary for the body. Well, spiritual exercise is necessary is well. Delving into spiritual reading stretches and strengthens our will, our character and our faith if we approach it from the heart, as opposed to simply making it an exercise of the mind.”
After showing us how the lives of the saints were formed by spiritual reading (not only the scriptures but other helpful books by the church or from the saints), Burbach gets practical. The book becomes a helpful, formally structured one-, three- or five-year reading program, designed to meet the needs of the reader. The entire program is laid out to be completely flexible. If you choose the five-year option, for example, it is important to note that it is a simple checklist without dates, so it can take five years or ten years — depending on your schedule (even the author herself had a few periods of time when she had to put down this regular habit for something more immediate or important).
No matter which program you choose, there are five assignments per week — which leaves two extra days in case you get busy or sidetracked — so you can complete the readings without a problem. The recommended selection are a panoramic portrait of the collective wisdom from thousands of years of Catholic spirituality in its finest forms.
“How to Read Your Way to Heaven” is not an intimidating assignment designed to intimidate or overwhelm (we get enough of that already, right?); this book is more an invitation to deliberately structure our reading of the best words written in earth’s history.
On Reading Well
In a similar vein but with a singular approach, Karen Swallow Prior, an award-winning professor of English at Liberty University, has structured her appeal to our spiritual reading in an even more intentional pattern. In her book “On Reading Well,” Prior takes the cardinal virtues and creates an entire curriculum — the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage; the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; the heavenly virtues of chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility — and illustrates them in a work of classic world literature.
From “The Great Gatsby” to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” from “Ethan Frome” to “Pilgrim’s Progress,” from “The Road” to selections from Flannery O’Connor — these works are combined to serve as a moral exemplar. Another critic observed that Karen Prior is “the English teacher we never had; few teachers are this clear, compelling and Christ-centered. In these accessible pages the hard work of reading virtuously— which many of us have felt called to pursue if only we had but world and time — seems something within our grasp. Such readings pull us more deeply into a life of goodness than we should find otherwise.
Having read most of these works at various stages of my life, reading “On Reading Well” gave me an insight about why these books were so endearing and meaningful, even if I read them at a time where I was not explicitly either Catholic or even religious. These works resonate in our own consciousness, as “deep calls to deep”, about the verities of the human soul, the travails and testings that come to us in life and make (or unmake) us as men and women.
Perhaps we have not had the blessing of someone patient enough to take us by the hand and show us what a close, spiritual reading of a classic text can be (and I thank God for a few Catholic literature teachers who did so in my one year in a Catholic high school). Prior can take her readers gently by the hand and help us rediscover our own hearts and minds through the lenses of these great books. For those willing to read Prior right along with that selected book on an admirable virtue, it is a wonderful journey into insight and even wisdom.
A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life
While we are discussing worthy reading habits, should we not also benefit by the collected prayers of the church? Such is the purpose of Father Timothy Gallagher, author of “A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life.” Father Gallagher has written extensively on spiritual formation, particularly in activities centered around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Teaching spiritual formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Father Gallagher has a vibrant ministry in clergy formation, spiritual direction, and prayer, as well as countless appearances on the EWTN network.
As St. Paul exhorted a young church to “pray without ceasing”— a goal that seemed both admirable but practically impossible, Father Gallagher reassures us that we can find a way to pray in just that manner.
His latest book breaks open a time-tested framework that countless laymen (as well as Catholic clergy) still use today to pray with constancy and thereby grow in holiness. It’s called the Liturgy of the Hours. Also known as the Divine Office or the breviary, it’s a collection of structured prayers that any serious Catholic can embark upon today. Several parishes in our diocese of Colorado Springs offer times of praying morning prayer or evening prayer together, and there are often various groups who seek occasion to pray these prayers together.
Relying on insights from popes and saints, as well as on his five decades’ experience praying the Liturgy of the Hours, Father Gallagher opens our eyes to this spiritual treasury and shows us how, by means of its sanctifying rhythm, it will help the progress of our spiritual journey. Soon, you will acquire this “holy habit” and be among the multitude of Catholics who pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily and are richly blessed by the flow of graces these prayers yield.
As a former Protestant training for the diaconate, I first found the Liturgy of the Hours a bit overwhelming, with certain days, certain weeks, ribbons to mark the start and end of other prayers, the psalms in a rather strange order. But with practice and the patient understanding of more experienced men and women to guide me, it was a singularly life-changing experience to have others give more profound words to sentiments I wanted to express before my heavenly Father.
From the wise Father Gallagher and this book, you’ll learn:
• The basic elements of the Liturgy of the Hours
• How to incorporate them into your day, no matter how busy it may be
• How the Liturgy of the Hours will revitalize your daily prayers and prevent them from becoming routine
• How they will extend the graces you obtain at Mass into your entire day
• How praying the Liturgy of the Hours with your family will link you more intimately to each other — and to the universal Church.
If you’re looking to invigorate your prayer life and draw closer to Our Lord in friendship and holy contemplation, discover the Liturgy of the Hours.
(For comments, reactions, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, please write Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.)