Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reading the Saints

This post is not original to me – a friend shared his thoughts following our participation in a long email discussion with proponents and opponents of NFP. Much of that discussion boiled down to a disagreement about Church teaching that reflected what each side preferred to read, in terms of papal documents and the writings of doctors of the Church. (See also my post "Butting Heads over NFP" which briefly examines Fr. Chad Ripperger's thoughts on "operative points of view" of traditionalist vs. neo-conservative Catholics.)

Reading the Saints

When you open the writings of real saints, you can compare it to reaching into a bag to pull out a ping pong ball for a lottery prize. Now most of the ping pong balls are worth only the cost of the plastic ball itself, which is no more than pennies – just like most publications are worth no more than the value of the paper on which they're printed. But one of the balls in the bag is worth a million dollars. On the outside it looks exactly like the other balls, but on the inside it is marked with a special number that means that you are the winner of fabulous wealth.

What is it like when you reach into the bag and pull out the million-dollar ball? Imagine yourself closing your eyes, and you reach into a deep, black bag, and you grab hold of something spiritual, something supernatural, something not of this world. Or perhaps it is not you who grab hold of it, but it that grabs hold of you

…which could be said just as well of the allegorical lottery ball. Do you win it, or does it win you? Or the same metaphor could also be used not just for good books, but also for bad ones. Do you grab hold of them, or do they grab hold of you? Yet even these bad books, for all their faults, including the fact that they are intrinsically evil, nevertheless have something real about them, something alive, something that is capable of dragging your soul to hell. Other works, in comparison, are dead, lifeless, meaningless, idle thoughts that will soon dissipate and leave no trace.

The question is, when you take one particular document, whether it is a letter or a book or an encyclical, what do you experience? Does it speak directly to your soul with the words of God? Does it sound like a message from a supernatural world? Or is it the thoughts and imaginations of men, no matter how smart or learned or even devout they might be? If it's the work of man, then it's one of the losing lottery balls.

But if it's the work of God, then it's like you've pulled out the million dollar prize. And you feel it. Who could pull out a winning lottery ball and not feel the excitement of suddenly from one moment to the next to go from being a pauper to being a millionaire? And who could open the pages of works by real saints without feeling like the poet Keats when he first opened Chapman's Homer:

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

I don't want to muddy the waters of the metaphor by getting into a discussion of individual titles, but it’s clear that the difference in the arguments of proponents vs. opponents of NFP comes down to what they are reading. Some are reading St. Augustine and the pre-conciliar popes, while others are reading Vatican II and John Paul II. How many thousands of men throughout the many centuries have opened, for example, St. Augustine's “Confessions” and felt very much like Keats when he opened Chapman's Homer? But can it really honestly be said by anyone that they felt the same way upon reading “Love and Responsibility” or any of the post-conciliar encyclicals? Can anyone even make heads or tails of what is being said? Aren't we often told that we need interpreters to explain to us what the personalist language is supposed to mean, since it doesn't convey any meaning at all directly to our minds upon first reading it? In contrast, I recall vividly the feeling I had when I first read “Casti Connubii” about 25 years ago. There was that same sense of having grabbed hold of a live electric wire. And it changes your life in the same radical sorts of ways.

What applies to these writings on marriage, applies even more so to genuine works on the spiritual life. Who can read St. Teresa of Avila without feeling that you have come to know her personally as an intimate friend, and without having a sense that the spiritual life is close and within your reach and available to you if only you will stretch out your hand to grasp it?

The unfortunate reality, however, is that most people – even among those who consider themselves devout – are not reading St. Teresa, but instead are reading derivative works with no supernatural value. They have reached into the bag and pulled out losing lottery balls whose only purpose is to fill up the measure of the bag and hide the genuine article in a sea of ersatz replicas, like the slave girl Morgiana who hides the X placed by the captain of the 40 thieves upon the door of her master Ali Baba by placing similar X's on the doors of all the other houses in the neighborhood.


  1. I try not to read anything written before, say 1910, any more. Modernism was alive and well long before Vatican II. But as you say, if you read the saints, you won't find heresy. St. Alphonsus Liguori is one of my favorites. *Very* easy to read.

  2. Recently I was re-reading "The Way of Perfection" by Teresa of Avila, and it reminded me of how funny she is. I must have read this many years ago when I was young, and I had gotten this impression of St. Teresa as being such a warm, wonderful personality, very scatterbrained and yet also mystical, a real person in other words, who has real flaws, and yet also has the tremendous connection to God like someone who has grabbed hold of a live high-voltage wire. Later I read some of her more polished works and wondered where I had gotten that impression of her? It was "The Way of Perfection." One of her funny lines is when she says, "And after I'm dead, if the nuns want to build big, fancy convents for themselves, I hope the buildings all fall down and the bricks hit them on the head."

    -John G.

  3. I think Lynne meant to say "after" 1910, rather than "before" 1910.

    And I have to agree with her. There is some material written in the 20th century that is not too bad and is not heretical, etc., but that is damning with faint praise. Are there any real, live actual saints whose writing you want to read?

    I can think of a few:

    1. "The Way" by Msgr. Escriva. Although there is controversy about the canonization process, and money involved, and Opus Dei, etc. etc., yet nevertheless "The Way" had a very big impact on my spiritual life. It is an excellent book for beginners. The simplistic style of 999 unconnected sentences is actually a benefit for someone who is new to traditional Catholicism. Msgr. Escriva provided me with an excellent guide to what authentic Catholicism looks like so that I would recognize it when I encountered it in the writings of saints and others. For anyone who doesn't know where to begin with spiritual reading, this is a good place to start.

    2. "The Way of Divine Love" by Sr. Josefa Menendez. This is available in a large book which includes her biography and a detailed description of the many visions and interactions she had with Christ. And it is also available in a smaller, condensed version called "Words of Love" which summarizes some of the most important statements made by Jesus to Sr. Josefa as well as to some other 20th century nuns.

    3. "The Spiritual Legacy of Sr. Mary of the Holy Trinity." I have enjoyed this book very much and also found it very useful for reading aloud to children. Sr. Mary of the Holy Trinity was not a heroic saint. She was a convert who became a more or less ordinary nun. And yet for some reason Jesus chose to come to her and speak to her, and pour His graces upon her. That makes this book doubly helpful for ordinary Catholics like ourselves, since the things that Jesus says to Sr. Mary are the same kinds of things that we also need to hear, rather than being directed at someone who is so many miles above us in the spiritual life that they are not relevant to us.

    -John G.

  4. Thank you, John G. I did mean *after* 1910. I have read "The Way" and it was very enjoyable. I will have to look for "The Spiritual Legacy of Sr. Mary of the Holy Trinity."


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