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Spiritual reading

Spiritual reading

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Spiritual reading

April 17, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando  {0278}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

If we seek to grow closer to the living God and to become more like God in whose image we are created, then we need to learn from the saints. By saints I mean the women and men who have devoted their whole lives to prayer and the practice of virtue. Edmund Rich in the 13th century spoke for all the saints when he said, "Every hour in which you have not thought of God is an hour lost."

From the beginning Christians have practiced imitation of others as a way of growing in faith, hope and love. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, "I appeal to you ... , be imitators of me" (1 Corinthians 4:16). In Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," Father Zosima speaks of the stories of holy women and men and asks, "What is Christ's word without an example?" By reading the writings and biographies of the saints, we come to know them in order to imitate them.

John Wesley encouraged "spiritual reading" as a means of growing in holiness of life. To give aid to the early Methodists he published 50 volumes of "The Christian Library."

We are blessed today to have good English translations of writings on the spiritual life. Chief among them are the many volumes of "The Classics of Western Spirituality" by Paulist Press. This series contains writings of early church Fathers like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, ancient theologians of the spiritual life like Symeon the New Theologian, medieval teachers like Bonaventure, nuns like Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich, anthologies of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic spirituality, and many others. Another important series is the four volumes of "The Philokalia" published by Faber and Faber; these contain the spiritual writings over the centuries cherished by the Eastern Church.

These spiritual writings are quite different from other Christian literature. Generally, they are not theological expositions; although it is impossible to separate the spiritual life from theological understanding of the Trinity, the person of Jesus Christ, and other doctrinal themes. Nor are they journalistic essays about religious themes or experiences so popular and numerous in book stores. No, they are deep explorations of a soul's journey to God with reports along the way of the joys and dangers the soul encounters. The spiritual writings are not very easy to read; as soon as one encounters them one is aware of entering a world focused entirely upon the intercourse between God and the soul.

In the spiritual writings of the saints down through the ages, one encounters many common themes. There is an affirmation of contemplating God's glory in the beauty of God's creation. Then, there is the invitation to ascend higher to contemplate God as God, leaving behind the awareness of God through God's works. True contemplation is not possible without virtue; thus, the soul must learn how to repent and be purified and practice virtuous living. Along the journey to God there will be high moments of ecstasy, but the soul must learn to empty the mind of its reliance upon these spiritual experiences and even of intellectual images of God. The way to God is not by knowledge, but by love, a passionate yearning for the God who yearns for us. Truly, the journey to God is at times a dark and difficult way, and that is why we need the saints as our guides whom we can follow.

During my ministry I have known many faithful Christians who reach a point in their lives when they wonder, "Is this all there is?" They have heard hundreds of sermons, participated in numerous Bible studies, and given themselves to the mission of the church in various ways. Yet, they feel spiritually stale, and they begin to believe that they have heard it all. I remember a dedicated middle-aged couple who were not United Methodists confessing to me at a dinner that they were considering leaving their church because "we hear the same thing Sunday after Sunday." I think what is missing is an encounter with the saints who have gone further in their relationship with God than we have. Beginning to add spiritual reading to our diet of Christian nurture is one means of discovering that God's relationship with us and our relationship with God is inexhaustible in its meaning.

I have admitted that spiritual reading is difficult. I do not mean that it requires some special formal education to do it. Most of the saints write simply, without jargon. Yet, it is true that each spiritual writer has to create his or her own language to try to describe what is hard to describe — one's encounter with the presence of God. So then, the reader has to accept the writer's own language and ways of expression. Mostly, spiritual writers rely upon the metaphors from the Bible, such as the bridegroom and the bride, to explore the relationship between God and the soul.

The difficulty of spiritual reading is that it leads us into a world unfamiliar to us, that realm where the soul becomes aware of the unseen realities of God and the things of God. We discover that we shall be able to follow the saint on the journey to God only by awakening our spiritual senses to perceive what we do not usually perceive. Most of all, we discover that we shall have to change — to repent, to alter our behavior, to pray and to free our soul to fulfill its longing to love God.

As Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century: "Imagine a sheer, steep craig, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity: on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimensions and which exists for all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it."

It is this dizziness of soul that causes many of us to shrink back from following the saints in their journey to God. Yet, courage is required to ascend the heights. God summons us as God summoned Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain ... " (Exodus 24:12). While we may not approach "the thick darkness where God was" (Exodus 20:21) like Moses and the saints, it is important to know that the mountain is there.


This article relates to Spiritual Formation.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.