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Blessed is the man whom Thou shalt instruct, O Lord, and shalt teach him out of Thy Law. (Ps. XCIII, v. 12.)
All scripture divinely inspired, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice. (S. P. Timoth., Ep. II, iii, 16.)
1. Spiritual reading is to the soul what food is to the body. Be careful, therefore, to select such books as will furnish your soul with the best nourishment. I would recommend you to become familiar especially with the works of Saint Francis de Sales.
2. When the choice of reading matter is made by the advice of a spiritual director the teaching it contains should be looked upon as coming from the mouth of God.
3. Do not affect those lives of the Saints in which the supernatural and marvellous predominate. The devout imagination becomes inflamed by such reading and is imbued 82 with vain and useless desires: it leads some to aspire to the revelations of Saint Bridget or the raptures of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, others to imitate the mortifications of the Stylites; and thus by losing time in desiring extraordinary graces, they neglect, to their great detriment, ordinary duties and real obligations. Take great care, then, not to allow yourself to be absorbed in those wonderful characteristics of the saints which we should be content to admire; give preference rather to their simple and interior virtues, for these alone are imitable for us.
“We ought not to wish for extraordinary things, as, for example, that God would take away our heart, as He did with Saint Catherine of Sienna’s, and give us His in return. But we should desire that our poor hearts no longer live save in subjection to the Heart of our loving Saviour, and this will be the best way of imitating Saint Catherine, for we shall thus become meek, humble and charitable.... True holiness consists in love of God, and not in foolish imaginations and dreamings that nourish self-love whilst they undermine obedience and humility. The desire to have ecstacies and visions is a deception. Let us turn rather 83 to the practice of true meekness and submissiveness, of self-renunciation and docility, of ready compliance with the wishes of others. Thus we shall emulate the saints in what is more real and more admirable for us than ecstacies.—St. Francis de Sales.
4. Use still greater precautions in regard to ascetical works. Many of these are carelessly written, confound precepts with counsels, badly define the virtues by not showing the limits beyond which they become extravagances, and entertain the reader with trifling and purely exterior practices that are more apt to flatter self-love than to reform the heart.
5. It has been remarked very justly by a learned theologian that the ignorance and indiscreet zeal of certain writers of ascetical books have furnished the heretics of later times with arms to attack our holy religion and to turn it into ridicule.
6. A judicious author expresses himself thus on the same subject: “In order to write on spiritual matters it is not enough to have great piety,—great learning is also necessary. A man actuated by the best motives in the world may yet have strange delusions, and feed his imagination with devout extravagances.” 84 An author should be equally well versed in theory and experienced in practice, otherwise he will err either in regard to principles or to their application. There is a well known saying generally attributed to Saint Thomas: “If a man be good and holy let him pray for us; if he be learned too, then let him teach us.” It is essential, in matters of religion especially, to give none but true and precise ideas, or else they will do more harm than good. Doctrines that are not exact create scruples in weak souls and invite the criticisms of intelligent Christians, whilst they excite the railleries of free-thinkers and furnish arguments to unbelievers.
7. Almost every day we find ascetical works published which contain many inaccuracies of the kind described. Exercise great care, therefore, in the selection of this kind of reading or you may injure your soul instead of sanctifying it. The safest course is to consult your director on the subject.
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