In St Benedict's Rule, Chapter 48 dictates that at the start of Lent each brother should ‘receive a book from the library which they shall read straight through from the beginning.’ What I love about this part of the Rule is that the act of reading is contrasted nicely against laziness, ‘the enemy of the soul’. If the brothers were found to not be reading during the designated times, and talking amongst themselves instead, they were to be reprimanded.
Reading is one of those activities that is leisurely, but not lazy. In fact, it can be a spiritual experience. We can even say that the devil hates it when we read a good book.
The well-known French writer, Simone Weil, once wrote an essay called Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God. Here, she pinpoints exactly the relationship between reading and prayer. What connects them both is this: our capacity for attention.
She says that each student, instead of working tirelessly for the grades and awards and public acclaim, should be devoting themselves to their studies ‘with the idea that each one will help form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer.’
For Weil, the quality of our prayer correlates directly with the quality of our attention. This is the basic spiritual benefit of reading, whether for study or for leisure. In an age of fragmented attention spans, we need to develop the habit of reading, and reading frequently, more than ever.
Picking up a book for Lent, like St Benedict's brothers, is a terrific idea. But, if you're lost for what to read, we've gathered some ideas to help you along. Some of these are works of fiction – though “spiritual” in nature – but most are not. Wherever we are on the spiritual journey, we should pick something that will challenge us and take us deeper to ensure this Lent is as fruitful as possible.
(We haven't included the Bible because we're assuming you'll read that too.)
1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
Believe it or not, this was Goodreads' top Lenten pick.
2. The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos
Though a novel, Georges Bernanos is a descendent of St Joan of Arc (on her brother's side), and his novels are always deeply spiritual and meditative in nature. Highly recommended.
3. The Fulfilment of All Desire, by Ralph Martin
4. The Life of Christ, by Fulton J. Sheen
5. The Confessions, by St Augustine
6. Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Pope Benedict XVI
7. Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, by Pope Benedict XVI
8. The Power of Silence, by Cardinal Robert Sarah
This is a very powerful book, written by one of the modern world's spiritual masters. It is the second in a series of conversations with Nicholas Diat, but can definitely be read on its own.
9. Transformation in Christ, by Dietrich von Hildebrand
10. Introduction to the Devout Life, by St Frances de Sales
11. The Story of a Soul, by St Thérèse of Lisieux
12. The Lord, by Romano Guardini
Romano Guardini was an Italian-German priest in the twentieth century whose influence was monumental. He was even a mentor to the young Joseph Ratzinger. This book is hailed as a spiritual classic and masterpiece that leads us to a deeper encounter with the life and teachings of Christ.
13. Behold, the Pierced One, by Joseph Ratzinger
This is shorter than his Jesus of Nazareth series and contains some powerful Lenten reflections. The point of these reflections is to show us that ‘the pierced heart of Christ must be the heart of theology and Christian life as well.’
14. The Art of Lent, by Sister Wendy Beckett
Sister Wendy was a religious sister and art historian well-known for her books and BBC documentaries on art. In The Art of Lent, Sr Wendy leads a 40-day journey through some of the world's greatest paintings, while encouraging a prayerful response that leads readers deeper into the mystery of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
15. New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton
16. The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton
This is an interesting one. It has helped a lot of people come to understand what it means to ‘pray without ceasing’, especially as the book follows the journey of a wandering monk searching for the answers to prayer. This book has also helped introduce people to the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
18. The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence
19. The Noonday Devil, by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
20. Go to Heaven: A Spiritual Roadmap to Eternity, by Fulton J. Sheen
21. The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing your imagination in the company of literary saints, by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Jessica Hooten Wilson is an excellent scholar of Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor. Her thesis in this book is that learning to hear the call of holiness begins with renewing our imagination through reading great authors. Wilson discusses some of her work with Bishop Robert Barron in an episode of Conversations at the Crossroads.
22. A Feast for Hungry Souls: Spiritual lessons from the Church’s greatest masters and mystics, by Susan Muto
23. Humility: The wellspring of virtue, by Dietrich von Hildebrand
24. The Last Things, by Romano Guardini
25. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, by Fr Alexander Schmemann
Whatever you choose, the key to a good Lent is beginning well; going in with your head and your heart in the right space. Choosing a spiritual book is a great way of staying in the right space as we journey through the desert and await the joy of resurrection on the other side.
You can also visit The Summit Online for a selection of useful and inspiring resources and articles from around the web to help you enter more deeply into the Lent and Easter seasons.