Lent is the best time for spiritual reading focused on self-improvement, especially for those who have promised to give up or cut back on sports or entertainment, freeing up time in the process. For us who consider ourselves bad Catholics—or at least not-good-enough Catholics—there is always room for improvement.
What sort of books make good spiritual reading during Lent? Here are a few keys:
The books must be “readable”—short and clear, easily digestible in small doses, written in plain English. Collections of sermons are great, like the ones by Msgr. Ronald Knox. Fulton Sheen is also very easy to digest.
At the same time, the books must be deep. While these writers are readable, they also are sharp, perceptive and challenging in another way. They would help us see things in a new way, and a better way.
Finally, they must be transcendental, respecting truth, beauty, and goodness. Orthodox in teaching, beautiful in exposition and focused on the good and noble.
This Lent, in addition to those I mention above, I recommend two books from another writer, Father Thomas Dubay, a Marist priest and spiritual director who passed away in 2010 at the age of 88. If anything, these two books (each with fewer than 200 pages) I strongly endorse are perfect for the season.
In 2006’s Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, Dubay points out the irony noted by St. Bernard of Clairvaux that it is far easier to go from bad to good, that to make the next transition, from good to better.
“Bernard was saying that there are more men who give up serious alienation from God, mortal sin, than there are people who give up small wrongs, willed venial sins,” Dubay writes. “And there are even fewer who grow into heroic virtue and live as saints live.”
Dubay taps into the three depths of conversion: A “180-degree” turning away from a life of sin, a detachment from venial sin and petty faults, and, finally, the deep conversion: “loving God and neighbor without limit, giving oneself beyond the call of duty, going all the way with God, living like the saints lived.” This last step is the hardest.
For Christians, this deep conversion is what Lent should be all about. Dubay notes the amount of strong resistance people feel because they have lost the ability to look at themselves honestly to see where they fall on the conversion spectrum, as it were. At the same time, he connects this deep conversion to a life of deep prayer.
It is commonly stated that we are all called to be saints, with the only alternative, in the end, eternal damnation. Which of us wants that? The sooner we start acting like saints, the easier it will be in the long run.
This idea of everyone being called to a deeper conversion is a continuation of Dubay’s first work, Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom, originally published in 1981.
In this volume, Dubay looks at the challenge of spiritual poverty, from the same perspective he was to offer decades later.
“Most of us have heard over and over again,” Dubay writes, “the admonition of Jesus that we must give up all we possess to be his disciples, but few in the humdrum of the day-to-day round even advert to detachment, let alone practice it with any approximation of reality.”
In a chapter on necessities and superfluities, he lays it bare: “Until we are converted by the Gospel, and completely converted, we tend in dozens of ways to seek what we do not need.” In painful line after painful line, he helps his readers understand this. It’s a challenging read, and, again, exactly what we need during Lent.
St. Teresa of Avila once said it is a dangerous thing to be satisfied with ourselves. If our detachment from material goods does not come with material deprivation or discomfort on our part, we’re not doing enough, Dubay says.
It is one thing to be content with simplicity. In fact, “minimalism” is currently trending in our culture. Likewise, we can easily avoid superfluities—as we define them. But can we, as Dubay challenges, give up our necessities for others? That’s the New Testament challenge exemplified by the saints.
During Lent, we are asked to give up things and give the money we save as alms for the poor. Often, this is couched as giving up luxuries such as chocolate or alcohol. But what if we gave up a meal per day, or took some of our better clothes (not just the worn-out pair of jeans, but our three favorite sweaters) to the local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store?
The ideal of Gospel poverty and frugality applies to all—lay and religious, married and single. In a section on frugality and marriage, Dubay speaks clearly of what’s expected, with the examples of numerous married saints, like Thomas More and Margaret of Scotland. He says: “We have no warrant to evade or ignore what these heroes and heroines teach about the use of material goods and our final destiny.”
Like so many before him, Father Thomas Dubay helps lead the way in charity and truth, and is most suitable for this holy season. His readable books are also actionable, and frankly beg us to take action. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. As he would no doubt agree, Lent is not supposed to be easy.
Editor’s note: Above is a detail from “A Girl Reading” painted by Michael Peter Ancher.