Q: Dear Father John, I am a newly ordained priest. Before and during my seminary years I enjoyed very much having a spiritual director. Since graduation I haven’t been able to find a spiritual director. I was wondering what books would you recommend for spiritual reading to a diocesan priest. I also would like to know what spiritual practices would you recommend any diocesan priest to incorporate as part of his daily plan of life. I would appreciate very much your input.Yours in Christ,
A: It’s great to hear from you, Father, and I am sure our Lord is delighted with your eagerness to continue following him closely and deepening your friendship with him. God will certainly provide you with a spiritual director, if you keep asking him and searching for one. In the meantime, maybe the following ideas will help.
Your questions are right on target, because the priest who neglects his own spiritual nourishment and growth will very soon be very useless (if not harmful) in the Lord’s vineyard. “Nemo dat quod non habet,” as the old saying goes (“no one gives what they do not have”), so if we priests don’t have a vibrant friendship with Christ, we won’t be able to help others find one.
First, as regards spiritual reading, keep three things in mind. On the one hand, you need to keep going back to the classics of Catholic spirituality, the meaty works that will never go out of style. I am thinking of books like Blessed Abbot Marmion’s (e.g. Christ the Life of the Priest, Christ in His Mysteries) or St Francis de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life) or Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ). Every few months, you will want to go back to a classic. This helps you keep an eye on your blind spots; it balances out the skewed exaggerations of our present cultural moment.
Then, you will also want to dip in every year to some solid commentaries on the Bible and on the lives of the saints. Set yourself the goal of becoming a connoisseur on a saint and book of the Bible every year. Read two or three solid books on those topics. If you have a favorite period of Church history, choose saints from that period – or perhaps the patron of your parish or of your city. For these types of books, Ignatius Press is an excellent source.
Finally, discover some spiritual writers whose works resonate with you personally, and follow them. Ralph Martin has written some excellent works recently (e.g. The Fulfillment of All Desire), Fr Benedict Groeschel has written an entire library! A personal favorite of mine, especially relevant for priests, is Fr Eugene Boylan (Difficulties in Mental Prayer, This Tremendous Lover, The Spiritual Life of the Priest, etc.). At the same time, keep an eye on what’s getting put out by the good Catholic publishers – ask around to get opinions of other priests whom your respect, you should be able to keep your bookshelf (or Kindle) full.
As a final suggestion – try to read at least one book every year dedicated specifically to prayer or the spiritual life. It will help keep you from falling into routine.
Second, as regards a daily plan of life, I can wholeheartedly recommend what our recent popes have done (if their schedule has allowed it, yours can too! Here is a “day in the life of Pope Benedict” and you can find a description of Pope John Paul II’s daily schedule in George Weigel’s book, Witness to Hope, Chapter 9, “Be Not Afraid!”).
- Do your best to get up at the same time each morning, and begin the day with a morning offering and 30 minutes of mental prayer. Even if you are not a “morning person,” you need to keep the first chunk of time each day for God. He needs to prepare you for what’s coming, and you need to get in tune with his Word. Try to get your mental prayer in before your daily Mass.- Try to do the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours at the same time each day, as close as possible to the time recommended by the liturgy itself (e.g. evening prayer during sun-down). Put everything on pause while you pray your office. Your parishioners will appreciate this, and you need it. In order to combat routine, try to pray at least one of the hours out loud, slowly, with real feeling. It is also a good idea to pray at least one of the hours in the presence of the Eucharist.
- Pray five decades of the Rosary every single day. You may want to begin or the Rosary in front of an image of Our Lady. Bring your most pressing prayer intentions to her during this sacred time with your Mother (I like to do it walking outside, as Bl John Paul II used to – it’s like taking a walk with mom).
- Pray the Angelus or the Regina Coeli each day, three times, as the tradition goes – morning, noon, night. If you can do this together with your staff or other members of your parish community, all the better. Take advantage of this prayer to renew your heart’s intention (to glorify God and serve his people) and to renew your confidence in Him (he is the protagonist of salvation history, not us).
- In the evening or before you go to bed, take ten minutes to make an examination of conscience. Here is the first of a two-part post on how to do that. Don’t let a day go by without it. The devil makes inroads when we stop reflecting on our lives from God’s perspective.
- Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day with your spiritual reading.-
- Don’t carelessly delay your bedtime – by watching TV or surfing the Internet, for example. That’s the easiest way to exhaust your body and disturb your interior recollection. Go to bed with God on your mind.
- I would also recommend a weekly hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, in reparation for your sins and those of the souls entrusted to your care.
- In addition, making a monthly mini-retreat (perhaps going to a shrine for a morning of quiet prayer, reading, and reflection).
- Plan your yearly retreat ahead of time, preferring preached retreats that give priority to silence – retreat is not vacation, after all.
I hope some of these thoughts are helpful, and I will join my prayers to yours that God provides you with a good spiritual direction. In the meantime, you may want to take James 4:8 for your motto: “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.”