St. Athanasius (A.D. 296-373) was the Bishop of Alexandria and is a Doctor of the Church. He tells us that his orthodox heart was formed in the desert where he used to serve St. Anthony (A.D. 251 – 356), and out of this service came the spiritual masterpiece The Life of Antony. This biography alone is a wonder worth close study and contemplation, full of seeds worthy of being firmly planted in the prepared soil of the believer’s soul. The seeds then have the potential to sprout, to take root, to grow, and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bear much good fruit. Let us turn our attention to some seeds in St. Anthony’s biography that may prove to be of great assistance to us as we endeavor to cultivate the habit of spiritual reading.
Since the advent of the written word and due to our fallen nature, mankind has been prone to the idolatry of letters. We live in what might be mischaracterized as a “hyper-literate” age. While we appear to prize literacy enormously, we find ourselves in an era best characterized by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:7, “ever learning, and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.” The dangers of turning the written word into an idol were noted by Plato over 2,300 years ago in the Phaedrus. We have mistaken the appearance of literacy for literacy itself and as such, the written word has become an idol leading to a literacy crisis. The crisis is a stumbling block to the members of the Body of Christ concerning our obligation to spiritual reading. We need guidance to recover a true sense of literacy if we are to be properly fed by the daily bread offered through the written word.
Nearly the first thing we learn about St. Anthony is that “as he was advancing in years, he could not bear to learn letters.” And though we might see this as a great fault, this fact and what followed are well worth consideration to discover the true ends of spiritual reading. St. Athanasius goes on to tell us that “of course he accompanied his parents to the Lord’s house and… he was obedient to his mother and father and paying attention to the readings, he carefully took to heart what was profitable in them.” In this short description, St. Anthony embodies the deeper truth about the real purpose of spiritual reading: to take to heart what is profitable in the word.
The written word is a technology, an intermediary step to achieve the true end of literacy, which is to read reality rightly by hearing with the human heart what is written upon it, perfectly articulated by the Logos. Spoken words have their roots in eternity. The Logos, the only begotten son of God is the eternal Word and therefore the ultimate end of spiritual reading is to love, to know and to understand the Word of God. Written words are a reduction of spoken words which signify created things. Written words are signs and not important for their own sakes, but because they point to created things that point to the Creator. They are instrumental in leading to the fruition of understanding by directing our attention towards real and permanent things.
The true ends of literacy are best understood by the analogy of agriculture. The farmer prepares the soil, sows the seeds at the right time, waters them, pulls the weeds and finally he harvests. It remains a great mystery why fruit grows, for although the farmer works hard, he cannot produce fruit; that is a gift from God. We are to do something similar as soul farmers. We prepare the soil of the internal landscape by prayer, we choose the seeds (holy and properly ordered ideas proceeding from the mouth of God) to plant, we water the seeds by contemplation, we pull weeds by rooting out character defects, and then we prepare for the harvest. If we have done our work faithfully, fruits are produced by the grace of God and recognized as gifts from the Holy Spirit. In truth, the written words make up a very small part of the soul cultivating process in spiritual reading. They are analogous with the packages in which we find the right seeds.
The seeds of Anthony’s disdain for letters, his obedience to his parents, his attentiveness to the scripture readings in the Lord’s house, and keeping what is good in his heart, come to fruition near the end of St. Athanasius’ account and indicate the true end of spiritual reading: the attainment of the wisdom of God.
St. Athanasius reports that “Antony was also extremely wise.” St. Anthony was visited by many Greek philosophers seeking him out in the desert to ridicule him. When they came to mock him on the account that he had not learned his letters, he asked them:
“‘Which is first- mind or letters? And which is the cause of which- the mind of the letters, or the letters of the mind?’ After their reply that the mind is first and an inventor of the letters, Anthony said, ‘Now you see that in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters.’”
These and many others departed in amazement that an untrained man living in the wilderness could possess such understanding. He was “gracious and civil, and his speech was seasoned with divine salt, so that no one resented him.”
St. Anthony draws our attention away from the current obsession with material literacy and towards the true nature of literacy that sees that the real ends are the sane mind and sound heart. Though reading is of real instrumental value, the act of reading is a means to an end, not the end itself. The ends remain the proper consumption of spiritual food and hearing words is closer to the source than reading words. In spiritual reading, the written word is accompanied by extra but similar work to hearing the spoken word: the words have to be translated into a form that is audible and intelligible to the human heart.
In Mathew 4:4, when the Devil tempts Christ to turn stones into bread, our Lord responds by declaring that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Just like we need bread for material existence, the words that proceed from the mouth of God are spiritual food, exponentially more important than bodily food and the objective of spiritual reading is to feed our souls by the bread that “proceeds from the mouth of God.” Spiritual reading is feeding our souls. St. Anthony didn’t abandon the feast of spiritual reading; he attuned his ear to revelation, his soul to the Holy Spirit, and his heart to the will of the Father so effectively that the written word was an unnecessary mediation. We will benefit far more from an attuned ear and willing heart than a sharp eye and keen mind.
There are many different kinds of spiritual reading and all of them can be enhanced by the lessons learned from St. Anthony. Spiritual reading ought to follow prayer and be followed by rooting out our defects by way of contemplation. A great place to start is to form the habit of reading the daily readings. Perhaps follow by reading the lives of the Saints, including the Life of Antony. The saints provide models of Christian virtue worthy of imitation. There are many important books on devotion such as St. Louis Marie De Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. The topic of Christian virtue is vital, like Joseph Pieper’s Faith, Hope and Love and Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love. There are many significant books on spiritual wisdom such as Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ or Humility of Heart by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo. There are volumes of fine Catholic books worthy of spiritual reading and it is imperative that the soul seeking God spend 10 to 20 minutes a day cultivating the habit. But buyers beware, not only are there many pitfalls in modern notions of literacy, there are countless books that are not suitable for spiritual bread and careful discernment is necessary.
As St. Anthony said, the well-ordered mind and soul have no need of letters. St. Augustine echoes the point that one who has memorized the scriptures by hearing them has no need of books. However, it is telling to notice that most artistic renditions of St. Anthony portray him with a book, a scroll, or in the act of reading, indicating that though he did not read, he was in possession of the fruits of true spiritual literacy. Let us use the words St. Athanasius left us to find the seeds to be planted in the internal landscape that will grow and bear much fruit by the grace of God if we tend to our spiritual reading. Let us harvest the fruit as did St. Anthony and let us know that “man does not live by bread alone.” St. Athanasius’s Life of Antony makes excellent spiritual reading, not just for all the marvels documented in the life of the desert monk, but for its instruction on spiritual reading itself and the true ends of this feast for the soul by hearing with our hearts “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”