Gabrielle Earnshaw of the Henri Nouwen Society with a selection of his books. Michael Swan

Words to live by: Lenten spiritual reading

  • February 21, 2020

Alms, prayer and fasting are the broad categories the Church requires in the season of Lent. But let your heart and your devotion lead you over to the bookshelf, and you might find a path into the formal disciplines of Lent through spiritual reading.

“How is reading different from spiritual reading?” asks Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor and archivist at the Henri Nouwen Society. “The difference really is that it’s the time you’re going to take with the words. And how deeply you are going to take them inside yourself.”

Spiritual reading is a way of doing something Catholic writer Fr. Henri Nouwen called “wasting time with God,” according to Earnshaw.

“In our society, wasting time sounds like a really bad idea. We’re all so busy,” she said. 

But a kind of agenda-driven prayer life is doomed to remain on the surface. To go deep into prayer, in the spirit of Lent, requires something more.

“Go there with actual self-emptying. Empty the self. Go there as a vessel to receive God’s love,” said Earnshaw.

It might be tempting to dismiss spiritual reading as aimless self-indulgence, but that would be to mistake the practice.

“Spiritual reading is a discipline of the spiritual life,” said Earnshaw. “Buy a book and underline it. Get in there. … It’s not because there’s going to be an exam at the end. Spiritual reading is to allow the words to descend from the head to the heart. That actually takes discipline.”

Unsurprisingly, Earnshaw recommends Nouwen as the perfect author for Lenten spiritual reading.

“Henri Nouwen is an author for Lent. This is his territory,” she said. “He is ploughing that field of reflection, relationship with God, relationship with Jesus, relationship with ourselves and relationship with others. That’s what he does year-round.”

Earnshaw has just brought out a new collection of Nouwen’s writing, Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. The text is taken from a previously unpublished series of talks he gave at the Harvard Divinity School during Lent in 1985.

“This can be like having a companion who is just a little bit ahead of you, who can say, ‘You can do this,’ ” Earnshaw said.

Reading an author such as Nouwen for Lent does not take away from alms, fasting and prayer. If anything it prepares the way for a more meaningful engagement in the three disciplines of Lent.

“Lent is that preparation for Easter. It’s the preparation so we go out into the world, filled with the joy of Resurrection,” explained Earnshaw. “Listen to the voice that says, ‘I love you, you are My beloved.’ Because everything flows from that. An ability to be of service flows from our sense that we are beloved, that we are OK. So we can be generous with other people.”

If the new Nouwen book, Following Jesus ($30 from Convergent Books), doesn’t appeal, the Nouwen Society offers another exercise in spiritual reading for Lent with its online discussion group. They will begin reading and discussing Nouwen’s classic Return of the Prodigal Son on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26. Go to to sign up. The Nouwen Society also offers free daily meditations via e-mail. 

A few more books to consider for Lenten reading ...

Jesus Wasn’t Killed By The Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent

Edited by Jon M. Sweeny

(Obis Books, 128 pages, softcover, $24.99)

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, 55 years after the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus’ death, 20 years after Pope John Paul II prayed for forgiveness in shame and guilt for how Catholics taught contempt for the Jews, it should not be necessary to publish a book with this title.

But Statistics Canada found that in 2017 there were 360 police-reported hate crimes against Jews in Canada, up 63 per cent from the year before. Jews are just one per cent of the Canadian population, but in 2018 they attracted 48 per cent of all religiously motivated hate crimes. In contrast the Catholics, who are nearly 39 per cent of Canada’s population, suffered 5.8 per cent of 460 reported attacks on religion.

For the most part, this collection of essays restates the obvious. There’s an essay by Jesuit Fr. Nicholas King called “The New Testament Was Written Entirely By Jews.” 

“Too much misrepresentation over the centuries has supported hatred and mistrust,” writes Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. “It is time for brothers and sisters to be reconciled to one another.”

The really interesting insight to be distilled from these short essays is how a fuller understanding and deeper reconciliation with the people St. Pope John Paul II called “our elder brothers in faith” makes us better followers of Jesus, who was Jewish, better children of Mary, who was Jewish, and better brothers to St. Paul, who was Jewish and a Pharisee.

Domestic Monastery

By Ronald Rolheiser

(Paraclete Press, 90 pages, hardcover, $21)

Of course Fr. Ronald Rolheiser is always worth reading. But this tiny little book just out from Paraclete Press could make this Lent special.

As spiritual reading goes, this one is tailor-made for ordinary people in ordinary families who yearn for a deeper spiritual life.

Rolheiser is not a monk, but a very active member of a missionary, apostolic order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. 

He lives his vows in the world, not behind monastery walls. But he has clearly and carefully thought about what it means to Christians that we have monks, and why we idealize the contemplative life.

For Rolheiser, time with God is not an add-on to a busy life full of the obligations of work and family.

“Contemplation and action, the monastic and the domestic, passion and purity, duty and self-actualization, this life and the next, intellect and will, community and individuality.... All of these, like a complete set of keys on a piano, are needed,” Rolheiser writes.

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