Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J. (1675 -1751) has inspired multitudes through the centuries with his classic work, Abandonment to Divine Providence. His letters likewise have helped countless souls traverse the dark forests of the spiritual life – his guidance is pure balm for the soul.
Among his counsels is timeless advice on the subject of spiritual reading. One could reduce his method to a concise formula: slow down and savor. Reading should not be so much a matter of accumulating heaps of information but letting timeless wisdom sink into the soul. This slow process allows the truths of the faith to become a part of oneself.
Assuredly, his method is not easy for many persons, including me. If you are an avid reader – such that, news, history, or all-purpose knowledge goes down like water – or, if you hope to check off the long list of spiritual classics in your lifetime, which generally means reading quickly and abundantly – then the good Père strongly recommends a different way.
The Benefits of Pausing
To follow his method means especially to slow down. He says, “Pause now and then to give these glad truths time to soak more thoroughly into your soul and to make easier the workings of the Holy Spirit who, during these peaceful pauses and silent expectancy, will imprint the heavenly truths more deeply into your heart. Do all this without straining your mental attention.” (Book III, Letter 10)
He reiterates this same theme elsewhere, “At the end of each paragraph containing a finished thought, pause for as long as it would take to say an Our Father, or even a little longer, to appreciate what you have read or to rest yourself and to gain interior tranquility before God. Should this rest and tranquility last longer, so much the better; but when you notice your attention is wandering, go back to your reading, constantly making similar pauses as you continue.” (Book II, Letter 35)
Slowness Deepens Appreciation
In a word, slowness facilitates savoring. He says, “Fix your attention upon what you are reading, and do not think upon what follows. I recommend you strongly to assimilate the enduring and consoling truths set out in this book, not so much by mental reflection as by savoring them.” (Book III, Letter 10) In other words, appreciate your repast.
As may be expected of a Frenchman, the comparison to food comes easily; “Let good books be read and this reading be done in a low voice with frequent pauses, less to bring to it the reflections of the intelligence than to allow the mind to digest what it reads. We need to do with this spiritual food what the greedy and sensual do with stews, sweetmeats and liqueurs, which even after they have swallowed they still taste and savor.” (Book III, Letter 3)
Here again he suggests the idea that less is more, “You had far better to read little and digest that little…Your reading, then, and your actions should have as their one aim the fostering in you of a capacity for recollection.” (Book III, Letter 10)
God’s Help Needed
In his view, success in spiritual reading means traveling from the mind to the heart; “Let your unforced and simple endeavor be to allow them (spiritual truths) to sink into your heart rather than into your mind.” (Book III, Letter 10)
How is this possible? With God’s help. “Spend more time in nourishing your soul with good reading. To make this nourishment the more beneficial, let this be your method of taking it. Begin by entering the presence of God and by begging for his help. Read softly and slowly, a word at a time, that you may interpret your subject with your soul rather than with your intelligence.” (Book II, Letter 35)
Père de Caussade’s method of spiritual reading is still valid after nearly three centuries. It surely takes practice and discipline, however. Is it useful at all times? Not quite, as certain reading, such as history or general knowledge may be eaten like watermelon. More substantial fare, on the other hand, such as Scripture, St. John of the Cross, or even the writings of Fr. de Caussade, requires savory tasting and slow digestion.
A Summary of His Method
1) Choose good books that are beneficial for the soul.
2) Take time first to reflect that God is present.
3) Beg for His help.
4) Read a paragraph at a time and pause at a striking thought for the space of an Our Father.
5) Let the words penetrate the heart rather than the mind.
6) Savor good thoughts to nourish the soul.
Fr. de Caussade’s collected works including his letters, may be found here in PDF format.