How to Read Your Way to Heaven: An Interview with Vicki Burbach
St. Josemaría Escrivá once said that, “Reading has made many saints.” But reading what? Magazines? Cereal boxes? Escriva surely didn’t mean reading the stream of breathless news articles on your Facebook feed. He meant to encourage spiritual reading, a special discipline by which we grow closer to God through slow, meditative journeys through the Bible and other holy books.
I’ve seen this in my own life—not that I’m anywhere near a saint, but I’ve experienced real spiritual progress through reading. My daily spiritual routine involves setting aside time to not only pray and go to Mass, but also to read insightful Catholic books.
However, I know this is hard for many people. When I encourage friends to pick up spiritual reading, they usually have several objections. The first is the content question: which books should I read? There are millions of books out there, and I have no idea where to start, or what to choose. Catholics have two thousand years of literary tradition. It’s overwhelming.
Then there’s the logistics question: how do I do spiritual reading? Is it different than regular reading? Also, I’m so busy as it is, so how do I find time to read? Then how do I stay focused and committed?
These are all good questions, and they’re all tackled in a excellent new book by Vicki Burbach titled How to Read Your Way to Heaven: A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between (Sophia Institute Press, 2016).
Vicki is a trusted guide on the topic. She’s an an avid reader who started the SpiritualDirection.com book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written.
So today I sit down with Vicki to ask some of these common questions and learn about her new book. Enjoy!
BRANDON VOGT: Let’s begin by talking about spiritual reading in general. What is it and how does it different from other types of reading?
VICKI BURBACH: Spiritual reading is reading that has as its end, our union with God. This end makes spiritual reading far different from and superior to all other kinds of reading.
I’ve heard people liken spiritual reading to the “self-help” genre. But rather than union with God, the end of self-help is simply improving the self. This is an important distinction. While self-help books tend to submerge us in the natural world, spiritual reading calls us to live, through God’s grace, at a supernatural level. Ironically, though self is not the end, implementing what we learn through spiritual reading results in far greater self improvement than you’ll accomplish through reading any self-help book. But that is because the more we unite ourselves to Christ, the more “whole” we become.
Self-help books often encourage us to turn our focus inward, sometimes even to the detriment of those we love the most—and in the end, to our detriment as well. A case in point is a book I read recently, written by an internationally acclaimed, bestselling guru. The author used his own divorce to illustrate the notion of pursuing one’s goals, no matter the cost. Apparently, he felt his marriage was getting in the way of who he wanted to become, so he was compelled to terminate it.
Imagine a world where each of us did as this author suggests? You needn’t imagine too long. We live in a world that totally promotes that mindset. How’s it working for us?
Where the culture encourages a focus on self, spiritual reading acts as a check on the “self,” reminding us that the “self” is good only to the extent that we align it with the Greatest Good. To the extent that we diverge from His Will, His Goodness, His Truth, His Love, we must be willing to change; and through the grace of God, available through prayer and the sacraments, we can. Ironically, through this process of true self-discovery and improvement, we will achieve greater peace, joy and even productivity than we could ever achieve on our own.
BRANDON VOGT: One of the strategies you discuss in the book is making a firm commitment to read each day. Why is that necessary? And what’s your reading commitment look like? Do you read at the same time each day? In the same place?
VICKI BURBACH: Spiritual reading is exercise for the soul. Most people would agree that physical exercise is necessary for the body. Well, spiritual exercise is necessary is well. Delving into spiritual reading stretches and strengthens our will, our character and our faith if we approach it from the heart, as opposed to simply making it an exercise of the mind.
My own commitment is simple. Spiritual reading is part of my morning routine. I would no sooner skip that step in the morning than I would skip brushing my teeth. After breakfast, I sit down in the same chair with my books, journal, a highlighter and a pen. Now that my youngest is six, I can do this relatively easily. I read while my kids are getting dressed and completing their morning chores. Depending on the day, I may schedule more or less time to read. In fact, I actually set a timer for 15-30 minutes. When the timer goes off, I finish my thought, note my place, and begin the next morning right where I left off.
[I strongly recommend reading in the morning if at all possible. I’ve found that reading in the morning allows me to meditate on what I’ve read as I go through my day. It helps me to brace my heart and soul against the concerns of this world and keeps them focused on what matters most—the salvation of my soul, and the souls of my family. It helps me to be less concerned about the cares of the world and more concerned with eternity.
That said, I certainly understand that for some, reading in the morning is not possible. There were many years when I had very young children and reading in the morning was a serious challenge. Back then, I had no choice but to read in the evening. You do what you have to do. There are still safeguards you can take to make sure you get the most out of your reading. One example is to keep a spiritual reading journal. Just a few notes in the evening will do wonders for you the following day. When you wake, you can take a few moments to recap the high points from the night before. This helps get the juices flowing again, allowing all that you read to come back to you in full, that you might meditate and ponder throughout the day all that inspired you in your reading.]
BRANDON VOGT: I think the best parts of your book are the helpful reading plans in the back. Talk about those. How are they structured? What sorts of books did you include? How many pages per day do they require?
VICKI BURBACH: The book is essentially a 1-, 3- or 5-year reading program, designed to meet the needs of the reader. The entire program is laid out to be completely flexible. If you choose the 5-year option, for example, it is important to note that it is a simple checklist without dates, so it can take five years or ten years – depending on your schedule. No matter which program you choose, there are five assignments per week—which leaves two extra days in case you get busy or sidetracked—so you can complete the readings without a problem. It’s not about getting done. It’s about uniting ourselves to Christ. It’s about developing a relationship.
Each year includes reading assignments from one of the four pillars of faith, as described in the Catechism, as well as spiritual reading books that align with that particular pillar. The four pillars of faith are as follows: 1. The Profession of Faith (The Creed – What we Believe), 2. The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (Liturgy & Sacraments), 3. Life in Christ (Ten Commandments & Beatitudes) and 4. Prayer.
So, for instance, in Year Five, you would read 1-2 paragraphs each day in the Catechism as well as books like Meditations from a Simple Path by Mother Teresa, Interior Freedom by Jacques Philipe, Interior Castle by Saint Teresa of Avila, True Devotion to Mary by Saint Louis de Montfort, etc.
Then I topped off the basic program with Sacred Scripture, the most essential component of spiritual reading, what the Catechism refers to as “the speech of God as it is put down in writing through the breath of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 81). Frank Sheed, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and others recommend beginning with the Gospels, followed by Acts and the Letters of Paul; so in Year One, you do just that. Reading about one chapter per day, you complete the Gospels, Acts, the Letters of Paul, and then the Gospels again. In Years 2-4, you read the Old Testament, and in Year Five, the complete New Testament in one Chapter per day.
Here’s a random day of assignments from Year One:
Year One, Week 12
– Luke 12
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, 105-106 (paragraphs)
– 50 Questions on the Natural Law, Question 17
That’s it. It boils down to maybe one page of Sacred Scripture, not even ½ page from the Catechism, and 6.5 pages from 50 Questions. But if you worry that even that is too much, please remember that it’s not about getting done. When pressed for time, I’ve read Sacred Scripture and the CCC one day, and left the spiritual reading book for the next day. Little by little, you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish.
BRANDON VOGT: Your reading plans include trusted classics that have shaped Catholics for ages, and those lists will keep most Catholics busy for years. But outside of those, how can we decide which books are worth reading? Millions of books are published each year. How do we ensure we’re reading the cream of the crop?
VICKI BURBACH: You’re right. There are millions of books, and trying to figure out where to start can be overwhelming, to say the least. When I joined the Church, I heard somewhere that I should stick to books with an imprimi potest (it can be printed) or nihil obstat (nothing stands in the way), and an imprimatur (let it be printed). These are stamps issued by religious superiors, diocesan censors and local bishops, respectively, guaranteeing that a book’s contents are not in conflict with Catholic teaching. This means that representatives from the Church must closely examine a book before authorizing these stamps. Unfortunately, today, it is very difficult—if not impossible—for the Church to keep up with the mass of books being published. The fact is that diocesan resources have decreased while book publishing has increased exponentially in recent years. Given the challenges involved in obtaining these declarations of magisterial alignment, it stands to reason that many authors/publishers do not obtain them, despite the fact that their books are fully in line with the teaching of the Church.
That said, I think it is it is absolutely true that we want to make sure we are reading books that are true and good (and meaty, meaning they are solid in their content). Sadly, there are books (and organizations) out there that mask themselves as Catholic, but teach falsehoods which can lead us astray. Or authors that even innocently misunderstand our Faith, but perpetuate their misunderstanding by spreading it through the written word.
I’ve found that the safest solution is to seek books from trusted publishers, like Ignatius Press, Sophia Institute Press, TAN Books, Emmaus Road and others; or from organizations like EWTN. You can also trust websites such as SpiritualDirection.com, NCRegister.com or my own—PelicansBreast.com—when they offer suggested reading material. Father John Hardon has an excellent reading list, which is out of print, but can still be found through various sources online.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two appendices in my book, How to Read Your Way to Heaven, that are full of the cream of the crop. The first is a reading list composed of the favorite spiritual books of many of those people to whom we look to for inspiration, education and guidance in the Faith – people like Peter Kreeft, Tim Staples, Father Timothy Gallagher, and many others. The second appendix is Father C. John McCloskey’s Lifetime Catholic Reading List. All of the books in each appendix are fully in line with the Magisterium of the Church, and great stuff for our spiritual enlightenment. In total, there are over 200 books listed.
BRANDON VOGT: Lots of people complain that after reading they forget most of what they took in. How can we make the information stick? And even more, how can we allow our spiritual reading to shape us and draw us closer to God?
VICKI BURBACH: This is something I struggled with for years. I would read a book, all excited about implementing what I learned. But then I’d pick up the next one, and move on, forgetting most of what I’d just read. I knew that the point was to grow in holiness and virtue; you can’t do that without some organized effort. I really needed some rhyme and reason to my spiritual reading.
At one point, I read Mortimer Addler’s How to Read a Book. In it, he talks about syntopical reading, describing this concept as reading passages from several books on the same topic, in close succession. This process allows the information to take shape in our minds, providing a three-dimensional rather than a one-dimensional understanding. It stands to reason that the more perspectives we read on the same topic and the more we practice what we learn, the more we are bound to retain.
In my program, I took the liberty of introducing syntopical reading to the notion of spiritual reading. By organizing reading around one pillar of the Catechism for a full year (or two), readers can not only read from several perspectives on each of the pillars, but can spend a full year putting into practice what they learn about each pillar as they progress. Devoting an extended amount of time on one topic allows us to develop habits, grow in virtue, to unite ourselves to Christ in a profound way.
BRANDON VOGT: Besides the Bible and Catechism, what are the five spiritual books you think every Catholic should read?
VICKI BURBACH: The question every reader wants to answer! Here are some of my favorites:
1. Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by Jean Baptiste de Saint-Jure and Saint Claude de la Colombiere
2. The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur by Elisabeth Leseur
3. Introduction to the Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales
4. He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek
5. Anything by Frank Sheed (I know this is cheating, but I can’t choose; Map of Life, Theology for Beginners, Theology and Sanity, To Know Christ Jesus, and others. They are all excellent.)