We should read them too
“Saint Thomas Aquinas” by Fra Bartolomeo, 1510 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
By Paul Combs
Many people, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, have read books either by or about the saints (often both). You may have been forced to read St. Augustine’s Confessions in college, or you may have voluntarily and happily read George Weigel’s mammoth biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope. Strictly speaking, every time you read the New Testament, you’re reading a book written by a saint.
But what about the saints themselves? What did they read (besides the Bible, of course) and does it even matter? As to the second part of that question, I believe it does matter, and I’ll explain why.
Whether we realize it or not, whenever we attempt any task we look to those who have done it, and done it well, before us. CEOs of companies study people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, junior high school basketball players study the way Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant played the game, a rock guitarist will spend hours listening to Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen, and young (and old) authors will analyze the writing styles of Ernest Hemingway or Shirley Jackson.
It’s the same with the saints and the Christian life. Navigating the world is no easy task at the best of times (and it is rarely the best of times) and having guides to help us makes that navigation just a bit easier. Some of you might say that you don’t need to look to the saints because you’ll just follow Jesus and do what he did, and we obviously should do that; personally, though, I’ve found it useful to emulate those who’ve already learned how to follow him better than I do.
What does any of this have to do with the books the saints read? Simply this: while I have gained inspiration and guidance from learning about how the saints lived their lives, it is equally helpful to read the books they found crucial in leading those lives themselves. Like I said earlier, everyone looks to those who have been successful before them, even the saints.
Below are several well-known saints and the books that helped shape them. Some of the books are still quite famous today while others are lesser known. All are still in print, and I will link to the Amazon listing in the article (please note that these are not affiliate links and I receive nothing from them).
St. Teresa of Calcutta — Life of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen.
Let’s start with the saint everyone knows. Mother Teresa carried this book about the life of Jesus with her whenever she travelled and advised her sisters to read it every Lent. It is considered by many the best book on the life of Christ outside the gospels themselves.
St. Francis de Sales — The Spiritual Combat by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli.
Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers (and thus a favorite of mine); he also wrote one of the most influential books on spirituality ever, An Introduction to the Devout Life. The book that influenced him most was The Spiritual Combat, a book that like his own An Introduction to the Devout Life is a manual of practical advice rather than a heavy philosophical or theological treatise.
St. Vincent de Paul — An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales.
Sticking with Francis de Sales, his book was a major influence on the life and ministry of St. Vincent de Paul, a man who began a ministry to the poor that continues around the world to this day. Though St. Vincent was a priest, An Introduction to the Devout Life was written specifically for the laity, instructing people how to attain holiness in their everyday lives, which was a radical idea in the 17th century. The book was also a favorite of Pope Pius the XI, who though not a saint was a pope, which isn’t a small thing. In 1923, Pope Pius wrote of his hope that the book would “be read now as it formerly was by practically everyone.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola — The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.
When the man who would become the founder of the Jesuit Order was recovering from a severe leg wound suffered in battle, there were only two books available to him: The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony and The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend was a popular book on the lives of the saints, particularly St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi; reading about their lives had a profound impact on the former soldier and played a huge part in his conversion. Reading the lives of the saints can do that.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux — The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.
The “Little Flower,” whose own autobiography The Story of a Soul has sold millions of copies, was greatly influenced by The Imitation of Christ; she first read it when she was 14 years old, and it is said she read it so often she could quote long passages from memory. This 15th century classic may be the best-known book on this list, is admired by people of all faiths, and is probably the most widely read Christian book besides the Bible. It was a favorite of other saints as well: St. Ignatius of Loyola read a chapter from it every day and St. Thomas More called it one of the three books everyone should own.
Pope St. John Paul II — True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort.
St. John Paul II’s devotion to the Virgin Mary and love of this book were clear to anyone paying attention immediately following his election as pope in 1978; his papal motto, “Totus Tuus” (“All Yours” in Latin), comes from a passage in St. Louis’s book referring to total consecration to the Blessed Mother. John Paul first read the book while in seminary and re-read it multiple times throughout his life. It is thought by many to be the best book on Marian spirituality ever written.
There are many more books that were favorites of the saints, but these six are a great place to start. If I had to recommend one above all the others, it would be The Imitation of Christ. Following St. Ignatius’s example, I recently started reading a chapter from it every night and it is the perfect way to end the day.