I had my fair share of deployments when I was in the Navy. For me, these deployments brought a sense of adventure, excitement, danger at times, but they also came with moments of stillness, solitude, quiet, and even loneliness. Life at sea can push one to the very depths of the interior life. So whenever I went on deployments, I packed in my green sea bag a companion saint to read. In fact, one book that got me started on this habit is Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Long deployments are perfect for this spiritual reading. It’s quite a long autobiography divided into 13 books all on the first 35 years of the life of Saint Augustine. Books like this helped me turn those long and lonely deployments into a personal spiritual journey.
When he heard a voice call out to him, “Tolle lege,” which means “take up and read.” Saint Augustine did just that. He picked up the book, opened the book which arbitrarily, albeit providentially, led him to the Epistle to the Romans, read it, reflected on it, and jump-started his spiritual journey. It is a moment that transformed him, and ultimately, led him to become one of the most influential spiritual figures.
My own spiritual journey can be traced back to my reading of Saint Augustine. I took this book with me but Saint Augustine, through his writings, took me with him on a very intimate personal journey of spiritual transformation. It is a book written centuries ago but his is a story that I found very relevant and relatable. It had the power to take even the modern reader like myself to the depths of the human soul and transform the mind and the heart. I’ve never been the same since reading that book.
Reading Makes Saints
Saint Josemaria Escriva says, “Reading has made saints.” The steps in between are long and arduous but that first step of spiritual reading is indeed one of the common denominators in the journey of the many saints we admire now. This period of quarantine gives us an extraordinary opportunity to once again call on the Saints to accompany us in this uniquely trying spiritual journey. Many of them make great companions particularly when it comes to filling moments of emptiness, darkness, and uncertainty with joy, light, and hope.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, for instance, knows a lot about being quarantined. As a young soldier, he lived a life that was full of adventure, excitement, and promise. But when a cannonball struck him in the leg during battle, he was rendered incapacitated and confined for months. His injury was so serious that the doctors actually started preparing him for death. The year was 1521, long before the internet, TV, or even radio. Being the consummate soldier that he was, Saint Ignatius looked for books on chivalry and military valor but as providence would have it, the only books available to him then were on the life of Christ and the Saints. With nothing but time, he had the opportunity to immerse himself in reading books that would eventually transform him. Upon reading the lives of the Saints, he reasoned to himself: “Saint Dominic did this; therefore I must do it. Saint Francis did this; therefore I must do it.” It was a pivotal moment that in his life as well as the world. We have him to thank for some of these Jesuit hospitals, universities, and other influential Jesuits.
A Dark Night
In my Navy days, being stuck in the middle of the sea was when I would feel that sense of motionlessness, isolation, and darkness. However, hidden within moments like that are opportunities to be still and quiet the buzz of a busy life, to reflect, reevaluate, reconnect with my interior life, and reform. When we lose our sense of security and direction along with our material and psychological possessions, we are flung into darkness. And in that darkness is where we learn to listen to the voice of God speaking in the silence of our hearts, place our hands in His with complete trust, and just let go and let God.
Saint John of the Cross, author of some of the most influential writings in Christian spirituality, another perfect companion to revisit this period of quarantine, wrote: “It is best to learn to silence the faculties and to cause them to be still so that God may speak.” This pandemic has silenced the noise of our busy lives but it is perhaps the time to turn our ears to God so that we may hear Him speak to our hearts.
There are many life-changing books in the history of our Church. This moment of silence and stillness is a great time to, “Tolle Lege,” blow the dust off those books, and read how the saints found their way out of the darkness and to finding the light of Christ. Without the usual distractions and diversions of “normal” life, here lies an opportunity to read and read deeply. Deep reading is a process that enables us to tap the part of our brain that is otherwise not easy to get to unless we make the effort to really immerse ourselves deep in the story. Deep reading is when I get to analyze and reflect on the wisdom of the saints, the emotional and moral complexities of their lives, and explore how I can apply their examples in my life.
As French poet, Marcel Proust, says, “That which is the end of the book’s wisdom is the beginning of our own.” We could really now use the journey of the saints from darkness to light as the beginning of our spiritual ascent from this pandemic abyss.
BJ Gonzalvo reflects and writes from the beautiful Pacific Northwest, often with the sound of rain in the background, on matters of faith, psychology, and work. His writing has appeared in Mind & Spirit Magazine, Busted Halo, Positively Filipino, and Northwest Catholic.