Essay / Theology

How to Read a Spiritual Book (Wesley)

In 1735, John Wesley published an abridgment of Thomas a Kempis’ classic 1441 book The Imitation of Christ. Wesley’s edition was called The Christian’s Pattern. By way of introduction, Wesley gave his readers a short set of directions “concerning the manner of reading this (or any other) religious treatise.” The instructions were not quite of Wesley’s own devising; he translated and modified them from the Latin introduction of a 17th-century edition of the Imitation. So here are tips on devotional reading, inspired by a 15th-century classic, composed by an anonymous 17th-century commentator, and edited by John Wesley in the 18th century; posted on a 21st-century blog.

Why? Because this is classic advice on exactly how you do it: Schedule time for spiritual reading, read for a changed heart and ask God to make it happen, read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention,” get into the attitude of the work you’re reading, finish books, look for action points, and pray for God to do what only God can do. Here’s Wesley:

I. It is to these alone who, knowing they have not yet attained, neither are already perfect, mind this one thing, and, pressing toward the mark, despise no assistance which is offered them, that the following advices are proposed, concerning the manner of reading this (or any other religious) Treatise.

II. First: Assign some stated time every day for this employment; and observe it, so far as you possibly can, inviolably. But if necessary business, which you could not foresee or defer, should sometimes rob you of your hour of retirement, take the next to it; or, if you cannot have that, at least the nearest you can.

III. Secondly: Prepare yourself for reading, by purity of intention, singly aiming at the good of your soul, and by fervent prayer to God, that he would enable you to see his will, and give you a firm resolution to perform it. An excellent form of prayer for this very purpose you have in the second or third book of this Treatise. [Wesley may have in mind any of a dozen passages from books II and III of the Imitation. Perhaps the prayer “thou art my wisdom” is most appropriate.]

4 Thirdly: Be sure to read, not cursorily or hastily, but leisurely, seriously, and with great attention; with proper pauses and intervals, that you may allow time for the enlightenings of the divine grace. To this end, recollect, every now and then, what you have read, and consider how to reduce it to practice. Farther, let your reading be continued and regular, not rambling and desultory. To taste of many things, without fixing upon any, shows a vitiated palate, and feeds the disease which makes it pleasing. Whatsoever book you begin, read therefore through in order: Not but that it will be of great service to read those passages over and over that more nearly concern yourself, and more closely affect your inclinations or practice; especially if you press them home to your soul by adding a particular examination of yourself upon each head.

V. Fourthly: Labour to work yourself up into a temper correspondent with what you read; for that reading is useless which only enlightens the understanding, without warming the affections. And therefore intersperse, here and there, earnest aspirations to God, for his heat as well as his light. Select also any remarkable sayings or advices, and treasure them up in your memory; and these you may either draw forth in time of need, as arrows from a quiver against temptation (more especially against the solicitations to that sin which most easily besets you) or make use of as incitements to any virtue, to humility, patience, or the love of God.

VI. Conclude all with a short ejaculation to God, that he, without whom neither is he that planteth any thing nor he that watereth, would so bless the good seed sown in your heart, that it may bring forth fruit unto life eternal.

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