The book which changed my life is called The Ordinary Path to Holiness, by R. Thomas Richard. I have the original, regionally-published edition, which isn't professionally done and looks pretty cheesy. I used to wonder why something so amazing hadn't been published by a "real" publisher, and eventually it was! It now has a pretty cover and new typeset, and a foreword by Fr. Benedict Groeschel (who doesn't love him??!).
The "ordinary path to holiness" is just that. It's ordinary, meaning, it's the usual way that every soul must travel to get to God's Heart. Every one of us, no matter our vocation, is called to the highest form of prayer (infused contemplation/mysticism) and to spiritual marriage (consummation) with the Trinity. Please stop here and re-read that, slowly.
What this book did for me was to lay out a path that I could see, with a clear goal at the end and recognizable landmarks along the way. I am a linear, logical thinker, and I need things to be spelled out clearly. I had no idea that the spiritual life could be this way. I thought that while doctrine was concrete and linear, holiness was sort of nebulous and abstract, fluffy and wispy, like a cloud. I figured I would just pray throughout my life, read the Scriptures, be kind to others, and then holiness would just sort of "happen," in some sort of meandering, ill-defined way.
I was shocked and ecstatic to discover traditional Catholic spirituality. The author (a former Protestant pastor... ya gotta love those converts!!) synthesizes the works of several experts on the interior life and prayer (including saints who've walked the whole path!), and he makes it easy to understand the route our souls will take as we approach union with God.
A soul in mortal sin is not on the path. Once a soul gets on the path (i.e., is in a state of grace), he will travel through three stages of holiness: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. These stages are not static and perfectly separated, yet they are identifiable and trustworthy as our guide to the interior life. I briefly described these stages in my latest Doctrinal Quiz Show, so check that out for a little more info.
The Ordinary Path to Holiness presents the order of the path. Oh, how I love order! To discover order in the spiritual life -- be still my heart! It now makes perfect sense to me that just as the body goes through normal stages of growth (childhood, adolescence, adulthood) so, too, does the soul.
The book layout goes like this: The author first explains the three stages of holiness, which are unknown to most Catholics. (By the way, you will never hear the parable of the sower in the same way again!).
In the next section, he shows us how a soul in each stage reads and responds to Scripture. An advanced soul encounters the Bible in a completely different way than a beginner. I knew after reading that section that I was definitely a beginner, ha!
Next, the author illustrates how the experience of prayer changes for the soul as it progresses through each stage. Can I just say, WOW????!!! You will crave holiness when you read what the Lord has in store for those who perfectly align their hearts to His.
Another section walks us through St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, corresponding her seven mansions to the three stages of holiness. He also corresponds the sections of the Our Father with the three stages. Amazing stuff which just further illustrates the perfection of the Lord's Prayer.
Then, after a section on the sacraments, we are shown how the three stages of holiness are made manifest in the Holy Mass itself. All I could think of was how much I wanted to one day experience the Mass while in the unitive stage! Ahhhhh!!!
Finally, there is a section on holiness in suffering and dying. Again, wow....
When I finished the book, a whole new life opened up to me, and I couldn't wait to learn more, pray more, and love God more. A perfect follow-up book for me was Fire Within, by Fr. Thomas Dubay. While The Ordinary Path to Holiness changed my life, Fire Within just about set me over the edge. I couldn't believe the descriptions of the interior life of a soul that is in union with God. Talk about a romance!! Fr. Dubay focuses on works of the prayer masters, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I think I walked around on a cloud for days after that one.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention Fr. Benedict Groeschel's Spiritual Passages (an old work of his... did you all know that he is a psychologist as well as a priest?) and Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life. Fr. Groeschel's work (subtitled "The Psychology of Spiritual Development") is a fascinating look into the psychology of the three stages, in simple terms that I could understand. No psycho-babble and lots of real life examples, too. As for Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, he is pretty much the acknowledged expert on the three stages, and some consider him the greatest theologian of the 20th century.
Okay, just writing about this stuff makes me want to recommit to my prayer life! If you really think about it, there is nothing -- truly nothing -- more important than the path one's soul will take to its eternal destiny. The fact that I can see it laid out before me in a simple but breathtaking road map form is the perfect way to draw me out of my head and into a full-on love affair with my Beloved, Who continues to wait while I dilly-dally in the first stage.... But more on that later.... Maybe I will make that Part III.
And since I guess this ended up as a Books in the Bubble, here it is:
*Update: Another book in this vein is Descending Fire: The Journal of a Soul Aflame, by Jean Petit. I can't leave that out, as it left me reeling, too, and exclaiming, "I want what that soul has!"