The courses described above are all concerned with the perfection of the intellect as such, and most of the later courses already presuppose considerable intellectual discipline. But there are several other approaches which, though intrinsically less valuable, are more proportioned to the soul of the learner, and irreplaceably assist and complement the intellectual life. The greatest works of literature, insofar as they appeal to the imagination and move the affections, are peculiarly accessible to the young, while at the same time they present or imply profoundly important views of human life and of reality as a whole.I'm not so sure that literature is less valuable nor that is for the beginner. It not only "irreplaceably assist[s] and complement[s]" the intellectual life, but is part of the intellectual life. We can never leave literature behind. Much of the mystery of life and existence is best expressed in literature. As Sr. Miriam Joseph said in the Trivium, poetry is argumentation by vivid representation. It is the primary mode of argumentation that Sacred Scripture uses, as St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges at the beginning of the Summa by insisting on the four senses of scripture (the then-current mode of interpreting literature).
On the other hand, I have never been as spiritually satisfied by literature (fiction and poetry) as I have by the spiritual classics. There is something about the spiritual classic such as the Imitation of Christ that moves my soul to the love of God, its proper end like nothing else. Even Shakespeare, though full of wisdom and insight about the human condition, does not induce me to worship or to love of neighbor like Thomas Merton does.
My pet theory about this is that the great literature, although certainly marked by the grace that undoubtedly moved in the soul of the authors, is still human wisdom, not unambigously showered by supernatural light.
There is specifically lacking in literature that is not explicitly spiritual a positive affirmation of the most human of realities. For instance, what role does worship or the human need for worship play in Shakespeare? As de Lubac says, the need the adore is the most fundamental of human characterstics. Von Balthasar says to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God in all things--our nothingness--is the necessary beginning and basis for a vibrant spiritual life. Shakespeare shows this negatively primarily by showing what it is like for a human being to refuse to turn to God. You rarely find a saint in Shakespeare, although my reading of him is not complete.
It is true that literature with a Catholic or Christian sensibility can be the most satisfying spiritually (Dante, Waugh, Tolkien, O'Connor, Greene--Lewis, Sayers, Dostoyevski). Some non-Christian authors have moved me deeply, such as Twain's Joan of Arc and Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Still others can move one to a love of the poor and to compassion for the afflicted--Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy. But I need to dip regularly into the spiritual classics themselves, the Bible for sure, but also The Imitation of Christ, the writings of St. Francis, the Philokalia, etc. I guess I sometimes need direct statements about my own spiritual life from wise spiritual guides who can describe the movements of the soul in direct reference to Revelation and to the God who made us.
It is interesting that some of the great literary figures were devotees of Catholic spiritual classics. For instance, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett(!), as Fr. Ranerio Cantalamessa, Ofm Cap notes in his editorial on the dark night of Mother Teresa.
I'm wondering if there are those who find literature more spiritually fulfilling that spiritual classsics? I suspect there are and I'd like to hear from you. I have to put Sacred Scripture in a different category, since, as I said before, it is in fact literature as well as a "spiritual classic" and, even more important, unlike any other writings, it is the Word of God. I tend to be somewhat like Servais Pinckaers, OP, who, according to Romanus Cessario, OP, ("Hommage au Père Servais-Théodore Pinckaers, OP: The Significance of His Work," Nova et Vetera, 5, no. 1 (2007): 1-16), who experiences the Bible as the Word of God so much that he went through periods when he could not fruitfully read anything else.
This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot on those of Julian of Norwich.
There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. Few know that Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, the most representative drama of the theater of the absurd, in his free time read St. John of the Cross.