If you want to learn a grounded, contemplative reading of the Bible, The Elusive Presence is an excellent guide. First published in 1978, it methodically details how the sacred scripture of both Judaism and Christianity document a succession of encounters with God’s elusive presence — the “God who hides” of Isaiah 45:15. From the call of Abraham in Genesis to the Eucharistic encounter with Christ in the New Testament, Terrien unpacks every biblical moment of Divine Encounter. As he notes, “It is the distinctiveness of the Hebraic theology of presence rather than the ideology of the covenant which provides a key to understanding the Bible.” In other words, the Bible is a love letter, not a legal code — and Terrien brings that essential fact gloriously to life.
Don’t let the whimsical illustrations by artist Francisco Miranda throw you off. This book provides a grounded discussion of how our image of God — the way we think about, or perceive, God — impacts our faith and especially our spiritual lives. When I teach introductory classes on Christian mysticism or contemplative prayer, I often refer to this book to help my students reflect on their own ways of imaging God. Many Christians (and even secular people) learn early in life that God is furious, God is wrathful, God is dangerous; and this image, often held subconsciously, can sabotage our attempts as adults to grow spiritually. Without taking time to heal our image of God, our efforts to pray or meditate may never get off the ground. This book is an essential guide to that necessary healing process.
A number of good anthologies of the Christian mystics have been published over the years; this one is certainly one of my favorites. Arranged topically rather than chronologically, it provides an overview not only of the literature of mysticism but of the breadth of ideas and wisdom that mystical theology and spiritual teaching entails. Topics include Biblical interpretation, asceticism and purgation, prayer and the sacraments, mystical practices, vision, contemplation, rapture, deification, and union with God. Final sections examine the relationships between mysticism and heresy, and between contemplation and action. All the major mystical writers of the Christian tradition are included, making this a comprehensive overview of the tradition; and McGinn’s perceptive commentary make the texts come alive.
This book explores the mystical life through Evelyn Underhill’s classic model of spiritual development: awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night and union. The author has a generous sense of the boundaries of mysticism making this is a very broad and inclusive treatment of the topic. The back matter of the book is very strong: including a generous selection of quotations from the mystics and suggested spiritual practices for each of the “stages” of the spiritual life.
Finding the Monk Within (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2008)
This book surveys the rise of Christian monasticism from its origin in Egypt to the early years of the Cistercian order. But it’s not a dry history book, it’s written as a spiritual journey to help laypeople to connect with the “inner monk” — that part of each of us which seeks silence, solitude, and a contemplative relationship with God.
The Cistercian Way (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1983)
When I entered formation as a Lay Cistercian novice in 2007, this was the first book my fellow novitiates and I were assigned to read. It remains one of my favorite books on Cistercian spirituality, and while it is written for monks, it has plenty to offer for any spiritual seeker, cloistered or not. I found the chapter on asceticism to be particularly illuminating, and the chapter on Mary helped this former Protestant to make sense of her place in the Cistercian world.
Inside the School of Charity (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2009)
This wonderful book offers a glimpse into Cistercian life through the author’s participation in a three month “monastic guest” program with the Trappistine nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey. It’s a rare look inside a monastery from a layperson’s perspective, and reflects on how Cistercian wisdom offers those of us who are not called to be monks and nuns plenty of spiritual guidance relevant to life outside the cloister.
Hope for the Flowers (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1972)
Here’s a classic from over forty years ago, filled with a kind of hippiefied idealism and lots of love. Catholic author Trina Paulus tells a charming story for children (of all ages) about two caterpillars, “Stripe” and “Yellow” and their adventures culminating in their transformation into lovely butterflies, bringing hope for the flowers. The Christian message is hard to miss, but this book is written in a way that anyone can enjoy it.
Be sure to check out my interview with Trina Paulus from 1997.
The Mystic Way of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008)
Here’s a book that I use repeatedly when I speak about the necessity of recovering an authentic mystical spirituality for the church today. Heath is a professor of Christian Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, and has made an excellent case for why the mystics throughout church history can be our best guides as we seek to be faithful to the Gospel today, not only as individuals but as a community of faith.
Benedictine monk Seán Ó Duinn explores the neolithic, mythical, and Christian elements of Celtic spirituality, showing how these “three streams” each contribute their own unique qualities to the mystical splendor of Ireland and the other Celtic lands.
Maggie Ross offers a provocative look at the role silence plays in spirituality and life, and considers how the history of Christianity, especially in the west, has led to the marginalization of contemplation (“the work of silence”) in the Church and therefore in society. It’s an important book, with much insight into how we betray silence with our language and our institutional structures. That said, I certainly don’t agree with all of Ross’s positions; for example, her discussion of spiritual direction—she incisively criticizes how spiritual direction can go wrong, but then dismisses the ministry altogether, failing to acknowledge how it can and does bless many people. So read it with discernment.
The Mount of Purification (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1960)
This posthumously published book features a series of conferences Evelyn Underhill gave as a retreat based on Dante’s Purgatorio. In addition, this edition includes an assortment of her prayers and meditations, along with a collection of essays including “What is Mysticism?” and “Thoughts on Prayer and the Divine Immanence.”
The Grace in Dying (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998)
Perhaps the most useful book on the spirituality of dying I’ve ever read. There are many wonderful resources about the psychology of dying, or how to care for those who are dying, that sort of thing. But this book really dives deep into how the soul approaches death, and how the dying process is very much like a form of contemplative practice.
A Book of Silence (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008)
Gorgeously written and both intellectually fascinating and spiritually nourishing, A Book of Silence details how theologian and author Sara Maitland discovered in her maturity a deepening hunger for silence. Out of her own longing, she explores silence in many settings, from the desert to the moors to the wide open sea.
Prayer and Prophecy (New York: Seabury Books, 2009)
One of my favorite authors, Ken Leech wrote about topics like spiritual direction and contemplative prayer while working tirelessly in some of the poorest neighborhoods of London, helping homeless youth and drug addicts, combating racism, and fostering interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. This book is a compendium of his best writing. Look on page 230 for one of the most compelling comments on contemplation that I have ever read.