Will and Spirit (New York: HarperCollins, 1982)
I’ve often said Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism is “the book that changed my life” but truth be told, Gerald May’s Will and Spirit had nearly as significant an impact. As Underhill introduced me to the mystical tradition within Christianity, May opened the door to how that tradition lives on today. Drawing on both science and theology, May attempts to chart what he calls a “contemplative psychology” and I think he largely succeeds.
Vietnamese Buddhisk monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers another gentle book filled with insight and commonsense spirituality. He celebrates his subject, silence, particularly in terms of the radiant silence found within each of us — as long as, and as soon as, we stop to listen. Anecdotes from the author’s own life, particularly in Viet Nam during the war, add color and depth to his narrative. This book is a lovely, inspirational call to find, and cherish, more silence in our frenzied lives.
Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (New York: Cliff Street Books (HarperCollins), 1997)
Nearly twenty years after its publication, John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom remains one of the most beautiful and poetic statements of Celtic Christianity, not as some sort of historical artifact from the days of Saint Patrick, but as a living reality still found in the out-of-the-way places of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. By exploring themes such as friendship, the senses, solitude, work, aging and death, O’Donohue — still a Catholic priest when this book was written — invites the reader into a place of meditative pondering and silent wonder. Read it slowly, and then read it again.
One of the best books on contemplative prayer that I have ever read, Into the Silent Land is rich with quotations from the Christian saints and mystics, especially those of the east, and reveals how important silence, posture, and attentiveness are to the practice of attentive prayer. Laird’s writing is clear and luminous, and his understanding of the essential nonduality between God and God’s beloved creation makes this book a worthy addition to the mystical canon as well. Chapter Four, “The Three Doorways of the Present Moment,” is a particularly helpful discussion of the dynamics of the distracted human mind as it gently settles deeper and deeper into God’s gracious silent presence. For aspiring or seasoned contemplatives alike, this is a book you will read and treasure again and again.
Fully Human Fully Divine (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 2004)
“According to the teaching of many Church Fathers, particularly those of the East, Christian life consists not so much in being good as in becoming God.” So begins Michael Casey in this bold and important book which explores the lost doctrine of deification or divinization while reflecting on the Gospel of Mark. If his works strike you as scandalous, hold them alongside this gem of a quotation from the twelfth century Cistercian mystic and theologian, William of St Thierry: “When the soul reaches out in love to anything, a certain change takes place in it by which it is transmuted into the object loved.” (Meditations 3.8). Deification is not about assuming the nature of God, but through love we are invited into a type of mystical conformity with Christ. And by exploring this theme in a book about the Gospel of Mark, Casey illustrates how it has been a part of Christian identity from the very beginning.
One of the most celebrated of twentieth century writers, Flannery O’Connor’s Irish Catholic roots (and devout faith) shaped her southern gothic fiction, essays and letters. This concise anthology collects a representative sampling of O’Connor’s work to showcase her nuanced spirituality — and like all of her writing, what emerges is a keen insight laced with occasional biting wit.
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.