Benedict’s Dharma (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001)
This book is an interesting interfaith experiment — in which four Buddhists (Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Judith Simmer-Brown and Yifa) reflect on the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. For Christians, this is an interesting way to see how one of our foundational contemplative texts can be seen by practitioners of other wisdom traditions. While on occasion I found myself arguing with the various writers on one point or another, for the most part Benedict’s Dharma is a respectful, yet honest, contribution to interspiritual dialogue. It also includes an inclusive-language translation of Rule by Patrick Barry, OSB, and commentary from Christian monastics Mary Margaret Funk and David Steindl-Rast.
Draw Me Into Your Friendship (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996)
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius can be difficult reading, even in contemporary English translation. Ignatius originally wrote the exercises as notes for a retreat, and so it reads as a kind of outline, which, in fact, it is. Add to that the normal challenges involved in reading a text almost five hundred years old and composed in a foreign culture, and it’s easy to see why this text, mystical classic though it is, may be challenging for 21st-century Americans. Enter David L. Fleming, whose Draw Me Into Your Friendship is a Godsend: on facing pages is a literal translation of the Spiritual Exercises, along with a “contemporary reading” — part commentary, part paraphrase, part imaginative rendering into a voice for our time. The result is a book that works both for study and devotional reading, unlocking the treasures of Ignatius and revealing his spiritual genius.
The “Complete” Cloud of Unknowing (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015)
The Complete Cloud of Unknowing isn’t really “complete” — the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is associated with seven medieval texts, only two of which appear in this volume. But those two, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Letter of Privy Counsel, are certainly the most important works by this unknown author, two classics of medieval Christian contemplative spirituality, essential for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God through the practice of silent prayer. They are rich texts, full of nuanced wisdom that often gets lost in modern translations. Father John–Julian has captured the beauty, humor and literary elegance of the original versions, but also has supplemented his translation with detailed notes that convey the subtle spiritual insight that makes these works required reading.
Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006)
I was assigned to read this book in the final year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian. So it’s not what I would call a “beginner’s” book on Cistercian spirituality, but rather a rich and nuanced study of the spirituality of this particular tradition, drawing deeply and heavily from the writings of the Cistercian fathers, authors like Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Aelred of Rievaulx. Its theme — “Passing from Self to God” — represents a core principle of Cistercian spirituality: that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are called to restore the Divine likeness within us, by turning away from the many attachments of the self to the luminous simplicity of intimacy with God. The book stands on its own as a spiritual masterpiece, but for those seeking insight into the Cistercian tradition, it also functions as a window into that medieval world.
Prayer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006)
First published in 1967 in India, Prayer is a short (120 pages) but substantial exploration of its topic, in the light of its author’s lifetime of exploration which crossed the boundaries between east and west. Born in Brittany in 1910 and christened Henri Le Saux, the author became a Benedictine monk and moved to India where he prayed alongside great Christians (Bede Griffiths) and Hindus (Ramana Maharshi) and took a new name, which means “Bliss of the Anointed Lord.” Like all great interfaith encounters, the spirituality of Prayer is not a mishmash but rather a deeply Christian book, deeply informed by the nondual wisdom of Vedanta. This particular translation is based on an expanded French edition which was published in 1971, two years before the author’s death.
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991)
If you are going to study the great Christian mystics and contemplatives you need to read St. John of the Cross. It’s not always easy reading, but it is insightful, edifying, and luminous. St. John of the Cross is perhaps the greatest of the “negative” or apophatic mystics, and his beautiful poetry and discerning prose reveal the importance of a trusting spirituality that transcends mere experiences or emotionalism in its singular longing for union with the Divine Beloved. This one volume collects all of his poetry, as well as both minor and major works (including his masterpiece, The Dark Night of the Soul) into one book, superbly translated and edited by Carmelite scholars
This delightful book, by one of my favorite contemporary authors, demystifies the world of Ignatian (Jesuit) spirituality by showing how it can be applied to real-world living. James Martin is a master at taking historical spiritual theology and illustrating its timeless value by using down-to-earth stories from his own life as well as the lives of many of his Jesuit brothers. He is an honest writer who skillfully presents some difficult ideas in a way that is accessible and meaningful. This book covers Ignatian approaches to faith in God, prayer, discernment, relationships and vocation. When I read it, I concurrently read Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and I think Martin does a superb job at showing how this sixteenth century spirituality remains vital and relevant today — not just for Jesuits, but for everybody.
The obvious editions of The Rule of Saint Benedict for both research and devotional use, featuring both the Latin text and a serviceable English translation, are either the RB1980 edition, edited by Timothy Fry, or Terence Kardong’s Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Yes, I own them both and I would suggest anyone serious about living the Rule (whether inside or outside the cloister) will sooner or later want both of these books. However (you knew this was coming!), as a contemplative, I believe both Fry and Kardong provide an overly cautious translation of the Prologue verse 9. From the Latin “et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen,” the RB1980 gives us “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God” and Kardong, “Let us open our eyes to the divine light.” But Luke Dysinger offers a more literal translation (notice he retains the word “et”): “And let us open our eyes to the deifying light.” It may be a subtle difference, but I consider it an important one: we need to regain a theology of deification, and one way to do that is to reclaim how our ancestral Christians wrote about this key aspect of the spiritual life. So for this reason alone, I suggest you need this translation of the Rule as well. Unfortunately it’s out of print, but inexpensive used copies seem easy to find. Grab one now before they become scarce.
The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises (Exeter, Devon: Catholic Records Press, 1982)
This is a hard book to locate, but it’s well worth tracking down. I first learned of its existence when I saw a copy tucked away in a monastery library, and it took me several months of searching online for a used copy, since it apparently has been out of print for years. But I found my copy, and hopefully you’ll find yours as well. Phyllis Hodgson edited all the Middle English manuscripts associated with The Cloud of Unknowing — an anonymously written manual of instruction in contemplative prayer, probably penned by a Carthusian monk as a work of spiritual direction for a younger novice. Six other, much shorter, treatises are generally believed to be written (or translated) by the same author. The Early English Text Society published the Hodgson editions in two volumes, but those books are themselves hard to find; this edition from Catholic Records Press is the only book I know of that gathers all seven treatises attributed to the Cloud author, in Middle English, in one volume. So it is a wonderful book both for personal devotion and for research.
The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997)
I think one could make the case that The Cloister Walk was the single most important and influential book since Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, published half a century earlier, in terms of introducing the spirituality and life of monks and monasteries to a mainstream audience. But whereas Merton’s confessional story recounts his own journey of response to a monastic vocation, Norris — a woman, and a married Presbyterian at that — tells the story more of an outsider’s appreciation, although as a Benedictine Oblate she gets about as close to the world of the cloister as a non-monk can. Like Merton, Norris is a poet, and so she brings literary beauty and elegant eloquence to her writing; making this book a delight to read. And while she clearly loves the monks and their centuries-old way of life, she is also not afraid to ask hard questions and express her own doubts and sense of disconnection, which gives this book a sense of honesty and candor that more self-consciously pious works sometimes lack.
The Writings of Julian of Norwich (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2006)
Julian of Norwich was not only a great mystic, but also a great writer, dancing along the frontier between poetry and prose as she eloquently gave voice to her sixteen showings (visions) and her years of theological reflection in response to them. She wrote a brief treatise shortly after receiving her showings, and a longer, more mature text some twenty years after the fact, describing the same events in her life but with a more nuanced description of their meaning. Because she was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer (writing in Middle English), Julian’s work is often translated for contemporary readers, but it is only in meeting her words in the language she herself would have used that we can appreciate the full beauty of her voice. Several editions of Julian’s work in the original Middle English are available, but this one from Penn State is far and away my favorite. Not only is it a beautifully designed book, with comprehensive notes to help unlock the mysteries of fourteenth-century vocabulary, but it also contains an in-depth foreword describing the various manuscripts that exist of Julian’s writings, and the challenges that face both scholars and students as we seek to encounter Julian’s words as she wrote them. Best of all, this edition includes both the short and long versions of her text, allowing readers insight into how Julian’s own thought evolved in her lifetime.
The Road to Eternal Life (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)
Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO, who was Thomas Merton’s last secretary, praised Michael Casey for writing “with clarity and grace.” Nowhere is this more evident than when he writes about The Rule of Saint Benedict, and in The Road to Eternal Life he offers an in-depth commentary of arguably the most important part of the Rule, the prologue. Moving through the prologue’s fifty verses one at a time, Casey provides a rich commentary, seasoned by his long life not only as a monk but a writer and novice master. The commentary on verse 40, where Casey reflects on how Cartesian dualism has crippled the way meditation is understood in the west, is alone worth the price of the book. If you want a beautifully-written explication of a how a sixth-century monastic document remains spiritually vital and relevant in our time, look no further than this book.
The Sacred Gaze (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014)
The Sacred Gaze is more than just an insightful overview of the relationship between healing and spirituality: it is a splendid general introduction to contemplative prayer. Susan R. Pitchford understands that contemplation is, at heart, about beholding — a revolutionary way of viewing life, love, and God. Authenticity, healing, and kenosis (emptying) are at the heart of contemplative beholding, and Pitchford explores each of these key elements in turn. With humility and grace, she explains the beauty and power of contemplative seeing, and how praying in this way can help you to become the authentic person God has created you to be.
The Philokalia and the Inner Life (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012)
The Philokalia and the Inner Life: On Passions and Prayer is a splendid guide to one of the most important yet challenging anthologies of spiritual writing in western spirituality. The Philokalia, a multi-volume anthology of early Christian and Eastern Orthodox writings on prayer and holiness, is a treasure of the Christian contemplative tradition — and can also be daunting to the first-time reader. Christopher C. H. Cook provides a substantive introduction to The Philokalia considering it not only from a theological but also a psychological perspective. Like all great works of mystical or contemplative theology, the writings of The Philokalia address questions of mental as well as spiritual health, regarding the passions (what we might think of as unskillful thoughts and feelings, such as anger, greed or arrogance) as key challenges not which not only thwart our ability to respond to God’s grace, but also to live a good and happy life. Reminiscent of contemporary psychological interventions like cognitive therapy (which holds that changing thoughts is a key to emotional well-being), the spirituality of The Philokalia recognizes that unhealthy thoughts are the chief impediment to the quest for holiness. In other words, The Philokalia functions as a type of manual for inner well-being, although it prescribes a “praying cure” rather than a “talking cure”!
What I particularly enjoyed about The Philokalia and the Inner Life is its multiple charts and diagrams, detailing not only how different authors in the tradition understood the passions, but also in-depth ways of understanding how the passions arise within us, the role of the Beatitudes in the spiritual life, and even a thorough analysis of the language of interiority found throughout the anthology. Maybe it’s a little geeky, but if you want to truly appreciate how the riches of The Philokalia can make a practical difference in your life today, then this book is an excellent guide.
Coming out of the evangelical tradition, Brian D. McLaren understands that some Christians may be nervous about a positive engagement with persons of other faiths because they wish to preserve a strong sense of Christian identity. This book explores this very issue, and recognizes that interfaith dialogue is a conversation, and need not be a threat to anyone’s faith. By looking at doctrine, liturgy, and mission, he takes on some of the obstacles that Christians may feel are holding them back from building interfaith relationships, and shows how, especially in today’s world, engagement with other religions is not a betrayal of Christian discipleship, but can and perhaps should be a necessary part of it.