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.
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.