Simply put, mysticism — at least, Christian mysticism — is all about love. To explore Christian mysticism basically means to explore love. It’s an invitation to join the noblest of human aspirations. Love has inspired poets and philosophers for as long as human beings have enjoyed telling a good story. Without love, we would have no Romeo and Juliet, no Tristan and Isolde, no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, no Wandering Aengus and the Glimmering Girl and, for that matter, no Song of Songs, no Jacob and Rachel, no Ruth and Boaz. Whether the topic is love won or lost, love thwarted or misunderstood, comic romance or passionate tragedy, there is nothing so fundamentally human as a good story about love. And mysticism is just that. It is the greatest of love stories. And that’s why it matters.
I wrote those words over a decade ago, but I still believe them with all my heart. So I want to celebrate Valentine’s Day by highlighting more than a dozen of my favorite mystical and contemplative books — because they’re all about love.
Maybe not the kind of love you normally associate with Valentine’s Day. But as I hinted in The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, you can’t have romantic love without the greatest love of all: the love that created all things. Mysticism is the story of our love affair with Love-with-a-Capital-L. And the human, earthly loves we enjoy — whether romantic, erotic, familial, or friendly — all begins with the love that comes from God, the love that “moves the sun and other stars.”
So this Valentine’s Day, give yourself — and your loved ones — the gift of mystical love. And if you’re reading this on any day other than February 14, well — Divine Love is something worth celebrating every single day of the year!
- Evelyn Underhill, An Anthology of the Love of God — this book is out of print but used copies are easy to find and not too expensive. It’s a wonderful introduction to the thought of one of the most lyrical of 20th century mystics — and, actually, a pretty good introduction to how mysticism is all about love. The book is arranged topically by how love is found in pretty much every aspect of the contemplative/mystical life.
- Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love — many great contemplatives and mystics have been dedicated journal-keepers: St. Faustina, George Fox, and Thomas Merton all come to mind. So, too, was Henri Nouwen, and this book records entries from his journals as he struggled through how own dark night of the soul — and found a path from anguish to freedom in the voice of Love within.
- Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love — All of Thomas Keating’s books about contemplation and Centering Prayer are classics. This one, subtitled “The Way of Christian Contemplation,” connects the dots between the practice of silent prayer and the embodied encounter with Love at the heart of the contemplative journey. It’s more than just an introductory book — it’s an in-depth exploration of contemplation.
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love — If any mystic is a poet of the love of God, it’s Julian of Norwich. Her writings, visionary and lyrical, offer us a rich insight into not only the love, but also the joy, at the heart of the Triune God, manifest in the overflowing compassion and care that Christ shows for all of us. Read Julian, and you’ll be forever cured of thinking of God as “wrathful.” All that’s there is love.
- Thomas Merton, Love and Living — “Love is the revelation of our deepest personal meaning, value, and identity.” So said Thomas Merton, one of the most beloved and influential of twentieth century mystics; this book is a collection of essays published after his death, exploring topics such as the good news of the nativity, the spirituality of Teilhard, the climate of mercy, and the universe as epiphany.
- Anthony deMello, The Way to Love — Subtitled “meditations for life,” this is the final collection of reflections by the popular Indian Jesuit, published shortly after his sudden death at age 55. deMello’s simple spiritual wisdom and accessible books were filled with parables and anecdotes all designed to foster spiritual awakening. Prayer, awareness, and authenticity form the way to love, and deMello is a sure guide.
- Mirabai Starr, God of Love — Mirabai weaves together the mystical beauty of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, showing how the heart of each tradition is a recognition of God as love. Integrating how each tradition combines contemplative mysticism with a mandate for justice and community, she gives voice to a visionary interspirituality for our time: a contemplative celebration of the divinity of love.
- Brendan Smith, The Silence of Divine Love — Smith, a British Benedictine monk, dives deep into the paradoxes of the contemplative life in this meditative book. Drawing on poetry but (as the title implies) steeped in silence, this book is ultimately a celebration of the mystery at the heart of all things. “All words are inadequate, even the poet’s,” admits the author, but his visionary words help us to find the silence of love.
- St. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love — One of the greatest of all mystics, St. John of the Cross was a renowned poet and theologian — best known for his awe-inspiring study of the dark night of the soul. Living Flame of Love shows his lesser known side: a true troubadour of divine felicity and intimacy. Based, like all his works, on his poetry, this book celebrates the intimacy of responding to God’s love for us.
- Ruth Burrows, Ascent to Love — Ruth Burrows is the pseudonym of the British Carmelite nun, whose down-to-earth writing celebrates the potential for authentic mystical union with God even here in our skeptical postmodern age. All of her books are worth reading, but this one, her commentary of the spirituality of John of the Cross, celebrates how the mystical life is for everyone, not just the “experts.”
- Jan van Ruusbroec, Love‘s Gradatory — Ruusbroec is a relatively obscure mystic, but was deeply admired by Evelyn Underhill; even a casual reading of his work reveals why. He was as daring as Meister Eckhart, but discerning enough to write in a manner that kept him from getting in trouble with church authorities. This book, like other mystical classics, offers an outline of spiritual growth as an unfolding of love.
- Gertrude of Helta, The Herald of Divine Love — Gertrude, a Benedictine nun of the thirteenth century, was known as “Gertrude the Great,” a clear indication of her reputation as a renowned mystic. The Herald of Divine Love recounts her visions, showing she was an early devotee to Christ’s sacred heart. Like so many mystics, her visions center on meeting Christ as the beloved, and seeking to be worthy of his love.
- Susan J. Stabile, Growing in Love and Wisdom — Ignatian spirituality meets Tibetan Buddhism in this creative and insightful collection of spiritual practices based on Tibetan sources. Stabile was a Buddhist nun for twenty years; after returning to Christianity she became a spiritual director. This is a wonderful book of meditations in its own right, but also a beautiful example of contemplative interspirituality.
Featured image: The Song of Songs, from Volume I of Bible of Borso d’Este, illuminated by Taddeo Crivelli (1425-1479) and others, Latin manuscript 422-423, folio 284, recto, parchment, 1455-1461, Italy, 15th century (detail).