This is a delightful book. Mysticism is not a topic generally associated with C. S. Lewis, who even claimed in one of his later books that he was not a mystic and never would attempt to be one! But Professor Downing does a wonderful job of showing that this was just Lewis’s humility speaking, and in fact there is a strong vein of mystical wisdom and insight coursing through his writings, especially his fiction. Lewis loved reading the writings of the great mystics, corresponded with Evelyn Underhill, and described his own conversion as moving “into the region of awe.” Like they say, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” What I find particularly lovely about this book is Downing’s down-to-earth but spot-on description of what Christian mysticism is. If you’d like a case study of ordinary mysticism, this is it. And if you love C. S. Lewis’s fiction, this book will open your eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about the spiritual writing of this beloved author.
Kenneth Leech was one of the most important theologians of our time, not least because he was a living embodiment of the great maxim of the 4th century contemplative Evagrius Ponticus: “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” So the best way to teach the living Christian tradition is not to engage in arcane speculation about the nature of God — but rather to initiate one into prayer, which means a living, life-changing relationship with God. And that’s what Leech invites us into with this accessible book that considers prayer from all angles. Leech was a contemplative, and so True Prayer acknowledges the importance of contemplation (“Creative silence is a necessary part of prayer,” he remarks at one point), but it also presents prayer in a very grounded, real-world manner, considering how prayer impacts our interpersonal, social, and political lives. Ultimately, though, prayer always takes us back to God. “To pray is to open oneself to the possibility of sainthood, to the possibility of becoming set on fire by the Spirit,” warns Leech. This book may well be the match that lights the fire.
Mystics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
This wonderful book explores the question “what is mysticism?” through the life stories and teachings of nine mystics: seven from the Christian tradition (including Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Merton), plus Rumi (Sufism) and Dōgen (Zen). So the book is anchored in the Christian contemplative path, but has a nice interspiritual dimension as well. Emerging out of Fr. Harmless’s experience as a college professor, he had done a marvelous job at balancing scholarship and accessibility in creating this book, which is a delight to read and packed with insight. He successfully demonstrates that, far from being a monolithic type of “experience,” mysticism actually comes in many shapes and sizes, although all its varieties are linked together by an intentional commitment to nurturing the soul (and, for theists, nurturing intimacy with God).
In the School of Contemplation (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2015)
André Louf was the abbot of a Trappist Cistercian monastery in France for nearly thirty-five years; he is the author of several modern spiritual classics, including The Cistercian Way and Teach Us to Pray. In 2004 a French edition of this book was published, pulling together a variety of Dom André’s talks and monastic conferences on topics such as community, obedience, ecumenism, the Psalms and the Liturgy, and (of course) contemplation and the contemplative life. In “Spiritual Experience” the author gently describes how our contemporary obsession with experience needs to be grounded in discernment, prayer, and witness. The twelve chapters offer a wonderful insight into monastic formation as it takes place in our time, and invites the reader to be formed by this wisdom as we each seek our own life given to contemplation.
One of the great joys of my relationship with the Monastery of the Holy Spirit has been the opportunity to get to know Br. Elias Marechal. Unassuming and soft-spoken, beneath his humble demeanor he is a true master of the spiritual life — and in his book, Tears of an Innocent God, he poetically and evocatively shares his wisdom with us. Br. Elias is a storyteller and a poet, and so this book is rich with narrative, parable, and striking images. While it includes some useful spiritual exercises, it is not a “how to” book but rather a nuanced expression of what it means to be a contemplative, seen from the inside.
The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)
Here is a six-hundred-page treasure: a collection of 77 sermons by a seventh century mystic, Isaac the Syrian (also known as Isaac of Ninevah). Syriac Christianity has a long mystical streak, and St. Isaac one of its most eloquent and renowned voices. Be sure to check out homily 28 — if you’re anything like me, you’ll find St. Isaac’s theology of eternity and the love of God to be beautiful (but not sentimental) and profoundly intuitive.
Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015)
The latest encyclical from Pope Francis has garnered a lot of attention, for never has a Pope spoken so forcefully about the duty of Christians — really, of all people — to care for the environment, and to work to stop such problems as global warming. The Pope’s critics whine that he takes a scolding tone in this document, and certainly this is not meant to be a “feel good” read. Even if you are predisposed to agree with Pope Francis, you may find this to be a challenging and sobering read. However, anyone with a clear grasp of Christian spirituality cannot dispute its central thesis: that stewardship for the environment is integrally linked with care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the human family, and that both social and environmental justice are impossible without a firm spiritual foundation.
Beautifully illustrated and featuring a number of noted contributors (Laurence Freeman, Esther de Waal, Kallistos Ware, Shirley du Boulay and Andrew Louth, among others), this narrative history of Christian contemplation looks at the key figures in two millennia of Church history. Starting with Freeman’s thoughtful essay of Jesus as a contemplative teacher, the anthology explores how both the theology and practice of silence and prayer are found in every chapter of Christian tradition. I only have one quibble with the book: the final chapter profiles John Main, begging the question why other prominent late twentieth century contemplatives (like Thomas Keating) were left out.
When she was only 27 years old, tragedy struck Paula D’Arcy’s life, when an accident took the life of her husband and her daughter, leaving Paula a young, pregnant widow. She gave birth the following spring and began a profound journey of grief and spiritual discovery, beautifully chronicled in this deceptively simple book. The Gift of the Red Bird is suffused with nature mysticism in the best sense of the word, culminating with a vision-quest retreat in the Texas wilderness, nearly fourteen years after the accident. D’Arcy understands that spiritual writing ultimately tells a love story between the author and God, and she does so beautifully in this short but rich book, filled with longing, insight and wildness. When the author emerges from the wilderness and writes that she has been changed, we the readers can feel it — and perhaps we have been changed as well.
The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010)
This is a pricey book (so you might want to check it out of your local library), but it’s certainly worth tracking down, simply because Underhill’s letters are such a delight. As one of the foremost British writers on Christian spirituality and mysticism in the first four decades of the twentieth century, Underhill published a large array of books, some scholarly, some devotional, but nearly all suffused with her elegance and reserve. Thankfully, in her letters — ranging from loving missives to her husband, to fascinating correspondence with people like C. S. Lewis, Rufus Jones, or the Archbishop of Canterbury — we see a less guarded Evelyn Underhill, where she is willing to scold Lewis for his chauvinistic attitude toward animals or “purr” when telling her husband about a good review one of her books received. What is perhaps most important of all is how these letters reveal her genius as a spiritual director, providing common-sense advice and insightful encouragement to those who wrote to her seeking counsel. While this is not the first volume of Underhill’s letters to be published, its careful annotations make it the essential collection.
Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986)
During the third year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian, I was assigned to read Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OCSO. Like so much monastic writing, this book is a gently written, meditative exploration of “what monks do” — the habits and exercises that not only shape the monastic day, but that over time help to form the character of a monk. For those of us who are not called to the life of the cloister, reading about such topics as the monastic cell and monastic decorum can be inspiring in a kind of analogical sense: in other words, by discovering “what makes monks tick,” we are invited to reflect on how we can fully live a contemplative spiritual life, even outside of the walls of a cloister. Of course, many topics in this book (silence, prayer, lectio divina) can be directly applied to the circumstances of any reader, monastic or not.
A nice bonus in this book are M. Bernarda Seferovich, O.Cist.’s lovely black and white illustrations on the cover and interspersed throughout the text.
While I am not wild about the word “experience” in the subtitle, there is much to love about this book by a former Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Sun at Midnight is a brief but eloquent statement about how important mystical spirituality is to a living, healthy faith. Dom Bernardo clearly understands that the heart of mysticism is mystery, and that for Christians the supreme doorway into the mystery of God is the life of Christ. As a monk, he also recognizes, and beautifully affirms, how the essential elements of the monastic charism — work and prayer, the daily office, the sense of solitude and compunction that shapes the cloistered life — all invite the monk deeper in the mystery of Christ. Those of us who are not monks can still find much inspiration in these pages, for a lively mysticism is necessary not only for a healthy monasticism, but indeed for a healthy faith community at large.
What the Mystics Know (New York: Crossroad, 2015)
First, let me admit something: I’m not crazy about books that anthologize excerpts of writings from other sources. I find such “taken out of context” selections to be jarring to read. But that’s just my bias, so I’m recommending What the Mystics Know even though it’s that kind of book: sort of a “best of Richard Rohr,” at least in terms of his sizable corpus of writings published by Crossroad. Broadly divided into seven categories including enlightenment, imperfection, suffering, paradox, contemplation, truth and transformation, this book gathers together much of Father Richard’s easily accessible wisdom — not only on mysticism, but indeed on life in general. If you’re not familiar with Rohr, this would be a great starting point; if you already know his work, What the Mystics Know could work beautifully as a daily devotional.
Translated by Maurice O’C Walshe with revisions and a foreword by Bernard McGinn, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart offers nearly 600 pages of English translations of the great medieval mystic’s German writings. With 97 sermons and five treatises, there’s enough material here for months, if not years, of study. Eckhart generally was more daring in his German works than in his Latin compositions, so it’s here that you’ll get the full sweep of his speculative mystical thought.
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.