Practical Mysticism & Abba (New York: Vintage Books, 2003)
Two of Evelyn Underhill’s shorter works are collected in one beautiful paperback edition. Practical Mysticism I consider to be one of her most acessible and important books, a gentle affirmation of how the mystical life is for everyone, not just saints or monks or nuns — and the steps that we “normal people” can take to begin to cultivate prayer, meditation, recollection and contemplation in our life. It’s beautifully written, easy to understand yet in no way “dumbed down,” and just as relevant today as when it was published in 1914. Many inexpensive editions of Practical Mysticism (both print and ebook) are available, but I like this particular one because it also includes a lesser-known gem: Abba, a series of meditations on the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer), originally published the year before Underhill’s death. These two short works span Underhill’s career, so together they provide a rich introduciton to one of our most under-appreciated 20th century mystics.
This anthology of short narrative nonfiction writings celebrates finding God (and meaning) in the ordinary. The author is a gifted writer and storyteller, who looks at his journey first as a parish priest, then as a mid-life Cistercian novice, and finds along with way an assortment of people, places and events that help him reflect on everyday kindnesses, life’s foibles and joys, and how grace (and wonder) shows up in the most down-to-earth and unexpected ways. “Life is grace revisited over and over, a wondrous, mysterious gift that began in the primordial soup and continues until the Creator calls us all home,” he writes. Most of these beautifully crafted vignettes and short stories are not pious in any overt religious sense, but still shimmer with a keenly expressed spiritual insight.
Day by Day These Things We Pray (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010)
It’s not often that a Mennonite pastor proclaims such a powerful and persuasive case for the Daily Office, but Arthur Boers has done just that in this enjoyable, accessible reflection on the spirituality of fixed-liturgical prayer and its value for Christians. This book is written by a Mennonite for Mennonites, so some of the language and assumptions driving the book may not be shared by all Christians. But as a Catholic, I find the book both inspiring and informative, and would recommend it to Christians of all denominations as a tool to help explain both the logic and the beauty of daily recited prayer.
Plenty of books exist to help you understand the Rule of Saint Benedict, or to encourage a daily study/devotional reading of this foundational monastic text. But there are good reasons to start with this one. Chittister, who is herself a Benedictine Sister, offers an honest and thoughtful consideration of how a text that is some 1500 years old continues to be relevant today — not only to monastics, but for anyone who is seeking an authentic spirituality in our chaotic age. Like Benedict himself, Chittister is down-to-earth (humble) and practical in her insightful reflections. Like many Rule devotionals, this is arranged to be read daily over a four month cycle, thereby making it an ideal text for your regular morning or evening practice.
This short little book — easily read in a single sitting — is filled with so much wisdom that you’ll want to own it, read it, read it again, and refer to it after that. Nouwen offers a disarmingly simple meditation on Christian leadership and how his understanding of it changed and grew after he moved into a L’Arche community. He learned that so much of what passes for “Christian” leadership is merely worldly values with a religious patina. Instead, Nouwen offers the challenging, but liberating, way of Christ: a way of deep prayer, humility, service, community, and reflection. Simply essential.
Seeking Surrender (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2015)
Colette Lafia tells the story of a special, seven-year-long letter writing friendship she forged with a Trappist monk of Gethsemani Abbey — and how the monk’s gentle wisdom, deep faith, and encouraging words helped her to trust and embrace life, especially as she moved through the grief of acknowledging that it was not her path to have children. It’s a gentle and warm book that gives insight into the nature of spiritual friendship and how monastic spirituality can be a blessing even to those of us who aren’t monks.
The Taste of Silence (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015)
With a disarming subtitle — “How I came to be at home with myself” — this book may seem to be just another memoir of someone living with illness (author Bieke Vandekerckhove, diagnosed with ALS in 1988 at age nineteen, died shortly after this English language edition of her book was published). But this book’s value goes far beyond the life story of its author, remarkable though that may be. It is a poetic and insightful meditation on the centrality of silence within any serious, sustained spiritual practice. Vandekerckhove drank not only from the wells of Benedictine and Trappist spirituality, but also embraced Ch’an Buddhism; in her writing she offers an articulate consideration of how silence is always the same, despite the many cultural and theological differences that distinguish one religious path from another. Brilliant in its simplicity, this is a book to read slowly and prayerfully.
The Reed of God (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 2006)
On the surface, this may look like just a pious little Catholic devotional book about Mary, suitable for Advent reading if your taste runs along these lines. But Caryll Houselander was a remarkable twentieth century mystic and her writing conveys much more depth than sentimentality. She appreciates silence, contemplative waiting, and the embodied nature of authentic Christian spirituality. When she asserts that a person lost in sin is like the tomb in which Christ rests — awaiting resurrection — she skewers conventional piety and judgmental religiosity while simultaneously weaving hope, compassion and mystical truth together. This is a must-read for Catholics, but anyone who is open to a meaningful meditation on Mary will want to peruse this book.
Finding the Treasure: Letters from a Global Monk (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2011)
A charming and humble autobiography of a twentieth-century Trappist monk, told in the form of letters written to a friend. Roberts, the son of an Anglican bishop, recounts his youth in the far east, conversion to Catholicism and eventual entry into Trappist life, leading ultimately to Rome where for years he served as an assistant to the Abbot General (the leader of Trappists worldwide). As he tells his story, Roberts provides a rich insight into cloistered life, along with down-to-earth reminisicences of several famous monks, including Thomas Keating and Bernardo Olivera. But most important of all is his candid sharing of his own inner life, as he continually sought to be faithful to Christ in the midst of his extraordinarily rich life.
I’ve read a number of wonderful books on the ancient monastic practice of Lectio Divina, but I keep coming back to this one. Steeped in the author’s own formation as a Trappist monk and spiritual guide, Sacred Reading provides a thoughtful look at lectio not only as a spiritual practice but as a method of theological mindfulness, of discerning the rich meaning of scripture, and ultimately of presenting oneself to the Holy Spirit for the purpose of ongoing formation in Christ.
If approached carelessly, lectio divina can be just another practice of solipsistic self-exploration, offering little benefit other than an opportunity to know the self better. It’s a good thing to know oneself, but this spiritual practice offers so much more, for it is really about knowing God — something Casey clearly understands and an insight which informs this must-read book.
Spiritual direction (or spiritual accompaniment) has become a widespread ministry in Catholic and mainstream Protestant circles over the last four decades, and this book by Kenneth Leech, published in 1977, may have directly contributed to its rise in popularity. Leech wrote the book with Anglican clergy in mind, only to discover that it found a larger audience among American laypeople. Heavily footnoted and steeped in history, it’s not a casual read — but it is a rich and rewarding one. The title comes from the Irish word anamchara (also spelled anam cara, as made popular in the 1990s by John O’Donohue), and speaks to the longstanding Celtic practice of elders providing spiritual mentoring to individuals. Leech explores not only the history of spiritual companionship, but also its therapeutic and prophetic (social/political) dimensions. Soul Friend is an essential book for anyone providing a ministry of spiritual companionship, but it is also a valuable book for anyone serious about the practice of Christian spirituality.
This is a short little book — 135 pages — but it very clearly spells out the mystical theology embedded in the New Testament letters of Saint Paul. An excellent corrective to the common (but erroneous) idea that “mysticism isn’t in the Bible.” In fact, mysticism is in the Bible the way love is in God — it’s inherent, but centuries of left-brained approaches to reading and interpreting Scripture has meant that, for most people, the mystical theology of the New Testament is hidden in plain sight. Jesuit author George Maloney looks at Paul’s theology of the Body, of Mystery, and of the Holy Spirit to weave together a wonderful introduction not only to the mystical thought of the Apostle, but of Christianity altogether.
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).