This question showed up in my email inbox this morning:
If you could select three books to recommend to all who seek to develop their spiritual practice, what would they be?
It’s a tricky question because of the word “all.” Two of the the three books I’m recommending here are Christian in origin and scope, but I believe all three can be profitably read by both Christians and non-Christians. Anyone with an ideologically rigid understanding of Christianity (either for or against) will have trouble with one or more of these books. But my first advice for spiritual seekers is to learn to hold beliefs lightly anyway.
- Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault is the heir apparent of the centering prayer movement, an unlikely enough candidate (as an Episcopal clergywoman, she’s certainly cut from a different cloth than the Trappist monks who were centering prayer’s first spokesmen). But this book shows why she is such a splendid teacher of contemplative prayer for our time. The phrase “centering prayer” has itself become a bit of jargon — a lightning-rod for conservatives and a potential stumbling block for anyone who resists reducing spiritual practice to a method. So I think the book ought to be re-titled Contemplation and Inner Awakening; after all, everything Bourgeault says about centering prayer is just as applicable to other approaches to non-discursive meditation. This book is the best starting point because it’s an easy and accessible guide to the single most important element of spirituality: the daily practice. Since the other books on my list are more theoretical in nature, this book is the essential place to begin.
- Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich. Written in the late fourteenth century by an anonymous medieval woman recluse (“Julian” refers to the saint for whom her church was named), this poetic and shimmering tale of mystical visions remains startlingly relevant here in the 21st century. “Julian” was a devout Christian woman who prayed for a deepened sense of solidarity with Christ in his passion; she got more than she bargained for when during a serious illness she received a series of vivid “showings” of Christ, Mary, the Blessed Trinity, paradise, and even the spirit of evil. The boook not only recounts her revelations, but provides richly evocative theological reflections on her experience. Although the author’s emphasis on Christ’s suffering and blood may seem both medieval and obsessive, the book’s overriding themes of God’s joyful love and lavish grace can inspire anyone, and will prove particularly liberating for those who have been taught to fear God’s wrath and judgment. This is a great case study in mystical experience and in how to “unpack” such experience, balancing personal reflection with an appreciation for tradition. Read the John Skinner translation; of all the ones I’ve read, it’s by far the best.
- A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber. Two of the towering issues of our time include the question of how to weave together spirituality with a scientific worldview, including a critical understanding of history, myth, and psychology, and the question of how different religious traditions ought to relate to one another. Wilber, who made a name for himself writing about integrating eastern and western theories of human consciousness, here takes on both of these issues, seeking to create a grand “map” of both human consciousness and the cosmos as a whole, integrating the wisdom of science and religion, and of eastern and western spirituality, into a unified theory of, well, everything. Wilber is not a Christian and Christians who read his writing might wish he had more to say about such categories as grace and salvation, as well as the question of encountering God as “other” — given his emphasis on science, he presents an evolutionary model of spiritual growth and development. But he never attacks Christianity, rather he provides insight into those who want an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest, culturally sensitive, and scientifically reasonable.
How can I limit to just three? Many others that I could list as honorable mentions. But these are good to start with.