Suggested Reading for Protestant Mysticism and Contemplative Spirituality

If you’re going to participate in the class on the Protestant Mystics that I’ll be teaching at First Christian Church of Atlanta starting on April 6, then you might enjoy reading one or more of these books. They’re all written by Protestant authors and each one features a different dimension of Christian spirituality that is mystical and/or contemplative in its focus. None of these books are required for the class, but they are all well worth reading — so I’m listing them here for your optional consideration (and if you’re not going to be in the class, or live outside of Atlanta, reading one or more of these books can be a way for you to explore the mystical dimension of Protestant spirituality on your own. Remember, for the purposes of the class (and this book list) “Protestant” is used as an umbrella term to describe any of the western churches with roots in the Reformation or its aftermath, including the Anglican, Reformed, and Evangelical traditions.

Happy reading!

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. Yes, this is a children’s book — but it is for “children of all ages,” and furthermore is a richly evocative allegory of the traditional understanding of the spiritual life. Conversion, reconciliation, liberation from the bondage of sin, temptation, embracing of silence, growth in holiness, the dark night of the soul, the experience of illumination and consolation, and the final dazzling experience of union are all treated in turn, under the guise of a charming story of children taking a magical sea voyage to the “End of the World.” It’s fascinating, in that C. S. Lewis, like many devout Protestants, was uncomfortable with the term “mysticism” and disavowed that he himself was a mystic. But reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with an eye for the elements of mysticism, you might begin to think that Lewis was overly-humble.

Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. This classic book, first published in 1915, is a wonderful companion piece to Underhill’s earlier work, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. In the earlier work she established herself as a scholar of Christian mysticism with a scholarly, academic treatment of her topic. Practical Mysticism, as its title implies, is not so much about the theory of mystical spirituality as it’s real-world relevance to, in Underhill’s pre-inclusive-language words, “the average man.” Assuming no knowledge of mysticism, she begins by defining her terms and explaining the value and importance of mysticism in the language of ordinary men and women, drawing her illustrations from family and professional life as much as from religion. Underhill provides step-by-step instruction for engaging in basic spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation; although her century-old language is somewhat dated, the content of her work remains relevant today.

Mystical Hope by Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault is the only author in this list who is alive now; an Anglican (Episcopal) priest from British Columbia, she is a respected teacher of centering prayer and her books have been lauded as some of the best available literature on that particular spiritual practice. But Bourgeault’s contribution to Christian spirituality goes beyond merely supporting the revival of Christian meditation; she has a clear vision of Christian spirituality as transformation of consciousness and her work is based on the idea that Jesus is not only the Savior and the Son of God, but is a profound wisdom teacher whose words can literally transform our lives. Mystical Hope is Bourgeault’s shortest book, about transforming our relationship with God from fearful duty to joyous love and trust; it’s a brief and accessible introduction to the visionary nature of her teaching.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. This inspirational classic was written expressly for women, but I think its message is sufficiently universal that men should read it as well. While not “mystical” in the sense of dramatic or extraordinary, this gentle and unassuming book uses the metaphor of different seashells to celebrate the promise and pleasure that can be found in a contemplative, mindful approach to life. The book recounts the story of the author’s retreat on a Florida beach; reading it can be almost an “inner retreat” for those whose life circumstances may not permit a month or so spent by the shore. Written in the 1950s before the significant social changes of the following decade (including the rise of modern feminism), Gift From the Sea sometimes reads like a memo from a lost, earlier, simpler age; but the values it advocates — putting family before ambition, for example — remain, if anything, even more urgently important today than ever.

Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. This book is kind of a twentieth century homage to The Pilgrim’s Progress, in that it features allegorical characters with stylized names like Much-Afraid, Dismal Forebodings and Grace and Glory. Like her name indicates, Much-Afraid struggles with lack of faith, and finds her transformation by learning to trust the Shepherd, and allowing herself to be led to new heights of love, joy and victory. Moving through her fears and torments to reach the High Places, Much-Afraid receives not only a new name, but a new calling — to take her transformed life back down into the valley of Service.

So there you go — several books to read with an eye to how Christians from the Anglican and Reformed traditions have explored the call to go deeper into the Christian spiritual life. Enjoy.

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  1. I love your book suggestions. Thank God for the public library! LOL

  2. Thank you for this list.

    I’ve read a couple of these works (Lewis’s and Underhill’s) and really enjoyed them. I’ll put the others on my “to read” list.

    I hope a list like this one and your course help put to rest the flawed assumption being spread around the mystic/gnostic internet that the Protestant branch has nothing to contribute to the more mystical, inward forms of Christianity.


  3. Indeed, Lewis was overly humble. Being a career medievalist, I doubt he could help but put elements of mysticism in his works, just as he put in elements of medieval astrology (Cf. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis), though I doubt that either could be maintained as the one absolutely foundational creative factor in his Chronicles, nor the key to unlocking his entire theological framework–not saying that you’ve put forward mysticism to be such, though Michael Ward has put forward his theory as such.

  4. More work needs to be done toward a Protestant approach to mysticism. I was raised a Congregationalist, but never heard the word until introduced to it by an Indian Nobel physicist at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.

    Through him I met Swami Nikhilananda in New York, my first mentor, who led me to a Carnegie grant to study in India. There I met Dr. Radhakrishnan, President of India and foremost Hindu scholar, who had long been a professor at Oxford.

    It wasn’t 30 years later that I learned of the rich mystical tradition of Christianity, whose prominent mystics were Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. Most Protestants had rejected direct experience of the divine taught by mysticism.

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