It’s always a little awkward to write about my own books. But today’s post is in response to a reader of my blog who asked me this question:
Carl, Is there an order in which you would recommend reading your books? Is there a flow?
Thanks for asking. I’m only going to address the books I’ve written or edited since becoming a Catholic — there are five in print now, and a sixth one is coming out next spring. They could be divided into two sets of three. Three of the books focus on Christian mysticism, and the other three are more general explorations of Christian spirituality. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap between these two topics! But for the purposes of this blog post, the Christian mysticism books are primarily grounded in the wisdom and teachings of the great mystics of the past. Even though the mystics show up in my “spiritual” books as well, those books are primarily focussed on helping the reader to deepen his or her spirituality, here and now.
Assuming that most people find “spirituality” to be a more accessible topic than “mysticism,” I’ll begin with the spiritual books and then move on to the more mystical ones. This is also practical, since the third of the “mystical” books won’t be published until next April.
Invitations to Christian Spirituality
Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path — the subtitle right away shows that, while this book is intended as an introduction to Christian contemplative spirituality, it is also meant for someone who wants to understand how Christian mysticism applies to spirituality in our time. But this book assumes no prior knowledge of mysticism or contemplative spirituality, so it is an ideal “beginners book.” But even if you are already familiar with those concepts, or have been following my blog for a while or reading the writings of authors like Cynthia Bourgeault or Richard Rohr, I still would suggest starting with this book: the final third of it offers insight into classical Christian understandings of the role of silence in prayer and how contemplative unites us with Christ, especially in light of kenosis — the emptiness within us that God wishes to fill with love.
Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality — whereas Answering the Contemplative Call is a broad overview of spiritual practice, Befriending Silence offers a more focused look at a specific “school” of contemplation: the spirituality of Cistercian/Trappist monks and nuns, and particularly how that spirituality can be embraced by people who aren’t called to the cloistered life. Trappist spirituality has inspired some of the most beloved of contemporary spiritual teachers, including Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, Michael Casey, and William Meninger. But Befriending Silence is the first comprehensive look at the rich spirituality of the Trappists and other Cistercians, making this beautiful tradition accessible to everyone.
The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia — C. S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books are beloved children’s stories, each of which explores an aspect of Christian faith and living. Many people do not realize that one of the Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, actually presents the dynamics of Christian spirituality (and even Christian mysticism) under its charming guise as a novel for children (of all ages). The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on Lewis’s book, shining a light on how Lewis drew on the teachings of the great mystics and saints through the ages to introduce key elements of the spiritual life, including being set free from sin, learning to let go of attachments, discovering the hidden treasures of silence, learning to face fears and darkness, and finally embracing the wonders of a mature life dedicated to love. For children of all ages, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a journey toward divine love, and my book is a guide to help you to understand and enjoy the way.
Explorations of Christian Mysticism
The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality — a famous twentieth century theologian, Karl Rahner, once remarked “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” That’s an ominous statement, and given how many churches are losing members rapidly in our time, it seems to be prophetic. Perhaps Christianity needs to rediscover its own, largely forgotten, mystical heritage — before it’s too late! The Big Book of Christian Mysticism aims to do just that. This book explores what mysticism is, how it fits in with Christian faith and spirituality, what is unique about Christian mysticism, and why this is important not only for Christians but for anyone interested in a deeper spiritual life.
- Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages — If The Big Book of Christian Mysticism answers the question “what is mysticism and why does it matter?” this book answers the question, “Who are the mystics, and why are they important?” But it’s not just a history book or an encyclopedia. The book is organized to help readers discover the rich variety of the Christian mystics, the qualities that characterize their many different approaches to God, and perhaps most important of all, encourages the reader to reflect on your unique spiritual path to God. There’s no “one size fits all” kind of mystic: each one is unique, and has his or her own way of expressing divine love in their lives. When we learn about the mystics, we are invited to discover our unique way of embracing that love, in our lives.
The Little Book of Christian Mysticism — okay, you’ve learned what mysticism is, and who the mystics were/are. Finally, in this book the mystics get to speak for themselves. For The Little Book of Christian Mysticism I have gathered hundreds of quotations from mystics, ranging from Biblical times to the present day, and arranged them according to traditional mystical understandings of growth in the spirit. Each chapter begins with a brief explanation from me, but then I get out of the way and let the mystics speak — and their words are inspiring, enlightening, challenging, beautiful, poetic, and sometimes almost zen-like. You could read this book straight through for a nice overview of mystical wisdom, but you could also use it as a daily devotional, perfect for inspirational reading or to supplement your regular prayer and meditation. Pre-order now — to be published in April 2018.
A Final Thought
If you’re primarily interested in learning about mysticism, start with the mystical trilogy. If you’re primarily interested in cultivating your own spirituality, then start with the spiritual books. Or, jump back and forth between the two. If you decide to go that route, I’d suggest reading them in this order:
- Answering the Contemplative Call
- The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
- Befriending Silence
- Christian Mystics
- The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader
- The Little Book of Christian Mysticism
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