Last week, I wrote about the importance of finding wisdom teachers who can guide us and challenge us in our life journey. After I finished writing, I realized it might be fun to put together the teachers who have had the largest impact on my evolving spirituality.
So, here it is! I’ve organized them into categories based on how they’ve helped to shape my theology and worldview.
(And if you want to dive deeper into a couple of them, you can check out Wisdom Teachers to Guide Us over on my website.)
This post contains links to several book recommendations that have made a large impact on me; if you end up buying any of them, I’ll get a small commission from Amazon for sharing them.
Reconstructing My Faith From the Ashes
Perhaps nobody has done more to affirm and deepen my spirituality than Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and my academic dean at the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Having deconstructed my faith for years (thanks in large part to the late John Shelby Spong), Rohr’s teachings helped me to wade back into the waters of spirituality, reinterpreting the rituals and language I had been taught rather than throwing them all away. Launching the Center for Action and Contemplation to create a space for people to integrate their inner life with social justice, his teachings on incarnational mysticism and contemplation have changed my life. I recommend starting with his book Falling Upward or listening to his podcast “Another Name for Every Thing.”
Best known as the author of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese poet, artist, and mystic. I remember when I first picked up this little book – it was one of the first times poetic language pierced through my emotional shields and touched upon my inner heartspace. In many ways, I believe The Prophet helped prepare me and open me for the words of Rumi, Rupi Kaur, and Mary Oliver.
When I first encountered the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi, I remember breaking down in tears at the beauty of his words. Many of his metaphors and images crossed the vast barriers of culture and time and seemed to speak directly to my inner experience of the Divine. His poetry on sorrow and joy continues to be a welcome companion in my life. Coleman Barks has a good translation of his work, titled The Essential Rumi.
Teresa of Ávila
Teresa of Ávila is one of my oldest spiritual teachers, being the first mystic whose words I fell in love with. I remember riding buses throughout Seattle, so fully engulfed in The Interior Castle (translated by Mirabai Starr), that I would miss stops and have to walk for blocks to make up lost ground. She is a powerful guide for those looking for support in their own interior journeys.
If Thomas Merton recovered and reintroduced contemplative Christianity to the Christian community, it was Thomas Keating who found a way to apply it within normal, everyday life. Along with two others, he developed Centering Prayer, my primary contemplative meditation practice to this day.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh was once referred to by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “an apostle of peace and nonviolence” before being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His entire life has been dedicated to teaching mindfulness and bringing forth a global spiritual awakening that will lead to the end of hatred, oppression, and war. When I was in college, I picked up his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and couldn’t set it down. He showed, so clearly, how the contemplative traditions of Buddhism and Christianity go hand-in-hand and how ecumenicalism, interfaith dialogue, and interspiritual practice can deepen our hearts and communities.
Understanding the Role of Community in Spiritual Development
A former evangelical Christian pastor, Brian McLaren is now a leading voice in the contemplative Christianity movement. He’s written many books, but The Great Spiritual Migration entirely changed my view of spiritual community and the Church. In it, he helped me to understand my own experience of disillusionment and how it fits in with the broader experience many of my generation are having.
One of my teachers at the Living School for Action and Contemplation, along with Brian, Dr. B focuses her teaching on African American spirituality, mysticism, cosmology, and culture. Her most recent book, Crisis Contemplation, is a must-read for developing an embodied spirituality that can listen to and help heal a deeply hurting world.
Expelled from the Catholic church for his feminist theology, interfaith work with Indigenous peoples, refusal to condemn homosexuality, and teaching on creation spirituality, Matthew Fox is one of the most influential theologians of the late 20th century. His book Original Blessing challenged the doctrine of original sin and has provided hundreds of thousands of Christians an alternative view of human dignity and divinity.
I was first introduced to Parker Palmer’s work through his writings on education and leadership, but soon found his to be a fount of wisdom in just about every subject matter. He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and author of many books, including my favorites, The Active Life and The Courage to Teach. I especially love his teaching on disillusionment, reminding us that to become disillusioned is the experience of noticing the illusion we’re currently living with.
Encountering Christian Mysticism
Thelma Hall’s book, Too Deep for Words, roots the practice of lectio divina, or divine reading, in the Christian scriptures, but more than this, shows the theological underpinnings of contemplative spirituality within the Christian tradition. For those wondering how contemplative Christian spirituality connects with traditional theological orthodoxy, this is a wonderful little book to pick up.
Evelyn Underhill was an English mystic, poet, and Christian theologian. One of her greatest contributions to the growing literature on mysticism is her book, Mysticism, an exploration of mystic experience within Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faith traditions.
Putting Language to My Experience of the Divine
Mirabai Starr is one of the most influential teachers in my life, helping me to encounter the feminine energy of the Divine, both within me and outside of me. Her book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, is a masterpiece and a must-read. It remains one of the few books I have purchased repeatedly because I seem to keep giving the book away.
The youngest of the teachers on this list, I firmly believe Rupi Kaur’s poetry belongs in our modern anthology of wisdom. Her poems beautifully and strikingly get to the core of what it means to be human, embracing the pain, sorrow, joy, and love of each and every moment. While all of her books are powerful, Home Body explores the role of the self, touching on themes of self-love, nature and light and darkness.
Howard Thurman was at once a social activist, public theologian, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., and an internally-engaged mystic. His teaching on the “sound of the genuine” has been deeply helpful for me in getting in touch with the creative and divine energy within me. If you’re just hearing of him, I recommend two places to start: his book, Jesus and the Disinherited and his commencement address at Spelman College.
We in the Living School refer to James Finley as Uncle Jim, a poetic, mystical powerhouse of vulnerability and authenticity. He was at one point a student of Thomas Merton before becoming a clinical psychologist, honoring both of these aspects of his past as he teaches. I recommend listening to his podcast Turning to the Mystics where he provides meditations on the works of Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, and John of the Cross, among others.
Phileena and Chris Heuertz
Phileena and Chris have been hugely impactful in my life through their books, online presence, and teachings. I met Phileena a few years ago in passing and was quickly moved by her authenticity and ability to listen deeply. Along with Chris, she founded Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism to support people in the bridging of their inner and outer lives and to teach contemplative practices.
Seeing the Divine in Nature
Although she probably would have fought against this title, I have again and again heard Mary Oliver referred to as Saint Mary Oliver in workshops and speeches. She is one of the deepest wells of wisdom in 20th and 21st century poetry and a perfect example of eldership in modern society. My favorite book of hers is Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, released just two years before her death in 2019.
Possibly the most compelling, yet challenging modern philosopher I’ve read, Ken Wilber has spent his life dedicated to developing a “theory of everything” that can explain the connection between different religious traditions, scientific findings, and philosophies. For a primer and general overview of his work, I recommend his book, The Integral Vision.
Connecting My Inner Life With My Outer Life
angel Kyodo williams
A Zen Buddhist priest and activist, Rev. angel Kyodo williams has been vitally important in my life, helping me to dislodge the idea that my inner work is disconnected from the outer work of action, justice, and societal liberation. She is the co-author, along with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, of an amazing book, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.
Over the past five years, Resmaa Menakem has become one of my most intimate of wisdom teachers, helping me to understand my white body, the impact it has in our world, and the trauma it carries within it. His book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, reads like a gift of love for the world, challenging us, especially white people, to engage white supremacy, not as an intellectual concept, but in a fully embodied way.
Thomas Merton is often credited with singlehandedly recovering the contemplative tradition within Christianity and making it accessible to people in our modern era. As he aged, he seemed to deepen in his own spiritual understanding while broadening to engage in interfaith dialogues around the world, experiencing and seeking to articulate a spirituality that flows beneath and beyond all cultural and political differences. His book, New Seeds of Contemplation, is considered a spiritual classic of the 20th century.
Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun currently teaching at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. Throughout her life, she has written and taught extensively on the principle of “shenpa” and the ways in which we can become stuck in patterns of negative thoughts and actions. Her book, Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better, is a fabulous primer on how we can shift our mindsets around what success looks like in order to lead happier lives.
If you’d like to dive deeper into a couple of these teachers, you can check out Wisdom Teachers to Guide Us over on my website.