Books I Recommend (On Various Topics)

Books I Recommend (On Various Topics) April 3, 2017

So many books, so little time...
So many books, so little time…

I’ll admit — I love lists of books. I find browsing someone’s list of recommended titles is a great way to find a new treasure. So with that in mind, here is an admittedly idiosyncratic list of books that I recommend for your consideration. Obviously I lead off with books on contemplation/mysticism, since that’s the main focus of this blog. But I wander a bit off topic as the list goes on… browse on, you’ll see for yourself. It’s an eclectic, ecumenical, and interfaith-friendly assortment.

Books are like people — none are perfect. I’ve included each title on this list because I believe it has something to offer the general reader; I am not suggesting that these works are above criticism; nor am I implying that every book listed here is equal to all the others in its merits or its relevance to any particular reader. Use discernment and common sense when reading a book and/or evaluating whether or not it is useful for your spiritual practice. When in doubt, consult with a trusted friend or spiritual companion.

Update 7-28-18: I have updated, and substantially revised this list; which I decided to publish as a new post. Please see the new list by clicking here: A Miscellaneous List of Books I Like (And Recommend)

The Christian Mystics: Introduction, History, Theology

  • Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality — When I was a youth, Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (see below) changed my life, initiating my own lifelong love for Christian mysticism. This book is my “thank you” to Underhill, published 99 years after hers. In it I reflect on what Christian mysticism is, and how it makes a different in peoples’ lives.
  • Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness — this 1911 study of visionary spirituality, primarily though not exclusively Christian, influenced numerous seekers, including C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Alan Watts. Dated but still essential.
  • Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism — originally subtitled “a little book for normal people,” Underhill’s concise explanation of mystical spirituality for laypersons remains surprisingly relevant even after a century. Topics include meditation, recollection, and three forms of contemplation.
  • John R. Mabry, Growing into God: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism — Explores the mystical life through a traditional model of awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night and union; also includes a generous selection of quotations from the mystics and suggested spiritual practices.
  • Frederick Bauerschmidt, Why the Mystics Matter Now — a user-friendly introduction to the life and writings of seven key mystics (like Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart), with insights into why their teachings remain relevant to Christians even in the twenty-first century.
  • Harvey D. Egan, Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition — almost a “who’s who” of Christian spirituality, this accessibly written book features brief biographies of over seventy-five mystics, arranged chronologically; offering insight into their lives, writings, and historical significance.
  • L. William Countryman, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over into God — mysticism is often unfairly criticized as being “foreign” to authentic Christianity, but this book sets the record straight, showing how mystical spirituality informs the spirituality of the Gospel of John.
  • George Maloney, The Mystery of Christ in You: The Mystical Vision of Saint Paul — another helpful resource detailing the origins of mystical theology in the New Testament; in this case examining how the theology of Paul celebrates an embodied communion with Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Mystics: Primary Texts for Study and Devotion

  • Bernard McGinn, ed., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism — a superb anthology, arranged thematically, featuring excerpts from the most renowned works of the great mystics, in English translation. McGinn’s detailed and perceptive commentary makes the teachings herein come alive.
  • Harvey D. Egan, ed., An Anthology of Christian Mysticism — another useful compendium, this one arranged chronologically, offering English translations of key mystical works from the Bible to Karl Rahner. The writings of over fifty mystics are included in this 700-page tome.
  • Julian of Norwich, The Writings: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, edited by Nicholas Watson & Jacqueline Jenkins — don’t be afraid to read Julian in her original Middle English! This text provides generous annotations to make Julian’s own words come alive.
  • Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Evelyn Underhill — one of the most respected editions of a fourteenth century English mystical/contemplative classic. Underhill’s edition retains much of the voice of the medieval original text, while modernizing the language enough to make it accessible to the average reader.
  • Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, translated by Maurice O’C Walshe, foreword by Bernard McGinn — Nearly one hundred of the great Dominican mystic’s sermons, originally preached in German, are collected here, revealing the breadth of his visionary theology and spiritual wisdom.
  • John Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works — Ruusbroec (also spelled Ruysbroeck) is a lesser known younger contemporary of Eckhart’s whom Evelyn Underhill considered the greatest of all Christian mystics. Reading this contemporary English edition of his major works, it is easy to see why. Ruusbroec’s writing is literary and poetic, his thought profoundly nondual, and his theology beautiful and orthodox.
  • Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See — many living writers reduce mysticism to the level of “personal experience,” but Rohr understands that mystical wisdom goes deeper than that, being primarily about a transfigured consciousness and a unitive way of beholding.

Contemporary Spirituality & Contemplative Prayer

  • Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path — another book I wrote in response to Evelyn Underhill, this work reflects on Underhill’s notion of “the awakening of the self” — what I call “the contemplative call,” or the vocation to an intentional spiritual life.
  • Kenneth Leech, Prayer and Prophecy: A Ken Leech Reader — if this were a just world, everyone would be reading Ken Leech. His writing combines a deep love of God with a clear contemplative vision and an insightful understanding of both holiness and justice, and the forces that undermine them. Absolutely essential reading.
  • Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation — one of the best and clearest introductory books on contemplative (silent) prayer. Grounded in the writings of the saints and mystics, and inspiring in its invitation into ever-deeper silence.
  • Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide (Volume 1: Process) — surveys the history of how contemplation became marginalized in western Christianity, and critically assesses how contemporary spirituality is often trammelled by narcissism, solipsism or psycho-babble.
  • Thomas Keating, Open Mind Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel — a survey of the theory and practice of centering prayer (the use of a prayer word to enter into deep silence), full of useful advice for how to prayerfully seek deeper intimacy with God.
  • Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer — an accessible introduction to the inclusive, nondual practice of contemplation, a prayer of gently accepting the “call to the center” where we are invited to receive God’s radical grace.
  • Abhishiktananda, Prayer — a manual for learning to listen, rest, and live each moment in the silent presence of God, written by a French Benedictine monk who moved to India and became a leading proponent of Hindu-Christian interspirituality.
  • Paul Marechal, Dancing Madly Backwards: A Journey Into God — This under-appreciated gem from 1982, long out of print, offers poetic reflections on the deep sacred place where the boundaries that separate religions from each other — or us from God — fall away.
  • Tilden Edwards, Living Simply Through the Day — a classic that is unjustly out of print, so grab a used copy before they get expensive. Another product of east-west dialogue, this time between an Episcopal priest and Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology — another book, like Ross’s, which doesn’t provide a “how-to” on silent prayer, but offers an excellent insight into the Christian meditative mind, written by a psychiatrist/spiritual director.
  • Murchadh Ó Madagáin, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious — while I think the true self/false self dichotomy is problematic, I like how this book seeks to understand centering prayer (and contemplation in general) in light of integral theory.

Cistercian Monasticism and Lay Cistercian Spirituality

  • Carl McColman, Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality — organized around St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s concept of the three steps of truth, this book examines different aspects of Cistercian and Trappist spirituality, reflecting on how the wisdom of the cloister can bless everyone, not just monks or nuns.
  • Trisha Day, Inside the School of Charity: Lessons from the Monastery — the story of a lay woman who spends three months living in a Trappistine convent as a “monastic guest” and how the nun’s spirituality impacted her own faith journey after returning to secular life. An excellent introduction to Cistercian spirituality, especially for the laity.
  • Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe — Merton’s history of Benedictine/Cistercian monasticism, with a particular emphasis on the Cistercians in North America. Richly anecdotal and anchored in a clear understanding that a Cistercian monastery needs to be contemplative: steeped in silence and prayer.
  • Bernardo Olivera, The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery — the former Abbot General of Cistercians of the Strict Observance offers his thoughts on the mystical theology of monastic life, showing how Cistercian mysticism is humble and down to earth.
  • Elias Marechal, Tears of an Innocent God — Poetic and luminous, this non-linear collection of stories, parables, reflections and dream sequences celebrates not only the wonder of contemplative living, but also how Jesus’s radical message of equality and inclusivity offers a road map to a joyous and deeply transfigured life.
  • Augustine Roberts, Finding the Treasure: Letters from a Global Monk — Wonderful epistolary autobiography of a Trappist monk who grew up in China, lived in communities in the USA and Argentina, and eventually went to Rome with the order’s Abbot General. Very spiritual and insightful into Cistercian life.
  • Agnes Day, Light in the Shoe Shop: A Cobbler’s Contemplations — A charming and richly spiritual series of meditations from the former Abbess of Wrentham Abbey in Massachusetts. She leads  the reader through the year, reflecting on the changing of the seasons and the liturgical year, seen through the lens of her work as the monastery’s cobbler. Also includes her autobiography and a selection of poetry.
  • Frank Bianco, Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today — Insightful and honest exploration of the lives of several monks of Gethsemane Abbey, written by a journalist who wrestled with his own crisis of faith while researching and writing the book. Written in a narrative style, the book reads like a novel and really makes the monks “come alive.” Excellent introduction to monastic life in our time.

Celtic Christianity

  • Carl McColman, 366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore — a book of daily meditations (but not keyed to specific dates, so it can be read in any order, at any time), reflecting on the spirituality of the Celtic world, encompassing pagan mythology as well as the mystical insight of the Christian saints.
  • Esther De Waal, Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition — maybe the best single introduction to Celtic Christianity as it is understood in our time: an expression of the faith that is poetic, mystical, nature-positive, optimistic, and resonant with stories of the saints we love, like Brigit, Patrick, and Columba.
  • Ian Bradley, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams — an important book that points out how much romanticizing has gone into the contemporary idea of “Celtic spirituality.” A reminder that we often project our ideals on to the people of the past — it’s best to let them be who they are, and “own” our ideals for ourselves.
  • John Carey, A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland — Carey explores some of the underlying perspectives that inform the Celtic way of understanding the cosmos, and how that worldview informed the unique expression of Celtic Christianity.
  • Oliver Davies and Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality (Classics of Western Spirituality) — maybe the best collection of original sources in translation, this thick volume brings together poetry and prose from both the Irish and Welsh traditions, including hagiography, monastic and liturgical texts, and homilies.
  • Kurt Neilson, Urban Iona: Celtic Hospitality in the City — a wonderful exploration of “applied Celtic spirituality.” Neilson, an Episcopal priest with Irish roots, takes a pilgrimage to the old country and brings back lessons in discipleship which he applies to his ministry in downtown Portland, OR.
  • John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom — one of the bestselling books of Celtic spirituality, and deservedly so. O’Donohue writes with a poet’s love of language and a mystic’s sensibility of wonder, creating a book which reads more like a guided meditation than anything else. Luminous, dreamlike and entirely lovely.
  • Seán Ó Duinn, Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality — Benedictine monk Seán Ó Duinn is one of my favorite authors, a Christian who appreciates how the ancient Celtic lore of the mythological era continues to inform and shape the spirituality of Ireland and the other Celtic lands. What emerges is a beautiful, holistic expression of spirituality.

Narnia and C. S. Lewis

  • C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — Lewis wrote a number of books worth reading, but Dawn Treader is my towering favorite (see below for my commentary on it). This book, part of the “Narnia” series, provides insight into the Christian spiritual life, under the guise of a charming sea adventure informed by Celtic mythology.
  • C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce — it’s not Narnia, but this early novel by Lewis is another gem; the story of a detailed dream in which the narrator explores both the dreariness of hell and the wonders of heaven. Filled with psychological insight, the book really takes flight when old George MacDonald himself pops up in the dream.
  • C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold — written toward the end of his life, this book shows the wisdom of age. A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is filled with Lewis’s trademark luminous prose, and the ending is nothing short of glorious.
  • Carl McColman, The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia — Each chapter of my commentary on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is keyed to the same chapter in Lewis’s book. I aim to show how Dawn Treader functions as a sustained metaphor for the mystical life.
  • Kevin Brown, Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader: A Guide to Exploring the Journey beyond Narnia — another book about Lewis’s wondrous sea adventure; where my commentary concentrates on a mystical reading of Dawn Treader, this book considers the story in a broader sense of Christian discipleship.
  • David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis — C. S. Lewis insisted he was not a mystic, but Downing makes a compelling argument that maybe the author was just being humble. He also provides one of the best, most down to earth definitions of Christian mysticism I’ve ever seen, which alone makes this a must-read.
  • David C. Downing, Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles — more insight from Lewis scholar David Downing, who examines the symbolism and spiritual meaning behind all seven of the Narnia books.
  • Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis — one of the sources I used for The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader, Michael Ward provides a fascinating hypothesis: that Lewis organized the seven Narnia books around a medieval understanding of cosmology, and mythic/planetary symbolism.

Miscellaneous Titles I Recommend

  • Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community — an incisive and insightful collection of essays from America’s favorite curmudgeonly farmer-poet. The introduction to this book is alone worth the price of admission, but Berry’s ruminations on land, agriculture, and the dangers of our entertainment culture are wise and important.
  • Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — this book, about the vocation of a writer, has been so helpful to me. When I hit a rough spot in my writing, I like to dip into Bird by Bird, both because it’s side-hurtingly funny, but also because it gently reminds me that writing is a nutty business — and that’s okay.
  • Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture — several books have been published on introvert psychology in recent years, but this one, specifically geared to the experience of introverts in professional ministry or lay leadership, is wise and gently affirming. It’s okay to be an introvert of faith!
  • Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually as We Die — when my daughter was in hospice I read several books on death and dying, and this was by far the best. Approaching the topic from a Jungian and transpersonal perspective, Singh shows how dying is actually a deeply contemplative experience.
  • Phyllis Theroux, The Good Bishop: The Life of Walter F. Sullivan — I grew up in Virginia, where Sullivan was the Catholic bishop; although I would not myself become Catholic until years later after moving to Georgia, the witness of Bishop Sullivan remained with me. He was a true hero of faith who was not afraid to rock the boat for his convictions.
  • Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution — as the architect of “Integral Theory,” Ken Wilber has created a fascinating map of how science, psychology, philos0phy, eastern spirituality and western mysticism can be woven together to create a single holistic understanding of the cosmos. Whether you agree with him or not, his ideas are compelling and, I believe, filled with hope.
  • Dennis, Sheila Fabricant, and Matthew Linn, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God — I often talk about healing our image of God in classes and retreats, and this is my go-to resource on the topic. A gentle and nurturing book that demonstrates how our image of God shapes our entire faith experience and indeed worldview — so taking care to ensure we have a healthy image of God yields rich blessings indeed.

Living the Christian Faith Today

  • Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity — Borg offers an incisive analysis of the tensions within modern Christianity between a literalist/dualist approach to the faith, and a more mystical/nondual approach. While he is clear in his criticism of the literalist position, he provides a positive and affirming approach to a way of being Christian which is unafraid of dialogue, committed to justice, and thoroughly at home with mystery.
  • Robert Davis Hughes III, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life — this academic book offers a thorough and scholarly consideration of what a comprehensive Christian spiritual theology, grounded in the mystics yet engaged with the issues of the twenty-first century, could look like. I think the book’s survey of why spirituality fell into disrepute beginning with the Reformation and culminating in the secularized twentieth century, alone makes this a “must-read,” yet the exploration of the developmental spiritual life (following the map first set out by Evelyn Underhill) is also first-rate.
  • Philip S. Kaufman, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic — as a convert to Catholicism, it saddens me that this is a controversial book, but I think that’s because spiritual people often are uncomfortable with conflict. Yet this is by no means an anti-Catholic or anti-Christian book; the author, who was a Benedictine monk, simply tries to set the record straight that throughout church history, people of good will have often disagreed vehemently over doctrine and morals. If we disagree with our church, our job is to prayerfully seek to follow the will of God as best we can. Maybe we’re in the wrong — but maybe we’re being led by the Holy Spirit to help the church grow. Humility, prayer, and a willingness to dialogue are the keys.
  • Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith — Before this book, Lamott had achieved some renown as a novelist, but Traveling Mercies made her a “rock star.” An honest and gritty memoir, she details her descent into alcoholism and unlikely but grace-filled journey into her own uniquely postmodern expression of faith. Lamott is a gifted writer, a natural storyteller, both funny and poignant, ironic and yet sincerely heartfelt. She is the patron saint of skeptics, cynics, anyone in recovery, and (of course) writers.
  • Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy — if we are serious about ecumenism, perhaps the first step is truly learning to appreciate the beauty of all the different types of Christian expression, and evangelical/emergent author Brian McLaren does beautifully in this book. Surveying the many flavors of Christian expression from Orthodox to Catholic to Anglican to mainline Protestant to evangelical and charismatic, McLaren effectively articulates what is lovely, Godly, and worthy of emulating in each denominational tradition. This is not a book about “mixing it up” or “blending it all together,” but rather about reasserting that true orthodoxy is marked by generosity and hospitality, not defensiveness and isolation.
  • Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk — Like Anne Lamott, Norris is also a littérateur (in her case, a poet) who became famous for her spiritual memoir (Dakota, listed below). Norris is a Benedictine oblate, and The Cloister Walk details a year of meditations and journal entries in which she explores the tensions at work in her journey: a woman associated with a men’s monastery; a Presbyterian affiliated with a Catholic community; a postmodern American finding spiritual sustenance from an ancient spiritual discipline. Because of her gifts as a poet, she makes the cloister — and her singular relationship to it — come alive.
  • Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life — a simple and accessible book which explains why church often feels like it is geared toward teenagers rather than adults. That’s because it is. Without knocking religion for the “first half of life,” Rohr offers insight into how to care for ourselves spiritually even as we enter “the second half.”

The Bible and Lectio Divina

  • New Jerusalem Bible: Saints Devotional Edition — my favorite Bible; not a study Bible but a beautifully designed edition of the New Jerusalem Bible, with devotional writings from a variety of Catholic saints interspersed throughout the text.
  • Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina — certainly the best exploration of lectio divina written by a Cistercian author and maybe the best treatment of the subject, period. Casey understands the rich contemplative quality that meditative scripture reading entails, and invites the reader into that kind of graced, unhurried relationship with the text.
  • Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally — Borg writes for the average layperson but from a position fully informed by Biblical scholarship. He advocates a faithful and honest approach to scripture that is informed by science, history, and criticism.
  • Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense — Brueggemann recognizes that for most Christians the Bible is read not as a scholarly discipline but a spiritual practice; he advocates entering the text with an appreciation of the spirituality at its heart, and seeking to make its wisdom relevant to life today.
  • Christine Valters Paintner, Lectio Divina: The Sacred Art — as much as I love Casey’s Sacred Reading, Paintner’s book about lectio has plenty of offer in its own right. She is both a Benedictine oblate and an artist, so she offers a richly inclusive approach to lectio, where images and well as words can be read as a form of prayer.
  • Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality — a down-to-earth, accessible survey of the Bible as a doorway to meaningful spirituality; Rohr is honest about the challenges in reading scripture, yet hopeful in presenting the key themes of the Bible as invitations to inner growth and personal transformation.
  • Alexander Ryrie, Silent Waiting: The Biblical Roots of Contemplative Spirituality — believe it or not, Christian contemplation is deeply rooted in scripture, and this survey by a Scottish Anglican priest considers how themes in the Bible inspired the earliest Christian contemplatives, the desert fathers and mothers.

Embodied Faith: Spirituality and Nature

  • David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World — a philosophical meditation on  language, the senses, the nature of perception (and the perception of nature) and the necessity of honoring the intricate web of relations between humankind and our living environment.
  • Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays — Berry is a gifted poet but also a keen and insightful essayist, exploring his commitment to the land (he is a Kentucky farmer), his horror at the excesses of our technocratic society, and the simple pleasures of his faith as a Christian. The Art of the Commonplace gathers together twenty essays that explore themes of faith, economy, love of the land, and criticism of our unbalanced culture.
  • Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology — What is the relationship between contemplative practice and a healthy relationship with the land? Christie, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, details how his exploration of Christian monastic spirituality and eco-activism has led to many points of convergence.
  • Gerald G. May, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature — May chronicles a number of excursions into the natural world he undertook in the decade prior to his death; he finds the wilderness to be a congenial venue for deepening his contemplative view and practice.
  • Mary Low, Celtic Christianity and Nature: The Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions — Celtic spirituality is popularly understood to be “nature-based” and this book explores the rich folkloric, mythic and poetic traditions that underlie this rich expression of Christian faith.
  • Roger D. Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes toward the Environment — An attempt to understand the “nature-positive” dimensions of Franciscan spirituality by examining Francis in his 12th century context, looking at how he was shaped by the worldview of medieval Europe and Christian monasticism.
  • Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, ed., Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth — a sobering  yet ultimately hopeful collection of essays detailing the nature of our ecological crisis, and the spiritual nature of our most promising path forward. Contributors include Thich Nhat Hanh, Wendell Berry, Richard Rohr, Brian Swimme and others.

The Wisdom of the World

  • Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Complete Guide to World Mysticism — a richly illustrated introduction to the spiritual heart of each of the major faith traditions around the globe.
  • Andrew Harvey, The Essential Mystics : Selections from the World’s Great Wisdom Traditions — a poetic survey of writings and teachings from around the world, arranged for devotional rather than scholarly use, with a particular emphasis on the Divine Feminine.
  • Steven T. Katz, ed., Comparative Mysticism: An Anthology of Original Sources — a pricey but comprehensive compendium of mystical texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese and Native American traditions.
  • Geoffrey Parrinder, Mysticism in the World’s Religions — a classic book that attempts to explain “mysticism” as a universal category of spiritual experience found in all of the major religions.
  • Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter — an important reality check, this book balances the optimism of most interfaith writings with a sober reminder of the many distinctions that continue to separate the world’s great faiths.
  • Huston Smith, The World’s Religions — Originally called The Religions of Man, this book celebrates each of the major faiths for its own unique contribution to human spirituality. Smith manages to make each faith appealing and beautiful.
  • Arthur Stein & Andrew Vidich, Let There Be Light — an accessible and informative survey of world mysticism focussing on the encounter with supernal light or heavenly sound. The book covers all the major traditions as well as Baha’i, Sant Mat, shamanism, and near death experiences.

Literary Treasures

  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — this literary treasure is a classic exploration of the spirituality of the natural world (and nabbed Dillard the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction).
  • Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence — the single most beautiful book I’ve ever read about silence. Deeply spiritual (and religious in the best sense of the word), this book combines memoir and general nonfiction to celebrate the beauty of soundlessness.
  • George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind — MacDonald was a nineteenth century author and his books embody the worst of Victorian sentimentalism; but they are also luminous with spiritual depth and mythic resonance. This novel, about a sickly child who befriends the spirit of the north wind, offers an honest meditation on life, illness, death and eternity.
  • Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography — Part memoir and part celebration of an austere landscape, this is the meditations of a poet who found spiritual meaning in her homeland of South Dakota.
  • Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being — O’Connor was famous as a “southern gothic” novelist and story writer, but her letters, published after her death at age 39 from lupus, reveal a sharp with and a profoundly Catholic sensibility. Since O’Connor received spiritual direction from the monks of Conyers, she is very much an inspiration to me.
  • Coventry Patmore, The Rod, the Root and the Flower — another underrated gem from the 19th century, this collection of contemplative meditations from a Victorian poet is surprisingly earthy, deeply Catholic, and mystical in the best sense of the word — luminous with its appreciation of God’s ineffable mystery.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark — Taylor’s frank, honest reflection on the spirituality of darkness (and doubt/unknowing) might seem threatening to those who want their spirituality tidy and self-contained, but it strikes me as an honest and beautifully written statement of how faith in our day always carries a shadow.

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