A reader named Andrew wrote to me and asked this question:
What do you think the key books are in the Christian tradition on spiritual transformation? How about a top ten? Another reason for asking is that church leaders might find the story interesting as the main goal, or one of the main goals of churches is the spiritual transformation of its members. A cool follow up story would be how to use these texts in a church setting. Thanks and look forward to the article.
What a great question. I’ll set aside the question of using the books in a church or parish setting — although my previous post Nine Ways to Foster a Contemplative Church might be interesting for you to read. Maybe the tenth way to foster a contemplative church would be to host a book group that reads one or more of these titles.
Of course, “transformation” is a big topic — I suppose you could make the argument that all spiritual books point toward transformation in some form or fashion. And transformation can take many forms: there is the question of sanctification, simply becoming a more ethical or moral person, which is how many people approach the spiritual life. But there is also a deeper kind of transformation — what in Greek is called theosis or in Latin deification, which implies actually “partaking in the Divine nature,” to use a phrase from the Second Letter of Peter.
Traditionally the mystical life was seen as incorporation both sanctification and theosis: initially, the call of the Spirit is the call to holiness, or sanctification; but it doesn’t stop there. As the Trappist monk Michael Casey says in his book Fully Human Fully Divine, “Christian life consists not so much in being good as in becoming God.”
I’d put it slightly differently — I think “being good” matters — but I’d agree that the classical understanding of mystical theology and spirituality is that we don’t just become nicer and sweeter and more ethical people, but we actually begin to embody Divine presence, Divine mercy and Divine love, not through any achievement of our own, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The books listed here, therefore, do more than just teach us how to pray, or how to meditate, or how to comprehend the basics of mystical theology. These books invite us into that healing, transforming action of the Holy Spirit, that calls us into the very heart of the God who pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
Okay then. Listed in no particular order other than alphabetical by author, here’s my list of books that all speak to the possibility and promise of spiritual transformation through Christian contemplation. I was having hard time limiting the list to ten, so I figured I’d go with twelve. Even so this list seems woefully incomplete (Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Bernard of Clairvaux are just three of many great mystics who also have much to teach us on this topic). So please, think of this list as just a good start.
- Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening — Since many Christians called to contemplation in our day become centering prayer practitioners, this seems to be an important book to read, since it focusses on how persevering in centering prayer leads to real interior change — on both a psychological and spiritual level.
- Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer — An under-appreciated classic from the 1970s, this slender volume by a Carmelite nun provides another path into contemplative living, not only describing the life of prayer but also how such prayer makes a difference in our lives.
- Michael Casey, Fully Human Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology — To me, Michael Casey is to Thomas Merton what John Ruusbroec was to Meister Eckhart: a lesser-known, but equally mystical and important writer, who came a generation after his more famous predecessor. This book, a study of the Gospel of Mark, not only makes theosis accessible, but shows how the doctrine of deification is embedded in the Gospels themselves.
- Mary Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter — The first of several useful books by this contemporary Benedictine nun. Here, Sr. Meg introduces the reader to the wisdom teachings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, showing how attentiveness and non-attachment to our thoughts is the foundation of a serious life of prayer — and of a commitment to holiness.
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love — Everyone knows I think Julian is the gold standard of western mysticism. On the surface this is a poetic story of a visionary woman’s radical immersion into Divine Love. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find this message emerges: that very Love calls us into a radical nonduality marked by mercy, hope, and above all, joy. Absolutely essential.
- Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation — The newest book on this list, only published in late 2018. Martin Laird is a poetic writer who truly understands the psychology of contemplation. In this book he charts the course of maturing in the life of prayer: a transformation from reactive consciousness, to receptive consciousness, leading ultimately to our birthright: a deeply luminous consciousness.
- Kenneth Leech, The Eye of the Storm — While this book doesn’t address theosis as directly as other titles on my list, it’s probably the clearest title here on the subject of sanctification: which Leech explores not in terms of personal piety, but meaningful social justice and communal relationship. To be transformed in Christ means to be a transforming presence in the world, and Leech shows us what that looks like.
- John Ruusbroeck, Spiritual Espousals — Like Julian, Ruusbroec wrote in the fourteenth century. No doubt shaped by the radical nondual teaching of Meister Eckhart, this Flemish mystic charts, in beautiful and richly poetic language, the journey of the contemplative soul toward receiving the coming of Christ in the soul: to “be God with God.”
- Brian C. Taylor, Becoming Christ: Transformation Through Contemplation — This book by an Episcopal priest begins with contemplative practice and reflects on how the long-term commitment to such practice effects changes in our lives. He pays attention to the question of how contemplation can transform not only individual practitioners, but also the community of faith — the church.
- Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle — Another mystical classic, this one from 16th-century Spain. Teresa is famous for her metaphor for the soul as a castle where Christ is the king — the charts the transforming life of prayer as a journey through the castle, moving from narcissism and self-will into greater surrender and humility, as we move closer and closer to our Divine beloved.
- Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg), Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism — Don’t let the esoteric-sounding title fool you: this book is deeply steeped in Christian mystical theology and offers a profound understanding of how the life of prayer ushers us into the unseen world where angels and the Holy Spirit restore in us the image and likeness of God.
- Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism — One of my favorite books by the woman who is arguably the twentieth century’s most eloquent spokesperson for the mystical life. This brief little book offers the reader a step by step approach to actually living a contemplative life in the world — and through this approach, Underhill charts how mystical prayer changes the person who is praying, cultivating in us a more truly God-centered awareness.
One final note: I didn’t include any of my books here. But I do touch on the promise of spiritual transformation, particularly in The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism, and Answering the Contemplative Call. So if you’re interested: check ’em out.