Contemplative Books to Read and Savor During Advent and Christmas

Contemplative Books to Read and Savor During Advent and Christmas November 23, 2022

A reader of this blog wrote to me last week and asked:

I am writing to ask if you have any good recommendations for spiritual reading during Advent.

There are some wonderful books to explore for Advent. Some are new, some are classics, some are specifically “Advent-y” and others are simply books I’d like to recommend. So, here goes!

We’ll start with the Advent themed books drawn from the wisdom of one of my favorite authors, Evelyn Underhill. Music of Eternity is a new book by renowned Underhill scholar Robyn Wrigley-Carr, which weaves together Underhill’s words and Wrigley-Carr’s own commentary, paired with scripture passages, questions for reflection, and a short prayer for each day of the Advent season. It’s a robust but not overwhelming guide to the splendors of this season. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

Music of Eternity is a wonderful book but it’s not the only Advent-themed book from Evelyn Underhill! If you’d like something a bit small, consider Advent with Evelyn Underhill which clocks in at only 82 pages. For each day in Advent you get a nice excerpt from the writings of Underhill, along with a simple meditation prompt and prayer prompt. If you want a no-frills Advent devotional, this migh be the one for you. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

As much as I love Evelyn Underhill, I recognize that she is somewhat dated (she died in 1941); her language can be stiff and formal (although she had a wonderful heart and it shines through all her British reserve). So if you’d rather have a more contemporary voice to accompany you this Advent, why not Richard Rohr? The popular Franciscan author provides a Bible verse, a thoughtful reflection, and a meditation prompt for each day of the Advent season. As always, his writing is insightful and accessible. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

Okay, back to the past! Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God is my all-time favorite Advent book, and it competed with Music of Eternity to get top billing. So don’t let the fact that this is buried in the list fool you! The Reed of God may not be for everyone: it’s old-school Catholic writing from before Vatican II, so it’s traditional language all the way. But Houselander was a true mystic and her contemplative sensibilities flow on just about every page of this under-appreciated modern spiritual classic. It’s not an “Advent” book per se — it’s a meditation on the Blessed Mother, which to my mind makes it a perfect book for this season. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

If you’ve already read The Reed of God or simply would like a more structured devotional for Advent featuring the wisdom of Caryll Houselander, fortunately A Child in Winter is the book for you. Stretching from Advent through Epiphany, this devotional features a daily dose of Houselander wisdom, paired with a scripture verse, brief commentary from editor Thomas Hoffman, and a brief prayer. Although much of the material in this collection does come from The Reed of God, there’s plenty enough excerpts from other Houselander works to make this an excellent Advent selection. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

I’m so happy that Howard Thurman has his own Christmas book! Now, I know: Christmas is not Advent. But Thurman was Baptist and I believe in being generous toward those whose spiritual practice is not culturally equivalent to our own — so while he may not have thought of “Advent” when preparing this book, naturally any book of Christmas meditations — especially from an author of such contemplative wisdom as Thurman — works as a devotional for preparing for Christmas. After all, that’s what Advent is all about! So here is a chance to “prepare for Christmas” with one of the great Protestant mystics of the twentieth (or any) century. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

Here is the first of two Advent anthologies. While all the books listed above feature the wisdom of one beloved author (or that author and his or her editor), Bill Countryman’s Run, Shepherds, Run is a collection of poems for the Advent and Christmas seasons. So this is not only a chance to savor poetry for your devotional time, but poetry from a variety of voices, including classic poets like George Herbert, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson, and with other lesser known contemporary writers. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

Another Advent/Christmas anthology, this time featuring wisdom from a variety of authors, including both recognized religious voices (John Donne, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther) but also writers who, while informed by their faith, are probably better known for their literary achievements (Madeleine L’Engle, Sylvia Plath, Annie Dillard). Socially conscious writers like Dorothy Day, Dorothee Soelle and Oscar Romero round out this devotional. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

For the last two books on my list I wanted to feature a couple of books that, like The Reed of God were not created specifically as “Advent devotionals” but nevertheless lend themselves well to spiritual reading during this sacred time. First up is a brand new offering from the Black Buddhist/Quaker author Valerie Brown. She one me over with her subtitle: “braving” is my favorite new gerund! And how appropriate for these challenging times we live in. Brown offers a gentle but meaningful invitation into hope for this season of hope. Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

When I drew up this list of recommended Advent books, I quickly jotted down the titles that came to mind, and when I realized I had nine such books on my list, I figured why not make it an even ten! And I hope readers will forgive me for indulging in a bit of shameless self-promotion; every author is part-huckster, and I’m no exception. But I’ve chose Unteachable Lessons because I believe of all the books I’ve written, it’s the one most suited as an Advent read. It’s relatively short, very personal/from the heart, and is basically a meditation on how life’s wisdom is found through living. As we wind down an old year and prepare for a new, I hope this message might be a blessing for some — maybe even you! Order from Amazon or order from Bookshop.

So that’s my list. I hope it’s helpful!

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