The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)
Here is a six-hundred-page treasure: a collection of 77 sermons by a seventh century music, Isaac the Syrian (also known as Isaac of Ninevah). Syriac Christianity has a long mystical streak, and St. Isaac one of its most eloquent and renowned voices. Be sure to check out homily 28 — if you’re anything like me, you’ll find St. Isaac’s theology of eternity and the love of God to be beautiful (but not sentimental) and profoundly intuitive.
Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015)
The latest encyclical from Pope Francis has garnered a lot of attention, for never has a Pope spoken so forcefully about the duty of Christians — really, of all people — to care for the environment, and to work to stop such problems as global warming. The Pope’s critics whine that he takes a scolding tone in this document, and certainly this is not meant to be a “feel good” read. Even if you are predisposed to agree with Pope Francis, you may find this to be a challenging and sobering read. However, anyone with a clear grasp of Christian spirituality cannot dispute its central thesis: that stewardship for the environment is integrally linked with care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of the human family, and that both social and environmental justice are impossible without a firm spiritual foundation.
Beautifully illustrated and featuring a number of noted contributors (Laurence Freeman, Esther de Waal, Kallistos Ware, Shirley du Boulay and Andrew Louth, among others), this narrative history of Christian contemplation looks at the key figures in two millennia of Church history. Starting with Freeman’s thoughtful essay of Jesus as a contemplative teacher, the anthology explores how both the theology and practice of silence and prayer are found in every chapter of Christian tradition. I only have one quibble with the book: the final chapter profiles John Main, begging the question why other prominent late twentieth century contemplatives (like Thomas Keating) were left out.
When she was only 27 years old, tragedy struck Paula D’Arcy’s life, when an accident took the life of her husband and her daughter, leaving Paula a young, pregnant widow. She gave birth the following spring and began a profound journey of grief and spiritual discovery, beautifully chronicled in this deceptively simple book. The Gift of the Red Bird is suffused with nature mysticism in the best sense of the word, culminating with a vision-quest retreat in the Texas wilderness, nearly fourteen years after the accident. D’Arcy understands that spiritual writing ultimately tells a love story between the author and God, and she does so beautifully in this short but rich book, filled with longing, insight and wildness. When the author emerges from the wilderness and writes that she has been changed, we the readers can feel it — and perhaps we have been changed as well.
The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010)
This is a pricey book (so you might want to check it out of your local library), but it’s certainly worth tracking down, simply because Underhill’s letters are such a delight. As one of the foremost British writers on Christian spirituality and mysticism in the first four decades of the twentieth century, Underhill published a large array of books, some scholarly, some devotional, but nearly all suffused with her elegance and reserve. Thankfully, in her letters — ranging from loving missives to her husband, to fascinating correspondence with people like C. S. Lewis, Rufus Jones, or the Archbishop of Canterbury — we see a less guarded Evelyn Underhill, where she is willing to scold Lewis for his chauvinistic attitude toward animals or “purr” when telling her husband about a good review one of her books received. What is perhaps most important of all is how these letters reveal her genius as a spiritual director, providing common-sense advice and insightful encouragement to those who wrote to her seeking counsel. While this is not the first volume of Underhill’s letters to be published, its careful annotations make it the essential collection.
Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986)
During the third year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian, I was assigned to read Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OCSO. Like so much monastic writing, this book is a gently written, meditative exploration of “what monks do” — the habits and exercises that not only shape the monastic day, but that over time help to form the character of a monk. For those of us who are not called to the life of the cloister, reading about such topics as the monastic cell and monastic decorum can be inspiring in a kind of analogical sense: in other words, by discovering “what makes monks tick,” we are invited to reflect on how we can fully live a contemplative spiritual life, even outside of the walls of a cloister. Of course, many topics in this book (silence, prayer, lectio divina) can be directly applied to the circumstances of any reader, monastic or not.
A nice bonus in this book are M. Bernarda Seferovich, O.Cist.’s lovely black and white illustrations on the cover and interspersed throughout the text.
While I am not wild about the word “experience” in the subtitle, there is much to love about this book by a former Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Sun at Midnight is a brief but eloquent statement about how important mystical spirituality is to a living, healthy faith. Dom Bernardo clearly understands that the heart of mysticism is mystery, and that for Christians the supreme doorway into the mystery of God is the life of Christ. As a monk, he also recognizes, and beautifully affirms, how the essential elements of the monastic charism — work and prayer, the daily office, the sense of solitude and compunction that shapes the cloistered life — all invite the monk deeper in the mystery of Christ. Those of us who are not monks can still find much inspiration in these pages, for a lively mysticism is necessary not only for a healthy monasticism, but indeed for a healthy faith community at large.
What the Mystics Know (New York: Crossroad, 2015)
First, let me admit something: I’m not crazy about books that anthologize excerpts of writings from other sources. I find such “taken out of context” selections to be jarring to read. But that’s just my bias, so I’m recommending What the Mystics Know even though it’s that kind of book: sort of a “best of Richard Rohr,” at least in terms of his sizable corpus of writings published by Crossroad. Broadly divided into seven categories including enlightenment, imperfection, suffering, paradox, contemplation, truth and transformation, this book gathers together much of Father Richard’s easily accessible wisdom — not only on mysticism, but indeed on life in general. If you’re not familiar with Rohr, this would be a great starting point; if you already know his work, What the Mystics Know could work beautifully as a daily devotional.
Translated by Maurice O’C Walshe with revisions and a foreword by Bernard McGinn, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart offers nearly 600 pages of English translations of the great medieval mystic’s German writings. With 97 sermons and five treatises, there’s enough material here for months, if not years, of study. Eckhart generally was more daring in his German works than in his Latin compositions, so it’s here that you’ll get the full sweep of his speculative mystical thought.
Benedict’s Dharma (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001)
This book is an interesting interfaith experiment — in which four Buddhists (Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Judith Simmer-Brown and Yifa) reflect on the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. For Christians, this is an interesting way to see how one of our foundational contemplative texts can be seen by practitioners of other wisdom traditions. While on occasion I found myself arguing with the various writers on one point or another, for the most part Benedict’s Dharma is a respectful, yet honest, contribution to interspiritual dialogue. It also includes an inclusive-language translation of Rule by Patrick Barry, OSB, and commentary from Christian monastics Mary Margaret Funk and David Steindl-Rast.
Draw Me Into Your Friendship (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996)
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius can be difficult reading, even in contemporary English translation. Ignatius originally wrote the exercises as notes for a retreat, and so it reads as a kind of outline, which, in fact, it is. Add to that the normal challenges involved in reading a text almost five hundred years old and composed in a foreign culture, and it’s easy to see why this text, mystical classic though it is, may be challenging for 21st-century Americans. Enter David L. Fleming, whose Draw Me Into Your Friendship is a Godsend: on facing pages is a literal translation of the Spiritual Exercises, along with a “contemporary reading” — part commentary, part paraphrase, part imaginative rendering into a voice for our time. The result is a book that works both for study and devotional reading, unlocking the treasures of Ignatius and revealing his spiritual genius.
The “Complete” Cloud of Unknowing (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015)
The Complete Cloud of Unknowing isn’t really “complete” — the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is associated with seven medieval texts, only two of which appear in this volume. But those two, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Letter of Privy Counsel, are certainly the most important works by this unknown author, two classics of medieval Christian contemplative spirituality, essential for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God through the practice of silent prayer. They are rich texts, full of nuanced wisdom that often gets lost in modern translations. Father John–Julian has captured the beauty, humor and literary elegance of the original versions, but also has supplemented his translation with detailed notes that convey the subtle spiritual insight that makes these works required reading.
Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006)
I was assigned to read this book in the final year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian. So it’s not what I would call a “beginner’s” book on Cistercian spirituality, but rather a rich and nuanced study of the spirituality of this particular tradition, drawing deeply and heavily from the writings of the Cistercian fathers, authors like Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Aelred of Rievaulx. Its theme — “Passing from Self to God” — represents a core principle of Cistercian spirituality: that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are called to restore the Divine likeness within us, by turning away from the many attachments of the self to the luminous simplicity of intimacy with God. The book stands on its own as a spiritual masterpiece, but for those seeking insight into the Cistercian tradition, it also functions as a window into that medieval world.
Prayer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006)
First published in 1967 in India, Prayer is a short (120 pages) but substantial exploration of its topic, in the light of its author’s lifetime of exploration which crossed the boundaries between east and west. Born in Brittany in 1910 and christened Henri Le Saux, the author became a Benedictine monk and moved to India where he prayed alongside great Christians (Bede Griffiths) and Hindus (Ramana Maharshi) and took a new name, which means “Bliss of the Anointed Lord.” Like all great interfaith encounters, the spirituality of Prayer is not a mishmash but rather a deeply Christian book, deeply informed by the nondual wisdom of Vedanta. This particular translation is based on an expanded French edition which was published in 1971, two years before the author’s death.
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991)
If you are going to study the great Christian mystics and contemplatives you need to read St. John of the Cross. It’s not always easy reading, but it is insightful, edifying, and luminous. St. John of the Cross is perhaps the greatest of the “negative” or apophatic mystics, and his beautiful poetry and discerning prose reveal the importance of a trusting spirituality that transcends mere experiences or emotionalism in its singular longing for union with the Divine Beloved. This one volume collects all of his poetry, as well as both minor and major works (including his masterpiece, The Dark Night of the Soul) into one book, superbly translated and edited by Carmelite scholars