Book List about Contemplation and Christian Mysticism
When I read books like “The Cloud of Unknowing” and “Interior Castle” I feel a strong connection and I am able to learn from other people who have gone through similar experiences as myself. Some of their words are the exact words that I often say. Many experiences they detail are also my experiences. It’s reassuring that our minds think alike and that we have experienced the same things. It takes my breath away due to the fact I was born between 400 and 700 years later than my favorite authors. Two things I’ve learned that may be worth noting are:
WE resist GOD a lot MORE than we are aware.
There may be a lack of “techniques” and lack of “methods” in the pursuit of a life of contemplation. Why? Because they may be unnecessary, our Creator is in control; however, some people thrive from having some kind of road map. Or, like me, they crave the companionship the writer can offer.
This is my recommended list for people interested or “called” to a quiet life of silence and solitude. Nearly every book was written by a Catholic, and if not, a notation of that was included. The “out of print” books are usually available on Amazon as a “used” book. I own these books so if you have further questions I can probably provide more details. Within each category I attempted to list the books from my most recommended on to the more mediocre. But all of them are worth reading. ~~~~~Catherine Levison, copyright 2016
For beginners; and these are “How-To” books if you are already called
“Mystical Prayer is for (Almost) Everyone” by, Ernest Fiedler, 2009---(78 pages)
“An Invitation to Centering Prayer” by, M. Basil Pennington, 2001---(85 pages)
(It is vital the above two books be read together by every beginner.)
“The World is my Cloister” by, John Michael Talbot, 2010
“The Practice of the Presence of God” by, Bro. Lawrence, 1600's
“The Heart of the World; An Introduction to Contemplative Christianity” by, Thomas Keating, 1981
“Open Mind Open Heart” by, Thomas Keating, 1986/1982
“The Jesus Prayer” by, John Michael Talbot, 2013 (a beginner’s guide to the Jesus Prayer)
“Contemplative Prayer” by, Thomas Merton, 1969
“Centering Prayer” by, M. Basil Pennington. 1980 (a MUCH larger version than the one for beginners, 260 pages)
“Simplicity” by, John Michael Talbot, 1989
“Into the Silent Land; A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” by, Martin Laird, 2006
“Come to the Quiet; The Principles of Christian Mediation” by, John Michael Talbot, 2002
“The Ancient Path; Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today” by, John Michael Talbot, 2015
“The Cloud of Unknowing & The Book of Privy Counseling” edited by William Johnston 1300's/1973/2005 (MY personal favorite book), written by anonymous
“Interior Castle” by, Teresa of Avila, 1500's, reprinted in 1961
“The Philokalia; translated by Palmer” by, Sherrar, & Ware, 1995
“The Way of a Pilgrim & The Pilgrim Continues His Way” translated by Olga Savin, 2001
“Dark Night of the Soul” by, St. John, 1500's, reprinted in 2003
“Meditations from Solitude” by, John Michael Talbot, 1994, (338 pages)
If you want to learn about the Mystics:
“The Way of the Mystics; Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today” by, John Michael Talbot, 2005--- (Covers 13 mystics)
“Christian Mystics” by, Ursula King, 2001 ---- (Covers 40 mystics)
For the Enthusiasts….
“The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism” by, Bernard McGinn, 2006 ----- (Covers 73 mystics) --- I love this book and highly recommend it. And, in this case my personal preference was listed in reverse order.
If Monastic life OR if being a monk interests you:
“The Universal Monk; The Way of the New Monastics” by, John Michael Talbot, 2011
“Ordinary People as Monks & Mystics” by, Marsha Sinetar, 1986 (an inter-faith book)
“The Cloister Walk” by, Kathleen Norris, 1996 (a Protestant who is very close to the Catholic way of life)
“Monk Habits for Everyday People; Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants” by, Dennis Okholm, 2007 (a Protestant who is very close to the Catholic way of life)
“Community and Growth” by, Jean Vanier 1979 (How to live in community)
“Living Together Alone: The New American Monasticism” by, Charles. Fracchia, 1979
“Hermitage: Its Heritage and Challenge for the Future” by, John Michael Talbot, 1989
St. Francis books:
“The St. Francis Prayer Book” by, Jon M. Sweeney (a Monday through Sunday Prayer Book)
“Reflections on St. Francis” by, John Michael Talbot, 2009 (for beginners, 156 pages)
“The Lessons of St. Francis; How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life” by, John Michael Talbot w/Steve Rabey, 1997 (far more advanced, 235 pages)
“Little Flowers of Francis of Assisi” 2006
“The Lover and the Beloved; A Way of Franciscan Prayer” by, John Michael Talbot, 1985
----And, there are so many other, more books available on St. Francis, as you know.----
“Practical Mysticism” by, Evelyn Underhill, 2003 (Protestant author but the creator of the modern “retreat”)
“The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ” by, St. Alphonsus Liguori, 1700’s, reprinted 1997
“The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition” by, Esther DeWaal, 1998
“A Book of Hours” by, Thomas Merton, 2007, posthumously, (Like the Liturgy of the Hours, but not) organized by, Kathleen Deignan
“Seeds” by, Thomas Merton, 2002, posthumously
“No Man is an Island” by, Thomas Merton, 1955
“The Benedictine Handbook” multi contributor, 2003, 350 pages
“Blessings of St. Benedict” by, John Michael Talbot, 2011 (Very short introduction to St. Benedict)
“Reflection of the Gospels, Daily Devotions for Radical Christian Living” by, John Michael Talbot, 1986
“Regathering Power” by, John Michael Talbot, 1988
“A Passion for God, Reflections on the Gospels” Vol. 3, by, John Michael Talbot, 1991
“Blessings, Reflections on the Beatitudes” by, John Michael Talbot, 1991
“The Fire of God” by, John Michael Talbot, 1988
Biographies and Autobiographies
“The Seven Storey Mountain” by, Thomas Merton, 1948, (Tremendously helpful)
“Troubadour for the Lord; The Story of John Michael Talbot” by, Dan O'Neill, 1983
“Signatures; The Story of John Michael Talbot” by Dan O’Neill, 2003 (a revision
of the above book, “Troubadour for the Lord”)
“Changes; A Spiritual Journal” by, John Michael Talbot, 1984 (from the 1970’s, a diary of a 24 yr. old idealist who went on to publish over 55 books)
“The Other Side of the Mountain” by, Thomas Merton, 1998 posthumously
BELOW are 9 expanded explanations of some of the above books.
The World is my Cloister, John Michael Talbot 2010
One of my all-time favorite books especially for beginners. John Michael teaches us that mindfulness, prayer, meditation will help us reassess everything. We won’t worry about what others think of us. We will observe ourselves, reduce guilt, worry, and anxiety. We will watch less television, spent less time on the computer, we will eat less and gossip less. Plus we’ll have less of an ego.
He writes on page 50, “We often regret conversations in which we speak too much. We talk too much when we are nervous or insecure or unsure of ourselves…..we talk too much when we don’t have much to say!”
And on page 51, “Christian silence … helps us to listen … both to God and others …Words born of silence say only what others really need to hear. “
And………… “Many of us are bombarded with words all day.” This is so VERY true.
And…………….. “…the wise are those who always prepared to be silent and to listen. THEN they have the authority to speak. The wise speak seldom, but when they do speak, their word is powerful, healing and peaceful. It is better to spend our time listening in meditation and contemplation, so that when we do speak, we have something worth saying.”
Also representative of this book is that he teaches us that we need solitude and we need community. Also that God comes to us with peace and calm. One more: The truth is mystical and spiritually discerned.
This is a great first book to recommend to others. It has many of same teachings as “Come to the Quiet” but it’s far shorter and full of good guidelines. In fact it’s like a mini version of “Come to the Quiet.”
The Cloud of Unknowing & The Book of Privy Counseling edited by William Johnston 1300's/1973/2005
This book really speaks my heart, as the Quakers say. I’ve read it more than four times and I’ve studied it a lot. I have read many books on meditation, contemplation and the Christian mystics but this is THE one that I really agree with.
The anonymous author asks us to read this book 2 or 3 times and again, I highly agree. It is truly a “how-to” book but not how to become a mystic, but what to do if you already are called by God and given this gift. If you are called to what he calls “the work” then you are admonished to “keep to the path. Do not give up this work for anything.”
What also makes this book unique is that the author feels strongly that if you are called to be a contemplative then you ought to set aside the active life. People will provide material objects for you. All the other books on my list say to not do that but to find balance between activity and contemplation.
Some of my favorite quotes include, “Become increasingly faithful to this work until it becomes your whole life.” And “ If the Lord is calling you to the contemplative life reach out for it. Work for it with all your heart.”
He teaches us that no one can earn contemplation. The aptitude and the gift go together. The aptitude and the work are one, they are identical. You have it to the extent you will and desire to possess it, no more and no less.
More good teaching, "Become increasingly faithful to this work until it becomes your whole life." And, cultivate study, reflection, prayer, reading, thinking. You have to read to be able to think, then you are able to pray.
Signs for testing the inspiration:
1) purify conscience of deliberate sin
2) are you MORE attracted to contemplative prayer than to any other spiritual devotion?
3) If your conscience is not at peace doing any exterior or interior work unless you are focused on the love of God first
If you don't have these 3 signs you're not called. There will be a stirring (off and on). Your attitude toward it reflects a deeper longing then that is one of the MOST obvious signs that you're called. If you want to be united to God when you hear about or read about contemplation this indicates that grace is touching you. Others can read the same stuff and be unmoved. Be at peace with your own calling. God takes the initiative, man consents.
#1) "The interior sign is that growing desire for contemplation constantly intruding in your daily devotions."
#2) The second sign is exterior and it manifest itself as a certain joyful enthusiasm welling up within you whenever you hear or read about contemplation." Does this continue after you've walked away from your reading? Does it go with you when you sleep? Wake up? Constantly intruding in all you do? Capture your desire? This is God's call. It will follow you to bed at night and rise with you in the morning. It will pursue you through the day in everything you do...”
A few more quotes:
"Your whole personality will be transformed, your countenance will radiate an inner beauty, and for as long as you feel it nothing will sadden you. A thousand miles would you run to speak with another who you knew really felt it and yet when you get there, find yourself speechless."
"Your silence will be peaceful, your speech helpful, and your prayer secret in the depths of your being. Your self-esteem will be natural and unspoiled by conceit, your way with others gentle, and your laughter merry, as you take delight in everything with the joy of a child. How dearly you will love to set apart by yourself, knowing that others, not sharing your desires and attraction, would only hinder you."
Ordinary People as Monks & Mystics, Marsha Sinetar 1986
John Michael writes this in his “Cloister” book, “Real monasteries, convents, and hermitages are ordinary places with ordinary people.” That’s what Marsha set out to prove when she solicited the opinions of people through a want ad. The majority of the book covers those who feel they are monks in their own non-monastical lives. A very small section covers those who feel they are mystics. She writes this in the introduction, “Unlike those I call monks who wouldn’t call themselves that, mystics always seem to know that they are mystics. Mystics are the ones who hunger and thirst after righteousness, as the Bible puts it, the ones who yearn for increased union with the other reality they themselves feel is the true reality that heals and makes all things new again.”
This book is an “interfaith” book, not interdenominational so I do not agree with all that was written in it.
Monk Habits for Everyday People; Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants, Dennis Okholm, 2007
This is a book FOR Protestants and by a Protestant but it is VERY Catholic friendly. I love the writing style because it’s very direct and to the point. I’ve met the author in Los Angeles after he agreed to write a forward for my fourth book. He and his wife are excellent people. I believe there is a lot to be learned in this book and if you have a non-Catholic friend you might want to recommend it to them. I plan to read it for the third time later this year and write some study notes from it.
Mystical Prayer is for (Almost) Everyone, Ernest Fiedler 2009
I really love this book. I believe it is a MUST read for any and every one at all interested in Christian meditation. It’s short! It’s direct! It is written from a differentvantage point than “The Cloud of Unknowing” because the author wants anyone who is interested to give Christian meditation a try.
Here is a quote from the book. “In the prayer of presence there will be times when you feel that you have mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically entered into God’s presence; at other times you may feel that God has briefly enveloped you. Sometimes the sense of presence may seem to be consciously united with Christ; at other times the presence of Christ does not seem to dominate so much as the larger experience of God. This can mean that you are so accustomed to being with Christ in your habitual prayer that your sense of God in prayer is one with Christ’s sense of prayer to His Father.” And another, “The attraction of God/Christ’s presence is not limited to one religious tradition. It certainly is not limited to the hermit’s hut or the cloister walls.” He goes on, “In mystical prayer, this experience, even if brief, becomes pivotal. It may become more than an isolated moment.” As you can see, just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s skimpy on information.
An Invitation to Centering Prayer, M. Basil Pennington 2001
Centering Prayer; Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form, also by M. Basil Pennington, 1982, 2001
This is like “Baby Bear” compared to “Papa Bear” because it’s the same information, by the same author, but the first one, the “invitation” is an 85 page “how-to” for centering prayer, aka, Christian meditation/contemplation. The 2nd book is 260 pages and the vocabulary is at a much higher level. Both are good.
Recommend the smaller one to newbies and the second one to the very serious student of meditation.
The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton, 1948
I really, really, really enjoyed this autobiography. I do like a well written biography. Two others that come to mind are from Benjamin Franklin and the one from Gandhi. I read “The Other Side of the Mountain” and wasn’t as blown over by it. But this one really held my attention and I whipped through it with huge interest. I highly recommend this. It completely changed my outlook on Merton.
A Book of Hours, by Thomas Merton
This is a very handsome hardback book. Kathleen Deignan gathered together a bunch of Merton’s work and organized it by days of the week and times of the day. It’s a very nice book to use leisurely and would make a lovely gift.
The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, St. Alphonsus Liguori
This is a very good book. Here is a quote, “Prayer is also the source of the desire to withdraw into solitary places and converse by oneself with God, and to maintain a state of inner recollection while handling necessary external duties.” And… “To arrive at perfect union with God, one must be totally detached from creatures … we must distance ourselves from inordinate affections for relatives.” The author teaches us that we need at least 30 minutes of “mental prayer” per day.
SIDE NOTE: I have much more extensive notes from these books:
The World is my Cloister, by John Michael Talbot
The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous
The Book of Privy Counseling
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence
Signatures, Dan O’Neill
Interior Castle, by Teresa of Avila
Living Alone Together
Hermitage, by John Michael Talbot
The Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross
Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton
Community and Growth, by Jean Vanier
The Lover and the Beloved, by John Michael Talbot
Changes; A Spiritual Journal, by John Michael Talbot
Come to the Quiet, by John Michael Talbot
I thank You
Beloved Divine Presence
For being this day’s
Soft Companioning of Cloud
And Steadfast Friendship
Of the Trees which line this winding road
What comfort it is
For me to know
That You Are
Always To Be Found
The Holy Ground
Ever beneath my straying feet
So Great as to
Create All Things
So Humble as to meet
One so small as I
With my canticles and cares
With all my pacing prayers
When I settle down
I always find You there
In the Silent
In the Still
In relinquishing my will
To the higher goals of Perfect Love
And when I am set to stumble
You do not forget me or leave me to fall
But call me onward toward Home
Through the Kind Correctives of Your Grace
You lead me to
The Gentle Place
Of Ultimate Belonging.
~Sr. Brigid Clare, with love and prayers for my Franciscan Family.