A Quirky Reading List for the Contemplative Life
One of my favorite memories from my time as a college student at St. John’s University was the January-term of 2000, my senior year of college. All of my roommates were gone for the month, I wasn’t taking any courses, and I set myself the goal of reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski – a thousand-page classic! I would wake up and make a pot of coffee, watch the snow falling, and dive in – interspersed with cross-country skiing in the woods, and playing darts over a pint with friends each evening. That’s pretty much my vision of heaven, but enough about me…
With the rise of mindfulness and meditation, there are lots of ways to learn and enrich your practice – including apps, websites (like this one!), online courses, etc. But for the contemplative life, it’s hard to beat sitting down with a good cup of coffee or tea and reading a classic! I have put together a non-exhaustive, idiosyncratic, and quirky list of books that have been particularly helpful or influential for me. So, if you’re looking for that next book to go deeper – or to get started – in your contemplative journey toward union (with God), you might check one of these out. This list is meant to be neither exhaustive nor comprehensive – rather, it’s a quirky compilation of what I treasure. May you find similar joy in meandering through the etchings of the many great contemplative minds who’ve taken the time to put pen to paper (or at least to clack on a keyboard).
“Simple. Elegant. Beautiful.”
These are the words I would use to describe the two books I’m intentionally listing first. If someone comes to me and asks what to read, these are the first two I recommend. Both of my copies are written in, ear-marked, and falling apart – because I go back to them time and time again. Read both of these books. You won’t regret it.
Martin Laird. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006.
- Martin Laird provides the most accessible intro to Christian contemplation of which I’m aware, covering all the basics of the different styles of practice and what unites them, the history, theology, and scriptural foundations of contemplative Christian practice.
Thich Naht Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. Translated by Mobi Ho. Boston: Beacon Press. 1987.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk famous for his peace activism and promotion of “engaged Buddhism,” provides a short intro to meditation has become a modern classic, with good reason. Drawing upon Buddhist teachings, he makes mindfulness approachable to anyone, anywhere. ‘Nuff said.
The rest of these are presented in no particular order:
Cynthia Bourgeault. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2004.
- This is a beloved book in the Centering Prayer world, just as Cynthia is a beloved teacher in that world. (BTW – you can listen to my interview with her at “Contemplate This!“
Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. “Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.” – http://www.valyermo.com/ld-art.html
- Short article with practical tips for practicing the ancient art of lectio divina (Latin for “sacred” or “holy” reading), in small groups or by oneself. He blends together the theology with the practice in a way that makes it very accessible.
Thomas Keating, O.S.C.O. Fr. Thomas’s books take you right into the depth of contemplative prayer – with a particular emphasis on the modern rebirth of Centering Prayer.
- Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroad. 1994.
- Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. New York: Continuum. 2006.
- This and Cynthia’s book (see above) are the two most frequently recommended books for those who are new to Centering Prayer. (David Frenette’s The Path of Centering Prayer is also very popular, though I haven’t read it myself.)
- The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation. New York: Paulist Press. 1999.
- Thomas applies insights from modern depth-psychology to the human journey of transformation – this book has been foundational for my own interdisciplinary research in psychology and theology.
Ernest Larkin, O.Carm. “Christian Mindfulness,” in Contemplative Prayer for Today: Christian Meditation (Singapore: Medio Media, 2007). Available online – http://carmelnet.org/larkin/larkin017.pdf
- Fr. Larkin provides the best explanation of the relationship between mindfulness and Christian contemplative prayer that I’m aware of – essential reading for those like myself who live at the crossroads between secular mindfulness, other forms of meditation, and Christian contemplative prayer! Or for those who just want to understand the relationship between mindfulness and prayer.
Thomas Merton. OK, you could literally read anything from Merton and it would be worthwhile. He is the modern master. But he’s also written a ton of material. If you want to get to know the man himself, start with his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, but don’t stop there, because his thought develops so much further after writing and publishing that book… I list these two simply because they provide easy access to his thoughts on contemplation.
- Contemplative Prayer. New York: Image Books. 1969.
- The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. San Francisco: Harper. 2003.
- New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions. 2007
Michael Casey, O.S.B. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina. Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph. 1995.
- A beautiful introduction to lectio divina from a true master!
John Main, O.S.B. Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation. Norwich: Canterbury Press. 2012.
- Main is sort of the founding father of Christian meditation, a form of contemplative prayer that uses a mantra. This will get you started in that tradition.
Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P. I firmly believe that every theology entails a spirituality, but Gutierrez makes his explicit and for this we owe him a great debt. After writing A Theology of Liberation (first published in Spanish in 1973), arguably one of the most important theological publications of the 20th century, he spells out the spiritual struggle of a people seeking liberation in both the interior and exterior expressions of the human spirit in We Drink from Our Wells, and he deals with the problem of unjust suffering in relation to the contemplative life in his commentary On Job. And he’s been serving the poor in Peru for decades, so he’s one who truly “walks the talk” of contemplation and compassion.
- We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, Anniv. Ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2003.
- On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1987.
Barbara Holmes. Modern contemplative practices in the West are at risk of becoming – and perhaps already are – a predominantly white, middle-class commodity. But Holmes’s book reminds all of us that practices that prepare the soul for divine union have always been found in a wide variety of cultural expressions – and not all of them look like someone sitting quietly on a cushion or chair.
- Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd Ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2017.
I could keep going with a longer list, but I wanted to start this with a list that’s short enough to be digestible. Reading these books would be a great way to give yourself a master class on contemplative prayer with a focus on the Christian tradition.