About twenty years ago I found myself at a turning point–Or maybe a dead end is the better metaphor.
I felt spiritually dry and without direction. I went through my days as if they were something to get through rather than relish in. I was not always like this. I had had wonderful spiritual experiences with my small local Church over the years.
But here I was, just existing. I felt I had to do something to get the fire back.
So, I did what seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I fled to a monastery.
Over a period of ten days, I pillaged the Abby library. It was a treasure house of spiritual literature; from original illuminated manuscripts from the fifth century, through the Christian Patristic Age, into the Middle Ages, to contemporary periodicals.
I was raised a Catholic, but somehow I missed out on this wonderful literature of spirituality. As the Zen proverb goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.
I spent this time in the Abby library with the joy and contentment of Brer Rabbit in his Brier Patch, and in the process, I reconnected to that dimension of life I had lost.
Here on this page are the spiritual mentors I discovered during that week, and over the years that followed. These writings have changed and continue to change my life.
I hope this page (as well as the page on spiritual women writers) will stir up your curiosity enough to pick up one of these volumes and try it yourself.
Saint Augustine (13 November 354 – 28 August 430)
“If you keep silent, keep silent by love: if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love; let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow. Love and do what you will.”
When I first read “The Confessions”, it was like reading a fantastic adventure story, only it was an adventure of the spirit and psyche. It was while reading this I began to suspect I had barely tasted what was available to one who earnestly seeks.
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
by Benedicta Ward
The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. Ironically, they fled there after Christianity was made legal by Constantine. Those who left for the desert formed an alternate Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice.
`Give me a word, Father’, visitors to early desert monks asked. The responses of these pioneer ascetics were remembered and in the fourth century written down and read by generations of Christians as life-giving words that would help readers along the path to salvation.
“Macarius said also, ‘If you are stirred to anger when you want to reprove someone, you are gratifying your own passions. Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”
“Mathois said, ‘The nearer a man comes to God, the more he sees himself to be a sinner. Isaiah the prophet saw the Lord and knew himself to be wretched and unclean (Is. 6:5).”
“Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind being dispersed and your stillness lost.”
THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING – anonymous
This is the oldest text on Contemplative Christianity written in English. Although the exact identity of this text’s author remains obscure, he was probably an English country parson of the late 14th century.
I would recommend reading this book only after having read more basic treatises on Contemplative Spirituality.
It makes a realistic appraisal of the problems and weaknesses of individual human beings, for it regards man’s imperfections as the raw material to be worked with in carrying out the discipline of spiritual development.
It is a beautiful essay, calling those willing to a life of ongoing reaching for union with God.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, (October 23, 1491 – July 31, 1556)
Spanish knight from a local Basque noble family, hermit, priest since 1537, and theologian, who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Ignatius emerged as a religious leader during the Counter-Reformation. Loyola’s devotion to the Catholic Church was characterized by absolute obedience to the Pope.
His classic work “The Spiritual Exercises” formed the basis of the spiritual formation for Jesuits, and is a popular source used today in retreats of many religions .
In it, Ignatius takes you on a thirty-day journey through the Gospels, challenging you each step of the way to visualize yourself experiencing what each person experienced, and in so doing be changed by the power of the gospel. Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they were composed with the intention of helping participants discern the will of God in their lives, leading to a personal commitment to follow Jesus whatever the cost.
Saint John of the Cross (1542 – 14 December 1591)
One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings – ah, the sheer grace! – I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled.
John of the Cross was a reformer in the Carmelite Order of his time and the movement he helped initiate, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, eventually led to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites. This reform of the Carmelites sought to return the emphasis of the order back to contemplation and simplicity of life, hence the name “Discalced” which means “barefoot”.
Saint John is considered one of the best, if not the best, Spanish poet. His works begin with a poem, then move in to a careful analysis of prayer as concisely expressed through his poetry.
St. John is of the “Apophatic” School of spirituality, as is “THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING , which refers to a contemplation not mediated by any images – a focus on the transcendent, un-knowableness of God.
This contrasts with the “Kataphatic” school of spirituality (i.e. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis) stressing the immanence of God – that the entire “World is charged with the Grandeur of God”(G.M.Hopkins) and that God can be known in part through creation.
St. John’s writings have influenced important spiritual writers from his own time through today. Singer and songwriter John Michael Talbot released an entire record (a favorite of mine) around the writings of St. John and Saint Teresa of Avila: “Meditations from Solitude“.
Saint John’s most famous work is Dark Night of the Soul, which follows the journey of the soul from the attachments and diversions in the world to a place of total union with God. His other famous works are: Living Flame of Love & Spiritual Canticle of the Soul
Francis de Sales (21 August 1567 – 28 December 1622)
Francis was a Bishop of Geneva and is honored as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He became noted for his deep faith and his gentle approach to the religious divisions in his land resulting from the Protestant Reformation. He is known also for his writings on the topic of spiritual direction and spiritual formation, particularly the Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise on the Love of God.
His writings are personal and pastoral in nature, describing the spiritual life as an attractive and accessible way to live.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614 – 12 February 1691)
Brother Lawrence served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. He discovered in his lowly chores in the monastic kitchen that by remaining aware of the presence of God in and around you at every moment of the day, life is transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
He describes this way of living simply but profoundly in his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God.
Jean Pierre de Caussade (7 March 1675 – 8 December 1751)
He was spiritual director at the Nuns of the Visitation at Nancy, France from 1733 to 1740. During this time he wrote letters of instruction to the nuns. His one major work, Abandonment to Divine Providence (Later retitled The Sacrament of This Present Moment with a fine introduction by Richard Foster) – has now for many years been read widely and is considered a classic in the spiritual life by Catholics and many others.
“To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith. To find contentment in the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will in the succession of all the things to be done and suffered which make up the duty to the present moment.”
“The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.”
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)
All the issues we struggle with in the 21st century, Chesterton foresaw, and wrote about, in the early 20th century. Social injustice, the culture of death, assaults on religion, and attacks on the family and on the dignity of the human person: Chesterton saw where these trends, already active in his time, would lead us. He was a witty, intelligent, and insightful defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and especially of the family. He loved good beer, good wine, and good cigars. He wrote in just about every genre: history, biography, novels, poetry, short stories, apologetics and theology, economic works, and more.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945)
Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship became a modern classic.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'”
Dag Hammarskjöld (29 July 1905 – 18 September 1961)
Dag Hammarskjöld served as the second secretary-general of the United Nations, from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He is one of only four people to be awarded a posthumous Nobel Prize and was the only United Nations Secretary-General to die while in office. He was killed in a Douglas DC-6 airplane crash en route to cease-fire negotiations. His appointment has been mentioned as the most notable success for the UN. US president John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century”.
From the forward to Markings , his classic spiritual journal, poet W.H. Auden writes “the attempt by a professional man of action to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa.”
In an interview with Edward R. Murrow, he disclosed his more personal inner life.
“But the explanation of how man should live a life of active social service in full harmony with himself as a member of the community of spirit, I found in the writings of those great medieval mystics Meister Eckhart and Jan van Ruysbroek for whom ‘self-surrender’ had been the way to self-realization, and who in ‘singleness of mind’ and ‘inwardness’ had found strength to say yes to every demand which the needs of their neighbors made them face, and to say yes also to every fate life had in store for them when they followed the call of duty as they understood it.”
Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968)
A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, essayist, social activist, and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.
Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews. Among Merton’s most enduring works is his bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US, and was also featured in National Review‘s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. Merton was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and authored books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism.
I was introduced to his classic “New Seeds of Contemplation” while in one of my extended visits to a Benedictine Monastery. This one book opened up to me the possibilities of experiencing a whole other level of life. His other works continue to support the truth that God may not ever be known, but can be experienced at ever deepening levels.
Henri Nouwen (January 24, 1932 – September 21, 1996)
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian. His interests were rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community.
After nearly two decades of teaching at academic institutions including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, Nouwen went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
While visiting the L’Arche Trosly-Breuil community in France, he saw a poster of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, that made a deep impression on him. He decided to see the painting personally and traveled to Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) to visit the Hermitage Museum where it is kept. This resulted in a several day contemplation of the painting, which prompted him to write a book of the same name. The Return of the Prodigal Son was ranked number 66 on a list of 100 best Christian books compiled by the Church Times in 2014.
In “The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery “, Nouwen journals from his seven month stay in this Monastery in upstate New York. This extended time of silence, stillness, and solitude deeply affects his life’s direction and perspective.
This has become one of my favorite spiritual writings, along with his other classics The Wounded Healer and Reaching out-The three movements of the Spiritual Life.
Other Recommended Spiritual Reading: