There are literally hundreds of mystics in the Christian tradition alone — or, should I say, hundreds of mystics who were writers (no one knows how many great mystics were too humble to write about their union with God, and so their wisdom is lost to history). And while some mystics like Julian of Norwich only wrote a small amount, others like Thomas Merton or Teresa of Ávila left us enough writings to fill multiple books. The bottom line: if you want to savor the wisdom of the mystics, how can you figure out what to read, given that there are more mystical writings than most people can read in a lifetime?
One approach to this problem is to enjoy a number of anthologies of mystical writings. Ever since The Philokalia was compiled in the late 1700s, aspiring mystics and contemplatives have benefited from books that curate and collect key writings from mystics in general, or even from a specific subset of the mystical tradition (for example, The Philokalia features Eastern Orthodox contemplatives, while Karen Armstrong’s Visions of God features the words of 14th-century English mystics). Different anthologies are arranged topically, alphabetically, or chronologically, offering a variety ways to explore mystical wisdom. Some anthologies are specifically devotional in nature, featuring short, pithy quotations intended to foster daily prayer or meditation. Others feature more in-depth selections of mystical writings, and are intended for study and research.
For this blog post I’ve gathered together a dozen titles that I think are representative of the best in mystical anthologies Aside from The Philokalia which is a four-volume set, each of these is a single book, so even the list as a whole is not too intimidating (I hope!). Consider this list as an invitation to dive more deeply in the contemplative and mystical literary tradition within Christianity — don’t expect that every one of those books will necessarily be meaningful for you: just as the mystics themselves represent a variety of voices and theological perspectives and therefore will not all appeal to you (or anyone), so these anthologies offer a wide variety of approaches to the topic. Pick out the ones that appeal to you, and start there. Just don’t be surprised if you find that the more you read the mystics, the deeper you’ll want to go. You can’t say I didn’t warn you!
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Twelve Excellent Anthologies of Mystical and Contemplative Writing
- Karen Armstrong (editor), Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and their Writings. Since it only features the writings of four mystics, all from the same century and country: Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing — this seems to be quite a limited “anthology.” But it’s a great read not only because of Armstrong’s helpful commentary and the excellent translation of the source writings, but also because it’s a great case study of how diverse the voices of the different mystics really are. Seeing firsthand the distinctions between these four mystics is a good way to begin to appreciate how different all the mystics are.
- Carmen Acevedo Butcher (editor), A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics. Although best known for her luminous translations of the mystics, Butcher here provides a devotional anthology of 366 writings, all from female mystics like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Ávila, arranged for daily prayer and reflection.
- Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, OSB (editors), Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. After an informative introductory essay, this chronological collection features lengthy selections of writings from over twenty mystics, from Origen in the 2nd century to Merton in the 20th.
- Harvey Egan (editor), An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Like Light from Light, another survey of the writings of over fifty great mystics in chronological, rather than topical, order — an in-depth anthology which allows the reader to get a feel for how mystical literature has evolved over the past 2,000 years.
- Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth (compilers), The Philokalia: Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three and Volume Four. This multi-volume anthology of writings from the fathers of the Eastern Orthodox churches provides detailed instructions on asceticism and the life of prayer, particularly the “Prayer of the Heart.” Among the great mystics whose writings are included in The Philokalia are John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory Palamas. A one-volume anthology, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, features the writings that were mentioned in the anonymous Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim.
- Shawn Madigan, CSJ (editor), Mystics, Visionaries, and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Writings. As the title implies, this is a broader anthology of spiritual writing that includes not only mystical/contemplative women, but also significant women theologians and activists. Still, plenty of mystics are included, and this collection provides an interesting approach to mysticism as part of a broader spiritual conversation.
- George Maloney, SJ (editor), Pilgrimage of the Heart: A Treasury of Eastern Christian Spirituality. Most of the books featured in this list are geared toward the mysticism of the Christian west; this anthology coupled with the Philokalia surveys the wisdom from the east.
- Carl McColman (compiler), The Little Book of Christian Mysticism. Over three hundred quotations from the Bible and the great mystics, arranged according to the process of purification, illumination and deification, and selected for devotional use.
- Bernard McGinn (editor), The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Numerous anthologies of writings by the great mystics have been published over the years, but this one towers over them all. It includes lengthy selections from the writings of the mystics arranged topically, as well as insightful introductions and commentaries on the various selections.
- H. A. Reinhold (editor), The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics. Dating from the 1940s, this is an older compilation of mystics, and long out of print so you’ll have to chase down a used copy. But it’s an interesting assortment of quotations and a reminder that interest in Christian mysticism is not just some fad from the last few decades.
- Douglas V. Steere (editor), Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings. This installment in the Classics of Western Spirituality series 1Paulist Press’ Classics of Western Spirituality series of great mystical books is an excellent resource for students of Christian mysticism, as well as Jewish, Muslim, and even Native American spirituality. presents key writings from the Religious Society of Friends, including works by George Fox, Isaac Penington, John Woolman, Rufus M. Jones, and Thomas R. Kelly, all of whom celebrate the rich Quaker tradition, whose profound attentiveness to contemplative silence and to God’s presence within has resulted in a strong heritage of social justice.
- Howard Thurman, Essential Writings. Here’s an example of a useful anthology that features the work of one specific mystic. Many of the great mystics have their own “Greatest Hits” collection; I don’t have the time to list them all. I’m highlighting Thurman because I love his writing, and I don’t think he appears in any of the other anthologies listed here, so certainly his Essential Writings is a must-have. But don’t stop here: if a mystic you love has been published in an anthology edition, pick it up, you will likely find it a most enjoyable read.