A reader of this blog (and a Patreon member) wrote to me and asked:
Hi Carl: Do you have a list of fiction and poetry you recommend for those on the Christian Mystic path? Thanks!
A wonderful question, and while I didn’t have a handy list available to email back to him, it inspired me to write this post. It’s a bit of hodgepodge: fiction about the mystics, and poetry by mystics. But together, I hope this list can be an inspiring way to dive into the beautiful contemplative world of Christian mysticism.
First, a disclaimer: I have not read all of these, so I offer this list in the spirit of two friends browsing in a bookstore: “Hey, check this out, it looks promising!” If you read one of these books and really don’t like it (or, more hopefully, that you really do like it), please let me know. Of course, with fiction like all art, everyone’s taste is different; still, it’s nice to get a perspective from somebody who has actually spent time with the book.
- Carmel Bendon’s The Mystics Who Came to Dinner (Orbis Books) — a charming book that imagines what it would be like to have a dinner party with several of the great mystics (including Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and the mysterious author of The Cloud of Unknowing). Suspend your disbelief and join the party — if you’re like me, you’ll laugh, smile, and perhaps even shed a tear or two as you read this whimsical yet inspiring story.
- Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (Mariner Books) — pretty much all the other books on this list qualify as historical fiction: imaginative narratives that seek to make the mystics themselves come to life. Mary Sharratt has written two such novels, the first being this fictional account of the great 12th century abbess, writer, composer, herbalist, visionary, and renaissance-woman-before-the-renaissance, Hildegard of Bingen.
- Mary Sharratt’s Revelations (Mariner Books) — one of the great encounters in mystical literature is that of Margery Kempe, who turns to Julian of Norwich for spiritual direction. Sharratt uses that encounter as the jumping off point for inviting us into the world of both these great late medieval women. You might also want to check out a forthcoming novel that is getting a lot of buzz: Victoria Mackenzie’s For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain (Bloomsbury). also built around the encounter between Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.
- Bárbara Mujica’s Sister Teresa (Overlook Press) — this novel invites us into the world of Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth century visionary, theologian, and monastic reformer. Teresa lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation, the council of Trent, and the Spanish Inquisition — plenty of background material to highlight both the drama and spiritual beauty of the world in which she lived and had her mystical visions.
- Robert Waldron’s Lady at the Window: The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich (Paraclete Press) — Julian of Norwich is renowned as the first woman that we know of to have written a book in the English language. But like many other authors, could she have kept notebooks to help her with her writing? Again, this is fiction, but that tantalizing question provides the foundation for this imaginative excursion into her life and wisdom.
- Louis De Wohl, The Joyful Beggar (Ignatius Press) — Louis De Wohl was a German Catholic author who died in 1961, so his books are dated; still, he wrote narrative biographies of several great mystics. The Joyful Beggar chronicles the life of Francis of Assis. Also check out his novelization of the life of Ignatius of Loyola, The Golden Thread (Ignatius Press).
- Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s Man of Blessing (Paraclete Press) — Saint Benedict is not always thought of as a mystic, but given how important monasticism was for the development of Christian mysticism, and how influential Benedict was to the monastic movement, he deserves to be listed as one of the more “down to earth” examples of contemplative Christians. Here, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, renowned for her translations of mystical classics like The Cloud of Unknowing and Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence, offers us a fictionalized account of Benedict’s life, paying particular attention to this relationship with his sister, Saint Scholastica.
All of the books listed here are poetry anthologies, featuring a variety of mystics — some limited to the Christian tradition, others offering a broader selection of mystics from the world over. Several are older anthologies, dating from 1917 (the Oxford Anthology), 1919 (Osmond), 1963 (Tozer) or 1966 (Gross). Tozer, incidentally, was himself a Protestant mystic of the 20th century, giving his anthology an additional layer of interest. Each of these books includes well-known and lesser-known poets, which makes for some fun exploring. Meanwhile, many of the mystics themselves had reputations of poets, so if you want to dive deeper into mystical poetry, look for collections of poetry by Abhishiktananda, Angelus Silesius, George Herbert, Hadewijch, Jacopone da Todi, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Thomas Traherne, and Evelyn Underhill, among many others.
- Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics translated and adapted by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) — includes works by Isaac of Ninevah, Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others.
- For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics by Roger Housden (Hay House) — includes works by Teresa of Ávila, Simone Weil, Denise Levertov, R.S. Thomas, John O’Donohue, and many others.
- The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse chosen by D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee (Alpha Editions) — includes works by John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, Evelyn Underhill, and many others.
- The Mystical Poets of the English Church by Percy H. Osmond (SPCK) — both a study and an anthology; includes works by Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, Henry and Thomas Vaughan, Emily Brontë, Christina Rossetti, and many others.
- The Mystic in Love: A Treasury of World Mystical Poetry edited by Shelley Gross (Citadel Press) — primarily an interspiritual anthology, but does include Christian poets such as Richard Rolle, Jacopone da Todi, Angelus Silesius, and John of the Cross, among others.
- The Christian Book of Mystical Verse: A Collection of Poems, Hymns, and Prayers for Devotional Reading compiled by A.W. Tozer (Christian Publications) — includes works by Jeanne Guyon, Charles Wesley, Frederick William Faber, Bernard of Clairvaux, Isaac Watts, and many others.