A “Top Ten” List of Christian Contemplative Books

A reader writes,

Wondering if you have an updated list of top ten books about Christian contemplation?

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have a fondness for publishing lists of books I love and like to recommend. For example, two years ago I published a list of Twelve Contemplative Books for Christian Transformation. I can’t recall that I’ve ever published a “Top Ten” list, at least of contemplative books. So let’s do it now.

First, a few notes. I’m limiting myself to one book per author, even though several of these authors (particularly Martin Laird and Mary Margaret Funk) deserve to have more than one title in the top ten. But when the Beatles had five songs at the top of the hit charts, it may have been impressive for the Beatles, but it made for a boring list! So here’s one book per author, and if you love the one I recommend, try some of the author’s other titles.

Also, you’ll notice not all of these books are directly about contemplative practice. They all touch on contemplation, although some do so indirectly — focussing instead on topics such as mysticism, silence or joy. This is intentional on my part. I think reading ten “how to practice contemplative prayer” books would quickly become an exercise in repetition. Contemplation is a very simple practice, really. So no one needs to read ten “beginner’s” books. Thus, my list does have a few books aimed at the absolute beginner, but then a few other books that approach contemplation from different perspectives: how is contemplation expressed in different ways in different communities? What is the relationship between contemplation and nondualism? What is the fruit of a mature contemplative practice? Read all the books on this list, and these are the kinds of questions you’ll be invited to ponder.

With the exception of The Cloud of Unknowing, all the books included here were published in the 20th or 21st centuries. While I’m a bit of a history nerd, I don’t think you need to dive deep into the classical texts to foster a robust contemplative practice — so I focused on contemporary writings that address what it means to embrace the contemplative life today. But if you are interested in the history of contemplation, there’s plenty for you to explore: look at my Christian Mystics Bibliography for inspiration.

Finally — one of the main problems with a list like this is, inevitably, just how many books (and authors) that are conspicuous in their absence. What, no Thomas Keating? Richard Rohr? Howard Thurman, John Main, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Merton?!?! The point is very simple: you can’t come up with a “top ten” list that will in any way be comprehensive. We are blessed with too many wonderful authors, teachers, voices. If I focused on the really good authors who I left out, then all the really good authors that are included on my list would be missing! So there’s no way I can win. I think part of the fun of creating lists like this is not only to help out beginners, but also to give long-standing students of contemplation something to think about (and disagree with!). So if your favorite book/author is absent, my apologies. Maybe they’ll show up next time.

Okay, on to the list…

  • Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation — when I recommend just one book on contemplative Christianity, this is it. Fr. Martin is the real deal, a scholar and a gentle soul, clearly steeped in his own long-standing contemplative practice. This book drinks deep from the historical tradition, but is relevant and accessible for today’s seeker. If you like it, read Laird’s other books; they’re all excellent.
  • Mary Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter: Discovering the Spiritual Journey — this Benedictine nun has devoted much energy to reclaiming the riches of the contemplative tradition for our time. She has written five “matters” books exploring different aspects of contemplative spirituality; they are all excellent, but start with the first one: an introduction to the spirituality of the desert tradition, particularly the contemplative practice of non-attachment to our thoughts.
  • Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychol0gy — May was a psychiatrist who offered in this book a wonderful insight of how to integrate the wisdom of contemplative practice with contemporary knowledge of how the mind works. Others (like Thomas Keating) have explored similar territory, but May’s book of both succinct and comprehensive. This thoughts on the nature of consciousness are alone worth the price of admission.
  • Carmen Butcher (translator), The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel — Critics of Christian contemplative practices like Centering Prayer sometimes dismiss them as “new” innovations, not consistent with traditional spirituality. Laird and Funk should lay that objection to rest, but here’s a gem from the fourteenth century that reads almost like a modern-day introduction to silent prayer. Carmen Butcher’s translation makes this ancient text come alive.
  • Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice — Bourgeault provides an introductory overview of Centering Prayer, commentary on how it functions as a nondual contemplative practice, and — almost as a bonus — provides a detailed commentary on how The Cloud of Unknowing functions as an advanced wisdom text, inducts its readers into mystical nonduality: a brilliant exposition of the unique gifts of Christian contemplation.
  • Anthony de Mello, Sadhana: A Way to God this Jesuit author from India wrote a number of wonderful books, but Sadhana is probably his most deeply contemplative offering; an almost seamless blending of eastern and western approaches to spirituality, this is a book of exercises that you’ll want to read slowly, savoring the wisdom and trying out the practices for yourself.
  • Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church — for the most part I’ve avoided academic books on this list, but am including this title for its importance as a corrective to how Euro-centric so much of the American “Christian contemplative” scene is. Holmes reminds us that there are more ways to be contemplative than just meditating for twenty minutes. An essential book for anyone who wants to appreciate the diversity of contemplation.
  • Sara Maitland, A Book of SilenceWhile not a book about contemplation per se, this literary reflection on the beauty and challenge of silence has much to offer anyone interested in Christian spirituality — for, after all, silence is one of the key elements of interior work in general, and contemplation in particular. Maitland is a gift writer and this book is a lyrical celebration of its topic, poetic, eloquent, and deeply insightful.
  • Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People first published in 1914, this text is a bit dated (even its subtitle makes me wince), but it’s a gentle book that serves not only as a fine introduction to one of the great mystics of the twentieth century, but also effectively and accessibly connects the dots between contemplation and some of the more traditional language of mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila.
  • Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — many people today want to consider the relationship between contemplation and action, and many authors (Kenneth Leech and Richard Rohr leap to mind) explore this topic well. But I opted for this book because I think it’s important to consider how contemplation equips us for a life of service or advocacy. Tutu provides the Christian voice, and the Dalai Lama is probably the more deeply contemplative of the two — but the witness of the playful and delightful friendship between these two men (both of whom have given their lives to both spirituality and the struggle for justice) is profoundly inspirational. As a bonus, this is a living example of how Christian contemplation has a natural affinity for interfaith wisdom and spirituality.

So there you go. Hope you enjoy exploring these books. Just remember: at some point you have to put the book down, and pray!

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