What I look for when I read contemplative books

I often get asked to recommend “the best” contemplative books. I’m happy to do so (see this post for a recent attempt to list some of the better books), but today I thought I’d do something a bit different.

Instead of just rolling off a list of my personal favorites, I’ll share with you how I decide which books I consider to be truly worth reading, savoring, and sharing.

There are a lot of contemplative books out there, and new ones are published every month. If you tried to keep up with all the new contemplative writing, you might be so busy reading that you don’t have time to meditate or pray. That would be a textbook example of “defeating the purpose”!

So I’m all for being choosy about what I read.

Naturally, I tend to look at the works of authors I already know and love, and perhaps I also pay attention to books that come from publishers I trust. And I’ll always pay attention to books that come highly recommended from a trusted friend, colleague or mentor (Brother Elias Marechal introduced me to Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land which remains one of my all-time favorite contemplative books; another Trappist monk, Fr. Tom Francis Smith, introduced me to Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening).

But even if a book gets a lot of buzz on social media, is the talk of everyone at your centering prayer group, and comes from an author or publisher you know and trust, there’s still the question: what makes for a really good contemplative book? I’d like to suggest the following five criteria.

  1. I look for books that invite me to a new understanding. There are a lot of beginner’s books on contemplative and mystical spirituality (I myself have written one: Answering the Contemplative Call). I hope that authors and publishers will continue to bring out more books for beginners, because more and more people appear to be embracing contemplative spirituality all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with reading several books that cover the same introductory ground: we learn through repetition, as any monk will tell you. But most people probably do not need to read every single “beginner’s” book — on this topic, or any topic. So when looking for your next book to read, ask yourself, “What will this book show me or teach me, that I don’t already know?” If you’ve read three books already that stress the importance of linking contemplation and action, then you probably don’t need a fourth one that covers the same ground. Instead, maybe look for a book that explains the psychology of resistance that keeps many activists from becoming contemplative (or vice versa). This is just an example, of course: the books that bring you to a new understanding will be different from what I need or look for. And that’s good. Each of us must ask for ourselves, “What does this book have to say, that I’ve never heard before?” The easier it is to answer that question, the more likely the book will prove valuable to read.
  2. I look for books that challenge me to grow, expressed in a way that is deeply affirming and invitational. Spirituality — contemplative or otherwise — is a relational journey of growing closer to God, and being transformed by that journey. In other words, to be a contemplative means to be committed to personal growth — whether you are 19 or 90 years old. As anyone who has ever learned a musical instrument or embraced a new workout routine can attest, learning something new takes work — hopefully joyful work, but work nonetheless. Contemplative spirituality emphasizes themes such as reclaiming the sabbath, learning to rest in God, finding time for stillness and retreat — all of which imply that this is an “easy” spiritual practice. But it has its own dimension of challenge. It takes effort to start a daily contemplative practice, and ongoing perseverance to maintain it. It takes work to learn a new way of seeing and a new dimension of consciousness that moves us into a more nondual awareness of Divine Presence and interior transformation. And it definitely takes work to put the wisdom and insight of contemplative spirituality into practice: to become more compassionate, more committed to just and equitable relationships, more merciful and forgiving in our daily relationships, and so forth. Good contemplative writing will challenge us to grow in all these ways, but it won’t shame us for not being perfect today.
  3. I look for books that are respectful of tradition but not constrained by it. So much of the beauty of the contemplative path — any contemplative path — is the insight it offers us into the wisdom of the past. For example, I’m anchored in the Christian tradition — my mentors and teachers on the contemplative path and been almost entirely Christian, and so that’s the language I speak, the stories I know, the culture I inhabit. My journey as a contemplative is deeply enriched by the great Christian mystics: Julian of Norwich, Evelyn Underhill, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, to name just a few. I like reading Pema Chödrön or Thich Nhat Hanh because they offer me insights into Buddhist wisdom from the past, that I don’t normally have access to as a Christian. So when I look at a contemplative book, I’m curious as to how it engages with its own tradition. It might be so anchored in its own tradition that it is hostile to other traditions — I find that problematic, frankly. On the other hand, it might be so suspicious of the past that it lacks any real grounding in tradition of any stripe. I think that’s equally problematic. In my experience, the best contemplative books are aware of their own lineage, respectful of the wisdom and history of those who have gone before, but not afraid to occasionally question or criticize the blind spots of the past (for example, the long history of sexism in Christianity).
  4. I look for books written out of a deep fidelity to their own faith, while remaining respectfully open to other faiths. I mentioned how I like reading Buddhist contemplative authors because they teach me in a way that is different from what I normally get from Christian authors. But since I am a Christian, most of the books I read come out of the Christian tradition, and I suppose that’s going to be true of any contemplative practitioner — religions are like languages, and we always feel at home with our mother tongue. But as we all know, we live in an age of interspiritual exploration, and different people react to that in different ways. In Christianity (and I suppose in all religions), there are people who mistrust other religions, or are frightened by them, or simply want to ignore them. Unfortunately, those perspectives tend to undermine the generous open spirit that contemplative prayer engenders. So when I read a book that explores contemplative spirituality, I try to get a feel for how the author balances their fidelity to their “home” tradition with openness to the other traditions of the world. If the author is hostile or unfriendly to other traditions — or even to their own tradition — that energy of animosity will undermine the contemplative heart of their message. I think the best contemplative books remain deeply grounded in their root tradition, while expressing a generous hospitality to wisdom wherever it may be found.
  5. I look for books that are beautifully written. Writing is a craft — writers need to focus on making sure their work is clear, accessible, warm, and follows a logical path. We live in an age that doesn’t always respect the importance of good old fashioned excellence in the work we do (this is true in general, not just in spiritual work). Frankly, too many contemplative books that I have encountered over the years feature writing that is breezy, pedestrian, overly academic, or unimaginative. So I look for writing that is clear without being simplistic, engaging without being histrionic, grounded without being boring. But there’s more: good writing is not only well-crafted, it’s also an art — which means there is a poetry, a lyrical quality of beauty and wonder that the best writing embodies. Good contemplative writing is a joy to read — it dances to a silent music that invites us to find delight, grace, elegance and charm in the words themselves, but also in the deep spirituality to which those words invite us. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that one person’s artistry will leave another person unimpressed. So there is an unavoidable subjective quality to this last criteria. I am reminded of the bumpersticker that says “Life is too short to drink cheap wine!” I think we owe it to ourselves to read books that contain writing we find inspiring, exalting, reverie-inducing, and simply beautiful and joyful to read.

Obviously, “don’t judge a book by its cover” so in many cases we may need to read a chapter or more of a book before we can evaluate it on these (or any other) criteria. Back to my post on So Many Books, So Little Time — we have to learn the useful skill of setting aside books that we begin, but find don’t meet our needs. Or just read the first and last chapters. And then move on to the next one. When we do find a book that embodies all of these qualities, it’s one to read carefully and thoroughly, to savor — and to share.

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