It’s the doldrums of August. The kids are already running around the parking lot for the parish school, both excited and horrified that school has begun again, and I am nearing the end of my summer assignment. A few days ago, a friend asked me an interesting question and I thought I would turn it into a column: “What are the top ten spiritual books, in your opinion?”
Since school is starting and people are feeling a bit more studious in general, I decided to give the list some thought. Of course, any endeavor to create a “Top-10” list of sorts is always bound to cause controversy. And for some reason, everyone who writes a column eventually makes a list like this. It might not be spiritual books, but almost everyone has a list. Keep in mind: these are my favorites. I am making no judgment about books that did not make the cut—and there are some really important books not on the list! With each book, I am including the significance it has had in my life. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here is the first half of my list. The second half will appear in my next column.
1.) The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena. This is an amazing book. The entire premise is that Catherine is having a conversation with God. Aside from the content of the dialogue, which oscillates from profound to sublime and back again, the dialogue format itself is conducive to teaching a fundamental truth about prayer: it is conversation with God. I first read the Dialogue the summer I arrived in Italy. To wander around the places where Catherine lived, to visit her relics, and to read her own reflections was an incredible experience. The “Doctrine of Tears” section alone could be a separate classic! I personally find Catherine’s reflections more accessible than Teresa of Avila, though her descriptions of the progress in the spiritual life are really structured very much in the same way. This is a wonderful book that I think you can read from front to back, and to which you will return for the rest of your life.
2.) Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen. My cousin gave me a copy of this book about 10 years ago. Back when I was in college and then just starting out in the private sector, we would have lunch about once a month. We would always talk about religion and politics. He gave me this book to read at one of these lunches. I was an atheist at the time and quite happy about it. My cousin probably thought that by putting a face on Christ, the “idea” of atheism would pass away. In fact, I did not read it until after my conversion, but I did read it. This book is astounding. Sheen goes through the major events of Christ’s life, at times introducing ideas I have never encountered anywhere else. He has an engaging style of writing, and this book is accessible to readers at all levels. You will get to know Jesus in a way you have not previously in reading this classic.
3.) Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. It’s hard to pick just one book by St. John of the Cross. I read this one my first year at Mount St. Mary’s. It is dense and difficult, but it is fruitful. I was deeply affected by the first few chapters of the book, but I do not recommend reading this one from front to back at once. Better to just read until you find something that resonates and stop. Pick it back up when you are ready for something more. John of the Cross is a bit addictive, just to warn you. Pope John Paul II wrote his doctoral thesis partially on John of the Cross, and he was a great lover of his writings.
4.) The Sadness of Christ by St. Thomas More. This choice was the result of a debate between choosing the Dialogue of Comfort in Tribulation and the Sadness of Christ. I went with the Sadness of Christ because it is such a good read during Lent. More goes through the Passion narratives event-by-event and produces a work unlike anything you have read. St. Thomas More is outstanding: he is logical, spiritual, incredibly profound, and I find his life to be a true witness to Christian sanctity. I read the Sadness of Christ a few years ago on a retreat. Written from his jail cell, it is a profoundly personal and deeply challenging reflection. In reflecting on why I love St. Thomas More so much, I recalled that the parish bearing his name in Atlanta is where I was baptized and received first communion. Seems like he’s been looking out for me too!
5.) The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Screwtape and Wormwood are just great characters. The premise of this book is that Wormwood, a junior devil, receives letters from Screwtape, a senior devil and tempter, instructing him on the best way to “win” souls for hell. The book is amusing, really easy to read, and extraordinarily profound. If you don’t see yourself in at least one of the letters, you’re either a saint or you’re not being honest. I read this my first semester at Mount St. Mary’s in a class on prayer and the spiritual life. One of the realities that we today sometimes ignore is the presence of temptation and the fact that behind these temptations is often a tempter. Devils and demons cannot make us do anything, but they can use our disordered inclinations (the result of original and personal sin) against us through suggestion. C.S. Lewis does a great job of reminding us that evil is real and that it wants to eliminate the good.
Well, that’s the first half of my list. Perhaps you think it is grossly inadequate. Perhaps it is full of books you have never read. The second half of my list is, I think, the more interesting part. What makes a good spiritual book? I’m not entirely sure. I think that a good spiritual books changes the way that we think or the way that we act and stays with us for the rest of our lives. These books are in that category for me. In twenty years, the list might be entirely different, but for now, this is a kind of window into my formation as a Christian man and as a seminarian. Happy reading, and happy praying!