Thursday 26 January 2006

Essential spiritual and devotional writings for theologians

Here’s our next “essential list,” kindly created by Kim Fabricius. Kim says:

The title of this post is invidious if it suggests that theology and spirituality are two separate disciplines. For theology is spirituality in articulate expression, while spirituality is theology on its knees—and, of course, on its feet too! When theology is “thin,” it is often because it is not steeped in prayer; and when spirituality is “lite,” it is usually because it is theologically vacuous. Nevertheless, as anthologies attest, you will know what I mean by the designation “spiritual and devotional writings.”

This has been a particularly tough list of twenty to compile—the Christian tradition is so blessedly rich. I have gone for a historical and geographical spread, and I have also tried to include writers from a range of confessions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.

Furthermore, in this list more than in the other lists I have done for Ben, I have to admit to ignorance about some obvious primary sources. Lest I seem a fraud, I have been rigorous in excluding any material I don’t know at first hand.... But lest I protest too much, let me post and be damned!

1. Augustine (354-439): Confessions
2. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): On Loving God
3. Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327): The Book of Divine Consolation
4. Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416): Revelations of Divine Love
5. Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471): The Imitation of Christ
6. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556): Spiritual Exercises
7. John of the Cross (1542-91): The Ascent of Mount Carmel
8. Frances de Sales ((1567-1622): Introduction to the Devout Life
9. George Herbert (1593-1633): The Temple
10. Jeremy Taylor (1613-67): Rules and Exercises for Holy Living and Dying
11. Blaise Pascal (1623-62): Pensées
12. John Bunyan (1628-88): Pilgrim’s Progress
13. John Wesley (1703-91): Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists
14. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1748-1809), compiler: the Philokalia
15. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55): Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing
16. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88): Love Alone: The Way of Revelation
17. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45): Letters and Papers from Prison
18. Simone Weil (1909-43): Waiting on God
19. Thomas Merton (1911-68): Seeds of Contemplation
20. Martin Luther King (1929-68): Strength to Love


Fred said...

This is a really strong list, so consider the following complements not quibbles.

For Balthasar, I would highly recommend "The Threefold Garland." I would also add Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos." For a third, I recommend Adrienne von Speyr's "The Christian State of Life."

Ben Myers said...

Great list, Kim. And I'm especially glad you included George Herbert's collection of poems, The Temple. I've long regarded this as the richest and most enriching of all devotional works.

Anonymous said...

I know it's not classical spirituality but what about Buechner's Beyond Words...

Guy Davies said...

What no John Owen (1616-1683), "Meditations on the Glory of Christ" or "The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded"? (Works Vols 1 & 7, Banner of Truth). Deeply Biblical puritan spirituality it its challenging best.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pontificator,

I've just been over to your blog and checked out the responses. Great stuff! The good news is that they confirm my point about the richness of the church's devotional tradition. The bad news is that they also confirm my point about my damned first-hand ignorance about so much of it!

Mind, most of the suggestions that I have read made my short list. Teresa of Avila in particular, mentioned by several of your respondents: I flipped a coin and she lost out to John of the Cross as my 16th century Carmelite contribution. Brother Lawrence and de Cassaude were also there-or-there-abouts; von Balthasar edged Rahner by a nose as a 20th century German RC contribution; while I chose Kierkegaard over Newman for the 19th century to get another Protestant on board as well as to plug a brilliant little book that is surely less well known than the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And I've been meaning to take a look at Thérèse of Lisieux since reading David Ford's interesting juxtaposition of Bonhoeffer with the sickly but smiling saint in Self and Salvation. As for the many other suggestions, note has been taken.

And thanks to Exiled Preacher for mentioning the Puritan divine John Owen. Jonathan Edwards made my short-list, and I considered something from Richard Baxter too. But it is surely a serious omission that there is no representative on my list from the Reformed tradition (especially as I am a Reformed minister!). But I hope that Protestants will be satisfied with two Anglicans, two Lutherans, two Baptists and a Methodist. After all, the Orthodox only got the token(!) of the Philokalia!

By the way, as a commentary on the broad historical sweep of Christian spirituality, I know of nothing better than Rowan Williams' absolutely brilliant analysis The Wound of Knowledge (1979). Indeed Rowan himself will have a deserved place on a future list.

Anonymous said...

It is a good list (with many books I haver not read: I plead guilty). Some work by the desert fathers definately should be on the list, though: the sayings of the desert fathers, or Cassian's Conferences. And why not 'Orthodoxy', by Chesterton? From the living authors, I would like to see "What's the point of being a Christian" by Timothy Radcliffe on the list.

Anonymous said...

I understand the spirit in which the list was written, but I still would have replaced the Philokalia with The Way of the Pilgrim, if for no other reason than that it gets you to read the Philokalia anyway. :-)

I second the recommendation of the Desert Fathers, though. You just can't get by without them on your list. They are indispensible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stijn and Chris.

Yes, the Desert Father were also in the running and have every right to be on the list, no question about it; they are indeed "indispensible". Let's make it 21! By the way, do you know Rowan Williams' little diamond Silence and Honey Cakes: the Wisdom of the Desert?

As for The Way of the Pilgrim, it was on my original list of 20 (it was a very important book for me as a nascent Christian). And you are right, it does direct one to the Philokalia. As Anthony of Sourozh says in the introduction to my copy of The Way, "the Pilgrim learnt the Jesus Prayer from a master and it was his guidance and his teaching that enabled him to read The Philokalia with, as St. Paul says, the 'eyes of the spirit'." In the end (if you like), I went for the organ grinder rather than the monkey - though what a monkey!

Anonymous said...

Hey Kim--

To my discredit, I have not read anything by +++Rowan. I hope to rectify that soon, but right now I am focused on passing Introduction to Jewish Mysticism. I wish it were as simple as Madonna and Britney Spears make it out to be... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Howdy Chris,

Rowan Williams was actually born and raised here in Swansea (as a Nonconformist!). I got to know him briefly when he was Bishop of Newport (where he came from being Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, the youngest LM Professor ever, if I remember correctly). We worked together on a Welsh doctrinal-ecumenical committee for a few years.

Rowan has a stratospheric intelligence and imagination, always with a new take on an old theme, and able pull new themes out of a hat (I've always said that I'd go to hear Rowan talk about dog food!); he's not a bad poet; and he's an incredibly warm, generous and open person - and a really nice guy!

Major theological influences include include Barth, the quite loopy but brilliant Scottish Episcopalian Donald MacKinnon, the Roman Catholic Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash. Hegel and Wittgenstein are major philosophical influences - he's got time for Derrida. I guess his prize students are the precocious John Milbank and (I believe) that other polymath Graham Ward (like Ben and myself, a lover of both Barth and Melville!). Spiritually Rowan has drawn deeply at the wells of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy - and on "dark night" spirituality -as well, of course, on Anglican - and not just Anglo-Catholic! - traditions. He is particularly knowledgeable and wise about the desert fathers (and mothers) of the 4th - 5th centuries . . . which is where this mini-bio began!

Moral: do read Rowan!

Ben Myers said...

As another possible addition to this list, I'd be inclined to add the wonderful poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Anonymous said...

I've just been over to the Pontificator again. What a deluge! Over fifty responses! Do you folk ever get off your knees? :)

Seriously though, thanks for the education.

Just one point. The fine Anglican writers Donne, Traherne and Keble are mentioned, and even the over-rated C. S. Lewis; the Lutheran Kierkegaard is also cited (as he is in my list); but, apart from Jim Packer, is that all you guys have read from Reformation spirituality?

And I wonder if there might not be an important lesson here for ecumenism: not only that we study each other's theology but that we immerse ourselves in each other's spirituality. Perhaps we may even discover that mutual understanding in prayer - in love - may give us a whole new take on our disunity in faith.

Anonymous said...

No one has picked me up on getting the wrong von Balthasar title (16): not Love Alone Is Credible - an excellent little essay on love in its own right but hardly a devotional writing - rather Love Alone: the Way of Revelation. Sorry about that!

Anonymous said...

More humble pie!
Love Alone Is Credible and Love Alone: the Way of Revelation are, in fact, the same book in different translations. I read the former a couple of years ago, the latter a couple of weeks ago - without realising the "similarity", and being struck in a whole new way by it.

Anonymous said...

Me thinks you should include this book on the Avataric Incarnation of Conscious Light:


Unknown said...

I want to use a devotional book with substance for Christians that around 2-3 years old in the faith. Any recommendations? I need something that is probably not too intellectual and not too mystical.

Anonymous said...

While we're on small mistakes, I think Augustine died in 430 didn't he??

And it's impossible to overate CS Lewis.

Mike E

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