Novels are great1 and apologetics is helpful, but what most of us really need is some good spiritual reading, some books that teach us to pray and love Christ. Here are my favorites. Maybe you should give yourself a St. Nick’s present and buy one for your Advent spiritual reading?
With obvious exceptions,2 these should all be good for Catholics and Protestants alike. Asterisks once again for the non-Catholic authors. As an aside, if you’re blessed with the kind of friendship where you can get a friend a devotional for a Christmas present, stop and thank God for a second.
Carryll Houselander writes in simple language with very short paragraphs which makes her great for quick devotions for lay people. I read The Reed of God for Advent last year and it was beautiful.3 Every bit of her writing that I’ve stumbled across has been so simple but so profound–definitely check her out if you’re looking for some quiet beauty this Advent.
St. Francis de Sales was famous for his powerful pen and his unprecedented attention to the holiness of the laity. He’d be best friends with Vatican II. If ecumenical councils had best friends…. Anyway, he wrote The Introduction to the Devout Life as an instruction manual to Christianity lived in the world, although it’s applicable to all states in life. Francis is very practical but also poetic. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s serious about their faith. While you’re at it, pick up Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and Br. Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. They’re both spiritual classics and much easier to read than you’d expect given their medieval copyright dates.
Thomas Merton’s Praying the Psalms is a short little text that breaks open the Psalms in ways you never thought possible. We think of the Psalms as repetitive readings that are droned at Mass, but they’re incredible. They’re poetry written from the depths of the heart. As Merton points out, they contain every human emotion. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this book to help you live the Word of God.
Speaking of God’s Word, I ran across the coolest Bible this summer. The Saints Devotional Edition of the New Jerusalem Bible has more than 200 passages from great Saints interspersed with the text of the Bible. They’re matched up, obviously, with the passage that the Saint is referencing or commenting on to give you some added depth to your daily Bible reading.4 For all you Bible purists out there: don’t worry–the text itself is intact. The Saints’ passages are set apart so you know what’s God’s Word and what’s not.
Your God Is Too Safe, by Mark Buchanan*, kicked my butt. I read it years ago and still get a thrill when I even think about this book. Buchanan points out how we’ve made God in our image and challenges us to return to the reality of a God who isn’t safe. He demands that we leave the borderlands of in-between, lukewarm Christianity and embark on the wild journey of following Christ. If you feel complacent and settled and need a fire lit in your bones, Buchanan’s your guy.
Or maybe it’s worse than complacency. Maybe you’re spiritually dead. You’ve been to confession, you pray every day, you’re trying as hard as you can but…nothing. Come Be My Light tells the story of Mother Teresa’s decades in the darkness. It’s encouraging to know that even the Saints walk without divine consolation. More than that, though, this book convicted me. I realized that I was checking off my God boxes but not allowing my life to be converted–not where it was difficult anyway. I’d written off real growth for years, assuming that if God wanted more from me, he’d draw my heart in that direction. This book challenged me to give him everything even when I was getting “nothing” in return.
Alice von Hildebrand is beautiful and holy and brilliant and was married to a strong, holy, brilliant man. In By Love Refined, she writes letters to a young bride with advice on making marriage sacred and joyful. I’d imagine it would be helpful to any married woman, but particularly newlyweds. I read it when I was 20 and actually found it very helpful despite my single state–there are some universal truths in here that could be a blessing to any woman.
Cynthia Heald* doesn’t really write books so much as Bible studies. Her books work best, I think, when you read them on your own in preparation for a group Bible study. I generally find study questions to be shallow and trite but Heald connects passages that draw out the meaning of Scripture as it relates to your life. Her books are interactive, forcing you as a reader to engage–particularly good for those who are easily distracted.
Holiness isn’t just about our relationship with God, though. Sometimes the first step to good prayer isn’t reading a book about prayer but learning how to live in love. Try some of these on for size.
I spent the first half of my life believing that men and women were exactly the same, excepting one minor accident of biology. Once I began to see the complementarity of the sexes, I was hungry to learn more about how men and women think and choose and love differently. Captivating was just the book I needed. In this book John and Stasi Eldredge* explain the particular strength and beauty of womanhood as rooted in our desire to be captivating. We long to be beauty in the world. Wild at Heart gives the men’s perspective: the desire to be the hero of a great adventure. In a description this short, these just sound like sexist stereotypes but John and Stasi breathe new air into them, making you wonder if there wasn’t truth at the heart of the caricature all along. Definitely read the book about your gender. If you know any members of the opposite sex, you’ll want to read the other one, too.
Wendy Shalit* writes brilliantly about modesty–in dress, in talk, in behavior–not least because she’s not a Christian at all but a Jew. In A Return to Modesty, Shalit takes on the sexual revolution with impressive reason and rhetoric. She does have to get a bit scandalous at times in order to demonstrate what’s going on in our world–be warned–but it doesn’t take a Christian to be convinced at the end of this one.
I’m sure you’ve heard about The Five Love Languages* by now, but if you haven’t, at least check out the website. Apparently, people are different! So when you think doing the dishes shows how much you love your wife, she might be bitter because you never tell her she looks nice. Or maybe you buy your son gifts to show him how proud you are but he really needs a physical pat on the back. These books help you to see how you–and those you love–give and receive love. It’s up to you to change how you act and perceive people in response.
When I told you about the temperaments, I hadn’t yet read The Temperament God Gave You. To be honest, it didn’t much help me. My understanding was so different that this book really confused me in places. But if you’re coming in tabula rasa, I think it can be great. That’s certainly what I’ve heard from the dozens of people I know who swear by it. So if my post intrigued you, pick up a copy of this book and see if it doesn’t help.
I want to give a quick shout out to two books I haven’t read but should. These have both gotten rave reviews in the Catholic world so I think I’m safe in recommending them. Unplanned is the memoir of Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who quit her job to become a pro-life advocate. She now runs a ministry that reaches out in love to abortion workers. Adam and Eve After the Pill seems to be an extremely broad look at the effects the sexual revolution has had on our culture. Mary Eberstadt claims that sexual liberation and women’s liberation have only served to decrease sexual satisfaction and further enslave women, particularly through widespread use of contraception. Maybe not the right book for your white elephant gift exchange, but a fascinating read nonetheless.
While I’m making blind recommendations, Kisses from Katie* is the book written by that incredible girl I keep telling you about who moved to Africa and had adopted 14 little girls by the time she was 21. It’s another book I lent out before I could read it, but the woman I lent it to loved it, so I’ll vouch for it.
If this series of books and books and books has been driving you nuts, you’ll be happy to hear that this is it! For now, anyway–a bibliophile like me can’t avoid writing about books for long. Are any of you buying a Christian book as a Christmas present? I’d love to hear your plans (or other recommendations) in the comments.
- No, literally awesome. I love them so much. [↩]
- The Saints Bible. And maybe St. Francis–he’s very Sacramental. Although so is Br. Lawrence and everybody likes him. [↩]
- I meant to read The Way of the Cross in Lent but I lent it to someone and never got it back. Welcome to my life. [↩]
- I’d like to tell you I’m doing this but I lent mine out almost as soon as I got it. As usual. [↩]
- The Bible excluded, naturally. [↩]