Some Spiritual Classics

January 24, 2008


Below you will find lists of some spiritual classics that would work for discussion/project groups, along with full-text versions of the books online and a suggested published version for a group. I’ve included a couple of informational web sites for each, though there are plenty more out there (use google.com).


The Desert Fathers: Translations from the Latin (Vintage Spiritual Classics)
by Helen Waddell (Translator), John F. Thornton (Editor), M. Basil Pennington (Introduction)

This is a collection of short stories of very early Christian mystics, individuals who fled the decay of the Roman cities to seek God in the desert. Their self-denial and living conditions were harsh to modern sensibilities, but they provided the model for Christian monasticism that developed later in charity and self-less seeking of the Divine. Here’s a taste of this material and some background: http://www.balamandmonastery.org.lb/fathers/indexdesert.htm


Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin Classics)
by Julian, Elizabeth Spearing (Translator), Julian of Norwich, A. C. Spearing, Julian Norwich

Julian was a 14th century anchoress living in England. An anchorite or anchoress was a person who lived in a little room attached to the church and spent the rest of life in meditation and prayer (along with doing some spiritual guidance for people in the surrounding area). Julian’s book was written in the vernacular (that is, English) rather than in Latin, so she describes herself as “unlettered”. She actually has two books in one: a short book telling a series of visions she had while very sick; the second book is a more elaborated and interpreted version of the visions, including the insights she had received through prayer and reflection on the meaning of her visions. Julian was in truth a creative theologian, but as a woman, had to communicate her insights in a very deft way. Her understanding of God was that God was very tender, forgiving, and loving; her big intellectual crisis was how to square that sort of God with the Church’s teachings about hellfire and damnation. She came away with a reassurance that, though humans can’t figure it out and make it right, God can. She also experienced Christ as a mother – pretty radical for us, but something that other mystics of her day had done as well. This web site includes lots of information, including full-text versions of her book (but in very archaic language – much better to buy the version above). http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/julian.htm — but watch out for the music, which can be a little hard to turn off!

Here’s another web site with information on Julian and also some internet-available booklets on Julian and on other mystics before her and after her – some really good stuff: http://www.umilta.net/julian.html


The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi (Vintage Spiritual Classics)
by Ugolino (Editor), W. Heywood (Editor), Ugolino Di Monte Santa Maria, Carol Zaleski (Preface)

St. Francis is a well-known and beloved Italian saint, who founded an order of poor friars in the early 13th century. The book was written in the middle of the century by Brother Ugolino, one of the early Franciscan friars (presenting an idealized picture of Francis and the early movement). Here’s a rather extensive Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Francis: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm

Here’s a reading guide for the book put out by the publisher (Vintage): http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides/little_flowers_of_st_francis_of_assisi.asp

Here are some electronic versions of the book (though the Vintage version is a better choice for a reading group):



Interior Castle
by St. Teresa of Avila, E. Allison Peers (Translator)

Teresa of Avila, of 16th century Spain, is one of the most brilliant and insightful of mystics in the canon of spiritual classics. She wrote (or perhaps dictated) in Spanish and has been described as an important formative literary influence in Spanish literature. She writes plainly, citing her own experience and using Biblical references, but portrays some very sophisticated psychological issues facing people doing serious prayer and meditation (such as, “how do you know whether you are really in contact with the Divine or experiencing an illusion?”).

Here’s another link with a brief bio and additional links for more information:


Here’s a web site that has some information about Teresa and also the full text of the book (but for the group project MUCH better to get the book in print):



The Journal of John Woolman and a Plea for the Poor
by John Woolman, Frederick B. Tolles (Introduction) (Paperback – October 1972)

John Woolman was an American Quaker working and writing in the early second half of the 1700s. He came to have a deep and profound leading (as Quakers call it) to work within the Society of Friends to guide Quakers away from owning slaves. In doing so, he seeded a strong abolitionist movement among Quakers that was very influential. The Journal traces his own spiritual development on this issue, and on other related issues, such as the moral responsibility of consumers to know something about the conditions under which our consumer goods are created – still VERY timely. The published book has more of his work that goes in this direction.

Here’s a link to a full-text version of the Journal:

Here’s another full-text version, with an introductory note:


Here’s another introductory note:



Dark Night of the Soul : A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism by St. John of the Cross
by E. Allison Peers (Translator), St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross was a 16th century mystic and reformer, like St. Teresa from Spain (and influenced by her), who wrote spiritual poetry.

Here’s an introductory note about this book and about St. John of the Cross:


Here’s the full text of the book:


Imitation of Christ
Thomas a Kempis – There’s a published version by Vintage.

Born in the 14th century and lived in Holland. This book has been one of the most influential of spiritual classics in the world. First published anonymously in 1418, it has more recently been firmly attributed to Thomas a Kempis. See this site for a long biographical article from the Catholic Encyclopedia:


Electronic version: http://www.ccel.org/k/kempis/imitation/imitation.html


The Practice of the Presence of God
Conversations and Letters of Brother Lawrence
I’d suggest this edition for a group:
Revell; Reprint edition (January 1, 1999)

Here’s a piece about Brother Lawrence, born in France in the early 1600s. He was a soldier, then worked in the kitchen in a monastery, practicing a simple devotion that is reflected in the book (recorded by others and edited from his letters).


Electronic version of the book full text: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.html


Wild Ivy The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin, Translated by Norman Waddell – from the publisher (Shambala Press). Please note: this is a book reflecting a complex culture and historical time, much like the Christian texts that are set in an earlier time, but including references to Japanese culture and history that will take some thought (and time!) I’ve read part but not all of the book. Master Hakuin seems to be quite a character, fond of having a good time.

“Hakuin Zenji, also known as Hakuin Ekaku (16891769), is often referred to as the “father” of the Japanese Zen Rinzai school. His reforms revitalized the school, ensuring its endurance even to our own day. A fiery and dynamic teacher and renowned artist, Hakuin reemphasized the importance of zazen, or sitting meditation, in his teaching.

This intimate self-portrait of the Zen master includes reminiscences from his childhood, an account of how he came to practice Zen, and a description of his enlightenment experiences.”


Possibility for anyone interested in being more daring and stretching a bit: choose one of these Sufi classics – find descriptions on this web site of Paulist Press under Classics of Western Spirituality: http://www.paulistpress.com/ClassicsWesternSearch.html?id=AVq4aN5i

Ibn Al’ Arabi: The Bezels of Wisdom
edited and introduced by R.W.J. Austin; preface by Titus Burckhardt

Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes
translated with an introduction by William Chittick and Peter Wilson; preface by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Ibn ‘Ata ‘Illah/Kwaja Abdullah Ansari: The Book of Wisdom and Kwaja Abdullah Ansari, Intimate Conversations
translated, introduced, and notes by Victor Danner and Wheeler M. Thackston; preface by Annemarie Schimmel

Ibn ‘Abbad of Ronda: Letters on the Sufi Path (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by John Renard (Translator), Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn ‘Abbad, Annemarie Schimmel (Translator)