Read with humility, simplicity, and faith.

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

If your prayer life has grown a little dull, one of the best practices I have found to refresh it is spiritual reading, which Christians of old called lectio divina. What is spiritual reading? It is usually thought of as a way of reading Scripture, but it can actually be done with other books, too. At its most basic, spiritual reading is simply reading that leads to prayer. When I am reading in this way, I read slowly and prayerfully, and when a passage connects with me in that moment, I put the book down. It has served its purpose, and led me to prayer. When my mind gets distracted, I return to the book. That’s all. That, to me, is all that this type of reading is. 

I have learned to read in this way from a number of writers that I consider spiritual mentors. Before I get to some of favorite books for spiritual reading, I want to share with you some of my favorite passages about this particular spiritual practice:

Eugene Peterson: “Spiritual reading, designated lectio divina by our ancestors, has fallen on bad times. It has always been a prized arrow in the quiver of those determined to cultivate a God-aware life, but has suffered a severe blunting in our century. This particular arrow has lost its point more through ignorance than indifference or malice, ignorance of the sense that “spiritual” carries. For the modifier “spiritual” in spiritual reading does not refer to the content of what is read but to the way in which a book is read. Spiritual reading does not mean reading on spiritual or religious subjects, but reading any book that comes to hand in a spiritual way, which is to say, listening to the spirit, alert to intimations of God.” (Take and Read, p. ix)

Marjorie J. Thompson: “The process of spiritual reading can be applied to texts other than scripture, especially to devotional literature or good religious poetry. Great spiritual classics may be read in small portions, savored and reflected on for personal nurture and edification.” Thompson also says that: “What makes our reading spiritual has as much to do with the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to the words as it does with the nature and content of those words. Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity. That is because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular text.” (Soul Feast, p. 30 and p. 20)

Henri Nouwen: “An important discipline in the life of the Spirit is spiritual reading. Through spiritual reading we have some say over what enters into our minds … Is there a book we are presently reading, a book that we have selected because it nurtures our mind and brings us closer to God? Our thoughts and feelings would be deeply affected if we were always to carry with us a book that puts our minds again and again in the direction we want to go.” (Here and Now, pp.70-72)

Thomas Merton: “It is quite normal to use the Bible, or a spiritual book of some kind, to ‘get started’ even in the kind of prayer when you do not do much ‘thinking.’ When you find some paragraph or sentence that interests you, stop reading and turn it over in your mind and absorb it and contemplate it and rest in the general, serene, effortless consideration of the thought, not in its details but as a whole, as something held and savored in its entirety: and so pass from this to rest in the quiet expectancy of God. If you find yourself getting distracted, go back to the book, to the same sentence or to another.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 242)

Martin Luther: “It often happens that I get lost in right and good thoughts as they come … When such rich thoughts come, just let other prayers go and give these thoughts plenty of room; do not in any way hinder them. For in this way the Holy Spirit is preaching to you. His sermon is better than a thousand of your prayers. Many times I have learned more in the process of praying a single prayer than I would have struggled to learn through much writing and reading.” (A Simple Way to Pray, p. 13)

Spiritual reading in the way suggested by these authors has been a rich blessing to me. When my prayer life gets a little dull, I pull out one of my favorite devotional books, and read a passage at the beginning of my devotional time. There are countless books that can be read in this way. Here are ten that I have found especially helpful, books that always seem to lead me to prayer. (Note: Some of these authors have several such books, but I have picked out just one for each author.)

Hymnals and collections of poetry are also wonderful resources for spiritual reading. I agree with Eugene Peterson that the best hymnal for this is the one that your congregation uses on Sunday mornings. There are many poets that can be read in this way. Here are a few of my favorites:

Do you have favorite books (apart from the Bible) for your spiritual reading? If so, I’d love to know what they are! And blessings to you as you “read with humility, simplicity, and faith.”

16 thoughts on “My Favorite Books for Spiritual Reading (Apart from the Bible)

  1. I would include the British Christian author C.S. Lewis in that list — his ‘Miracles’ and ‘Mere Christianity’ just two examples. His ‘A Grief Observed’ about the death of his wife got me through many a bad night.

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      1. Yes, brutally honest, wherein he questions God’s goodness, but in the end, being a true Christian, goes full circle back to the “eternal foundation” of faith.

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  2. I am currently reading The Imitation of Christ and find it very rewarding. W. Philip Keller is another author whose writings lend themselves to this sort of meditation. ‘A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm’ is his most well known book.

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  3. Thanks so much for these suggestions/recommendations. Some I have heard of but others I cannot wait to seek out. I love to think of them as leading to prayer. I have (unwittingly) found this to be the case when reading Malcolm Guite, Mary Oliver and Henri Nouwen. Now, off to the bookcase and bookstore.

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    1. Yes! That is one of several of his books that have deeply influenced me. His “Freedom of Simplicity” was the first. His book, “Prayer” was also very significant for me. And I often return to his “Prayers from the Heart.” He’s definitely in my “cloud of witnesses”!

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