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Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

First Posted: 10/01/2011 5:22 pm EDT   Updated: 12/01/2011 5:12 am EST

Editors Note: This collection is excerpted from the book 25 Books Every Christian Should Read with an introduction by the book's editor, Julia L. Roller.

Throughout the centuries certain books have had a tremendous influence on Christians across traditions and cultures. The ideas expressed in these seminal works have shaped the history not only of Christianity but also the world.

Now, a distinguished and diverse editorial board appointed by Renovaré and including representatives from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions such as Richard J. Foster, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, Frederica Mathewes-Green and Richard Rohr, has selected the 25 most important spiritual classics, including works from the first centuries of Christianity through the late twentieth century. "25 Books Every Christian Should Read" is a guide to each of these essential works.

Here you'll find familiar titles, such as C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," Dante's "Divine Comedy," St. Augustine's "Confessions" and Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," as well as equally powerful but lesser-known works such as "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," a collection of stories and sayings from the men and women from the fourth century on who fled their communities for a life of asceticism in the desert, "The Philokalia," a treasury of wisdom from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and "The Way of a Pilgrim," the story of an anonymous Russian wanderer and his practice of the Jesus Prayer. For each book on the list you'll find a summary, a lengthy excerpt, a description of it is relevance and why it has had such a profound impact on the Christian tradition, and discussion questions for use in a group or as personal reflections. This is a guide for a lifetime of spiritual reading.

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  • On the Incarnation, Athanasius

    <em>You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.</em> In Athanasius's seminal work he explains the central tenet of Christian thought, how and why God became man in Jesus Christ, effectively refuting a heresy popular at the time of this fourth-century writing -- namely, that Jesus was not equal to or of one substance with God.

  • Confessions, Augustine

    <em>You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you</em>. Widely regarded as Christianity's first spiritual autobiography, Augustine's "Confessions" is the story of his restless heart's journey to God.

  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Various

    <em>Someone questioned Abba Biare in these words, "What shall I do to be saved?" He replied, "Go, reduce your appetite and your manual work, dwell without care in your cell and you will be saved."</em> A collection of sayings and stories from the third-, fourth-, and fifth-century hermits and monks who renounced the world for a life of humility, charity and extreme discipline.

  • The Rule of St. Benedict, Benedict Of Nursia

    <em>Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ's help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners.</em> Written by St. Benedict of Nursia as a guide for monasteries, the "Rule" is a handbook to living the Christian life.

  • The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

    <em>When I had journeyed half of our life's way, / I found myself within a shadowed forest, / for I had lost the path that does not stray.</em> In this Italian poetic masterpiece, Dante's journey through hell, purgatory, and, finally, heaven mimics the soul's journey toward God.

  • The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous

    <em>Beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp arrow of longing and never stop loving, no matter what comes your way.</em> "The Cloud of Unknowing" is an urgent call to that exercise for which we were made, the practice of contemplative prayer.

  • Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich

    <em>For God loves and enjoys us -- and the Divine Will wants us to love and enjoy God in return, and rest in this strength. And all shall be well.</em> Fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich describes her powerful visions of God, offering us insights into God's goodness and the shelter we have in God.

  • The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis

    <em>If you want to learn something that will really help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance. This is the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings, and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.</em> In this unrivaled devotional masterpiece, Thomas à Kempis offers instructions for living a life of devotion to Jesus, characterized by holiness, simplicity, and humility.

  • The Philokalia, Various

    <em>Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness, and complete detachment, while wisdom comes through humble meditation on Holy Scripture, and above all, through grace given by God.</em> "The Philokalia" is a peerless collection of writings on the essential elements of the practice of Christian spirituality, chiefly from the ancient Christian East.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

    <em>We must be persuaded not only that as [God] once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and Judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs.</em> Still the foundation of today's Protestant Church, "Institutes of the Christian Religion" is Calvin's magnum opus, describing God's sovereignty and the piety we are called to exhibit in response.

  • The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila

    <em>I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a King so mighty, so wise, and so pure, containing in Himself all good, can delight to rest? Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for, as He has told us, He created us in His own image and likeness.</em> Carmelite nun and reformer Teresa of ávila describes her vision from God of a crystal globe in the shape of a castle with seven mansions, each of which represents a stage in our faith journey toward union with God.

  • Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross

    <em>When they are going about these spiritual exercises with the greatest delight and pleasure, and when they believe that the sun of Divine favour is shining most brightly upon them, God turns all this light of theirs into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired.</em> <em>Dark Night of the Soul</em> is sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite priest John of the Cross's poem and commentary about the journey of purification on which God takes us from times of spiritual dryness to an understanding of divine union.

  • Pensées, Blaise Pascal

    <em>Jesus Christ is the object of all things, the centre towards which all things tend. Whoever knows him knows the reason for everything.</em> A collection of intensely personal meditations on wide-ranging topics -- from sin to human suffering -- Blaise Pascal's "Pensées" is a comprehensive, passionate defense of the Christian faith.

  • The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

    <em>This book will make a traveler of thee, If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be; It will direct thee to the Holy Land, If thou wilt its directions understand Yea, it will make the slothful active be; The blind also delightful things to see.</em> John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" is a biblical allegory about a man named Christian who seeks to find the way to the Celestial City, or salvation.

  • The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence

    <em>The time of business . . . does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.</em> In this collection of conversations and letters, seventeenth-century monk Brother Lawrence describes how he lives with a constant sense of the immanent presence of God.

  • A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law

    <em>And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it</em>. William Law draws attention to the hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christians but do not bring their faith to bear upon their daily lives. He calls all Christians to make it their sincere intention to please God in all their actions, in addition to just their prayer and church attendance.

  • The Way of a Pilgrim, Unknown Author

    <em>By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place.</em> A nineteenth-century Russian peasant wanders through the countryside in a quest to learn how to pray without ceasing.

  • The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

    <em>I'm a Karamazov. For when I do leap into the pit, I go headlong with my heels up, and am pleased to be falling in that degrading attitude, and pride myself upon it. And in the very depths of that degradation I begin a hymn of praise. Let me be accursed. Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. Though I may be following the devil, I am Thy son, O Lord, and I love Thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand.</em> Fyodor Dostoevsky's last novel is the expansive spiritual drama of three Russian brothers -- Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei Karamazov -- and their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. Through the story of Fyodor's murder and his eldest son, Dmitri's, accusation and trial amid numerous subplots, Dostoevsky weaves in themes of morality, love, faith, doubt, reason, family, and redemption.

  • Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton

    <em>People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.</em> Now considered a classic of apologetics, "Orthodoxy" is Chesterton's rousing and persuasive description of his intellectual journey from agnosticism to Christianity.

  • Poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins

    <em>SUMMA The best ideal is the true And other truth is none. All glory be ascribèd to The holy Three in One.</em> Nineteenth-century British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed his love for God and the unique characteristics of God's creatures through the striking imagery of his poetry.

  • The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    <em>Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is... the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him... Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.</em> Bonhoeffer calls us to submit wholeheartedly to "the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ."

  • A Testament of Devotion, Thomas R. Kelly

    <em>I find that a life of little whispered words of adoration, of praise, of prayer, of worship can be breathed all through the day. One can have a very busy day, outwardly speaking, and yet be steadily in the holy Presence.</em> "A Testament of Devotion" calls us to center our lives in God, with inner peace, stillness, and quiet as the result.

  • The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

    <em>I looked straight at the Host, and I knew, now, Who it was that I was looking at, and I said: "Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest--make me a priest." When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what a union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision.</em> In this eloquent spiritual autobiography, Thomas Merton describes his journey from the glimpses of God he received as a child to his subsequent conversion to Catholicism and decision to enter a Trappist monastery.

  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

    <em>The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to "inject" His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin. </em> "Mere Christianity" is Lewis's explanation of the basics of Christian faith, what "all Christians agree on." Widely considered a modern classic of Christian apologetics, it is also a passionate invitation to the challenge and the adventure that is the Christian life.

  • The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwenn

    <em>Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there.</em> Henri J. M. Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" is an extended meditation on Jesus' parable of the son who asks for his inheritance, squanders it, and returns home defeated, only to be welcomed and forgiven.

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