A Facebook friend recently asked me, "Hey Carl, what are your ten top books on meditation?"
So here's my answer...
- Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation -- The single best book on Christian silent prayer/nondiscursive meditation that I've come across. Grounded in the tradition yet relevant and accessible for today's reader.
- Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide -- Not really a "how to" book but a great "theory" book to accompany Laird's "practice" book. Ross has a prophetic voice that at times can seem contrarian, but her analysis of how and why mainstream Christianity abandoned contemplation is essential reading.
- Abhishiktananda, Prayer -- A brilliant east-west synthesis, this is a slim but useful volume on prayer written by a French Benedictine monk who moved to India and studied with Ramana Maharshi.
- Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer -- accessible and written in a friendly voice, this introductory book offers insight into the nondual "view" of contemplation: where God includes everyone, for everything belongs.
- Tilden Edwards, Living Simply Through the Day -- a classic that is unjustly out of print, so grab a used copy before they get expensive. Another product of east-west dialogue, this time between an Episcopal priest and Tibetan Buddhism.
- Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism -- a 100-year old classic that does feel dated, but which offers a map of contemplative practice that is consonant with the Christian tradition yet presented for the "normal person" of the twentieth century.
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing -- the oldest book on my list; please forgive the author's monastic chauvinism: this fourteenth century treatise is the grandmother of Christian contemplative manuals, and is the headwaters of the "centering prayer" method.
- Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology -- another book, like Ross's, which doesn't provide a "how-to" on silent prayer, but offers an excellent insight into the Christian meditative mind, written by a psychiatrist/spiritual director.
- Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel -- Keating's overview of contemplation especially in light of the centering prayer method; what makes this book shine is transcriptions of Q&A's from his retreats.
- Murchadh Ó Madagáin, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious -- while I think the true self/false self dichotomy is problematic, I like how this book seeks to understand centering prayer (and contemplation in general) in light of integral theory.
I hope this is a useful list. I've listed the books in the order in which I would recommend them. Many of these books I would not necessarily recommend as "stand alone" titles: for example, Ross's book, which I think is very important, nevertheless needs to be read alongside Laird's, for anyone seeking practical guidance in how to do meditation. Similarly, May's book should be read alongside Tilden Edwards'. Some of the books toward the bottom of the list I haven't read in a while, so my perspective on them could theoretically change if I were to re-read them now, but based on how useful I found the book(s) at the time I read them, they deserve a mention on this list. Also, inclusion on this list is not meant to be an unqualified endorsement: for example, many centering prayer books (and Rohr, for that matter) tend to use language about "true self" and "false self" that I think is both unnecessarily dualistic and dismissive of the positive function that our "survival mind" plays in life. So, as always, read these books with a careful mind and discerning heart.
This list is also very subjective, and therefore not to be construed as comprehensive. John Main is glaring in his absence, but my own work has been more influenced by Shalem and Contemplative Outreach, so naturally my reading list reflects my background. Other authors whose works I think are really important include Kenneth Leech and Michael Casey, but I just can't include everyone in a list of 10. It's problematic that only two women made the list as well. I chose my list based on books I thought were really useful, accessible, and wise, so please forgive me if "your" favorite book(s) didn't make the list (and by all means, use the comments field to make your own suggestions).
With those disclaimers on the table, I think this booklist should be useful to anyone seeking to start or deepen a silent prayer practice. Happy reading!