Required Reading

Spiritual Classics, at a Bookstore Near You

When my first book was published, nearly three decades ago, my editor asked if I had other ideas for books. I suggested that the publishing house start a series of spiritual classics that would combine good new translations with useful introductory essays. My advice to this secular publishing firm with strong titles in religion went nowhere.

At the time, the publisher felt there was no need or demand for such volumes. Ironically, a few years before I made my suggestion, the first volumes of Paulist Press’s now long-running series The Classics of Western Spirituality appeared. That series, with new volumes still being released, has been a tremendous success. Beginning with books like Julian of Norwich’s Showings (one of the earliest volumes in the series, published in 1978), two exemplary volumes on Meister Eckhart edited by Bernard McGinn, and the late Ewert Cousins’s Bonaventure (also 1978), the Paulist series remains a staple in both classrooms and personal libraries. Not all of the volumes have been as strong or as successful as the initial ones, but, by and large, Classics came at the right time, just as interest in Christian spirituality took off following Vatican II. Theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner whetted the Catholic reading public’s appetite for a theology centered not simply on the intellect. One way to feed this appetite was to reread the great masters and mistresses of the spiritual life and relate them to the Christian mysteries. Such a process had been going on well before the council, of course, and in large part thanks to the labors of the ressourcement thinkers on the continent. The new approach has helped heal the breach that long separated spirituality and theology in the West.

The success of the Paulist series parallels another development in Catholic publishing history. The Second Vatican Council urged religious communities to look again at their foundational charisms so that they could renew their communal vision and life. That request was in line with the general desire to go back to the sources in the Catholic tradition. One response to this call from the council was communities making more readily available—for themselves and others who were interested in enriching their personal spiritual lives—the books that were most important to their self-understanding. The advent of desktop publishing led several religious communities to make available projects based on their particular “schools” of spirituality. This development has had an enormous impact on serious students of the Christian life. Let me highlight a few of these efforts.

For well over three decades, the Institute of Carmelite Studies, located in Washington D.C., has published first-rate translations of many of the most important Carmelite writers. We now have, in inexpensive editions, the complete works of St. John of the Cross (in a single volume translated by the estimable Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD), as well as all the works of St. Teresa of Ávila (in two volumes). In addition, the Institute has published a generous selection of Teresa’s letters. Beyond that, we have the works of Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Elizabeth of the Trinity, and the ongoing translation of works by St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). In addition to these primary writings, the Institute publishes solid secondary studies in Carmelite spirituality. Taken together, these works constitute a precious resource.

Etienne Gilson (1884–1978) once wrote that the great Cistercians of the twelfth century gave up everything for God—except the gift of writing well. When Thomas Merton entered the monastery in 1941, he had the great fortune of possessing a good knowledge of Latin. But for the less fortunate, most of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s work was locked away in the formidable volumes of Migne’s Patrology. It was only after Vatican II that Cistercian Publications (now distributed by Liturgical Press) came into being. Over the past four decades, it has offered numerous translations of Bernard and other Cistercian writers in its Cistercian Fathers series, as well as many volumes on monastic history, architecture, etc. Cistercian Publications has published resources in a non-Cistercian vein as well, including Benedicta Ward’s wonderful translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a perennial bestseller. It has also made available several other translations, mainly from the French. Recently, it launched a series called Monastic Wisdom (full disclosure: I translated one of the volumes), which provides books for lay readers who are interested in matters monastic.

For many years there has been a research center at St. Bonaventure University devoted to Franciscan sources and spirituality. The Franciscan Institute has produced scholarly editions in original languages as well as learned monographs. More recently, both for the benefit of the Franciscan family and for interested laypeople, it has issued new translations of the works of St. Bonaventure. These are wonderful volumes that I have used with profit as a teacher.

New City Press is a publishing house founded and energized by the Focolare Movement. It is one of the newer enterprises in Catholic publishing, but it maintains a stunningly good list. For example, New City has published four volumes of early Franciscan sources that give us, in new translations, everything written by Francis (admittedly a modest corpus), and everything written about him in the two centuries after his death. This is an invaluable collection, to be found, I hope, in every Franciscan house in the English-speaking world and on the shelves of every serious library. In addition to smaller works, New City sponsors a huge project providing excellent translations of all the works of St. Augustine of Hippo. I have many of these volumes in my personal library, have reviewed some for journals, and look forward to new ones as they appear. New City Press publishes these volumes in both hardcover and cheaper softcover volumes.

The Spiritual Legacy series, published by Crossroad, has issued at least a dozen books on major figures in the Christian tradition, with particular attention to Western Christian writers. Individual volumes are offered in softcover, are reasonably priced, and combine original texts with a running commentary by an author or editor. The series is varied, with some volumes done by recognized authorities in the field, like Wendy Wright on St. Francis de Sales and Regis Armstrong on St. Francis of Assisi, while others come from the pen of gifted amateurs (in the positive sense of the term), like Benedict Groeschel on St. Augustine of Hippo.

In 1984, Orbis Books published Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink from Our Own Wells. The book was Gutierrez’s attempt to marry spirituality to the tradition of contextual theology and to liberation theology in particular. Orbis, the premier outlet for liberationist literature, has continued to provide books on spirituality, but it has not focused exclusively on liberation themes. In fact, Orbis has supported two series on spirituality. Philip Sheldrake edits one, Traditions of Christian Spirituality, which provides single volumes dedicated to the classic “schools” of Christian spirituality, mainly in the Western tradition. Sheldrake, a widely published scholar, has chosen recognized authorities for these volumes. A typical study includes a brief overview of the given school and provides a good bibliography for further exploration.

The second series from Orbis, Modern Spiritual Masters, is under the general editorship of Robert Ellsberg. It is far broader in scope. Each volume (there are forty-three so far) excerpts selections of primary writings and interweaves them with a biographical narrative. The series includes Catholic writers like Pedro Arrupe, Dom Helder Camara, Mother Teresa, and Daniel Berrigan, as well as other Christian authors and even representatives from other traditions, like the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn. What is particularly attractive about this series is that it recovers figures who have been more or less ignored in recent decades, like the Anglican author Evelyn Underhill and the Catholic artist and writer Caryl Houselander. Although Mother Maria Skobtsava, an Orthodox nun martyred in a Nazi concentration camp, is to date the only one in the series to represent Eastern Christianity, the generous scope of the project makes one anticipate more such figures from that tradition.

In Eastern Christianity, the distinction between theology and spirituality is purely notional. St. Vladimir Seminary Press is the premier outlet for Orthodox materials in this country. Its Popular Patristic Series produces handy paperback editions of works by the early fathers. Many readers will be familiar with St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation with an introduction by C. S. Lewis, but in addition there are handy volumes by Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, and lrenaeus—books very useful for classroom assignments.

I have limited this short survey to primary sources—and for good reason. The number of books written on spirituality is beyond counting. Some are profoundly important because of their scholarly worth—the multivolume history of the Western mystical tradition by Bernard McGinn comes immediately to mind—but unfortunately there is also an enormous amount of trivial or sentimental dreck, so caveat lector. It is also the case that traditional theologians of the highest caliber produce serious works of theology, technically understood, that also qualify as spirituality. Space does not permit me to list such authors and their works, much less analyze them. Still, let me cite one example. Karl Rahner’s theological work is represented in both his formidable output and deeply speculative prose. As a result, it is easy to forget that he produced many prayers, meditations, and homilies that are rich in spiritual understanding and expression. Fortunately, representative samples can be found in two collections: The Great Church Year and The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (both from Crossroad).

What does today’s “spirituality” publishing explosion mean? First, for those who wish to enrich their spiritual lives by being in communion with great saints, mystics, and theologians of the past, there is a vast and available reservoir from which to draw. Second, these rich resources can help heal the breach between theology and the practice of the faith. As Hans Urs von Balthasar argued decades ago, the boundary between theology—traditionally understood—and spirituality is not, and should not be, an impermeable one.

That the publication and wide diffusion of primary works on spirituality has not abated also tells us that there is a deep desire for such works. These great authors testify that authentic prayer is not only a ground for theological reflection but also an impetus to the search for justice informed by love. A millennium and a half ago, the monastic writer Evagrius of Pontus said that the person who truly prays is a theologian. That observation is as true today as when he uttered it. But today when we ask, like the first disciples, “Teach us to pray,” we have many new resources to assist us.

 


Related: Luke Timothy Johnson on spiritual reading: Keeping Spirituality Sane
Catholic Spirituality: What Does It Mean Today? by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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