Spiritual Exercises

Eight soulful books of contemplation and inspiration.

Frank O’Hara once called a collection of his poems Meditations in an Emergency, a title that nicely encompasses most human reflections on faith, fate, and fear, three themes that come together, in different ways, in each of the eight volumes of collected here.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) is one of the most intriguing spiritual figures of the twentieth century. An enormously talented writer possessed of a bohemian temperament, a prodigious literary energy, and a searching mind, he retreated from the world in his early twenties, giving his spiritual restlessness a forbidding and yet ultimately freeing destination: a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. From the solitude of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he paradoxically attracted worldwide celebrity, becoming through the 1950s and 1960s an influential, esteemed, and at times controversial advocate for peace and social justice.

His fame was initially spread by the power and popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain, the bestselling autobiography he published in 1948, seven years after his arrival at Gethsemani (the title invokes the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s The Divine Comedy). In chronicling the life that led up to his conversion to Catholicism and his retreat into the cloister, the narrative shadows the author’s soul through the history and intellectual ferment of his times. Laced with wry humor, informed with an erudition that stretches from Duns Scotus’s proof of the existence of God to the novels of D. H. Lawrence, Merton’s narrative of his peripatetic life in this world — in France, England, and Rome, at Cambridge’s Clare College and Columbia University, in upstate New York and other locales — is sustained with qualities of intelligence, struggle, and devotion that enhance the wonder of its earnestness. His discovery of his vocation as a priest, and its ultimate unexpected destination, is described with a freshness that continues to open a window for readers on the alluring and mysteriously rewarding austerities of the contemplative life.

Ancient wisdom can seem mystical, detached as it is from the circumstances that define our days. But the reason texts written to capture such knowledge are often inscrutable has less to do with their antiquity than with the fact that wisdom itself is riddling and contradictory; words are never enough to capture what reality is trying to tell us. These are some of the paradoxes reflected in the Tao Te Ching, the foundational document of Taoism. One of the most translated works in history, it has had a powerful influence on religious and philosophical thinking across millennia and throughout the world. Most scholarship dates the Tao Te Ching to the mid–third century BC; its authorship has been traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu (the name means “old philosopher”), but there is no certainty such a figure ever actually existed.

Epigrammatic in expression and enigmatic in substance, the Tao is composed with poetic economy, giving its instruction a confidence of expression that cuts into our attention.

Great straightness seems crooked,
Great cleverness seems clumsy,
Great triumph seems awkward.

Its themes are the workings of the underlying cosmic order, or Way (“Tao” means “way” or “path”), and what this Way means for those who seek to follow it (“Te” means “integrity” or “inner power,” and “Ching” translates as “book” or “scripture”).

The Tao’s eighty-one brief chapters fall into two parts. The first emphasizes the cosmic Way and applies it to the person (sections 1 through 37 in most translations); the second (sections 38–81) focuses on how individual character and virtue determine one’s progress along the Way. The destination of this philosophical journey is a kind of stoicism that relies on serenity rather than strength, engendering a spirit that is poised rather than purposeful. Interestingly, the two parts are reversed in older manuscripts, which begin with personal behavior and then open out to a universal perspective, a sequence that may help the reader better grasp the cosmic concepts. Either way, the Tao is an uncanny distillation of the salient principles of living, abjuring the embellishments of moral strictures, law, and manners to reduce conduct to essential being rather than ephemeral doing.

When the Way is lost,
afterward comes integrity.
When integrity is lost,
afterward comes humaneness.
When humaneness is lost,
afterward comes righteousness.
When righteousness is lost,
afterward comes etiquette.

In those lines, the Tao presents a perfect précis of the stages of human development: from an infant’s equanimity through the development of character, the recognition of ethics, the tyranny of duty, and the consensus of convention. The path the book’s teachings map out encourages us to dispense with habits that hold us hostage to individual will and social and cultural frameworks, so that we may learn again, quietly and without striving, to simply be.

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” — Dorothy Day

Of all the saints of the early Christian church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–AD 430) possesses, for the modern reader at least, the most interesting mind. His ideas on language, time, and the mysteries of personality, humanity, and divinity are still provocative — after sixteen centuries! — and his genius for expression remains vivid, even startling. “What is time? If nobody’s asking me, I know. If I try to explain it to somebody who asks me, I don’t know.” And it’s unlikely there has ever been a more telling embodiment of the desires that drive us to distraction from the straight and narrow than his youthful prayer: “Give me chastity and self-restraint, but don’t do it just yet.”

Speaking of prayer, it’s important to remember that, as a sacrament in Catholicism, confession is an active engagement of one’s sins, rather than a tranquil recollection of them. So, too, Augustine’s book is more prayer than memoir, even though its acute self-awareness has led many to call this book the first autobiography. What’s true in that assessment is the recognition of Augustine’s originality in inventing upon the page the interior space in which a personal narrative unfolds.

Augustine, as the Confessions relate, was born in Algeria to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Christianity was just one young religion among many in the fourth century AD, and for much of his young life Augustine was an adherent of Manichaeism, a syncretic religion spreading widely throughout the crumbling Roman Empire. He steals pears as a child, and he paints himself as something of a sex addict in his adolescence and early twenties. Only slowly does he turn to Christianity — a risky move for a professor in Milan, and one that blocks his advancement in Roman society — but when he does, he comes to understand his entire life as a metaphor for humankind’s journey to salvation. The tipping point of his conversion is the pinnacle of Augustine’s dramatic scene-setting: In a garden in Milan, a mysterious voice directs him to scripture, saying “Pick it up! Read it! Pick it up! Read it!”

The Confessions, in its pulsing orchestration of metaphysical chords and personal melodies, is both a religious meditation and a cracking good read. At once an autobiography and a work of biblical exegesis, a philosophical text and a guide to living, it remains one of the most influential books ever published.

The Long Loneliness, published in 1952, is the autobiography of Dorothy Day (1897–1980), the American political activist, pacifist, and cofounder of The Catholic Worker newspaper and movement. While Day has lately been put forth for canonization by the church, she might bridle at that idea: “Don’t call me a saint,” she once wrote, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

In any case, like Saint Augustine, she spent her early years in the embrace of worldly pursuits — “the wisdom of the flesh is treacherous indeed” she would later reflect — before a conversion led her to focus her considerable energy on “[making] it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.” Her personal testament is as revelatory as Augustine’s Confessions, although the difference in the two books’ perspectives is striking: Where Augustine’s autobiography is a conversation with God, Day’s narrative is a conversation with the world. From its title on down, The Long Loneliness is about the struggle to nurture a spiritual life in the context of community. Her quest is to find her soul’s place on earth rather than in heaven, to seek an answer to the question of what it means to be human — a state of being never pure nor simple — rather than what it might mean to be sanctified. There is womanly as well as saintly wisdom in this human vocation, wisdom that cannot be gainsaid no matter what divine laws one might invoke to transcend it. Day prayed in time as Augustine strove to pray in eternity; as he dreamed of a city of God, she tossed and turned in a city of women and men.

The discovery of the writings of Thomas Traherne (1637–1674) is one of the most remarkable tales in literary history, for most of the seventeenth-century clergyman’s poetry — as well as the entirety of the Centuries of Meditations — came to light by chance in the early part of the twentieth century, when William T. Brooke purchased for a few pence two manuscripts that he found at a London bookstall. Their astonishing contents were subsequently published, edited by Bertram Dobell, as Traherne’s Poetical Works (1903) and Centuries of Meditations (1908).

A worthy addition to the Anglican mystical tradition that reached its peak in the verse of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, Traherne’s poetry seems to foreshadow that of Blake and Wordsworth and even Walt Whitman, none of whom could have read the work of their predecessor (“There are invisible ways of conveyance,” Traherne writes at the outset of Centuries, “by which some great thing doth touch our souls”). But it is Traherne’s prose that is truly distinctive: Visionary and magnificent, it has no parallel in the annals of English literature.

A collection of four sets of one hundred meditations (plus a fifth that is only partially complete), Centuries is a devotional work consisting of brief passages — in most instances less than a page — that focus on Christian belief and ethics and on the nature of God and divine love. Throughout, they display the author’s dedication to a philosophy of “felicity.” No one but Wordsworth has evoked with such passionate invention the joy of childhood, or written with such faith that the wonder of its innocence could be approached and experienced again despite the disenchantments of experience.

The pleasures the book offers are by no means entirely dogmatic, for Traherne’s meditations send forth waves of well-being that welcome readers into a realm in which the soul seems as sensitive and receptive as the five senses. The resulting incantatory praise has a mysterious glory all its own; in a letter written at the end of 1941, C. S. Lewis called Traherne’s Centuries “almost the most beautiful book (in prose, I mean, excluding poets) in English,” and its sonorous contemplative magic lives up to that description.

Anyone who has ever swung a golf club or sewn a quilt knows that such activities, if they’re to be done well, require a special kind of contemplative attention. You need to know technique, of course, but the more you are conscious of it as you pursue your goal — be it putting the ball in the hole or producing a lovely coverlet — the less likely you are to achieve the desired result. In fact, the best way to attain the success you seek is to reach a level of focus at which you forget technique entirely. Now, imagine that your goal is not a lower handicap or a better bedspread, but rather the focus of mind that gets you there — the transcendent discipline of sustained concentration; then you’ll have some idea of both the inspiration and the lessons of this ultra-slim 1953 book.

When Eugen Herrigel (1884–1955), a German professor of philosophy, went to Tokyo in the 1940s, he studied ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging), apprenticed to a master of archery, and spent six years studying Zen Buddhism through those activities. Zen in the Art of Archery is his distillation of that experience, an attempt to make the purpose of Zen practice understandable to those outside of its native culture. Despite the wide dissemination of Zen ideas in the ensuing years, Herrigel’s book remains an illuminating, graceful, and inspiriting introduction, through Western eyes, to the meditative insight of Eastern philosophy.

“I have discovered that all the trouble in the world stems from one fact, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” — Pascal

Albert Camus considered her “the only great spirit of our time.” T. S. Eliot felt she was possessed by “a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” Flannery O’Connor called her “a mystery that should keep us all humble.” Simone Weil (1909–1943) brought together in one short life political and mystical yearnings that make her seem an emblem of the soul in the midst of the twentieth century’s tumult of doubt and brutality. Born in Paris to Jewish parents, she combined physical frailty with spiritual determination as a student of philosophy, a secondary school teacher, a workers’ advocate, a laborer, a pacifist, an ineffectual combatant in the Spanish Civil War, and a near-convert to Roman Catholicism. No label does justice to the fierce intelligence she trained on passing circumstance and enduring truths. Here’s a sample:

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.

Her voluminous writing, a generous portion of which is collected in Siân Miles’s superbly edited anthology, engages politics, religion, literature, factory work, and metaphysics in sharp and surprising ways. Weil’s essays, letters, and prose meditations are illuminating, enigmatic, and troubling, for they stir up the questions that haunt our own lives, but that, drowned by the business of our days, seldom break the surface of our attention. Reading her brilliant consideration of Homer’s Iliad, “The Poem of Force,” might just change your conception of life, so revelatory is her vision of how violence distorts the mind and constrains its very notion of reality; its consideration of the epic’s moral dimension is profoundly moving, penetrating the mists of antiquity that enshroud the poem to reveal how human strength and cunning first came face-to-face with the ethical imperatives that entwine mortality and morality.

A child prodigy with a genius for mathematics and science, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) invented one of the earliest mechanical calculators. He also made influential contributions to projective geometry, probability theory, and the study of hydraulics and vacuums (he is credited with the invention of both the hydraulic press and the syringe). After a life-changing mystical experience in his early thirties, he devoted himself to theology and philosophy and produced two of the major works of seventeenth-century French literary prose. One is the Provincial Letters (1656–57), and the other is the Pensées, or Thoughts, a collection of notes for a project that was left unfinished at his death. The project was an apology for Christianity — an explanation and defense of the faith. Although the hundreds of brief texts that make up the Pensées are powerful as religious writings, they are also invaluable for their profound insight into the human condition — a condition, according to Pascal, defined by “inconstancy, boredom, unrest.”

The idea that man suffers from existential restlessness inspired one of the most famous observations in the Pensées: “I have discovered that all the trouble in the world stems from one fact, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” His apology for Christianity is an apology for consciousness as well: “Man is but a reed,” he writes in an often quoted passage, “the weakest thing in nature; but a thinking reed. . . . A vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But, though the universe might crush him, man would still be nobler than his destroyer, because he knows that he is dying, knows that the universe has got the better of him; the universe knows nothing of this.” And yet, notwithstanding his avowal that “All our dignity consists in thought,” he recognizes the limits of logic in controlling human nature: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”

Despite his religious turning, the author never entirely abandons his mathematical bent. One of the most telling passages in the book describes “Pascal’s Wager,” which posits that, although we cannot prove God’s existence, we should place a bet on the deity, since the upside is so much grander than the downside; here Christian apologetics advances the theory of probability, or vice versa. Throughout the Pensées, a twenty-first-century reader is likely to be struck by just how modern Pascal’s thinking seems, but on reflection, perhaps “timeless” is a better word. After all, the philosopher’s ruminations are nourished by the same anxiety the earliest humans might have experienced upon gazing into the night sky: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and may earn a commission if you click through on the linked titles and make a purchase. Bookshop.org also allocates a portion of affiliate sales to support all participating ABA independent bookstores.

Excerpted and adapted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/

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