“The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris is one of the most significant books about contemplative Christianity in recent decades. Published in May 1996, the book is a series of essays about Norris’ explorations of the monastic life. She helps us see the cloistered world of nuns and monks from her own distinct viewpoint.
Norris approaches this world as a married Protestant who can struggle over her faith. Her previous life experiences were varied, from growing up in Hawaii to hanging out with the Warhol folks in New York City. She also has received the Guggenheim “genius” grant.
After she and her husband (both poets) moved to her grandmother’s home in rural South Dakota, she began to be drawn to the contemplative monastic world. She became a Benedictine oblate (or associate) of the Assumption Abbey in North Dakota in 1986.
“The Cloister Walk” functions as a unique record of her experiences and observations, especially when she was in residence twice at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The book has poems, short essays and stories of saints.
The cover blurb from the Boston Globe called “The Cloister Walk” a “strange and beautiful book. … If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’ book becomes lectio divina or holy reading.”
I took this literally, reading one essay a day. It took months to finish the book. This may not have been the best reading strategy, as I did not enjoy the book as much as I expected. But many others have.
The book spent 23 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a Time notable book of the year. On Goodreads, the book has a 4 out of 5 rating from 9,031 readers.
My first five-star book on spirituality of the year is “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero. Pastors in my church have long recommended this book. Yet it ended up in a pile of books I meant to read for a long time. What a mistake! (Although … I do think the Lord had me read the book when it could help me the most.)
Scazzero, pastor of a large, multiracial church in Queens, New York, teaches how to biblically integrate emotional maturity, the practice of the presence of Jesus, and contemplative spirituality. That’s what Christian mindfulness is all about!
He bases his examination of unhealthy spirituality on the Bowen theory of family dynamics. I spent several years studying this theory and working through the ramifications in my family of origin. Scazzero does a great year explaining it in several chapters.
Breaking old patterns of unhealthy behavior allows us to embrace the presence of God. Scazzero explains how to follow a schedule of prayer, keep Sabbath and write a rule of life. All of this is so helpful to walking in the presence of God in the present moment.
This book helped me to understand why the Lord led me along several paths that I previously thought were wastes of time. Just knowing that makes the book worth it. I think it can help nearly everyone. And I’m not alone. Amazon, with 478 ratings, has the book at 4.5 stars. And Goodreads, with 8,881 ratings, has the book at 4.25 stars.
Other resources for the mindful Christian life are here.
IMAGINE is a YouTube channel offering guided Christian meditation sessions. Each week, on alternate Wednesdays, a group meets on Zoom for a time of scripture, images and prayer. Then the recorded meeting is placed on the YouTube channel here.
A link to the live Zoom is in the About section of the YouTube channel. It’s 8 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. The schedule for March 2021 is March 3, March 17 and March 31. There’s also a link on pathwaystogod.org. It’s just as good to watch the session on YouTube when you can.
Pathways to God from the United Kingdom runs the IMAGINE sessions. It’s affiliated with Jesuits in Britain, which also is connected to the great app Pray as You Go. I’ve added the YouTube channel to my times with Jesus. I hope you will find it useful as well.
You can find information about Pray as You Go and other resources for Christian mindfulness here.
“On Christian Contemplation” by Thomas Merton is a small, gift-size book filled with big thoughts about God. Paul M. Pearson edited the edition, which collects some of Merton’s poems and selections from his books.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and theologian generally regarded as one of the foremost Christian writers of the 20th century. He was also well-known for his participation in interfaith dialogue and advocacy for non-violent activism. His work is still fresh 50-plus years later.
Indeed, without using the term, Merton wrote about Christian mindfulness. “Strictly speaking, I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love,” Merton wrote. This prayer he called contemplation. And he wrote, “Contemplation is the highest expression of a man’s intellectual and spiritual life.”
In his works, Merton talks about liturgical prayer, lectio divina, work, meditation and contemplation. He saw meditation and contemplation as essential for us to obtain union with God … to want what God wants, to love as God loves, even if it is a weak imitation.
The short collection (81 pages long) includes sections on “A Call to Contemplation,” “Tools for Contemplation” and “Meditations.” The book is easy to carry in a purse or briefcase.
For other resources on Christian mindfulness, click here.
Haemin is a Zen monk and a former professor born in Korea and educated in the United States. Several of his lectures can be found on YouTube, including this talk at Google. He has translated the book into English, along with Chi Young-Kim. It contains his teaching and advice in eight areas:
I felt the best part of the book was its section on spirituality. This quote, in particular, is my favorite:
In the beginning, our prayer takes the shape of “please grant me this, please grant me that” and then develops into “thank you for everything” and then matures into “I want to resemble you.” Eventually it transcends language, and we pray with our whole being in sacred silence.”
Haemin notes that people of various faiths can learn from other. Those who lose their faith reading about another religion didn’t have much faith to begin with, he adds. I agree with that. Other resources that can help you with your practice of Christian mindfulness are found here.
The most beloved book in Christian mindfulness isn’t a composed book at all. “The Practice of the Presence of God” is a collection of letters and thoughts from a cook in a Paris monastery in 17th century named Brother Lawrence.
He began life as Nicolas Herman around 1614 in the Lorraine duchy of France. As a soldier in the 30 Years War, he received a nearly fatal injury that left him maimed and in chronic pain for the rest of his life. In midlife, Nicolas joined a new monastery in Paris. He took the name Brother Lawrence after his parish priest and was the cook for 100 monastery members. Later he worked in the sandal repair shop. In all he spent 40 years in monastery.
At some point, Brother Lawrence began Christian mindfulness, living the present moment in the presence of God. He walked through his days constantly conversing with God and aware of His presence.
After Brother Lawrence’s death in 1691, Joseph de Beaufort, representing the local archbishop, published Lawrence’s letters and spiritual maxims. In 1694, de Beaufort expanded the manuscript to add conversations that he had had with Brother Lawrence, titling the new volume “The Practice of the Presence of God.”
More than 400 years later, this book is a treasured Christian classic. Brother Lawrence inspires us to “establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence by continually conversing with Him. It was a shameful thing to quit His conversation to think of trifles and fooleries. We should feed and nourish our souls with high notions of God, which would yield us great joy in being devoted to Him.”
You can download a free copy of “The Practice of the Presence of God” from Project Gutenberg here.
Other resources for Christian mindfulness are found here.
Easily among the most significant of my devotional aids is the 30 Days With a Great Spiritual Teacher series, published by Ave Maria Press. I have every volume in the series, and I’ve used them as the first step in morning prayer since 1998.
I rotate the series of the 17 volumes I have. (I’m not sure all of them are still in print.) Each presents 30 days of devotions based on the work of a significant person of faith. You get a morning prayer, a thought to revisit during the day, and an evening prayer.
Two volumes contain work from Francis of Assisi, and another specifically for Lent contains work from several people. My favorites include:
“You Shall Not Want,” King David and others who wrote Psalms
“Living in the Presence of God,” Brother Lawrence
“Set Your Heart Free,” Francis de Sales
“Simply Surrender,” Theresa of Lisieux
“Let Nothing Disturb You,” Teresa of Avila
“Draw Ever Closer,” Henri J.M. Nouwen
Two new volumes, based of the works of Thomas Merton and Augustine of Hippo, are scheduled to come out this year. The books come from a Catholic publishing house, but they are very useful for any Christian. I fully recommend these books for contemplative prayer of any kind. Other resources can be found here.
The best book I read in this pandemic year is “Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace” by Jan Johnson. I took three excellent online classes from Jan this year, but even that didn’t prepare me for the impact of this book.
The way that Jan describes her life and her growth as a Christian … wow. It inspired me to pray: “I want to feel like she does about you, Lord.”
The book, published in 2011, is about living a “conversational life with God,” so we can be filled with a deeper, ongoing sense of God’s presence. It’s less about how and more about why to simplify our lives. Quite honestly, although she doesn’t say so, it is a profound argument for a life of Christian mindfulness.
She does note that one way to remove ourselves from life’s frenzy is to deliberately incorporate disciplines of simplicity, like:
simplicity of speech
spaciousness of time
simplicity of appearance and technology
This pandemic year has forced some simplicity on many of us, as well as great loss. Jan Johnson’s book can help you discover “the unhurried rhythms of grace.” What a wonderful gift.
You can find more about Jan’s work here. Additional books and online resources for Christian mindfulness are here
He is our Father, and He loves us, and He knows just what is best, and therefore, of course, His will is the very most blessed thing that can come to us under any circumstances. I do not understand how it is that the eyes of so many Christians have been blinded to this fact. But it really would seem as if God’s own children were more afraid of His will than of anything else in life — his lovely, lovable will, which only means loving-kindnesses and tender mercies, and blessings unspeakable to their souls! I wish only I could show to everyone one the unfathomable sweetness of the will of God.
Hannah Whitall Smith, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life”
Hannah Whitall Smith certainly tried to show everyone the sweetness of God. Her masterpiece, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life,” is one of the most used in my library. I’ve underlined it in almost every color of pen in my many readings.
Smith published her book in 1875. Never out of print, it’s a classic of Christian literature.
Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) was a remarkable woman, especially considering the time in which she lived. Active in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, Smith was a Quaker and a Christian mystic. (The back cover of my version of the book calls her a “Quaker, rebel, realist.”) In addition to writing books, she preached in the Holiness movement in the United States and the Higher Life movement in the United Kingdom.
She believed in Christian mindfulness, even if she didn’t have that phrase in her vocabulary. She rested in the presence of Jesus as she lived a remarkably active life. She listened for God’s will and she did it. This book tells you how.
The book remains a relatively easy read because Smith, as a Quaker, used plain speech as she wrote it. It has a 4.5 rating on Amazon with 358 readers ranking it and a 4.3 rating on Goodreads with 1,843 rating it. More recommended books and online resources can be found here.
Alan Fadling opens this book with the words: “I am a recovering speed addict … and I don’t mean the drug.” This spiritual director’s mission is to inspire people to rest deeper, love fuller and lead better.
Living a frenetic life was a sign of success in my pre-retirement world. Even today the successful retired person is busy, even crazy busy. The pandemic has slowed down the pressure, but it’s still there.
Fadling details the rhythms of Jesus’ life … from the huge meetings with seekers, the miracles, the days of discipling the disciples and the nights of prayer alone. Jesus, who could sleep through a storm at sea, led a balanced life.
He applies that insight into our world’s issues, like productivity, suffering and rest. He also provides insightful questions to pray over at the end of each chapter and a list of spiritual practices that can help us to slow down.
Here is a short video of Fadling talking about what he means by an unhurried life and his book “An Unhurried Leader.”
Amazon has “An Unhurried Life” rated at five stars with 99 reviews. Goodreads has it at 4.11 stars with 602 reviews. It won the 2014 Christianity Today Award of Merit.
Other resources useful for a practice of Christian mindfulness are here.