A Lenten Reading List

Febraury 17th, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and yet it is never too early for those to whom it matters to turn one's mind toward how the season will be marked in terms of personal habits.  One of the things I like to do is to alter my reading slightly to incorporate more reading of a spiritual nature--classic sources and more modern writing.  To that end, I offer some suggestion below of works that might be worth your time and effort in the Lenten Season.

Non-Catholic Works:

A Pilgrim's Progress--The grand allegory of the Christian journey.  Despite its sources deep in puritan tradition, the work continues to find a wide readership today, and shorn of some of the excesses indicative of the time of its writing, it stands solidly as a guide to how to make the Christian journey.

Christ Altogether Lovely--John Flavel's marvelous sermon in which the description of Jesus is matched to teachings on the spiritual life.  For a series of sixteen reflections on the same start here. (I may try to piece it together into one continuous narrative a little later.

Holy Dying and Holy Living--Jeremy Taylor--a definitive guide to living the Christian life--rooted in the Anglican tradition, Jeremy Taylor's works are a salutary reminder that the life we're liveing at this moment does not extend indefinitely into the future.

Centuries of Mediations--Thomas Traherne, which perhaps speaks best for itself:

from Centuries of Meditations (First Century)
Thomas Traherne


     An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders. And since Love made you put it into my hands I will fill it with those Truths you love without knowing them: with those things which, if it be possible, shall shew my Love; to you in communicating most enriching Truths: to Truth in exalting her beauties in such a Soul.

   Do not wonder that I promise to fill it with those Truths you love but know not; for though it be a maxim in the schools that there is no Love of a thing unknown, yet I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the centre of the earth unseen violently attract it. We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us. As iron 4at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?

   I will open my mouth in Parables, I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Things strange yet common, incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. Is it not a great thing that you should be Heir of the World? Is it not a great enriching verity? In which the fellowship of the Mystery which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in God lies concealed! The thing hath been from the Creation of the World, but hath not so been explained as that the interior Beauty should be understood. It is my design therefore in such a plain manner to unfold it that my friendship may appear in making you possessor of the whole world.

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life--William Law--An extensive reflection by the tutor of Edward Gibbons children on the duties of a Christian in living the Christian life.

from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
William Law

DEVOTION is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public, are particular parts or instances of devotion. Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God.

He, therefore, is the devout man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God, who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety, by doing everything in the Name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.

We readily acknowledge, that God alone is to be the rule and measure of our prayers; that in them we are to look wholly unto Him, and act wholly for Him; that we are only to pray in such a manner, for such things, and such ends, as are suitable to His glory.

Holy Sonnets--John Done--For those of a more poetic turn of mind, you could do worse than to indulge in a reading and re-reading of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.  Most people know of at least one of these by first line--Death be not proud, but a personal favorite is noted below.

"Batter My Heart" 
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The list of such sources could go on and on and on.  But better to pull the veil over the past and mention a few source from the more recent past that might serve well as lenten reading.

Kathleen Norris--All of her spiritual books, from the most recent Acedia and Me to Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk, as a protestant embracing an ancient Catholic discipline and spirituality, Norris has insights for both those steeped in the Catholic tradition and those new to it.

Dallas Willard--Anything at all, but I have found very helpful The Spirit of the Disciplines--a discussion of the disciplines of the Christian life and how to implement them and The Divine Conspiracy a magnificent introduction to Christian Spirituality and prayer for beginners or those who have been working at it some time.   Dallas Willard has a robust online presence including articles on Christianity and articles on Philosophy, as well as summaries and reviews of his books.

Another powerful modern presence is Richard J. Foster who has published a great many books that I love--but perhaps the best and most beuatiful is his guide to living simply--Freedom of Simplicity.

Okay, you cry, enough already--get on with the books and other stuff.  Soon enough, dear reader, only after this promise that I shall return to the list from time to time to add fiction and Catholic sources and perhaps even non-Christian sources that can truly deepen and strengthen any spiritual life--for truth is where God places it--not always and only in a single place and we have much to learn from those who have pursued the wisdom of spiritual practice whether or not they knew or practiced a Christian way.  Being a Christian does not preclude in any way learning from those who are not.

There are countless other sources available from CCEL, a  rich online library.


  1. Steven,

    Good to see you giving props to the Anglican divines! Especially to Traherne, whose Centuries are quite beautiful.

  2. Thanks for the list and observations. I love the excerpts from Traherne. I just picked up the Norris' Amazing Grace for $.25 at the library sale, but my favorite of hers is still Quotidian Mysteries, the little book from her lecture at St. Mary's. Welcome home!

  3. Dear Emily,

    Thank you. Dublin was wonderful, but home is always great.

    I like the Quotidian Mysteries--but my favorite may be The Cloister Walk (or actually one of the books of poetry--Dakota is quite nice.)




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