Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others. For me, this proved to be a difficult task. I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic. But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.
Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation. Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed? I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.
Given all of this, I present to you my revised list. Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ. My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again. They inform how I understand my life with Christ. They encourage me. They challenge me. They inspire me. Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.
- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf. Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ. It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
- A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition. Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires. I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ. Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
- You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology. Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for. Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society. These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late. Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often. I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work. I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time. Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
- Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection. I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law. That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first. Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith. How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life? Are they any truths that seem to transcend time. deSales did not disappoint. His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.
There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life. I commend them to you. If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.