The 10 best spiritual books you've never read

booksYOU'RE A BOOK LOVER. You enter a Borders or Barnes and Noble superstore, and your mind boggles. It's like you've just said "Open Sesame!" but instead of finding a cave glimmering with gold and jewelry, you've discovered a treasure house of ideas and inspirations.

You hardly know where to begin. You're interested in spirituality, so you go to the religion or inspiration section. Rows of books attract you like the scent of fresh bread in a bakery, but how do you tell the wheat from the chaff? Which books deliver what they promise? Which ones have the ingredients to nourish you?

You could ask a store manager, but she may not be as informed about her books as Meg Ryan was in the movie You've Got Mail. So you could leave the superstore and rush to an intimate Catholic bookstore where you may find the equivalent of Meg Ryan as well as some of the best spiritual books available today. But chances are you'll have a hard time finding that little shop around the corner. Things change. What's a seeker to do?

After all, more than 50,000 new books come out each year. More than 2,000 of them are spiritual. Their average shelf life is a few months at best. They're like wise men who journey long to Bethlehem but leave before the shepherds get a chance to say hello. What is a seeker to do?

You could read the authors of national best-sellers—people like Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Richard Carlson—who appear on Oprah. They're good. That's one reason why their books are best-sellers. Another is that their books generally come from huge houses with the reach and clout to get the attention of a general public.

You could also read the top authors of spiritual books who come from smaller Catholic houses, authors whose names you've heard of but whose books rarely get piled in stacks like little skyscrapers at the superstores. You can't go wrong by reading Henri Nouwen, Joyce Rupp, and many others. In fact, you can't do better.

But you know that you'll still be missing gems from the cave, jewels from the treasury, spiritual gold that will never grow old. You know that there are many wonderful books you've never read, written by authors you've never heard of, that come from little publishing houses you never knew existed. That's why you're reading this article.

So without further ado, here are 10 of the best spiritual books you've never read but, if you do, may never forget:

1. Gift of the Red Bird by Paul D'Arcy (Crossroad, 1996)
A spiritual teacher once told me that we come to God or find enlightenment through one of two ways: suffering or wisdom. Unfortunately, for most of us it's through suffering. You suffer, I suffer, we all suffer. That's why this book is number one on my list. You will identify with D'Arcy and, best of all, come through with her to the other side.

In the Gift of the Red Bird D'Arcy shares a remarkable spiritual adventure. After losing her husband and baby in a car crash, she does her best to love God and help others but is hungry for understanding and for a faith that is stronger than fear. Years later she journeys alone into the wilderness, determined to encounter God in his creation. D'Arcy surrenders herself to the love of God and something wonderful and wordless happens. A red bird appears and...I won't tell you more. This is a book you'll give to friends and tell them, "I won't tell you more!"

>2. And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran (Parabola, 1998)
Talk about suffering. The author was blind and in Buchenwald, the Nazi death camp. But unlike most of us who have eyes to see but see not, he beheld a joyful vision of life that can awaken us all. This diamond of a book has been around since 1963 but chances are you've never seen it, let alone read it. And chances are even better that you won't be able to put it down.

3. Dialogues in Metapsychiatry by Thomas Hora, M.D. (PAGL Press, 1996)
The dialogues are from group sessions with a psychiatrist who taught that "all problems are psychological but all solutions are spiritual." Hora, who passed away in 1995, drew on the teachings of Jesus as much as he did on conventional psychotherapy to evolve a way of seeing and being in the world that bears good fruit here and now. His insights are like pearls buried beneath baubles in a treasure chest; his book is difficult to find.

4. Protect Us from All Anxiety: Meditations for the Depressed by William Burke (ACTA Publications, 1998)
If you suffer from depression, clinical or otherwise, or if anxiety is often an unwelcome guest, this book offers insight and spiritual strength. The author is a caring priest who has suffered through these agonies and understands what so many of us go through. His journey, like yours or mine, is marked with pain but filled with grace. His honesty, faith, and compassion moved me deeply. When I finished the book, I felt a kinship with him and no small measure of assurance.

If I were a spiritual director, I'd have 50 of these books in my office to give to seekers who suffer from anxiety or depression. Father Burke offers not a way out, but a way in.

5. Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness by Johann Christoph Arnold (Plough, 1997)
Beautiful books on forgiveness abound in the spiritual cave, and many seekers cherish this chalice of human stories. Story after story reveals the transforming power of healing in the lives of those who were hurt and those who hurt. Who among us doesn't need to hear and to speakor simply thinkwords of forgiveness? This book is like a shining mirror reflecting our self to ourselves.

6. Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast (Paulist, 1990)
Forgiveness gives birth to gratitude, and a grateful heart leads to spontaneous prayer. Surprisingly, you'll find few books on this topic anywhere. This one by an author you may know is a blessing. It helps you to express a pure spiritual quality and shine with God.

7. Soliloquy Prayer: Unfolding Our Hearts to God by Dennis Billy (Liguori, 1998)
Of the making of books on prayer there is no end. Nothing wrong with that. But where do you start? The 15 "spiritual conversations" in this book can help beginners bridge the gap between prayers of devotion and meditation. Readers of Soliloquy Prayer say that they often read only a few paragraphs and then begin dialogue with God on their own.

Tomorrow's spiritual classics

We used to think of a classic as a book that lasted a hundred years. Today, with more than 50,000 new titles published every year, the average shelf life of a book is shorter than this year's NBA season. A classic is 10 years. Are there any spiritual books published in the last couple of years that we can expect to see on the shelves 10 years from now?

Here are seven good bets:

The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (Loyola, 1997). It will last as long as C.S. Lewis' classic A Grief Observed, still comforting people after all these years.

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead, 1996). A lyrical writer sheds light on the monastic life as a means of finding the pearl of great price.

All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg (Crossroad, 1997). This remarkable book sets a new standard by which all future books on the lives of saints will be measured.

The Cup of Our Life by Joyce Rupp (Ave Maria, 1997). Nobody does it better.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen (Doubleday, 1994). All of Nouwen's many books will be read 10 years and 20 years and maybe even 50 years from now. Many of his faithful readers say this one is his best.

Gospel Light: Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness by John Shea (Crossroad, 1998). These spiritual "takes" on what Jesus said and did will outlast trendy attempts to prove what he may or may not have said or done.

Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating (Continuum, 1994). This reissue of Father Keating's breakthrough book on centering prayer is once again in popular demand and destined to stay there.—M.L.

8. Dialogue of Life: A Christian Among Allah's Poor by Bob McCahill (Orbis, 1996)
Another form of prayer is the endeavor to be what we already area reflection of God's loveto our brothers and sisters. It's a wordless reminder that they are the same.Dialogue of Life is the humble testament of a Maryknoll missioner who for 20 years has pursued this witness among the Muslim poor of Bangladesh. Rather than doing traditional pastoral work, McCahill simply lives as a friend and brother to his Muslim neighbors, manifesting the gospel values of service and love.

9. Francis: The Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1988)
Saint Francis is a role model for the ages, and this biography is as poetic as his songs to Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Devotees of the saint agree that this is one of the best books on his life ever. Anyone interested in the spiritual life will value this small gem.

10. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, edited by Michael Downey (Liturgical Press, 1993)
There are two kinds of religious books: those that transform hearts, and those that inform minds. The first nine recommended books are all transformers. Here is a book of information that is so rich that it transcends its genre. With more than 300 articles, from Abandonment to Zeal, it's a treasure chest of spiritual knowledge. A topical index makes it easy to find direction on whatever aspect of spirituality interests you, from creation to community. Valuable bibliographies lead you to other spiritual books that you would not know about any other way.

Honorable mentions
How can anyone limit "the best spiritual books you've never read" to 10? Or a hundred? Or even a thousand? Here are a few recent ones of special interest:

The Psalter (Liturgy Training Publications, 1995) is a new rendering of our most ancient prayers that is drawing raves from many readers.

Prayers Before an Awesome God by David Haas (St. Mary's Press, 1998) is a version of the psalms for teenagers.

The Pursuit of Happiness by William J. O'Malley (Thomas More, 1997) is solid soul talk especially recommended for young adults.

A Saint on Every Corner: Glimpses of Holiness Beyond the Monastery by Albert Holtz (Ave Maria, 1998) is a tour of the soul with a monk who takes you from the Swiss Alps to South America, directing your eyes to spiritual beauty at every stop along the way.

Friends of God and Prophets by Elizabeth Johnson (Continuum, 1998) is a profound look at the communion of saints recommended for those who love theology as well as spirituality.

Blessings and Woes by Megan McKenna (Orbis, 1999) is a challenging call to compassion and discipleship inspired by the Beatitudes.

Tomorrow's Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium by Michael Morwood (Twenty-Third Publications, 1997) is an excellent choice for adult Catholics who want to bridge the gap between church doctrine and the spiritual message of the gospel.

These are just a few hidden jewels from the spiritual cave. Not every book recommended is the best choice for everyone. But I'm sure that you will find one here that is just right for you. Or the right book will find you. There's an old saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. And the teacher is often a book you've not yet read. If that book finds you, write to U.S. Catholic and tell everyone else too!

Michael Leach is executive director of Orbis Books and past-president of both the Catholic Book Publishers Association and the Religion Publishers Group. He has edited and published more than a thousand books.

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