Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.


Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34



telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

Baron von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece

This is a reprinted edition. Page references in this review are to an out of print 1955 hardcover.

“You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness, be silent—in art, in music, in religion: silence.” (von Hügel, 16)

Most people of faith crave guidance. They have pastors, but their pastors are busy. They crave discipleship, but few seem qualified to perform the task. Those who are qualified are busy guiding others. With such a need, yet so few to meet it, believers are left to one of two options: they can throw their hands up in resignation or go find a good book. If you are looking for such a book—one that will challenge, encourage, and sharpen your faith, then Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece might be just what you need.

First published in 1928, this volume is a collection of letters from von Hügel to his niece, Gwendolen Greene, who edited these letters. One of the most brilliant and influential Christian thinkers of the early 20th century, von Hügel (1852-1925) was an Austrian born Roman Catholic. Although self-taught, he was widely studied (learning several languages), and became an authority on the mystics of the Church. But perhaps most pertinent here, von Hügel was also a Spiritual Director. In that role, he guided particular souls—employing all his vast learning—toward greater Christlikeness and devotion. When he could not meet a person face-to-face, he wrote a letter.

Letters, of course, are conversations in print. And in the pages of Letters to a Niece we have conversation after conversation of rich spiritual advice, guidance for souls that are both immature and maturing. These letters overflow with spiritual wisdom, and draw their unique energy from von Hügel’s deep insight into the nature of humanity, our desperate need for God, and his comprehensive awareness of how the Church, historically, has guided souls into maturity.

A hallmark of von Hügel’s spiritual direction is his passion to put spiritual matters in perspective. Toward this end, we must put ourselves in our own place; we must see our own limits and God’s good graces toward us. Von Hügel writes:

We have not got to invent God, nor to hold him. He holds us. We shall never be able to explain God, though we can apprehend him, more and more through the spiritual life. I want you to hold very clearly the otherness of God, and the littleness of men. If you don’t get that you can’t have adoration, and you cannot have religion without adoration. (24)

The boss man himself.

We must acknowledge God’s greatness, but at the very same time, though He is so categorically other, we must not forget that He is also extremely imminent. Von Hügel writes: “People put God so far away, in a sort of mist somewhere. I pull their coat-tails. God is near. He is no use unless he is near. God’s otherness and difference, and his nearness. You must get that.” (38) Ultimately, when it comes to our thinking about God, we must recognize that we are not ‘in control’, but rather that “We are like sponges, trying to mop up the ocean” (24). We don’t understand God, we soak in God.

Von Hügel’s Spiritual Direction, in addition to profound teachings on God’s nature and our relationship with Him, touches on numerous practicalities of everyday Christian faith. He speaks frequently of the role of the will in the Christian life, writing in one place that “After all, every soul, boy or girl, as they grow up, have to pass through that delicate difficult crisis, when they themselves have deliberately to will the right and God.” (181) Von Hügel knows, and wishes to prepare us for, those moments when we must choose God for God, when serving will not be a simple matter of feeling good, but of choosing against our feelings. Recognizing that suffering is therefore an integral part of the Christian walk, von Hügel says the following: “God never makes our lives comfortable. Even in heaven I believe there will be an equivalent of suffering—not as it stands here—but the equivalent, suffering beatified.” (29)

All this, of course, is to prepare us for a religion which is genuine and faith-filled, one which is undaunted by changing times and tastes, by our shifting moods, by our passions and false desires. Von Hügel writes:

What is a religion worth which costs you nothing? What is a sense of God worth which would be at your disposal, capable of being comfortably elicited when and where you please? It is far, far more God who must hold us, than we who must hold Him. And we get trained in these darknesses into that sense of our impotence without which the very presence of God becomes a snare. (148)

If you sincerely crave spiritual direction, you will be hard pressed to find a better volume of guidance than here in von Hügel’s letters. But do not come to these letters looking for soft comforts and feel-good meditations—you will find none of that here. Come instead craving maturity, depth, and spiritual richness, and you will be greatly satisfied. Let me leave you with this final quote from von Hügel:

You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth.  All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all the attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. (72)

Amen, von Hügel. Amen.

Related post: Zest vs. Excitement

Being a Christian When the Chips Are Down

As far as I can tell, the majority of devotional Christian literature is designed primarily for emotional impact.  On the whole this makes sense, because it seems to me that the people who turn to devotional literature are most often looking for an emotional charge, a boost to their faith life that will get them excited for God.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  And yet for me, the majority of devotional literature I read leaves me nonplussed; this is because I find much of it to be sappy, emotional drivel.  I can feel the tentacles of manipulation wrapping about me as I read them.

But my problem, if I have a problem, with devotional literature is not emotions.  I love emotions.  Instead, I think that much of Christian devotional literature, in seeking to provide an emotional ‘charge’, unwittingly perpetuates the division between head and heart—as if intellectually challenging books could not also serve as devotional literature. (Alternatively, I’ve read my share of dry and dusty intellectual books—I have no love for pure intellect save in unique circumstances).  This, perhaps, is the reason why I’ve enjoyed Helmut Thielicke’s Being a Christian When the Chips Are Down so much.  Here we have a devotional book that brings both careful scholarship and emotional content into harmony.

I’m not sure who first told me about Thielicke, but I’ve heard his name bandied about for quite a few years now.  I still don’t know much about him; all I know is that people I respect quote him, and to me that’s pretty significant.  In the process of searching for some of his books I came across a $4 copy of this curiously titled book, Being a Christian When the Chips Are Down, and purchased it.  $4 isn’t that much, and I didn’t feel like I had much to lose.  Instead, I gained something great.

The book itself is a series of essays and reflections on topics related to Christianity—things like anxiety, forgiveness, prayer, and the relationship between Christ and a post-Christian culture (to name a few).  Each reflection, at only a few pages, contains some personal reflections and stories from Thielicke’s life.  All in all, it is a treasure trove of insightful and compelling essays.

Allow me to give you a taste of one of Thielicke’s insights.  In an essay on prayer he says the following (p.51):

“Praying is exactly like believing: I need not be other than I am; I need only be fully who I am right now.  As I am—sorrowing and needy, laughing and inclined to self-assurance—that is, in fact, the way I am to come into God’s presence and put myself into his hands.”

In a simple way, then, Thielicke has linked the prayer-life and faith-life of the struggling Christian, pointing out that the action of prayer is exactly the same as the action of faith; a presenting of the self in all its confusion and clarity before the God who calls and hears us.

Thielicke’s insights have a bread-and-butter quality about them—and this makes them wonderful daily devotional literature.  One is being fed as one reads him, and fed by something nutritious and wholesome, and the result is a highly pleasing experience that is both intellectually challenging as well as emotionally satisfying.

Who should read this book:

Anyone interested in some low-commitment devotional literature (i.e., you can pick it up, put it down, and feel no guilt about not reading it for a month).

Memorable Quotes:

“…freedom is only a special form of obligation.” (Page 31)

Reflecting on Christianity in Western culture: “Here too, though, we ought to take seriously the objection that the so-called Christian West, together with its humane ideals, is merely a residue—I would go so far as to call it simply a ‘by-product’—of a proven fact: that our culture once encountered a Person who gave it its character and who provided it with a certain, even though questionable, right to call itself ‘Christian.'” (Page 41)

“God does not love us because we are by nature lovable.  But we become lovable because he loves us.” (Page 49)

“True joy arises only if I am in harmony from the inside out with myself and with the meaning of life.”  (Page 94)

On the resurrection: “Therefore the fact of Easter will never convince us if the Man does not.” (Page 117)

Similar books in this genre:

My Utmost for His Highest (A famous devotional book by Oswald Chambers.  A little difficult to read at times, but also rewarding.)

Diary of an Old Soul (A series of 366 short, daily devotional poems (in sequence) by George MacDonald.  Some archaic language, but also some intesely rewarding thoughts on sonship, God’s providence, beauty, and death.)

Imitation of Christ (The single most famous devotional book of all time.  Read it, and you’ll soon learn why.  Largely it is reflections on denying oneself so that we can fill ourselves with Christ.  If you read it, prepare to be challenged.)