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.

look-to-the-glory_cover

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.

Becoming Virtuous Never Feels Virtuous

Wise Woman CoverGeorge MacDonald’s classic fairy tale The Wise Woman is the penetrating story of two young girls—one the daughter of a king, the other of a shepherd, both thoroughly wicked and selfish. Each girl’s wickedness requires treatment at the hands of the Wise Woman in order to grow out of her bestial selfishness and into a nascent semblance of virtue. One of the tactics utilized by the Wise Woman is simple, ordinary work—such as chores, tasks, and other assignments. At one point in the story MacDonald says this about one of the girls, who had begun to respond to the treatment and was becoming better, but was on the cusp of a relapse into her old selfishness:

She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of not being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures. [George MacDonald, The Wise Woman, 53]

MacDonald is nearly unmatched in his insight into human nature, the human heart, and the process by which we are drawn from our own self-absorption into a more selfless, virtuous humanity. And the feature of the human heart that he so succinctly captures in the paragraph above is our propensity for fair-weather virtue. We are generous when it is convenient, not when it is difficult; kind when it feels good, not when it doesn’t; forgiving when it costs us nothing, miserly when it does. In almost all our pursuits of virtue, our good deeds are as reliable as the weather, ever shifting, ever changing based on our circumstances and momentary preferences. We do not grow in virtue because we have failed to recognize that becoming virtuous never feels like virtue.

Pieper CoverTake, as an example, Josef Pieper’s definition of Courage from his book A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He observes that “Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous” [Pieper, 24-25]. In other words, no risk, no Courage. An invulnerable individual is not courageous because he or she risks nothing in his or her pursuits, and where there is no fear there is no Courage. The brave person, then, is someone “who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point of forsaking the final and authentic good things” and who furthermore, despite his fear, “advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good” [Pieper, 26, 27]. Convinced of the highest good, such a person pursues it through any pain which might stand between him and that good. Courage, then, is the dogged and unrelenting pursuit of the true good in the face of fear.

If courage requires vulnerability, risk, and pursuit of an objective in the face of fear, then Courage is unlikely to feel like Courage. In fact, Courage will feel like fear, and growing in the virtue of Courage will mean not growing less fearful, but growing more steadfast in the midst of our fears. If we feel courageous feelings and conclude that we are brave, then we are as conceited and ill-informed as the child who feels pride that he successfully ate his dinner. And so long as we await courageous feelings to be courageous, we will live at the mercy of animal nature and momentary circumstance. Instead, true growth in virtue will require us to pay a difficult, unexpected, and often ironic emotional cost. Becoming virtuous, to state it again, never feels virtuous.

If courage feels like fear, then what ironic feelings ought we to expect for the other three cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice? Not long ago I counseled a young woman who was in need of Wisdom to navigate a difficult interpersonal situation. As we discussed the particulars of her situation, it became clear that she was mired in a morass of conflicting perspectives. Decisions had become difficult, and what was required most was the ability to slow down and attempt to perceive the situation with clarity. In that moment it was eminently clear to me, however, that Wisdom doesn’t feel like Wisdom; Wisdom feels like mud. The person who feels wise is simply taking pleasure in her momentary cleverness, while the person who is growing in Wisdom is becoming accustomed to the murkiness of discerning the truth. Mature Wisdom is not found in the momentary insight, but comes through slogging your way into clarity. Temperance is not the good feelings we get when we show some measure of restraint—not purchasing that item of clothing, or not eating that extra cookie. Temperance feels much more like death—it is not the momentary pleasure of a pleasure avoided, but the putting to death of desire to make it serve other goods. Temperance is the death of sexual freedom, of appetites, of acquisitiveness—it is the subjugation of the unwilling will to a higher purpose and good. Lastly, Justice is not found in the feelings of justice—which are too often simply expressions of smug self-righteousness. We are most likely to feel Just when we have done some thing that makes us feel good. But a true commitment to growth in Justice demands grave discomfort, anger, and longing. “How long, O Lord?” is the cry of the Psalmist—a longing which I expect ought to be similarly echoed in the heart of the individual who would grow in the virtue of Justice.

Lady Justice

The irony exhibited through the feelings attached to the four cardinal virtues is abundant—he who would grow in Courage, Wisdom, Temperance, and Justice must willingly choose to experience fear, murkiness, death, and longing. And yet, so long as we await the feelings of virtue to be virtuous, we will remain ethical and moral infants, blown by every wind of emotional fancy. Instead, the man or woman who would grow into virtue, who would commit to becoming more fully human, must resign himself or herself to the difficult work of not feeling virtuous. In this, I am reminded of Baron von Hügel’s austere words to his niece Gwendolyn Greene—words which I keep written on the wall beside my desk:

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. [Friedrich von Hügel, Letters to a Niece, 72]

Virtue is hard work—which is probably why so few people attempt it. And yet there is no other means through which we can actively labor to become mature. But if you’re eager for a little help along the way, may I make a recommendation? His name is George MacDonald—and the book is called The Wise Woman. I give it my highest possible recommendation.