Prayer Primer, by Fr. Thomas Dubay
A simple but thorough introduction to prayer itself and to the practical aspects of developing a life of prayer. Dubay gives simple, intelligible answers to many of the questions that people have about prayer and gives a good introduction to forms of prayer that some may not be familiar with, such as the liturgy of the hours and mental prayer. Although he does not enter into great detail, he also gives advice on when to pray, how to develop practices of prayer in the family, how to integrate prayer into a busy life, etc.
Fr. Dubay writes in a clear, engaging manner and gives a lot of practical advice, making this a perfect first book on the subject.
Saints love their spouses and children, their students and parishioners and patients, far, far more than the lukewarm do.
Time for God, by Jacques Philippe
This very short book serves as a good introduction to the practice of mental prayer. Philippe touches on the basic reasons for prayer as well as the basic attitudes necessary for prayer. He emphasizes the necessity of mental prayer, frequently referencing various saints.
Philippe’s style is approachable and direct. His work is aimed primarily at beginners, and is not complete by itself, but is a good way to become familiar with the idea of mental prayer and to become comfortable with the idea of practicing it. It is also a good framework with which to approach the writings of the saints on these matters later on.
If we make God our first concern, God will look after our affairs much better than we ever can. Let us acknowledge humbly that our natural tendency is to be too attached to our activities, to allow ourselves to be carried away by them until they fill our minds entirely. This won’t change until we acquire the wise habit of abandoning all activities, even the most urgent and important ones, in order to give time freely to God.
Talking with God, by St. Alphonsus Liguori
Contains four treatises from this great saint on prayer: The Way to Converse with God, A Short Treatise on Prayer, Mental Prayer, and The Presence of God. Liguori, who had a deep spiritual life, presents the importance of prayer and the way to practice prayer in a compelling and forceful manner. As the title implies, Liguori helps the reader to really talk to God—to have conversation rather than to just repeat memorized prayers.
Although the topics are suited to beginners in the spiritual life, Liguori shows his depth in the treatises and can therefore seem daunting. It may be best for the beginner to come back to the treatise on Mental Prayer later on, reading the other three treatises to begin with. The key to reading this book is not to expect to get everything from it in one read: it is the kind of book that can be read at various stages in one’s spiritual life, drawing new fruit from Liguori’s words each time.
Speak to Him often of your business, your plans, your troubles, your fears—of everything that concerns you. But above all, converse with Him confidently and frankly; for God is not wont to speak to a soul that does not speak to Him.
Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales
The Introduction is a well-loved classic of Christian spirituality. De Sales was on fire with love for God, and it shines through his writing. As the title suggests, the book is meant to be an introduction—a practical one—to living a life of devotion to God, step by step. The book is divided into chapters which are often three or four pages long, making it an easy book to read in small, coherent sections on a daily or weekly basis.
De Sales is ambitious for his reader and the book covers a great deal of ground in spiritual growth. Some of the recommendations are specific to the time: how to attend balls, how to relate to nobility, etc. These have to be translated by the reader into principles for modern living—not that this should be a problem for most, but uncritical readers may have difficulty with these sections or may find the book “outdated” because of them. It is a good book for those who already take the faith and their life of prayer seriously.
It is an error, nay more, a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Of course a purely contemplative devotion, such as is specially proper to the religious and monastic life, cannot be practiced in these outer vocations, but there are various other kinds of devotion well-suited to lead those whose calling is secular along the paths of perfection.
The Way, Furrow, The Forge, by St. Josemaría Escrivá
Josemaría Escrivá was known for his ability to express succinctly and powerfully the practical aspects of living a truly Christian life. This ability is crystallized in this collection of books (which may be bought individually as well). Each chapter is dedicated to one specific virtue or aspect of Christian living (e.g. Character, Boldness, Humility, Interior Struggle, Holy Mass, Joy, Suffering, Ambition, Interior Life, Friendship, etc.). The text of the book consists of short sentences or paragraphs meant for reflection on these subjects. At times, a point will be only a few words.
Unlike many of the books on this list, there is no need to progress through this book in order or to even read all of it. Each small point is an inspiring and often challenging source of reflection, and would be helpful to a wide variety of ages and levels of spiritual maturity. At times, Josemaría’s words are aimed specifically at seminarians or at men, making this an especially good gift to men, although the vast majority of his points are intended for and applicable to all.
Don’t say: ‘That’s the way I’m made… it’s my character.’ It’s your lack of character: Be a man.
This Tremendous Lover, by Eugene Boylan, O.C.B.
Boylan’s wonderful book gets to the heart of what it means to be in relationship with Christ and how it is that Christ draws us to Himself in the Church. It is clear that the work comes from a life of deep prayer. It is also very clear in its use of theological terminology, and can help to clarify fundamental Catholic concepts such as grace, the Sacraments, etc. For married couples, there is a forceful chapter on “Marriage and Holiness” which brings the themes of the book into questions of marital life. This book is thankfully back in print thanks to Baronius Press—and can be found on their website.
Although the material is deep and Boylan assumes some knowledge of theological terminology, his style is clear and practical enough to be helpful to any reader who can focus well on a text. Boylan is the kind of writer who returns to ideas and builds on them—thus, his work requires some focus, though it is in no way overwhelming.
There is no moment, no depth of sin or of failure, no loss or no disaster, in which we cannot still find all that we might have been, all that we would like to have been, all that God wants us to be—in a word—in which we cannot find literally all in the Sacrament of the Altar.
The Spiritual Direction of Saint Claude de la Colombière
This small book contains small segments (usually a paragraph or two) from the letters and talks of St. Claude, who was the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. The excerpts are organized into chapters by topic (e.g. Confession, Holy Communion, Peace of the Soul, Love of Neighbor, etc.) and follow no particular order—making this a good source for reflection. St. Claude is remarkably insightful and usually very practical in his advice.
Like St. Josemaría’s little book, this collection of thoughts is highly applicable to many situations and is easily understandable for anybody. It is similarly concise and forceful.
Really humble people are never scandalized: they know their own weakness too well; they know that they themselves are so close to the edge of the precipice and they are so afraid of falling over that they are not at all astonished to see others do so.
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection
This short book is dedicated, as the title suggests, to practicing a continual awareness of God’s presence. It is one of the most fruitful practices in the spiritual life and, of course, lends itself to the continual prayer which St. Paul calls us to.
The actual book—or, better said, document—is incredibly short and quite easy to read. Brother Lawrence is very practical and clear in his advice on carrying out this practice.
Since you are aware that God is present to you during your actions, that he is in the depths and center of your heart, stop your activities and even your vocal prayers, at least from time to time, to adore Him within, to praise Him, to ask His help, to offer Him your heart, and to thank Him.
The Spiritual Combat, by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli
This classic work on virtue and vice focuses on how to most effectively engage in combat against sin in our lives. The style is direct and authoritative, using the metaphor of combat throughout. Because of this, men especially gravitate toward this work. It was St. Francis de Sales’ favorite book, and he kept a copy of it in pocket for eighteen years. That said, it is not written specifically for men, but for all souls.
The book is very clear and accessible to all, although it can be challenging. As a book which deals especially with the moral life, it is especially suited to beginners, since moral conversion is a necessary first step in the spiritual life.
Briefly, if you want to equip your soul with virtue and acquire habitual sanctity, it is necessary to practice frequent acts of the virtue which is contrary to your vicious inclinations.
The Soul of the Apostolate, by Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O.
Reflecting on the necessity of prayer in every walk of life, this book is intense, uncompromising, challenging, and inspiring. It drives home the importance of developing and progressing in the life of prayer, precisely because without Christ we can do nothing. Pope St. Pius X said of it: “I warmly recommend this book to you, as I value it very highly, and have myself made it my bedside book.”
Although in many ways, the topics covered are intended for beginners in the spiritual life, and it would be possible to place this book in that category, the book is primarily aimed at those who already pray and who are dedicated in some way to the building up of the Church. In a special way, it is directed towards priests and religious, but do not let this keep you from reading the book. It is essential reading for parents, catechists, and those who seek to serve others: indeed, anybody who wishes to bear fruit in the life of their domestic and local church.
When the smith plunges the iron into the fire, he is not just trying to make it hot and glowing; he wants to make it malleable. So too, the only reason why mental prayer is to give light to my mind and warmth to my heart is to make my soul pliant so that it can be hammered into a new shape, so that the faults and form of the old man may be hammered out, and the form and virtues of Jesus Christ imparted to it.
The Way of Perfection, by St. Teresa of Avila
In this book written for her sisters, St. Teresa deals with the virtues and practices which foster a life of prayer as well as examining the Our Father in detail and drawing fruit from its various phrases.
In truth, this is a book with clear applicability for beginners. However, because St. Teresa is speaking to her sisters, she both assumes an existing and stable life of prayer in her readers and directs her advice towards a way of life very different from the average layperson’s. Thus, some of what she says needs to be translated into ordinary life in some way by the reader—since not all practices or recommendations for cloistered nuns are fitting for a life that is necessarily more social and immersed in the world.
He has borne from you a thousand displeasing and unworthy actions against Him, yet they have not sufficed to turn His eyes away from you, and is it much to ask that you should sometimes turn away your eyes from things external and fix your gaze on Him? See! He is waiting, as the Bride says, for nothing from us but a look… He longs so much that we turn to look at Him, that He omits nothing on His part to win this glance.
Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila
This work, considered by many to be St. Teresa’s masterpiece, describes the spiritual life in an extended metaphor, in which the person enters a great castle of diamond or crystal and walks through its successive rooms, leading to the center of the castle, in which the king resides. The castle represents the soul itself, while the king is God, who dwells within each baptized soul.
The use of rich imagery makes Teresa’s work immediately accessible to all readers. At the same time, St. Teresa goes on to describe experiences and ways of prayer which would be difficult for a beginner to make heads or tails of. Because of this, the book can be inspiring and useful to beginners, especially in the earlier chapters, but perhaps more helpful for those who have already developed a strong life of prayer.
The soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight… But we seldom consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who dwells within it, or its high value… You have already heard in some books on prayer that the soul is advised to enter within itself; well that is the very thing I am advising.
Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J.
God’s will is not something difficult to discern—it is rather present in our daily obligations and activities. As we learn to let go of our own will and allow God to direct us, the very movements and attractions of our own hearts will lead us along the path of doing God’s will. This is the wisdom which De Caussade shares and thoroughly explains in this well-loved spiritual classic.
In general, this book is much easier to read and to follow than even some of the “Beginner” books. It is labeled “Intermediate” here, however, because it is important to have a firm foundation in the interior life for the simple enough content of this book to make sense and to be fruitful.
There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.
Difficulties in Mental Prayer, by Dom Eugene Boylan
In this small book, Boylan deals very directly with concrete problems that people have when practicing—or failing to practice—mental prayer. He discusses various sources of difficulties in prayer and ways of addressing these difficulties. In so doing, he shows himself to be acutely aware of the real problems that people have, while at the same time giving great encouragement to persevere in prayer.
This book presumes, of course, that the reader practices or has practiced mental prayer with some regularity and finds difficulties therein, making the book a rather specific recommendation. To those who fit this category, however, it can be of great help.
Very often the same distracting thought keeps coming back… One way of dealing with such obstinate intruders is to make them the subject of prayer. With a little ingenuity, some relation can be found between the distracting idea and God. It may, perhaps, give us something to pray for; it may serve as a motive to praise God; it could be used as an evidence of our need for His grace.
The Science of the Cross, by Edith Stein
This is a rare book in which the entire work is one saint’s explanation of another saint’s teaching. St. John of the Cross is known as one of the great mystical Doctors of the Church. Yet his writing can be very difficult to navigate. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross-or Edith Stein—takes his teaching, especially his teaching on carrying the cross in our spiritual lives, and presents it to her readers in a clear and understandable way.
Edith Stein’s writing is easy to follow, but the subject matter is of great depth—making it, perhaps, a better book for those who wish to go deeper rather than those who are just beginning in the spiritual life. The book can serve as a great introduction to the writings of St. John of the Cross.
The soul in which God dwells by grace is no impersonal scene of the divine life but is itself drawn into this life. The divine life is three-personal life: it is overflowing love, in which the Father generates the Son and gives him his Being, while the Son embraces this Being and returns it to the Father; it is the love in which the Father and Son are one, both breathing the Holy Spirit. By grace this Spirit is shed abroad in men’s hearts. Thus the soul lives its life of grace through the Holy Spirit, in Him it loves the Father with the love of the Son and the Son with the love of the Father.
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross speaks from a depth of theological and philosophical knowledge and, above all, a depth of love which is difficult to find elsewhere. His life was dedicated to prayer and asceticism, besides which he suffered considerably even at the hands of other religious. All of this comes across in his works, which weave the key movements of the spiritual life in alternating threads of poetry, intellectual thought, mystical experience, and practical considerations.
The result of St. John’s weaving is a rich tapestry of spiritual guidance which it is almost impossible not to draw fruit from. However, his works can at times be difficult to follow—as his thoughts are at times poetic or lofty, and the flow of his ideas is not always continuous or even complete.
The divine light gives light at once, but the soul sees nothing at first but that which is immediately before it, or rather within itself; its own darkness and misery, which, by the mercy of God, it sees now, and formerly saw not, because this supernatural light had not been granted it. This is the reason why, in the beginning, the soul is conscious of nothing but of darkness and misery. But when it has been purified by the knowledge and sense of its misery it will have eyes to discern the blessings of the divine light, and being delivered and set free from all darkness and imperfections, the great blessings and profit will become known which the soul is gaining for itself in this blessed night.