On Spiritual Reading

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Telegraph and Dwight Way about a block and half from the Seminary.

When I was younger, I used to ransack the used bookstores on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for treasures. Moe’s was really the only store that really knew what their books were worth  – yeah, you were gonna pay top dollar there. Shakespeare & Co. across the way and a little South? Less so. The guy in the small store on Dwight Way to the West had immense theological treasures – cheap.

When I graduated from CSUS (and this is one of my favorite days EVER) my father gave me a nice check (I think $700) and Jeff Miles (who is now Sr. pastor of a healthy Church in Citrus Heights) and Mary Gregory (who has worked with me at Steak and Ale) all piled into the Millennium Cockroach (my 1970 dark green Pinto) and headed to the Bay Area for the greatest book-buy extravaganza ever.

We spent $1100  between the three of us, celebrated at Ghirardelli Square’s Magic Pan restaurant (marvelous crepes washed down with liberal amounts of French wine).

Every air pocket in the car was inhabited by a book or a person as we drove back to Sacramento with our massive amount of prizes.

For years to come the core of my library would features treasures I found that day – some hardbound first editions worth $30 that i was picking up for $3-$5. For every thing I did not know about women in 1982 (which was voluminous) I knew twenty-five times as much about books – including their worth.

I could outmaneuver any bookseller but the staff at Moe’s. I would still not try.


Well – those days are long gone. Logos books is gone…the theology sections – last I checked – are depleted like over-used farmland now packed only with GMO crap.

So it almost brought tears to my eyes when I walked into Green Apple Books in San Francisco months ago and someone had unloaded a ton of Thomas Merton hardbacks — first editions – and I knew they would just sit there until I decided to come back around and pick them up one at a time.

(Of course until I write this – but what the heck).


IMG_20150821_055106Merton is a spiritual MONSTER – one of those few Christian authors you can give to anyone with a brain with NO FEAR that they will be offended by some side-agenda bullshit.

No, the little Trappist monk who shook the world with his spiritual autobiography The Seven Story Mountain, was as brilliant a scholar, as great a writer as the 20th century could produce. No Protestant writer can touch him – not even the great C.S. Lewis – for he simply cannot plumb some of the depths that Merton does.

And I LOVE Lewis.

Well recently I asked L. if we could drop by Green Apple. I had a theory.

Just like I can leave out rare copies of books in the Tent City with no fear (like some tweaker is gonna go “Holy Crap! A William Everson book of poetry!! This will keep me in smack for a week!”) because we live in such an utterly clueless age when it comes to spiritual reading that you can just leave a whole cache of Thomas Merton’s in SAN FRANCISCO (a major seat of Catholicism) with no fear that anyone will notice them and buy them up – not even a priest.

Sure enough. Here it was months later and I could take my pick.

I cast my eyes on The Last of the Fathers, a book on St. Bernard of  Clairvaux (a favorite author from the 12th Century) that I had no idea Merton had ever written. It is SO out of print – and a first edition (1954). I half expected it to be signed:

“To Mac, enjoy this book. You are not going to be born for another three years and I’ll be long dead when you find it, but you will love it. Grace, T.M.”

Even though she is almost as poor as I am (she actually has bills), L. insisted on paying the outrageous fee of $16 (haha – “oh, do we have to?”) for the book as a gift.

I bought What Are These Wounds? – a book on the Catholic mystic St. Lutgarde, also by Merton and also unknown to me and long OP for $10. It’s one of those books that, though hardbound, says $2.00 on the inside dust jacket.

Now if you looked on Amazon (which is part of the reason bookstores have changed – and Moe’s and stick it – er, um…good luck with those prices) you would see that it would be about the same to get the same book shipped sight unseen to me.

Of Merton’s work (and I AM going to get to the major point here next) there is a reason that this work does not get reprinted while books like New Seeds of Contemplation, or Mystics and Zen Masters will keep going into reprinting.

The first point is that there was the sheer joy of finding a real treasure physically in an actual used bookstore.

Really, nowadays you pretty much would have to travel to Portland’s Powell’s Books to be assured of that experience (which I enjoyed immensely when I lived there).

Now you have to do it online…but what of the question: what to read?


When it comes some modern-day poets and men and women with some real Eastern wisdom people in our culture have a decent idea of who to read.

For poetry they know (many) to pickup Mary Oliver or Robert Pinsky or that Irish guy whose name escapes me all the time (eh…he’s okay…you know who I mean…er..Seamus P. Boondock or something like that).

When it comes to wisdom literature Pema Chodron or Thich Nyat Hanh – well it’s tough to beat them.

But when the subject turns to the whole of Western Christian literature (just like the rich spiritual heritage that the entire Western wrold has drawn from – all art, literature etc…you know – the small stuff – our Postmodern culture seems utterly clueless, no?

I mean you cannot go into a Christian bookstore for anything truly deep –  unless it is for C.S. Lewis. I mean you might find a Frederick Beuchner book there (on accident…someone ordered it and forgot to pick it up).

I am not suggesting they are all bad. No – not at all.

It’s just like cheese.

CowgirlCheeseThere is Red Hawk cheese that you get for $30 a pound (a deal) from the Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station in Marin County – which is simply one of the best cheeses on the planet Earth.

And then there is Velveeta.

Both are cheese – of a sort.

And Velveeta is fine for making nachos and even better during the third quarter of the game after you have had about five Indian Pale Ales, or a whole 12-pack of Bud.

But it ain’t no Red Hawk.

Rick Warren? Maybe he is just mild Cheddar.

But he ain’t no Red Hawk.

Most all of the Christian Bestsellers have one thing in common: they are all just Christian “Betterment” books.


I hate to break it to ya…but Jesus didn’t come into the world to make you “better.” He wants the whole enchilada – total and utter transformation.

Oh you will get “better” in the meantime – for sure. But sometimes you will feel worse. As Merton writes of St. Bernard “all sanctity is born out of conflict.”

And sanctity “being set apart for God”s own pleasure” – is our true pleasure – we just do not realize it daily – we just get glimpses if we are aware.


You think me a snob? Naw…not me. I live under a freeway and eat hot dogs and wash them down with MIO-flavored water.

Or maybe jealous because my last book sold ..wha…197 copies?

Nope. I loved writing that book and it may not be Red Hawk (it is not); but it ain’t no Lucerne Cheddar either.

I’d like to see you throw a 94 mph literary fastball then follow with a sweeping curve. No…I did it for the sheer love of it.

No – I’m not jealous one little bit (not my gig) and no book snob and I can prove it.

Of all the books that were on Amazon’s Christian bestseller list last year – do you seriously think a ONE of them will be read 30 years from now?

No. You have to go to #24 Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis to get a book with any history (written in parts in the 1940s – I once had a hardbound copy of Beyond Personality – dang – I could buy a season ticket to next year’s Giants with that).

Oh..and clocking in at #65 is our favorite Bishop from Hippo with his Confessions (Augustine) and that memorable line “oh give me chastity Lord..just not yet…”



But wait a minute..what of our Big Boys from just a few years back?

I looked in vain for The Prayer of Jabez on the top 100? Wha? Did everyone get a copy? Does it no longer “work?” Is it no longer “bettermenting” people?

Gosh…I mean you can get a hardcover for .98 cents. Own this classic!


Okay, not a snob, but definitely a smartass.

So why?

It’s because we have tried to unload all this CRAP on people that they want no part of ANY of it.

It’s why a guy like Joel Osteen – while ostensibly harmless – is truly harmful. Does he mean to harm? Nah. But by feeding people noting but refined white SUGAR he is malnourishing them to death and keeping them from eating real healthy FOOD.

So, if I am so smart who do I suggest (and why)?

My reason “why” covers all the books. That’s the easiest answer. And I will give it at the end.

Western Spirituality Starter Pack

(In most cases I have tried to get the best book available. They should all be new and also most available on Kindle.)

Some of these are up to …oh…1600 years old – that reinforces my argument, no?

Of C.S. Lewis’ books, Mere Christianity is not the first I suggest. I like The Great Divorce and then God in the Dock. Both are immensely enjoyable. I have taught classes on the latter and it is so much fun – quick little essays. The Four Loves is pretty needed about now too. (You can look these up on Amazon at your leisure.)

Speaking of Lewis, I am going to insist on the oldest text being St. Athanasius’ little book On the Incarnation – but this is the one time I am going to suggest the more  pricey book – solely because those crazy kooky nutty Eastern Orthodox folks (not known for their humor) talked Lewis into doing the forward in this classic. It’s worth the extra dough and it’s better bound. Athanasius wrote it in the Fourth Century.

Soren Kierkegaard’s The Attack on Christendom (Lowrie paperback – cheaper and readily available). SK takes on official “Religion” in a way for the ages. Shop wisely. used onlne this can go from a buck to $30 in a hurry).

St. Bernard of Clairvaux On Loving God.

Aelred of Rievaulx Spiritual Friendship.  You could argue that this is the first Christian “betterment” book of sorts except it is too deep, interesting and lasting. Better than anything on friendship. From the 12th Century.

Pascal’s (Blaise) Pensees. Brilliant collection of “Thoughts” Pascal is responsible here for the “God-shaped vacuum” thingy and then blows it (IMO) with his famous “wager.”

This is what gambling does.

Me? I take a roll of quarters into the casino and expect to lose them all. The slots have a quarter-shaped vacuum…

(I have to nearly insist you try to get the Dutton edition used. The translation is better and the forward is by T.S. ELIOT.) The Penguin edition truly sucks by comparison.)

Speaking of gambling…I am going to recommend one book I have not yet read simply on the strength of the author whose six volumes I have tucked away in storage.

The English Puritan (so different than the Americans – who were prudish idiots) John Flavel and his book Keeping the Heart.

It’s either that (to represent the Puritans) or William Gurnall’s massive 656 page exposition on Ephesians 6:10-20 The Christian in Complete Armour (which  I have read twice – and yes, now I am just bragging.

Spurgeon wrote of this book “Peerless and priceless; every line is full of wisdom; every sentence is suggestive . . . . The best thought-breeder in all our library.”

This is actually true..and the type sometimes is really small. When the book was first suggested to me I laughed at the audacity of it! 656 pages on ten verses? C’mon!

Um…I stood corrected….twice.

Speaking of Spurgeon (Charles Haddon) …The Treasury of David. A steal – $33 for three-hardbound set. This devotional on the Psalms is priceless as well and perfect for daily reading. At the end of each exegesis there are pages of quotes from authors (Puritans mostly) whose works are long since gone.

And lastly (for all good things must come to an end, and I could list fifty more): Merton.

As much as I love Lewis, Merton is my go-to guy.

I mentioned a few titles already. I will just add Love and Living or No Man is an Island.

There are some very good more recent authors: Buechner (whose name is unfortunately not memorializable even by me), Brennan Manning and Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is a total mind-exploder.



Thomas Merton

The one thing all of these books have in common is that they have a purity and timelessness that defies culture or even historical age. They are so savagely TRUE and unmixed that it doesn’t matter what time you read them in, or from what culture – they will resonate – even if there is some need of slight re-contextualization.

They all function from a “Theocentric” viewpoint (God or Christ-centered) instead of falling prey to what Walker Percy called “the suck of self” which the “Anthropocentric” (me-centered) worldview insist on.

Thus, across the centuries, in wildly different contexts and from strongly differing theological views in some ways – they all have a draw to “the Center.”

They ignore superfluities and stick close to the very core of the faith – what Lewis Called “Mere Christianity.”

But then Lewis ripped that off from the great G.K. Chesterton, who came very close to making the Starter Pack list.

But then you would know that if you had read his book.


One thought on “On Spiritual Reading

  1. Gonna add Thomas A Kempis’ amazing “The Imitation of Christ” – the second most read spiritual book – behind only the Bib;e itself – it is unreal how GOOD this book is. Anything by Gregory the Great also.

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