Over the past two years, I’ve planned my wedding, been pregnant, and had my first child, now a precious four-month-old little girl. With so much going on, I’ve been struggling to find any time at all to read anything other than wedding planning and/or baby books, and my spiritual reading has definitely suffered. But there are some standout books I’ve read that I would recommend for anyone looking for a great end-of-summer spiritual lift – books that I pick up myself when I can snatch a moment, books that yield peace, thoughtful reflection, and sometimes a little laughter for my soul.
Anything by Fr. James Martin tends to be a winner, but I especially enjoyed The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. It offers an overview of Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit way of living in a fresh, easily accessible way, and outlines ways that we can adopt aspects of this way of life into our normal everyday experiences. His guidance on discernment (decision-making led by the Holy Spirit) continues to be especially valuable, and there is a striking passage on accepting oneself as God sees you—beautifully made—that brought me to tears and still resonates strongly with me. I would highly recommend this to anyone, Catholic or not, as a way to help see God in all things, a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality.
Like Fr. Martin’s writing, anything by Thomas Cahill is pretty much a sure bet – especially his Hinges of History series. I recommend two of them in particular: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. Both books are a delight to read, with a sometimes playful tone and giggle-worthy asides (more so in the former than in the latter, however). Cahill’s writing is informal, but the subject matter is fascinating and informative. In the Gifts of the Jews, he explores the famous tales of the Old Testament and how the Jewish people and their monotheistic beliefs helped to reshape the world. In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, he provides an entirely readable popular analysis of the writers of the gospels and the letters of the early Christian communities, examining how they interpreted and were influenced by Jesus’ message. Cahill makes some speculative leaps here and there, but this only adds to the pleasure of reading!
Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction to his series on Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, captivated my attention. Not as accessible as the other books I’ve recommended, I finished reading this, turned to my husband, and said “Wow. This pope is BRILLIANT.” His exceptional commentary on the Sermon on the Mount alone was worth the read. I admittedly had a hard time wading through the chapter on John, as I was unfamiliar with the academic controversies surrounding that gospel, but was otherwise delighted and inspired by this book and am determined to read back through it at a slower pace to chew on the thoughts a little more – and then of course, on to the next in the series!
I’m going to recommend Waiting for God by Simone Weil for purely selfish reasons: I would really like someone to read this along with me again to help me digest it! I found her work to be very challenging, and will probably need to beat my head against it for a while to really solidify my thoughts and feelings towards this short, intense book. However, Weil’s thoughts are fascinating and troubling, sometimes beautiful, and seem to be well worth the effort, as she explores the nature of God and our relationship to Him.
For those short on time and in need of some daily inspiration, I would recommend All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, & Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsburg. He provides short biographies of saints and other inspirational figures throughout history in daily reflections, from St. Therese of Lisieux to Gandhi to Vincent van Gogh. Not only will you find inspiration, you may just find yourself longing to learn more and hunting down additional reading material to better acquaint yourself with these people who made the most of the lives they were blessed to live, lives that might inspire us to do the same.
As for fiction, I have a soft spot in my heart for beautifully written, peaceful, heartbreaking books. If you have similar tastes, I would highly recommend Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which follows an aging minister leaving an account of his life to his young son. It is very moving and reflective. My favorite quote should be enough to reel you in: “I remember once as a child dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wonderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, ‘I was just enjoying the quiet.’ I have that same feeling in the church, that I am dreaming what is true.” My heart ached for days while reading this (in a good way), and the novel made me reflect upon my own soul and my humanity.