Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Top 10 Greatest Works of Catholic Mysticism

Christian mysticism in and of itself is something that greatly interests me.  Soaring above the dry theological speculations of professional academia, mysticism encounters the living God face to face, though "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor 13:12).

Now, to narrow down to only ten the greatest of the writings in all of Catholic history is nearly an impossible task.  No doubt, there are many entries missing on this list that should be present.  But as with any list like this, it will undoubtedly reflect the tastes and worldview of the author, so I will state without further ado that these are my votes for what I feel are the ten greatest works of Catholic mysticism that I have hitherto come across in my short life.

Enjoy - and may the reading of these works deepen and enrich your spiritual life and love of Christ.

Note:  If you are looking for an excellent brief overview of this subject, I can do no better than to heartily recommend Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, found here.

1.  The Living Flame of Love - St. John of the Cross

"O gentle touch, and most gentle, for you touch me with your most simple and pure essence, which being infinite is infinitely gentle, therefore it is that this touch is so subtle, so loving, so deep, and so delicious that it savors of eternal life."1

Centuries earlier, it was said that a desert father "held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, 'If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.'"2  St. John of the Cross, I feel, has here expounded on these enigmatic words.

Now, of all the manifold writings of St. John of the Cross, the acknowledged master and doctor of mystical theology in the Church, most seem to gravitate towards his work The Dark Night of the Soul.  Perhaps this is because it is the shortest and most approachable of his four major works, or perhaps it is indicative of the spiritual struggles of so many of the faithful.

But of all the writings of this wonderful saint, it is The Living Flame of Love that is to me his most exalted work.  Comparing the soul to wood enveloped in the flames of divine love, to me it is represents the very height of St. John's mystical works.  Find an affordable reprint here.

2.  The Exemplar - Bl. Henry Suso

"Open up your heart.  Let the beloved in."3

While the name of Meister Eckhart is well-known nowadays (unfortunately due to New Age attempts to co-opt his teachings into their own), the name of one of his chief disciples is unfortunately not.  Bl. Henry Suso is one of my favorite writers in all of Christendom, and it is a pity that he is not more read.

One of the shining stars of the Dominican order, Bl Henry's work (which includes several sub-works including his auto/biography) avoids the unorthodox elements of Eckhart's thought, and straightens it out a bit.  There's a reason why his work is not co-opted by New Age relativistic spirituality - all of it is saturated in a deep contemplation of the Passion of Christ, as well as an incredibly rich mystical approach to union with He Who is Wisdom Eternal.  Beautiful, heart-rending, and profound.  Find it here.

3.  The Soul's (Mind's) Journey Into God - St. Bonaventure

"This fire is God, and his furnace is in Jerusalem; and Christ enkindles it in the heat of His burning passion, which only he truly perceives who says: My soul chooses hanging and my bones death."4

Inspired by his climb up Mount La Verna where St. Francis received the stigmata, St. Bonaventure's short and poetic treatise on mystical theology contains within it an entire Summa of knowledge and wisdom.

In what other theologians might take entire volumes to articulate, St. Bonaventure manages to do in only a few pages.  Taking the six-wings of the Seraph as his model, he outlines six stages involved in the knowledge of and union with God.    A classic treatise by one of the Church's greatest saints.  An affordable copy is found here.

4.  Scivias - St. Hildegard of Bingen

"I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places."5

Just recently declared a Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard's monumental magnum opus Scivias is to mystical thought much like St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica is to theology.  In a series of visions and interpretations of them, St. Hildegard explains and relates their content to the reader with precision and clarity.  Truth be told, there is more theological depth and profundity in this work than most that came after it.  A masterpiece.  Avoid the translations put out by New Age publishers (if you see Matthew Fox on the cover, RUN) - get the real thing here.

5.  Treatise on Purgatory - St. Catherine of Genoa

"I see paradise has no gate, but that whoever wants to may enter in because God is all mercy and stands with open arms to admit us to His glory.  But I also see that the essence of God is so pure... that should a soul see in itself even the least mote of imperfection, it would rather cast itself into a thousand hells than go with that spot into the presence of the divine majesty."6

Purgatory, for non-Catholics, is one of the more confusing aspects about our faith.  But here, St. Catherine of Genoa (the other famed St. Catherine of Italy) masterfully dictates her own experience of Purgatory in her life.  Describing it as the fire of God's love, St. Catherine channels loads of Catholic teaching on the subject into one short work.  Riveting, beautiful, and clear.  Find a copy here.

6.  Insinuationes Divinae Pietatis - St. Gertrude the Great (and others)

"Come, My beloved, repose on My Heart..."7

Sadly, St. Gertrude the Great seems to live in the shadows of other well-known female saints.  But long before St. Margaret Mary Alacoque related her visions of Jesus and the revelations surrounding the Sacred Heart, St. Gertrude had been writing of her own intimate experiences with Christ.

To read what is now commonly known as The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great is to give the soul some much-needed comfort in the travails of the Christian life.  St. Gertrude's writings concerning our Lord highlight His infinite love toward mankind, foster devotion to His Sacred Heart, and reveal much concerning the deeper aspects of the spiritual life.  Unfortunately, copies from TAN Books seem to be currently out of print (I must have picked up the last one!), but Paulist Press has her writings here.

7.  Mystical Theology - Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

"Into this supreme and dazzling darkness we pray that we may come, that by seeing and not knowing we may see and know Him who is beyond all seeing and knowing through this very act of not seeing or knowing; and at this supreme peak of being, by dismissing all things that are, that we may praise Him who is Himself above all."8

Of all the great works of mystical theology, I don't think many have ever surpassed in sheer profundity or beauty of style the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius.  Though St. Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses is close, and The Cloud of Unknowing is better known, it is the Mystical Theology that reigns above them all.  In essence, it goes deeper and far beyond the words of St. Gregory, and yet says in only a few pages what it takes The Cloud of Unknowing to say in many.  In my mind, it is the blueprint for all mystical theology after it, an incredible and mind-blowing work.  Find an affordable copy here.

8.  Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska - St. Faustina

"A single act of pure love pleases Me more than a thousand imperfect prayers."9

I think by now this fantastic journal of a Polish nun's experiences of the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ towards souls is well-known, already a cherished work in the pantheon of devotional classics.  But if you haven't perused it yet, I urge you to do so.  St. Faustina's accounts of her conversations with Jesus and of Jesus' revelation of Divine Mercy to us all are some of the most consoling writings in all of Christendom for those of us who are poor sinners at best.  A wonderful work.  Find the paperback edition for cheap here.

9.  Divine Intimacy - Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen

"Our love for God will be pure when we love Him so much that we seek only His glory and the accomplishment of His will..."10

Carmelite spirituality, in my experience, can be difficult to approach - dense and powerfully intimate, I have often found myself giving up when trying to get through some of the works of the great Carmelite saints.  Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen solves this problem masterfully by distilling the teachings and wisdom of the Carmelite saints into daily readings and meditations.  Fr. Gabriel's writing is practical, warm, and yet exceedingly rich; in each reading, he invites the Christian into a deeper relationship with our Lord, all designed to lead to divine intimacy with God Himself.  In my mind, it is a mystical Summa of Carmelite teaching, as well as that of the other great Catholic mystics and saints.  An absolute must-own.  Find a copy here for a very affordable price.

10.  Sermons - John Tauler

"Prayer is nothing other than the ascent of the mind to God."11

The Dominican John Tauler is considered one of the preeminent mystics of the Catholic Church, yet his life and writings remain in the shadow of his predecessor, Meister Eckhart.  Perhaps it doesn't help as well that Tauler's thought became somehow associated with early Protestant thought as well; Luther was quite the fan from what I here.  But to look at Tauler in this way is to do disservice to one of the most profound and yet completely approachable of all the mystics in the Church, as well as to misinterpret his thought completely.  Tauler's sermons, the only authentic works of his to survive, avoid the abstract obscurities of Meister Eckhart and the heart-rending accounts of Bl. Henry Suso, and instead aim for a practical application of deep spiritual truths in the heart of the listener.  Amazing, and somehow very easy to read through when compared to other mystical works of its kind.  Find copies of his sermons here.


1 - St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza II
2 - Vitae Patrum, XII:viii
3 - Bl. Henry Suso, The Little Book of Letters, I
4 - St. Bonaventure, The Soul's Journey Into God, VII
6 - St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory, VIII
7 - Our Lord to St. Gertrude, Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great, III:44
8 - Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, II
9 - Our Lord to St. Faustina, Diary, 1489
10 - Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy, 256
11 - John Tauler, "Sermon 3"

37 comments:

  1. Jason,
    I just discovered your blog through Big Pulpit and I wanted to thank you so much for this post.

    You see, I just recently was baptized and confirmed into the catholic church on Easter Vigil. Aside from my (earthly) wedding day, it was the most amazing moment in my life, a second (heavenly) wedding feast if you will. What I've found common in many converts is the strong yearning to know and learn truth in its fullness, which requires a great deal of reading, thinking, discussing.
    And as you well know, the depth, the riches, the beauty, the vastness of catholic theology and spirituality is *truly* overwhelming. I look forward to starting with a few of your suggestions.

    I'm not sure what your background was, but what I've found in my catholic faith is a certain kind of worldview and spirituality that I couldn't quite express fully as a wayward protestant. I'm so excited to finally be *home* where I can express that spirituality as fully as the Lord allows me on this earth.
    With much gratitude,
    Loreen

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    1. Hi Loreen,
      I remember how it felt to "come home" - I'll never forget my baptism and first Holy Communion. Never stop learning and sponging in all of the glory of the Catholic faith - there is so much to dive into!
      And welcome home!

      ICXC NIKA
      Jason

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  2. Great Selections. Please don't overlook mystic number 11, Luisa Piccarreta. Jesus to Luisa: “My beloved, you said that with reason, because love has this of its own: it forms one object out of two, one will out of two. So, the soul who loves Me forms one single thing with Me, one single will; how can she then be separated from Me? More so, since my Nature is Love, and wherever It finds a few sparks of love in the human nature, immediately It unites them to the eternal Love. Therefore, just as it is impossible to form two souls out of one soul, or two bodies out of one body, so is it impossible for one who truly loves Me to become lost.”
    Vol. 4, 06/15/1902

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    1. I have never heard of Luisa Piccarreta - I will look her up. Thanks for letting me know of her.

      God give you peace,
      Jason

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    2. I agree with Frank Rega; these Writings given to Luisa are the most profound and sublime I have ever encountered. As part of her cause for beatification process, these writings have now progressed to the highest levels in the Vatican - having successfully progressed through many stages up to this point.

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  3. Given that " Living Flame of Love" was the very first thing you mentioned, I cannot help but offer you the recent, hauntingly beautiful, original chorale composition of a young man whose soul was touched by this poem. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OfqYcPAK2A . Note how the melody and dynamics of the composition express the words so well with both gentle dissonance and glorious resolutions. (Be sure to click "more" to follow along with the words.)

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    1. Wow - thanks so much for this - it`s beautiful. I have a few people who are secular Carmelites who pop by this blog who might enoy this!
      Jason

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  4. Good selection. But I would include a few more including:
    Julian of Norwich
    Unknown Author "The Cloud of Unknowing"
    Meister Eckhart "selected Writings"
    Thomas Merton "The Inner Experience"

    One of my favorite books on this issue, for over 50 years, is by Evelyn Underhill "Mysticism".

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    1. Yes, the Revelations of Divine Love of Bl. Julian was a consideration - a great work for sure. I chose the Mystical Theology of Dionysius over the Cloud of Unknowing though - to be sure, the Cloud is entirely based on Dionysius. Meister Eckhart's work is undoubtedly fantastic, but I find the works of his disciples more profound. Thomas Merton I am still undecided on.

      As for Evelyn Underhill, the reason she was not considered for this list is that she was Anglican, not Catholic.

      Thanks for reading!
      Jason

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    2. Jason - for an excellent discussion of Merton, and other mystical things, as well as the topic of spiritual direction, check this site out: http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/

      You will find quite a lot of good stuff there. God bless you!

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  5. The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of avila!!

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  6. "The Living Pyx of Jesus" by Unknown religious is another great book. Hard to find a copy of it but worth the search.

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  7. There is a wonderful book about Johns work called 'The Impact of God' by Iain Mathew-its very affordable and beautifully written and easy to understand.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Impact-God-Soundings-Christian-Paperbacks/dp/0340612576

    taxineil

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  8. Just want to add a few more titles of classic mystical literature that have impacted peoples' lives in a powerful and positive way: "The Dialogue" by St. Catherine of Siena; "The Way of Divine Love" by Sr. Josefa Menendez; "He and I" by Gabrielle Bossis... and finally, (not always categorized under Catholic Mysticism, but the author certainly was) "The Story of a Soul" by St. Therese of Liseaux. Read and enjoy! God bless.

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    1. The Dialogue of St. Catherine is a classic, though I preferred other works over it personally. Sr. Josefa Menendez is someone I have heard the name of, but am not familiar with - I will have to check her out, as people keep bringing her up in the comments. Never heard of Gabrielle Bossis though - is he newer?

      Thanks for your suggestions!
      Jason

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    2. Hello Jason,

      Sr. Josefa Menendez was a Spanish nun of the Society of the Sacred Heart who lived remarkable mystical experiences from our Lord, as the Sacred Heart. She detailed them in her spiritual diary, which was published as the book, "The Way of Divine Love". If you ever have the chance to read it, you may find there are a lot of similarities between her experiences and those of St. Faustina of the Divine Mercy revelations.

      Gabrielle Bossis was a pious laywoman, a French stage actress who conversed mystically with our Lord. She, too, recorded her conversations with Christ in a journal, which was published under the title, "He and I". The simplicity, yet depth, of this book never fails to blow me away - I go back to it often for spiritual encouragement.

      Both are very interesting and edifying reading, at least in my personal opinion. You can find more information about the lives of both holy women at www.mysticsofthechurch.com.

      God's blessings be with you!

      Peter

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  9. The top number One all time greatest mystical book: The Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila. To miss this one is to miss an essential.

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    1. Obviously it is, if I were going for what are in general considered the top 10 classics of Catholic mystical thought. As I said in the post, these are what I in personally feel are the top 10, not what are generally considered the top 10. I struggled with the idea of the Interior Castle and the Dialogue of St. Catherine, but they are not two of my top picks. That said, St. Catherine of Siena is easily one of the greatest of the mystics of the Church (I just prefer reading her letters!).

      The Lord give you peace,
      Jason

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  10. No one has mentioned the incomparable Bl. John Ruuesbroec, who influenced St. John of the Cross, and later Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, and then what about St. Gregory of Nyssa, the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Origen, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, etc... Bernard McGuinn's books on mysticism are a benchmark.

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    1. Hey Cameron,
      Totally agree that many of the authors you mentioned are excellent. Bl. John of Ruysbroeck almost made the list actually. Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity's work I am not very familiar with, but she is quoted often in Divine Intimacy. St. Gregory of Nyssa's works are profound, but again, I went with the writing of Dionysius over him. Origen, if you read the blog often, is a favorite of mine - I have been critiqued by a few readers for quoting a controversial theologian such as he is a few times now. St. Bernard of Clairvaux's commentaries on the Song of Songs was also one I considered. Not sure about St. Ignatius of Antioch though - did you mean Loyola?

      Peace,
      Jason

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  11. What about Maria Valtorta and The Poem of The Man God? Reading her work is like walking through Palestine in the company of Jesus.

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  12. What about Maria Valtorta and The Poem of The Man God? Reading her work is like walking through Palestine in the company of Jesus.

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    1. As far as I know, the official status of this work is unclear, and from what I've heard, it's very questionable.

      Peace,
      Jason

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  13. Hi there Jason
    naming top 10s is guaranteed to get people disagreeing and telling you where you went wrong in your selection.

    I am not one of these people.

    But "The Mystical City of God" by Mother Mary of Agreda is the second most important book in the history of mankind after The Bible.

    But as I have already said...I am not one of those people.
    So just disregard the book I have mentioned.

    p.s.
    This book (or rather series of books)changed my life.
    Sections of narrative dictated by Our Lady...
    followed by Instructions from Our Lady...
    It was the "Instructions" that changed me.

    But as i say....I am not one of those people...LOL.
    Thank you Jason,
    You are doin a great job!


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    1. Thanks! The reputation of the work you mention is rather spotty at best, from what I remember reading. It is one I mean to check out though, at some point or another, even if only for the sake of curiousity.

      Peace,
      Jason

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    2. rather spotty?
      It seems to me that you do not know what you are talking about.
      This is the Holy Spirit speaking....through Our Lady.....pure diamond advice for souls who take the time to read it.

      Rather spotty?

      I really dont know what to say.

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    3. Hey Anonymous,
      Yes, from what I have read, the work was condemned for a time by the Church (but then again, so was St. Faustina's). I have heard very mixed thoughts on it, but have no opinion myself.
      I'll do a post on it sometime if I do read some of it.
      Jason

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    4. "I have heard very mixed thoughts on it"
      Jason...the problem with these books is that they are expensive to buy.
      Do you trust me?
      If you trust me then please read the "Instructions" given in these books....they come from Our Blessed Lady.

      The books span from the Immaculate Conception to the end of The Gospel...dictated by Our Lady.....and after every narrative...She gives Instructions...which are absolutely amazing...unable to be given by a human brain...every word is from heaven.

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  14. St. Gertrude the Great is my personal favorite. Her relationship with the Lord was so extraordinary, her love for Him so great, and His love for her something to behold.

    Another favorite is John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul." I expected it to be dark and depressing but I was pleasantly surprised to find it exactly the opposite. Like "The Herald of Divine Love" (Gertrude's great work), I return to it frequently.

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  15. Please don't forget,Interior Castles by St. Theresa of Avila (Doctor of the Church),or The Story of A Soul by St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, also a Doctor of the Church.

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    1. Hi Anonymous,
      I didn't forget them - as I said to others, it's a top 10 list of what I personally feel are the greatest, not what are always universally acknowledged to be the greatest in general.

      Peace,
      Jason

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  16. I don't know if this book fits into the category, since it is a summary of the thoughts of many mystics, but I found "The Fulfillment of All Desire" by Ralph Martin to be a good introduction to some mystic thought.

    In any case, thank you for assembling this list. Like naming the top ten singers or top ten pitchers or top ten presidents, this kind of thing is good for thought and debate.

    God bless,
    Dan

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  17. Jason
    The Poem of Man God has had a bad name through EWTN unfortunately. Possibly at the time due to poor translation it may have appeared as a badly fictionalized life of Christ. The Diary of the Soul - by St Faustina also suffered such due to poor translation. Nevertheless the Poem of Man God recieved an imprimatur from Bishop Roman Danyluk and also by a top Marian theologian in Rome. Be wary of the source that sells the books - they are more Catholic than the Catholic Church. The books by Valtorta are worth the read. She lived during the times of Sr. Josefa Menendez and St Faustina. There is no way to say the books are not inspired. The books brings the Gospels to life and fill in the gaps. Historians and archaelogists have also been able to identify areas described by Valtorta who was bedridden when she wrote the books and had never left her home town. Truly those books are the well kept secret of the Catholic Church

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  18. Great list! (1,5,6,8&9 are among my favorites too). The Scivias was too difficult for me and gave it to a friend, but I think I will buy it again. From Bonaventure I prefer his Breviloquium. Suso is a great spiritual author indeed but I haven't read his Exemplar. The Living Flame of Love is magnificent, especially the explanation of the third stanza (also the XXXIX stanza of his Spiritual Canticle). If I had to choose only one from your list it would be Saint Faustina's Diary. From Saint Gertrude I would add her Exercises plus a wonderful manual of prayers she authored along with Saint Mechtilde.

    I would also second "He and I" by Bossis that has been mentioned above and the Autobiography by Blessed Dina Belanger.
    Venerable Conchita is an excellent choice too (A Mother's Spiritual Diary and the retreat "Under the Gaze of the Father" by Archbishop Martinez, her spiritual director and her).
    The Book of Infinite Love by Claret de la Touche and the Spiritual Legacy of Sister Mary the Holy Trinity .
    The Spiritual Writings of Denis the Carthusian is another superb book.
    The Imitation of Christ (that was an omission I believe) plus the Imitation of the Sacred Heart by Arnoudt.
    From Holy Communion to the Blessed Trinity (Bernadot)
    The Glories of Divine Grace and the Mysteries of Christianity both by Scheeben.
    The Trinity in Our Spiritual Life (Blessed Marmion Columba)

    As a spiritual manual, The Mystical Evolution by Fr. Arintero is my top choice.

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  19. An excellent list, although I was disappointed to see you leave out Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck and his mystical classic, "The Spiritual Espousals". In my opinion, he is the greatest Trinitarian mystic in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as one of the most profound yet orthodox expositors of the deepest degrees of union with God. Nowhere else does one find, save perhaps in the Areopagite's works - and mind Ruusbroec is known was the "2nd coming of Dionysius" by his immediate contemporaries - such sweeping, ecstatic descriptions of being embraced in the very life of the Persons of the Godhead beyond time in an eternal now, wedded to such eminent practicality, in that his main emphasis is upon how the mystical life is one of action and rest, mirroring the outpouring of the Godhead into the Three Persons and the simultaneous return to the transcendent unity of the one essence. Therefore he, more than any other mystic, condemned that false mysticism of the Free Spirits and Quietists which basked in self-absorption and inner rapture without pouring out that grace into good works and loving kindness to all, as well as condemning their rejection of the sacraments and ecclesiastical authority.

    For such feats, I think he deserves to be in any Top 10 List.

    BTW if you ever log onto CAF (Catholic Answers Forums), you'll know me by the name of Vouthon (the one who is always quoting from Catholic mystical texts).

    Great blog though.

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  20. Hi Jason,

    This is an excellent post! I am not familiar with many of the mystical writings that you listed, so thanks for giving me some reading material. I am particularly fond of St. Gertrude's writings.

    Someone else also mentioned 'The Book of Infinite Love' (Ven. Louise Margaret), 'Conchita: A Mother's Spiritual Diary', and 'The Spiritual Legacy of Sr. Mary of the Holy Trinity'. I second the latter two suggestions, and though I have not read the first (it is coming in the mail), I have read (part of) another work of Ven. Louise Margaret, and it is beautiful and inspiring.

    I would like to add three mystical writings, not for your list, but for your edification. The first two works are my favourite mystical books ever!

    1. 'Vademecum Proposed to Religious Souls' (The revelations given to Sr. Benigna Consolata Ferrero)

    Free online: http://archive.org/details/vademecumpropose00ferruoft

    2. 'The Tendernesses of The Love of Jesus for a Little Soul' (Biography of Sr. Benigna Consolata, which contains many beautiful words about Our Lord's love and mercy)

    Free online: http://archive.org/details/sisterbenignacon00como

    3. 'The Love of The Sacred Heart' (St. Mechtilde)

    Free online: http://archive.org/details/theloveofthesacr00mechuoft

    I am currently writing an article about Sr. Benigna Consolata for the "Mystics of the Church" website that someone mentioned previously. In the meantime, please check this article if you wish:

    http://littlestsouls.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/life-and-revelations-of-sr-benigna-consolata-ferrero/

    Take care and God bless,

    littlestsouls

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    1. Hi littlestsouls,
      Thanks for all the recommendations - I am always looking for more writings to check out!

      Peace,
      Jason

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