William McNamara is perhaps the greatest spiritual writer of our age… and yet, outside the small circle of seekers who know of his work as the founder of the Spiritual Life Institute in Crestone, Colorado, his writings are not well known. This is a tragedy. The truth is, McNamara is a far more innovative, courageous and skillful writer than most – and his vision of “earthy mysticism,” an ecstatic embrace of the wonders and tragedies of being fully human and fully alive, is unique in contemporary Christian spirituality. The reason for McNamara’s relative obscurity has little to do with his writing and everything to do with his lack of organizational skills.
The Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa founded organizations that continue his legacy and preserve his vision of how traditional Kagyu spirituality can adapt to western culture: His books are reissued in special editions. There is an entire slick-paper magazine, Shambhala Sun, dedicated to preserving and disseminating his vision. The Naropa Institute, which Trungpa founded and which is now a degree-granting university, holds regular symposia on his ideas. This is despite the fact that Trungpa was, among other things, an alcoholic and serial adulterer who once had his followers forcibly strip naked the wife of poet William Merwin in public.
The same phenomenon can be seen with “Osho,” the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who was deported from the U.S. in disgrace in 1986 but whose followers have created a virtual “Osho industry” in the decades after his death.
Even Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who is the bestselling Catholic writer of all time, fell in love with his nurse in his mid-50s, at the height of his fame, and used to sneak out of his hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey for secret rendezvous with the young woman. Yet his affair has not hurt sales of his books in the slightest.
McNamara, on the other hand, has not been so fortunate. Apparently, Catholics, or at least certain types of Catholics, hold their spiritual guides up to higher standards than do Buddhists or Hindus… because McNamara’s rumored friendships with women have resulted in an almost total blackout of his work. After celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Carmelite priest at the Spiritual Life Institute’s Ireland foundation in 2001, McNamara collapsed with massive internal bleeding that almost killed him. Two years later, the organization he founded splintered, a new prior took over and some members, including ordained priests and the co-founder, left the community. McNamara himself resigned as abbot, was allegedly laicized and went into total seclusion. Unlike Merton, Trungpa and Osho, however, McNamara’s books are now all out of print – despite the fact that, in terms of sheer substance and the quality of the writing, they are at least as good as Merton’s and, in many ways, better.
McNamara has a very Irish, very Zorba-like enthusiasm for life in all its fullness that is lacking in Merton’s more ascetic writing. In McNamara’s most recent book, Wild and Robust, published in 2006 but already out of print, he describes what Earthy Mysticism means for him:
The purpose of life is life. Until we experience the fullness of life, we are in passionate pursuit of it. Human happiness is being full of life and spreading that good infection gracefully, generously, and unself-consciously. Sanity, sanctity, functional families, education, the Mystical Body of Christ, the body politic, the military-industrial complex, and social justice all depend upon this quality of life. So do the felicitous futures of the Boston Red Sox, the San Diego Chargers, and the All-Ireland Soccer Team, of Alicia Keys and Jennifer Lopez, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, Sean Connery, and Brad Pitt.
For McNamara, mysticism is nothing other, and nothing less, than this full-bodied pursuit of aliveness that characterizes all great saints and sinners: “The sanctifying process is a humanizing process: a progressive enlightenment of the mind and enlargement of the heart (p. 25).” Where McNamara differs from many Christian spiritual writers is his willingness to seek and see this mystical quest outside the bounds of normal “religious” activities, figures and symbols. One of his great inspirations, as anyone who knows his work can attest, is the character of Zorba the Greek in Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel of the same name. For McNamara, Zorba is a living symbol of the courageous engagement with life that he believes characterizes all authentic mysticism, and especially all authentic Christian mysticism.
What ordinary lay people would appreciate about McNamara’s writing is its down-to-earth, real-world quality. It calls us to live life to the fullest, to not “settle” for the “half life” offered by consumer culture. Reflecting upon a character in a novel by Myles Connolly who ignores the “safe” Christianity of suburban churches and instead leaps into “the eye of the storm,” McNamara says:
Keenly aware that Christ is no safe harbor, he dons his crash helmet and moves with outrageous speed into the blessed, bloody heart of reality, where the fire is, a fire lit and kept blazing by the Living Flame of Love.
Most of us never take that leap. We are incapacitated by a very peculiar disease called moderate happiness. Pretty good people do pretty good things, read pretty good books, and have pretty good times. What reduces us to a half-life is pretty poison. Christ came to wake us up, to enliven us and inflame us. If we don’t take this manliest man seriously and let his fire, his eros, consume us, we will prolong our mediocrity and a subverted Christianity. We will lollygag in the suburbs of reality, we will coke on the long suck of self, and we will languish in lugubrious levels of psychobabble and schizoid alienation.
What is the alternative? To kneel and pray first thing in the morning or make coffee or tea and meditate in a favorite corner of the house or yard. Celebrate Mass two or three times a week. One-half hour of prayer every evening plus a walk (leisurely — no jogging! Jog later if you must.). Better yet: play with others — anything, anywhere, but play. Pray the Angelus every noon. Keep a vigil every Saturday night. Do something wild every day. Enliven the neighborhood. Glorify the parish. Go to or start a discussion group, reflecting on the best books, reviewing the best movies and videos and DVDs. Go on a retreat every few years. Find a soul-friend. Enjoy and amuse the pastor.
In conclusion: Let us pray to meet God, to know and touch Christ. We will thus continue the Incarnation. Who knows? We may even do greater things than Jesus did. That’s what he wants, that’s why he came and why he infuses us with the Spirit (p. 113).
No, McNamara no longer has an organization behind him. Unlike Trungpa, Osho or even Thomas Merton, sinners all, he no longer has the support that comes with hundreds of people keeping his vision alive. As a result, his books are now out of print, difficult to get. It is said that Wild and Robust is now down to just a few hundred copies still available. There are only 18 copies left on Amazon.com as of this writing. Do yourself a favor. Get a copy while you still can. A precious and unique spiritual vision is fading from our midst… and there is nothing to take its place.
In addition to his own books, William McNamara has long had a “recommended reading list” for people interested in his unique Carmelite approach to Christian spirituality. Among the books on this list are:
Gorres, Ida. The Hidden Face
An excellent guide to the spirituality of Therese of Lisieux that cuts through the Victorian floweriness of devotion to the Little Flower and exposes her courage and toughness. The best biography of Therese we’ve seen.
Greeley, Andrew. The Jesus Myth
Greeley explores all of the ways people have tried to make Jesus conform to their own ideas, and discusses His true significance.
Muggeridge, Malcom. Jesus Rediscovered
This book is a superb introduction to Christ for the disaffected Christian who has rejected the pseudo-Jesus preferred by the institutional churches but can’t let go of the real Jesus. Malcom Muggeridge was an English journalist who converted to Christianity after his sixtieth birthday. Jesus Rediscovered is a collection of essays on what it meant to him. Muggeridge traveled everywhere and read almost everything, and writing for a wide audience was his craft. All his books are well-written and worthwhile reading.
Shea, John. The Challenge of Jesus
This book does not deal with the events of Jesus’ life, but with the content of His message. Shea is a theologian with a gift for clear and sharp expression, that brings both the message and the person of Christ alive.
Trueblood, Elton. The Humour of Christ
The author, with insight, clarity, and scholarship projects a startlingly unfamiliar image — that of a Christ who often laughed and used wit on the proud, the pompous, and over-righteous. Recommended for all for a more accurate understanding of Christ.
CONTEMPLATION AND MYSTICISM
Chapman, Dom John. Spiritual Letters
Letters by an eminent spiritual director written to all sorts of people answering questions about their spiritual progress in a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth way. Chapman becomes the reader’s own spiritual director and gives superb practical advice. A must for the experienced.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism
This is the best text available for treating the classical approach to mysticism (purgative, illuminative, and sensitive way). It is readable and very inspiring, with lots of quotations from mystical saints. A must.
Van der Post, Laurens. A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place
Van der Post, raised in Africa, brings a wealth of appreciation of the African primitive way of life as exemplified on Xhabbo, the little Bushman. There is a strong sense of things intuitively felt and of mysterious connections. These novels rank among the top five SLI favorites and point up a quality of life, the primitive, which we have learned to value highly.
Kerr, Walter. The Decline of Pleasure
Kerr wants to restore to its place that intuitive or immediate knowledge that cannot be had by grasping. He brilliantly analyzes Twentieth Century melancholia and invokes us to rediscover the joy of living. (For the intellectually inclined.)
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. Gift from the Sea
These reflections contain wisdom and common sense that will enrich anyone’s life, but are especially relevant to married women. An excellent book to take on a day of leisure, for Lindbergh teaches relaxed concentration.
Pieper, Josef. Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Pieper maintains that true leisure is the foundation of culture, freedom, feast, worship. To explain this premise, Pieper develops these two interdependently in profound, highly readable philosophical style.
Lewis, C.S. Chronicles of Narnia
A set of fairy tales, written for adults as well as children. Aslan, a ferocious and tender lion, is the Christ figure. Another must.
Hitchcock, James. The Recovery of the Sacred
Penetrates the crisis in the Church: a change in attitude toward worship and liturgy from mystery expressed in symbol and rite to an essentially human celebration. His critique ends with suggestions for how a sense of the sacred in worship can be restored.
Schememann, Alexander. The World as Sacrament
Can there be any natural joy as an end in itself since the death of Christ? Fr. Schememann, a Greek Orthodox priest, answers this question and many others as he looks at the sacraments as a whole and each one in detail. This is one of the finest books on the subject ever written. Thomas Merton has all his novices read it twice. A must for everyone.
Houselander, Caryll. The Reed of God
A series of meditations on the life of Mary which concentrates on the theme of self-emptying — to be completely open to God’s will.
Lynch, William. Woman Wrapped in Silence
A poetic treatment of Mary’s life as it is know from Scripture; especially touching, deep, and real are her relationships with the men Joseph and Jesus. One comes to know them personally through this profoundly contemplative narrator. Excellent.
Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Contemplation
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and prolific contemplative writer who died in 1968. His writing is at once profound and readable. We recommend all his works.
Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Essays which approach, through Japanese art and philosophy, the ground of pure, directed experience which underlies all creative thought and activity.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu
This inspiring and break-through work comes from Teilhard’s inner experience. His notions of self-development and ego diminishment, the importance of matter to spirit and the meaning of Christian asceticism are basic to the SLI philosophy. This work contains the essence of earthy mysticism and should be read and reread.
NATURAL FOUNDATIONS, FICTION
De St. Exupery, Antoine. Wind, Sand, and Stars
An enthralling book full of adventures of flying written by the author of The Little Prince. Each of the components of the pilot’s life — the plane, his comrades, all the elements help awaken him to the challenge of exploring the mystery.
Needleman, Jacob. Lost Christianity
Needleman proves himself as a true philosopher in this important book which asks the ultimate questions. Written in the form of a personal odyssey, it searches ancient texts, monasteries, traditions to find the lost contemplative tradition of early Christianity. We’re particularly grateful to him for pointing up the crucial importance of getting to the point of attention, to the place of the heart before one can begin to listen and to cultivate a soul.
Bloom, Archbishop Anthony. Beginning to Pray
A good introduction to the experience of prayer which discusses the absence of God, going inward, managing time, addressing God. It presents two helpful meditations.
Chautard, Dom Jean-Baptiste. The Soul of the Apostolate
Written by a Benedictine monk in the early 1900s for active apostles, this book is a classic (though slightly dated) reminder of the essentials of the interior life. If deep spirituality doesn’t inform and inspire all work, he claims, that work becomes a bitter burden and a futile and frustrating activity. Chautard’s own soul is fervent and enlightened and his message is more necessary today than ever.
Squire, Aelred. Asking the Fathers
A modern guide to prayer based on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.
Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Prayer
Powerful and intellectual treatment of contemplation: the art of contemplation, the object of contemplation, and the polarities in contemplation.
Kilpatrick, William. Identity and Intimacy
Kilpatrick argues that one comes to his/her identity through commitment and, unless this commitment is made, a mature personality will not develop.
May, Rollo. Love and Will
A psychotherapist shows why and how we must put love and sex back together if men and women are to be whole. It includes an excellent section on the role of will in human development.
Van Kaam, Adrian. Religion and Personality
Adrian van Kaam is the founder of the Center at Duquesne University. Most of his books deal with the psychology of religion, and are excellent guides to the development of spirituality from a psychological point of view. Religion and Personality is “an extensive and meaningful consideration of the growth of the religious personality.” Van Kaam says that “holiness is to be wholly oneself in and for God” and discusses the way to achieve this end. Though it is especially relevant for people who live in religious communities, we recommend it as a must for all.
SAINTS & HEROES
Griffiths, Bede. The Golden String
Griffiths, an Englishman who became a convert to Catholicism, entered the Benedictines and eventually went to India to be part of a Catholic-Hindu ashram. He writes his autobiography in such a way that you, too, experience what he has and you can’t help but be broadened.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology
Jeremias is a biblical scholar who grew up in Jerusalem, and so he brings unusual insight into Middle Eastern culture and extensive knowledge of Greek and Aramaic to this study of the New Testament. One comes away knowing better the historical Jesus.
SEXUALITY AND LOVE
Joyce, Mary Rosera. New Dynamics in Sexual Love
A more philosophical treatment by the Joyces, a celibate couple who explore new dimensions of love.
McGoey, John H. Dare I Love?
Written by a priest who writes from experience, this book explores the meaning and implications of wholeness, sexuality, and love. Primarily but not exclusively for celibates, this is one of the best books on love available. It includes helpful practical advice on dealing with emotions.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death
Pulitzer Prize winner. A profound synthesis of theological and psychological insights about man’s nature and his incessant efforts to escape the burden of life and death. Heavy reading but well worth it. He treats the depth psychology of heroism, the failures of heroism and the dilemmas of heroism.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Cost of Discipleship
“When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison
A Lutheran martyr who had joined the underground convinced it was to work for Hitler’s defeat has made a monumental written contribution.
Boros, Ladislaus. Pain and Providence
How to see providence working through pain, suffering, frustration, injustice, cruelty, and other forms of evil.
Bouyer, Louis. Introduction to Spirituality
A manual of initiation into the fundamental problems of every spiritual life and the perennial principles that apply by a contemporary scholar of history and spirituality whose understanding is broad and deep.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Purity of Heart
Kierkegaard seeks to rescue the individual from doublemindedness and from the crowd or herd instinct by compelling him to stand alone before God.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters
How a senior devil instructs a junior devil in the art of temptation. This is excellent for personal spiritual direction — just do the opposite of what Uncle Screwtape says.
Leech, Kenneth. Soul Friend
This book, written for spiritual directors, is an excellent guide to the spiritual life, drawing from many classics. See also Leech’s Prayer. Metz, Johannes. Poverty of Spirit
A must. A small book on poverty of spirit which is an in-depth treatment. A basic Nadan quality.
Vann, Gerald, O.P. The Water and the Fire
Vann is a superb Christian humanist. We recommend all his works. The Water and the Fire had a big influence on Father William’s thinking.
Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Transformation in Christ
Classic work on Christian spirituality which devotes a chapter to each successive spiritual attitude that must be developed by those who strive for Christian perfection: the readiness to change; self-knowledge; humility; true freedom; true surrender of self.
Williams, H. A. True Resurrection and True Wilderness
This British Anglican priest discusses the effects of the resurrection and how it should have already begun. He writes clearly and to the heart.
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy
In his uniquely exquisite style, Chesterton outlines his investigations into the truth that led him to discover Christianity for himself. His rare ability in combining incisive humor with serious intellectual investigation makes this outline of the foundations of Christian faith a must for all of us. A wonderful introduction into the literary world of Chesterton.
Danielou, Jean. God and Ways of Knowing
The author records what God has said of Himself to place religions and philosophies, the Old Testament and the New, theology and mysticism in their proper relationship to the knowledge of God. His chapters include the God of …religions, philosophers, faith, Jesus Christ, the Church, the mystics. A theologian who knows how to inspire.
Haughton, Rosemary. The Catholic Thing
If you consider Catholicism too narrow, Haughton will expand your mind and help you understand Catholic as universally encompassing all other truth. Her historical perspective puts the present day in its proper place. This book is excellent. The mother of nine children theologizes out of her own experiences, spinning new connections and new syntheses. Most of what she writes is worth reading.
Novak, Michael. The Experience of Nothingness
Novak shows that the experience of nothingness — confrontation of the emptiness, terror, and buzzing formlessness at the center of human existence — can arm us against frustration and despair, and then teaches us how to plunge deeper into it.
Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith
This is the closest Rahner ever came to systematically summarizing his theology. As usual with Rahner, it is difficult reading, but for someone with some philosophical and theological background and a patient desire to be challenged, the rewards are great.
Robinson, John A. Exploration into God
An articulation of panentheism, the vision of a universe permeated by God, even in squalor, disease, and death — a diaphanous, sacramental universe which does not exhaust God’s being. In the world’s suffering, God suffers more than we do, but remains full of light and ultimate, eternal joy.
Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The von Balthasar Reader (Medard Kehland and Werner Coser, eds.)
A comprehensive view of the key themes of von Balthasar’s life and work. A faith reflection nourished by contemplation by one of the greatest theologians of the Twentieth Century. Each article is only a few pages long.
Watkin, E.I. The Catholic Center
Watkin was a great English Catholic philosopher and a Platonist. This is a profound, sublime articulation of the heart of Catholicism. He acknowledges human weakness in the Church, but insists that these flaws are on the surface; at the heart of the Church is God, and a healthy Church demands contemplatives who are in touch with that center.
Graham, Aelred. Zen Catholicism
Graham shows how many principles of Zen can be helpful to Catholic contemplatives.
Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed
In only 140 pages the definitive tenets of the world’s major traditions of wisdom are brought into synthesis. This is a very readable defense of Christian Humanism and is the philosophical underpinning of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.