If you have found this poetry, there is a good chance you are interested in spirituality and Christian spiritual development. I have found few genres more helpful, challenging, and inspiring, more inclined to focus my mind and my work on the glory of Jesus Christ, than the spiritual autobiography.
Here are the four that I have found most powerful, in alphabetical order. (“Story of a Soul” by Therese of Liseux and “The Seven Storey Mountain” are not on the list because I have not read them yet, but I have heard nothing but great things about both.)
All four are very famous, so they list should not surprise you. But each of these books is a treasure of the Church, and are worthy of your time and attention.
- Confessions, St. Augustine. This book literally changed the course of my life. I think the best praise I can give to Augustine’s “Confessions” is to repeat what I once heard a Catholic convert say about it on television: “No one prays like that anymore.” Well, we need to start praying like that again. We should all strive for such raw openness and plain humility before God. The Confessions are not easy to read, but scattered throughout are passages of such striking profundity and beauty that they will pierce your heart unexpectedly.
- Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis. An easy read. I connect deeply with Lewis because he was a melancholic like me. His weaknesses are my weaknesses, and his humility toward his strengths, which I share in one sense but which he developed far more than I have, is inspirational to me. I will never forget the power of his remark that he tends far more to avoid pain than seek pleasure or good things. He follows it up, “I do not think there is anything He dislikes more in me.” That is true of me too. Not only is the story of Lewis’s conversion powerful in its own right–he refers to himself as a very grudging and reluctant convert–but this book gives you context to understand the rest of Lewis’s work, and all of it is tremendous.
- Apologia pro Vita Sua, Bl. John Henry Newman. Don’t let the Latin title scare you; it’s in Newman’s poetic English prose, and a beautiful defense (or “apologia”) for his life and conversion. Newman is another fellow melancholic and one of my greatest heroes. A bigwig at Oxford and in the Anglican Church in the 19th century, he gave it all up to follow the Truth and convert to Catholicism. What’s more, he suffered the scorn, suspicion, and derision of everyone he had known and worked with as an Anglican, people he loved and respected. That is pretty much a melancholic’s greatest nightmare, for we place great esteem in honor and respect. Newman lived Christ’s call: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37-38). That is why I admire him. That said, you should know this book is heavy. It is academic in tone; it presents a structured argument for Newman’s integrity and honesty throughout his conversion process to contradict his detractors. Still, if you can trudge through it, it is a goldmine of Christian virtue exemplified. Newman is a Blessed in the Church at present and I cannot wait until he, I pray, is canonized, because I am determined to go to Rome for his canonization.
- The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by herself, St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa, perhaps because she was a sanguine by temperament, which is the opposite of my melancholy, intrigues, challenges, and astounds me. Some would say her writing “rambles,” but the content of her ramblings is powerful and can change your life if you take her advice. She was not named a Doctor of the Church for nothing. My favorite piece of advice from this work comes in the form on an exhortation: she tells us that if we can feel God calling us continually, in different ways, to something that terrifies us, not to be afraid to follow Him nakedly (“desnudamente” in her native Spanish). He always provides for His own and will not let us fail. She stresses how many times that has proven true for her. (Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t fail in the eyes in the world or in a worldly sense. But in God’s eyes and in our relationship with Him, we will not fail.)