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Top ten reading list for spiritual directors (Updated – 2013)

Dan, now that you mention technical books on spiritual theology… I'm wondering what would be your top 10 list of books in that area. I'm especially interested in books that would be helpful for a priest that would like to engage more seriously in spiritual direction, or books that you would recommend to a seminarian or for a seminary course in the area of spiritual direction. I would appreciate your input.

Dear friend, beyond my book Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, here's my top ten list in order of priority. The top two are must-reads though much of this list should be read by anyone who takes the care of souls seriously. With respect to books three through five, these are in-depth and thorough treatments of ascetical and mystical theology (seminary level).

In my opinion, if a would-be director is not familiar with the content in the first three books they should pause their spiritual direction practice and dig in. Beyond these books, the rest are great resources in the areas of prayer, discernment, holiness, and spiritual direction. As well, anyone seeking to better know, love, and serve God would be blessed by all of these works, particularly books three through ten.

  1. Through Wind and Waves – On Being a Spiritual Guide by Fr. Francis Fernández-Carvajal is only the second book to make my list of must-reads for spiritual directors. Fr. Carvajal has a deep love for and understanding of souls and how to help them deepen their relationship with Christ.
  2. Guidance in Spiritual Direction by Fr. Charles Hugo Doyle: This book is specifically written for clergy and very clearly outlines the necessary perspectives in insights for a priest looking to provide sound spiritual direction. Though it is written for priests, it will also be very helpful for anyone who provides spiritual direction.
  3. The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange: This is a classic and is, in my opinion, the most thorough of all systematic treatments of the topic of mystical and ascetical theology.
  4. The Spiritual Life by Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey covers similar ground as The Three Ages but in a way that is unique enough to provide specific insights into mystical and ascetical theology. This book is thick but only about half the size of The Three Ages.
  5. Spiritual Theology by Fr. Jordan Aumann, also covers much of the ground of The Three Ages and The Spiritual Life, Fr. Aumann provides the best summary of the systematic stages of prayer according to the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila that I have ever encountered. Fr. Aumann is comparatively direct and concise. The one area that Fr. Aumann neglects to cover is the important teachings on the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways.
  6. Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher is a very practical and insightful guide to St. Ignatius rules of discernment.
  7. The Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay will help the reader gain proper perspectives on prayer and avoid common misdirection and misinterpretation of Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
  8. The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin is a delightful treatment of the three ways through the lives and insights of the saints.
  9. Seeking Spiritual Direction by Fr. Thomas Dubay is a helpful summary of important thoughts about spiritual direction along with a long list of Q&As that will help any reader better understand common issues dealt with in spiritual direction.
  10. Anything by St. Teresa of Avila – particularly The Interior Castle, or St. John of the Cross

PS: Regarding common modern issues with misdirection in prayer, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote this “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.”


Art for this post on the top ten reading list for Spiritual Directors (Updated for 2013): Due sportelli di libreria con scaffali di libri di musica (Two branches of the library with shelves of music books), Giuseppe Maria Crespi, between circa 1720 and circa 1730, PD-US published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Meaux

    Dan, I highly recommend Christ, the Life of the Soul by Blessed Columba Marmion. A priest recommended it in a training seminar for lay spiritual guides. It offers solid, deep instructions on God’s action in our souls.

    • Dear Friend – excellent, I have added it to my wish list.

  • Becky Ward

    Thanks for this list Dan!! I am grateful for the link to, and looking forward to reading, the letter to the bishops from (now) Pope Benedict.

    I would include in my top 10, Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jeanne Pierre de Caussade.

    God Bless!

    • LizEst

      I second your recommendation on de Caussade!

  • LizEst

    Terrific List. Just dug out my “Garrigou-Lagrange” and am wondering if the title of your number two above is also known as “The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life” or “The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life”?

    Agree with your assessment of Teresa de Avila above.

    I also like a terrific little book by Segundo Galilea “Temptation & Discernment.” The copy I have is a 1996 ICS (Institute of Carmelite Studies) publication translated by Stephen-Joseph Ross, OCD. Very accessible.

    • Becky Ward

      My copy says “Three AGES of the Interior Life”, and written ‘between the lines………it says, “Prelude of Eternal Life”

      • Becky Ward

        An online copy of ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life’ can be found here:

        As I was searching for this, I discovered that there are indeed two other books by the same author with the titles Totus2us asked about here.

        I also include a link to an awesome online library where I discovered the works of many saints……….for free……..this was a real blessing to me.

        I know that both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross’ works can be found here………….haven’t had time to check any of the others.

        God Bless!

  • Ralyge

    Hi, Having read through Fr. Gallagher’s books, I believe it essential that directors read both “Discernment of Spirits” and “Spiritual Consolation” together. Anyone who is guiding a more advanced soul may misguide that soul if there is ONLY knowledge of how the spirits work in beginners.

  • Joanna

    I am only seeing this post today so perhaps it is a bit late. One book I love and recommend, although not on spiritual direction itself, but rather as a help to anyone following the spiritual life is Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean Pierre de Caussade. It has helped me so much in my spiritual life, and I definitely would recomment it as reading material both for the spiritual director, and directee.

  • I’m going to try to add some Jesuit-influenced resources–

    *Anything* by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, honestly.

    Draw Me Into Your Friendship: A Literal Translation and Contemporary Reading of the Spiritual Exercises, by Fr. David Fleming (which ought to be used with a director: it is the Spiritual exercises, but doesn’t explain how to direct it).

    Moment by Moment: a retreat in everyday life, Merz and Smith. Get past the cover. 🙂 Basically a user-friendly version of the Spiritual Exercises, very scriptural, teaches you how to do a daily examen, etc.

    The Practice of Spiritual Direction, Barry and Connelly. I’m trying to remember if there were any examples that may rattle people. What I do remember is that it is excellent on the general idea behind SD (the contemplative attitude, allowing the Holy Spirit to work), very Christ-centered, and many nuts and bolts practical issues around meeting with people and how the relationship develops. Recently revised, and I haven’t read the revision, but it looks the same from the table of contents….

    Abandonment to Divine Providence, Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade


    Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, Thelma Hall

    De Sales, Francis.Treatise on the Love of God.

    Groeschel, Benedict. The Courage to be Chaste. (It’s about more than sex, of course)

     Hope this helps balance out all the Carmelite influence above (I’m not knocking it, I want to explore becoming a secular Carmelite. But they aren’t the only voice out there.)

    • Dear Friend: Good recommendations. That said 7 out of 10 above are not Carmelite 🙂

  • Aha, I knew there was something about The Practice of Spiritual Direction that I knew would raise flags. See this review. Having said that, I would read this book along with the other ones you list above, because it does have some real insight on handling some challenging situations.

  • Kennesawflyer-info

    Does Spring Hill College((Jesuit College) in Mobile, Ala offer any programs for those called to become Spritiual Director’s?  It this a distant learning program on the internet or are classroom attendance required?

    Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

    Larry M. 

  • Fathergonzalez

    Do you all offer a Certificate in Spiritual Direction online?
    Fr. George Gonzalez

    • Great question Father! This is a dream for us. Please pray that we can do this some time in the future.

  • $1650412

    Number 3 is online in its entirety I think. I am still dying to get a hard copy in my hands, but of course one must actually make the time for concerted effort to read said resources. Can’t wait to see your book, Dan- do you think it will work for the soul who can only afford short soundbytes of time to work the way along the narrow path? I am looking for the Cliffnotes version…:o) Ok, ok I know, red martyrdom is the only cliffnotes version in the Christian life! Amen?

    • You are correct. Three is online through the Dominicans and four is also online through EWTN. My book will provide what I think is the most concise but also practical summary of how to grow in the spiritual life – including the three ways. However, this opinion might not be humble… It is a short read.

      • Becky Ward

        Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that you wrote your book to be a handbook or guide to help us know if we are ready for spiritual direction, if so, how to go about finding a good director, and what we need to do to get the most out of the process. Yes?
        From what I’ve seen, this is a very good description of what you include in the book.

        • Yes – I was emphasizing the latter section which is universally applicable to spiritual growth. The focus, as you rightly note, is surrounding spiritual direction.

      • LizEst

        Dan – I’m looking forward to it. Practical works great, too! God bless you.

    • Becky Ward

      You are so right!! Number 3 is available online and there is a link to that site farther down in the comments! 🙂

      Honestly, you could read this one in short sittings. The chapters are divided into sections most of which are only a few pages long and they give plenty of food for thought….and I was glad to find that it’s not hard to understand.

      • LizEst

        Hi Becky,
        Would you please post the link, or edit what you just posted? I didn’t see it in your comment. I would love to download it. I have “The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life,” which, though the same author, is not the same book. Thank you so much…and God bless you.

        • Becky Ward

          Sure! here’s the link:
          This isn’t something you can download, like to Kindle or an e-book. This is a website that you browse through, reading it online.

          • LizEst

            Thank you.

      • LizEst

        Oops. My bad…I found your link. Disregard previous comment please. Thanks.

  • Sanctus 3

    Dan, May I also recommend Growth in Holiness by Father Frederick Faber? It is for those who are a bit beyond the beginnings. It seems to me to be an excellent insight into the ways we can dodge God’s grace and rest contented with a “pretty good” spiritual life. Though he is quite analytical in assessing human motives, he is also very helpful in offering hope for the long haul. TAN publishes his works, and GIH is also available for Kindle.

  • I’m surprised that Authenticity, by Thomas Dubay, is not on the list.

    • Funny you should say that. I just read it. Fantastic book.

      • LizEst

        Thanks to both of you, Dan and Julia. It was sitting in one of my bookcases…and I’ve never read it. Because of your great recommendations, I’ll make a point to do so now.

  • JRKH

    Just a plug for number 8 – Fulfillment of all Desire. This is a great book to recommend to anyone who is “looking into” the mystic the ascetic aspects of the faith. It is one of my favorites.

  • shud36

    This is such a great useful list…An answer to my recent prayers! Thank you so much!!!

  • Scott Kallal

    Hey Dan, thanks for this list. If you get the chance, you may want to try and track down a book entitled, “Guided by the Spirit” by Luis Jorge Gonzalez. He was my SD professor in Rome, and his book offers a unique perspective on spiritual direction. I’m not sure if it can knock off any of the classics you have listed here, but it does provide some tools for spiritual direction which I have not found anywhere else in print…

    God bless,

    Fr. Scott, AVI

    • LizEst

      Fr. Scott – I just want to say that it’s great to have regular comments from you on this site. We are so blessed with your presence.

  • Susan

    Dear Dan:

    I’m so happy to have come across your wonderful website through Catholic online Daily Readings this morning (6/30/13) where I saw your book, Navigating The Interior Life. I’m surprised you don’t list, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and My Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis, among “The Top Ten Reading List for Spiritual Directors.” I’m looking forward to reading your book. Thanks so much for all you do. God bless you and yours,


    Pastoral Minister/Spiritual Director

    • Dear Susan – glad you found us. The reason I don’t list those books is that the books I list are primarily for the formation of aspiring or actual spiritual direction in their understanding of the spiritual life. Regarding St. Ignatius, the best of his work is found in one of the books I listed by Fr. Timothy Gallagher – Discernment of Spirits

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