(…in my subjective opinion). This is a work in progress – I hope to collect more spiritual memoirs and autobiographies here as I read them, and write more on the ones I found the best. Do leave me your own recommendations in the comments, as I’m always looking out for more. Although my reading is somewhat skewed towards the Indian tradition – because that’s the basis of my own spiritual path – I enjoy sincere spiritual writing from any background.
Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo
I would treasure this book for the brilliant writing alone, but it is also a source of spiritual inspiration and an important historical record. Written with devotion, but without stooping to sentimentality, this is a description of one of the greatest spiritual Masters ever to live, from the viewpoint of his disciple and attendant, Nirodbaran. Until the late 1930s, Sri Aurobindo lived in almost complete seclusion at his Ashram in Pondicherry. Following an injury, and up until the time of his passing in 1950, he needed closer medical attention. The author initially entered the scene as a doctor, but over time his service evolved to cover various roles, including that of stenographer for Sri Aurobindo’s immortal works of poetry. A candid, humble and intimate account.
The Master as I Saw Him
Being Pages from the Life of the Swami Vivekanada
This is such a precious and important book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I’m sure I will read it again. It is an incredibly humble but intelligent description of Swami Vivekanada’s life through the eyes of a close disciple. I found myself almost wishing Sister Nivedita had not been so humble in her writing, as I wanted to know more about her own struggles and victories, but of course that very humility is one of her greatest strengths, and she has achieved exactly what the title promises: Swami Vivekananda as she saw him. She herself is all but invisible while relating what she has learnt and what she remembers. Her Victorian use of language is delightfully precise. It has enough Western interpretation to make it relatable to a Western reader, but without losing the intensity or freshness of this remarkable life – a life instrumental in bringing Indian spiritual traditions to the West. It gives fascinating insights, not only into what it was like to be with Swami Vivekananda in person, but also into his teachings. It is moving and often breath-taking, without at any point being sentimental.
My Guru and His Disciple
I absolutely love this book. I almost wished I could wipe it from my memory as soon as I’d finished it, so I could go back and discover it anew right away. Isherwood’s writing itself is a work of genius – his descriptions are pure elegant simplicity, completely clear windows on his experience. His honesty as a spiritual seeker is itself a triumph. The story describes his time with Swami Prabhavananda, and how he struggles to balance East and West, inner and outer life.
A Search in Secret India
For anyone seeking a spiritual teacher, or even anyone having found the right one, this story is incredibly moving. Brunton’s erudite use of language, coupled with his ruthless inner and outer search, makes this a gripping read from start to finish. Following an inner call, he spends months travelling around India, interrogating yogis, pundits and fakirs – some genuine and some not so. His descriptions of the journey alone would make a beautiful travel journal. But his descriptions of inner experiences are breath-taking, especially those in the company of the great Ramana Maharshi. I can’t believe I had not come across this book before now – it’s amongst the very finest examples of this genre.
Story of a Soul
The Autobiography of the Little Flower
Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
I highly recommend this book to any sincere spiritual seeker, regardless of religious background. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux was clearly born an extraordinary person with a unique spiritual calling, and yet her story is written straight from the heart, with such humility and simplicity, it becomes relatable. Personally I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not only physical illnesses, but also feeling pain when others are unkind. Somehow this gives me hope – for myself and for the rest of humanity – that our own struggles are not in vain.
Autobiography of a Yogi
This book probably needs no introduction, as it’s widely known and immensely popular. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Touching to the heart, fascinating to the mind, nourishing for the soul, this is a must-read.
The Seven Storey Mountain
An Autobiography of Faith
This is a long book, and parts of it are a little prescriptive for an autobiography. Even so, I did not skip or scan a single word – partly due to Merton’s captivating honesty, and partly due to his brilliant gift for recall and description. The story charts his life from childhood in France, education in England, traveling in Italy and working in New York during the 1930s, then to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. His somewhat dour exterior gives way to sensitive and candid insights. His observation of people – including himself – is especially astute. A spiritual search can often be tortuous, so in a sense the long route adds authenticity. This is a true classic, and one I will revisit like an old friend – one who understands how it is to examine the outer world and to find it wanting in fulfilment.
Long Quiet Highway
Waking Up in America
This is one of my favourite books full stop, let alone spiritual memoirs. Natalie Goldberg’s writing itself comes from the sort of genius that makes you sit up and pay attention, whatever she happens to be talking about, but the story is compelling too, making this a real treasure of spiritual literature. Goldberg takes the reader by the hand as she struggles to make sense of life, to work out who she is and where she belongs, ultimately discovering Zen meditation and her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi. This is a vibrant, intimate, and often funny book, thanks to the author’s honesty and her passion for living authentically.
This is an unusual story, in that the author remembers experiences in past incarnations – most notably one in ancient Egypt – and links them to her present life. It’s fascinating just from a scientific and historical viewpoint as she recalls in great detail mysterious practices from thousands of years ago. From a spiritual viewpoint it is all the more captivating and inspiring, if a little terrifying in places. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s the kind of book that stays with you, for better or worse. From it I’ve found genuine encouragement to be ever more conscious in my own spiritual life.
Daughter of Fire
A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master
Following the death of her husband, Russian-born Irina Tweedie found her Sufi master during a trip to India at the age of 52. This book is the diary he told her keep, spanning five years of her spiritual journey. He insisted she wrote down everything, including her doubts and struggles. Chasm of Fire is a shorter version of her journal, but I like the transparency of this complete version. I was not very familiar with Sufism when I first read it, so I found her unfoldment of its customs fascinating and beautiful. Tweedie was the first Western woman to be trained in this tradition, and above all I admire her courage. Hers was a challenging journey to say the least, but she stuck with it through thick and thin, and her inner rewards are plain to see.
Some Thoughts on Faith
I’m not really sure where to start with this one, and I only chose one because it seemed unfair to choose three from the same author. Grace (Eventually) and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith equally deserve a mention. Lamott’s writing is not only moving, funny, courageous and relatable, but is also aesthetically brilliant. She never shies from the struggles and imperfections of being human, and so her spiritual insights and breakthroughs are all the more precious. I love everything about these books, but Lamott’s Christian calling in Traveling Mercies is particularly moving.
On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path
Stories by disciples of Sri Chinmoy
A very good introduction to Sri Chinmoy‘s life as a spiritual Master and life in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It somehow encapsulates the vast diversity of Sri Chinmoy’s activities, as well as the diversity of his students. It also illustrates the sacred bond between Guru and disciple, particularly in a modern context. Here people from various countries and backgrounds talk about their experiences with Sri Chinmoy while he was on earth, as well as describing how their spiritual lives have continued to flourish since his passing in 2007. One gets a broad overview, but from the very personal viewpoints of many different writers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Eastern spirituality as applied to Western and modern life. A colourful, interesting read, full of contrast and variety.
Now and Then
A Memoir of Vocation
Now and Then is the second in a trilogy of short memoirs by Buechner, along with The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets. This is my favourite of the three, though I enjoyed them all. It covers the author’s rather shambling journey to seminary, and a gradual growing into life as a Christian minister. I love the stark realism in the stories, and his broad-minded approach to religion. His melancholy, self-deprecating honesty is utterly endearing, and the writing is sublime. His views on writing itself, and how it may dovetail with a spiritual life, are brave and consoling. While the sentences can be long, tiring journeys, the destination is always worth the effort. These are books I will treasure and re-visit.
I haven’t binge-read in a long time, but this book leapfrogged all the others waiting patiently on my shelf. Western culture has assumed for too long that women committing their lives to spirituality do so either because society has failed them, or because they have failed in society. If ever you thought nuns lack moxie, individuality, intelligence or social conscience, you’ll be glad to see such myths debunked. On the other hand, if (like me) you’re following a genuine spiritual path of your own, especially if (like me) you’re female, you’ll be very glad to see such myths debunked. You might even let out a Hurrah! of solidarity. These ten stories are collected by a self-confessed sceptic, straight from the mouths of nuns – nuns from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of orders, with strong views and unique characters. These are memoirs at their most raw – beautifully transparent and richly authentic.
Angels in My Hair
The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic
Another book that probably needs no introduction. Byrne’s simplicity and humility, her struggles and victories, I find most inspiring. Reading her I feel like I’m sitting down by a cosy fireside with a cup of tea. It’s as though she’s right there talking, and I’m on the edge of my seat, saying, “Tell me more!”.
Bones of the Master
A Journey to Secret Mongolia
Gritty and honest (gruesome in places) this book feels like a friend, and I missed it when it was finished. I became very fond of the characters, the descriptions of inner and outer experiences, the insights into Ch’an Buddhism, and the poetry. It inspires and instructs, powerfully but with a light touch, like a poem in itself. Highly recommended to anyone interested in spiritual memoir and/or travel writing.
At the Feet of my Master
The Oneness of an ascending heart-cry and a descending Soul-Smile
A rare and special book, written by a close disciple of Sri Chinmoy. This is a short read, but rich in content, never shying away from the hot-potato topics faced by every spiritual seeker – jealousy, insecurity, doubt, pride, et al. While at times painful, at times funny, it is consistently inspiring and illumining. An honest and intimate view of the relationship between a contemporary spiritual Master and his disciple.
Blue Like Jazz
Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
I wasn’t sure where this book was going at first, but was soon drawn in to Miller’s sincerity. His story is meaningful because he has not taken life or spirituality at face value – he’s not afraid to take things apart and experience them for himself. Somehow faith that survives that examination has a deep strength, and I find that admirable. His writing is candid and unpretentious. Sometimes I found him a little too flippant – he gave Buddhism quite a hard time here and there for example. I’m not a Buddhist, but it made me uncomfortable at first. Then I realised that’s just how he is – he gives himself the hardest time of all. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book overall, it’s a very inspiring and refreshing read. I would recommend it to anyone from any faith with a broad-minded approach to spirituality, who is interested in deepening their own experience. Read the book rather than watching the film – it didn’t work at all for me on screen.
Girl Meets God
On the Path to a Spiritual Life
I found the candid descriptions of Winner’s journey refreshing and uplifting. She’s obviously very sincere in her spiritual quest, but she’s also very honest about her own capacities. It’s an easy read in terms of story-telling, but she shares a lot of academic and technical knowledge on Christianity and Judaism. Not knowing in detail what it’s like to be inside either religion, I found that illumining and interesting, especially when it’s put in the context of the author’s personal experience. The story doesn’t seem to have much of a structure – it’s more a collection of snapshots which make up a fuller picture – but personally I didn’t mind at all. Life is like that, so it’s somehow all the more relatable that way.
Running Beyond the Marathon
insights into the longest footrace in the world
I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I could not put this book down. It would surely be of inspiration to anyone striving to become a better version of themselves – whether through sports, meditation, creativity or service to others. While outwardly the story covers seemingly endless half-mile laps on the same patch of suburban concrete, it is a riveting inner adventure and a testimony to human endeavour, conveyed with candour, humour and humility.
A Memoir of Faith and Discovery
This is the story of a Lutheran pastor taking his first post in a rural American town, fresh out of seminary, believing himself amply equipped for the task, if not somewhat above it. As the community inadvertently gives him one character-building challenge after another, Lischer realises the true complexity of his role, and observes his own transformation with candour and humility. I often found myself somewhere between tears and laughter, frequently thinking, “Poor fellow! whatever next?,” as I witnessed him reconciling his training, his conscience, and his earnest faith. That which seems outwardly banal is turned into a study of human strength and goodness, as heart-warming as it is eye-opening.
The Boy Who Saw True
The Time-Honoured Classic of the Paranormal
Most of the story comprises the diary of a young boy, living in the north of England at the end of the 19th Century. The author at first has no idea that his special gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience are in the least unusual. He is innocent to the fact that not everyone may converse with the deceased, watch gnomes or fairies at play in the garden, or discern a person’s health and temperament by the state of his aura. Indeed such things are recorded in the same breath as everyday household news. Later, since so many topics are taboo at the time, he assumes it is simply not polite to mention them. Fortunately, with the help of teachers both worldly and ethereal, he learns to protect and nurture his talents. I found his relationships with these teachers most beautiful and moving, especially with one he sees only in visions, and first assumes must be Jesus.
Hybrid Spiritual Memoirs
Following are some good books that have a spiritual-memoir aspect.
He and I
This is a very unusual book, translated from the French original Lui et Moi. Gabrielle Bossis was a single woman – a nurse and later a playwright. Here was a friendly and vivacious person – very much in the world of work and creativity, rather than living in seclusion as a nun. Yet her inner relationship with Christ is intensely strong. The story is not strictly a memoir, but she relates the teachings to her own experiences, so it is certainly a journey of discovery. I find this book deeply moving and encouraging. It brings the Ineffable into everyday life, and reminds us that is where He most wants to be.
The Eternal Companion
Swami Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings
This is part biography and part memoir. Swami Prabhavananda’s reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda’s life and teachings are compelling and beautiful in themselves. Then there is a section towards the end where different people speak about what they remember of the Master, this dear disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It is of course inspiring to hear of the greatness of spiritual masters – their power and luminosity – but the goodness in the smallest details of life is easily overlooked. Often such actions are just as instructive; sometimes more so, because they are more relatable.
The Snow Leopard
Technically this is a travel memoir, but it has a deep spiritual foundation. Worth five stars just for the aesthetic quality of the writing, let alone the masterful weaving together of inner and outer experiences. Ruggedly beautiful.
Acedia & Me
A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life
A book about spiritual apathy and hopelessness does not sound very inspiring at first, but the author’s battle against it certainly is. Acedia & Me is partly a text-book on the subject. It’s scholarly and rigorously researched, citing writings over the centuries that show acedia to be an age-old challenge. More than that, Norris posits acedia in the modern age, offering her own experience for detecting and conquering what monastics have long considered a demon. Thus her memoirs are woven throughout, as she faces down acedia in relationships, work and the repetitions of daily life. Though peppered with humour, it is a serious book. The subject itself is not light reading, and Norris faced many difficulties in her personal life, but it’s refreshing to see someone tackle such a difficult subject. Norris affirms that spiritual progress is not always a bowl of cherries, but that’s okay. Ultimately what matters is that it’s worth the effort.
Hand Wash Cold
Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
Karen Maezen Miller
Uplifting, honest and masterfully written. I devoured this as a story in one sitting, but it could just as well be used for reference. It’s a little didactic for my taste, but the title admits it will be, so that’s not a complaint. While instruction is the premise of the book, Maezen – a wife, mother and Zen Buddhist priest – also describes her own continuing transformation with sincerity and beautiful prose. The main themes are self-acceptance and the sanctity of everyday life – the idea that paying attention to the ‘ordinary’, and taking it as spiritual practice, can lead to an extraordinary experience. I am always glad to be reminded of this alchemy, and it’s always worth celebrating.
Other Spiritual Memoirs I Enjoyed
Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong
Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis
The Initiate in the New World, Cyril Scott
Six Lighted Windows, Swami Yogeshananda
A Search in Secret Egypt, Paul Brunton
The Autobiography of an Indian Monk, Shri Purohit Swami
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander
Writing the Sacred Journey
Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir
Elizabeth Jarret Andrew
Thinking of writing your own story, but not sure where to start? This is surely a treasure trove for any budding, struggling, or thriving memoirist. It’s meticulously researched – both inwardly and outwardly – showing a rich depth of understanding. There is also a refreshingly broad use of the term “spiritual”, beyond the more obvious religious experience, to include any inner quest for meaning through outer life: whether via nature, or the death of a loved one, or even via writing itself. I only wish I’d found this book before I started writing Auspicious Good Fortune!