There must be a time of day when the man who
makes plans forgets his plans,
and acts as if he had no plans at all.
There must be a time of day when the man who has
to speak falls very silent.
And his mind forms no more propositions,
and he asks himself:
Did they have meaning?
There must be a time
when the man of prayer goes to pray
as if it were the first time in his life
he had ever prayed,
when the man of resolutions puts his
as if they had all been broken,
and he learns a different wisdom;
distinguishing the sun from the moon,
the stars from the darkness,
the sea from the land,
and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.
This poem, by Thomas Merton, is the best starting place I can imagine for a conversation about devotions, quiet times, or whatever else you might call the time one sets apart from the craziness of life to focus wholly on God. Yesterday I was considering a list I might share of books that have meant much to me over the long years of my walking with Christ and it became clear that before theology or spiritual formation, it was vital to write about devotional reading.
First, a word about Bibles themselves. Since I became a student majoring in Biblical studies in college and the Bible became a textbook, I began using two different Bibles in my daily life. Back then I used two different translations: one for course work and the other for my quiet times. I did this so in an effort to allow the Word and the Incarnate Word to do their living, breathing work in me without my feeling that I needed to focus my reading on the texts I was studying for class. There was a difference in the way I read when I simply read, rather than busy myself with study and reference checking, word studies, following threads of scripture, etc. This rhythm of simply reading has been important to me. These days, I use two different versions of the same translation--Today's New International Version. This is my version of choice for a couple of reasons: I've always liked the NIV. And Gordon Fee, who I know from my Regent College years, was on the committee that helped create TNIV and its gender neutral language. I've heard him speak more than once about the great care they took with every passage ( which reminds me to write about a personal humbling moment regarding this sometime)--preserving the integrity and intent and never changing language simply for the sake of it. So there is no blanket sweep of gender change. I like that. And though I've never had any trouble understanding/seeing myself included in "man" and "he" in scripture, I do find it personally appealing to see the more inclusive "human beings", "people" and "they" in the words used in scripture.
OK, so devotional reading. Devotionals I would define as any book that leads a person to God's presence. There are many different kinds of devotionals. Some are simple meditations, which include a passage of scripture, a thought and a small prayer at the end. Others, like The Book of Common Prayer, are comprehensive ways to study, live and breathe God and the scripture throughout the year. Still others are compilations of writers' words--and these compilations can range from small meditations to complete studies. It is even possible that such things as poetry, hymnbooks and other forms of literature can function as devotional because of how they draw us to seeing Him more clearly.
One way or another I've been using devotionals since I was in college. At least I don't remember using any in high school. The first one I ever had was Streams in the Desert, given as a Christmas gift by a roommate when I was in Oregon. I was shocked by how rich such archaic language and ideas could be, how powerfully they could enhance my times with the Lord. That little volume was the appetizer of my devotional life. Because I'm not a morning person, I've never managed to have the 5 AM quiet times the older saints in my life counseled were best. I used to feel soooooo guilty about this. But it wasn't happening. Not then, not ever. That first little devotional was just enough for the morning. I'd pick it up before I got out of bed (usually about five minutes before I had to leave the room or house), read the passage, ask God to sink it in deep, and be off. But think on it on and off through the day, particularly if it was meaty. It often was. By the time I had my quiet time that night, I'd be full of thoughts and prayers based on that reading (the year I received that volume, I lived in a dorm, and often had my quiet time in my small walk-in closet because my roommate was already asleep by the time I wanted to read and pray--so it really was my prayer closet).
These days I go to my 'prayer closet' (living room couch) in the morning, though still not at 5 AM. And I've used many, many kinds of devotionals in my life. Some have formed the full-meal-deal of my prayer-closet, and others are more like dessert now. Their words are the last ones I read before I get up off the couch and go about my day. They are the great AMEN to that silence with God, and the "be with me in my day" thoughts to draw me in when I'm easily shaken into self.
So here's a list (I couldn't think of all of them, but here are some of the best ones ), divided into two parts, the whole dinner and dessert:
Book of Common Prayer
Celtic Daily Prayer
Morning and Evening--Charles Spurgeon
My Utmost for His Highest--Oswald Chambers
Listening to Your Life--Frederick Beuchner
Seize the Day--Deitrich Bonhoeffer (ed. by Charles Rigma)
Diary of Common Prayer--John Baillie
Strength For Today (meditations for the chronically ill)
Praying with Jesus
Praying with Paul
Praying with the Psalms--(all three) Eugene H Peterson
Book of Hours--Rainier Maria Rilke
The Complete Book of Prayer--E M Bounds
Contemplative Prayer--Thomas Merton
Here's the thing: whatever helps. That's the point. ANY book that leads you into His presence and keeps you there until the cares slide away and you can focus on Him is a devotional. But Merton's poem says it perfectly. There should be a time when we lay down our watches and our plans and forget everything but God. And that's what such reading helps.