I have a weakness. It’s called “the spiritual memoir” – I’m particularly weak when it comes to conversion memoirs. I can’t help it.

If it’s a story, a real-life story, about how someone encountered God, I will read it and LOVE it. Every time.

So this was a tough category for me. There are so many others I wanted to include. I tried to choose books that are first-person memoirs, as opposed to biographies (otherwise, we’d be here all day talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Tommy Douglas and Nelson Mandela and Dorothy Day and….)

Actually, if anyone want to do a 10 social justice biographies? That would be lovely, thank you.

The Crosswicks Journals by Madeline L’Engle. This is the set of four on the right there, I found these in a thrift store (score!). My favourite is A Circle of Quiet, which inspired this post about the Tired Thirties that seemed to hit a nerve. Madeline L’Engle writes through her life, her art, her marriage, the loss of her mother, and her home. A beautiful experience, it elevated me, body, mind, and soul. These were the books that cemented her as my Patron Saint. (The books are A Circle of Quiet, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Crosswicks Journal, Book 2), The Irrational Season (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3), and Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 4).)

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. Almost impossible to choose a favourite Lamott book. But this one just seems to always speak to me. I love her irreverence, her liberal ranting, her self-deprecating honesty, and I love that she is part of my big glory God-family. This is the book that taught me about the two most important prayers: Help and Thank you.

Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life by Lauren F. Winner. I struggled with choosing a Lauren Winner book because they’re all just so damn good. Her most recent one, about the middle places of faith and life, called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, completely undid me. I wanted to read it, out loud, with a glass of red wine in my hand, it was pure, spare poetry. But this one was her first book, and it occupies a special place in my heart. It tells the story of her conversion.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller. (Not pictured because I loaned it out.) This book came at the right time for me. I wrote a reflection on it, because it’s so much more than a memoir, it’s an invitation to tell a better story, to live a better story. It changed my writing, my parenting, my marriage, even my faith.

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Another patron saint for me, this book is part devotion, part meditation, all brilliant. I can hardly find words but “read it” will do nicely.

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber. A fellow Canadian and former agnostic, Carolyn Weber helped me to see that one can come to faith precisely because of Christians, rather than in spite of other Christians. Plus, a spiritual memoir (my one weakness) coupled with Oxford, literature, poetry, and other English-isms (my other one weakness), well, I sort of adopted her as my kindred spirit. (My full review of it is here.)

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans (sadly, not pictured above as my sister is currently holding it hostage). Rachel is one of the boldest voices in the church of my generation, particularly in the male-dominated world of theology and ecclesiology. Her blog is a king-maker these days. She writes about coming of age in the apologetics/Moral Majority world of American evangelicalism (so fascinating!), and how she began to wrestle mightily with doubt in her adulthood, finding her “answers” less than satisfying. Rachel is honest, wise, funny, and disarming. I cannot wait for her next book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” to release this fall. (I’ve made her be my friend now, poor thing.)

Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles. This story was beautifully written and utterly fascinating, passionate and disarming. A lesbian left-wing journalist, Sara, surprising even herself, receives communion and becomes a Christian. She introduced me to the phrase “you can’t be a Christian by yourself” that has sort of wrecked my plans. I loved this book. More conversion memoirs should include the occasional f-word.

All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir by Brennan Manning. I’ve already mentioned how The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out changed my life for good. But this is the story behind the man that wrote it. I reflected on it here. It’s sad, lonely, brave, authentic, poignant, lovely, and raw. I’ll say this: it’s true. All is grace.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This one doesn’t strictly fall into the “spiritual” memoir category, I suppose, but I found it a deeply spiritual experience. Annie Dillard can write me down to my knees to pray, just by writing about a year in Virginia, watching the world.

Honourable Mention:Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro. Enuma is one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time. She’s funny, quirky, honest about her own faults, and interesting. Enuma writes about paradox and struggle in a way that makes me exhale.

Your turn: What is your favourite memoir?


We’re talking about 10 Books a Day for a Week. Share your own favourites on your blog, and post your link in the comments, or just let me know what you think or recommend. I love to snoop bookshelves, and this is my excuse – and yours – to talk books.

Sunday: 10 books that changed my faith

Monday: 10 books that influence my parenting

Tuesday: 10 books by Canadians I wish the world would read

Wednesday: 10 books for tinies and 10 books for older tinies

Thursday: 10 books I read over and over (and over)

Friday: 10 spiritual memoirs

Saturday: My daily books + 10 books of poetry

Disclosure: Affiliate links used. 

In which I share 10 books I read over and over (and over)
In which I share my daily books + 10 books of poetry
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  • Love all of these! Thanks for sharing =) 

  • Sarah, you need to stop this. You’ve now added 70-odd books to my reading list. As if it wasn’t already long enough. These all sound wonderful. At least I’ve already read (and loved) Ann Lamott. She’s kind of amazing.

  • JennaDeWitt

    Just read “Surprised by Joy” (CS Lewis) this week while researching my next column on a famous Christian for MORF. Had to stop and just ponder every few pages or so. Loved it.

    So many books on this list that have been recommended to me for a while now and that are on my “to-read” list. Most obviously, Rachel’s is at the top because I feel like a bad blog reader/commenter for liking someone’s daily writing so much and not having read her book.

    This probably says a lot more about my theology than I should reveal, but honestly, “The Journals of John Wesley” is one of my favorite books ever, definitely one of my favorite autobio/memoirs. I think we forget that big, amazing Spirit-things happened a long time ago. We, at least I, tend to associate a lot of the “God moments” in his book with the “radical” or “spirit-filled” movements we see popular today. As if we invented movements of God with our rock-praise. 🙂

  • I love “Stumbling Toward Faith” by Renee Altson. Such a beautiful woman.

  • Tiffany Norris

    Oh, I can’t wait to read these! I’m lacking in this category, so I’ll be putting those L’Engles on the reading list for sure. Girl Meets God is a favorite, and I’m eager to read her other books, too. Rachel’s is currently in my stacks, but (because I’m a nerd and read things in the order I get them) it’s still waiting its turn.

    • Handsfull

      Lol… the only way I can keep my stack under control is to keep it in order by size.  Biggest on the bottom and smallest on the top.  So that’s the way I read them!  Don’t know that I’ll ever get to the bottom, but it does make for some interesting comparisons – parenting book followed by 3 ‘spiritual’ books, 2 more parenting books, novel… etc!

  • Emily

    One of my favorites is Angry Conversations with God by Susan Isaacs.

    It’s funny, insightful, and taught me how to speak to God directly rather than how I thought he wanted to be spoken to. My spiritual life has never been better.

    • PhotogJenn

      Oh my. I got on a book buying kick on Better World Books after reading some of these posts. I bought Conversations with God and tried to read.it. I could NOT do it – came back to see what the appeal was and why I added this to my list. Whoops! Looks like I was jotting titles down a little too quickly. I missed the “Angry” and didn’t write the author. Silly me!

  • i am forever indebted to you for introducing me to the crosswicks series. forever. i personally have a weakness for memoirs by funny women (tina fey, mindy kaling are my favs) and bad-ass chefs (bourdain, gabrielle hamilton). i just eat that stuff up!

    •  Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir was so raw and unexpected and lovely. Mindy Kaling made me laugh out loud, as I’m sure Tina Fey’s book will whenever I get around to reading it.

  • I have been waiting for this day all week! I love, love a good memoir. (I desperately wanted to put some Walt Wangerin in one of my lists, but my favorites of his are that unique blend of essays, poetry, fiction, and spiritual conversation that I couldn’t really fit him in any particular day. Maybe I’ll give him a day of his own.) And we have many of the same: Take this Bread (oh, I can’t even say just how much I loved that book), Girl Meets God, Million Miles, All is Grace, Traveling Mercies….here’s the rest: http://www.expectinghope.com/2012/07/10-books-week-10-favorite-memoirs.html

  • Kelley Johnson

    So… Crosswicks Journals come first for me, too!  Circle of Quiet and Two-Part Invention are most dear to me.  An American Childhood & Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard.  Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (you will be chagrinned to know I could not get past the first third of Cloister Walk).  Now & Then by Fredrich Beuchner – his telling of his seminary years which I happened to read at the onset of mine, cried at the end, and cry at the end every single time I read it.  Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen, so raw and true and real.  I also was deeply touched by Shauna Neiquist’s Bittersweet.

  • Joy Bailey

    Given that my all-time favorites on your list ~ (L’Engle, Lamott and Norris) will of course be checking out others on the list.  Thank you!

  • I just got back from Honduras and there’s too much laundry to think about posting anything on my blog till next week, but you hit so many of my favorites. I reread the Crosswick Journals on the airplane and at night on this trip. A few others (older ones): Simone Weil’s Waiting for God, St. Augustine’s Confessions (the very first memoir and still so very good), and George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. The last one is a memoir in poetry version and I’m addicted to it. In response to yours and RHE’s post about Christian publishing, I’ll try to compile my favorite list of fiction by Christians who are also true artists next week.

  • Hello Sarah,
       We share a first name, and now I’m convinced we are fellow book enthusiast/kindreds! I too have been looking forward to this day of your post series, and we enjoy sooo many of the same books!  Almost every one of your books I have either read and adored, or are on my own short list of books to read. (I was just at the bookstore yesterday checking up on “Reluctant Pilgram”.)    Madeleine L’Engle is my favorite author, and I am so happy when I see others loving and sharing her books, and the Crosswick Journals are delicious.  (My other favorite is “Walking On Water”).  I also just read Lauren Winner’s “Still”, and I must blog about it, because it was breathtaking, and gave my highlighter a workout! 🙂  I’m also currently reading:
    *”The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin
    *”Flunking Sainthood – A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray & Still Loving My Neighbor” by Jana Reiss
    *”What Women Fear” by Angie Smith
    *”Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes
    *”Love Is An Orientation” by Andrew Marin
    *”The Lightening Thief” by Rick Riordan (a children’s series I never discovered until this summer).
    I’m also reading a smattering of various devotional/Bible studies, and look forward to tomorrow’s post!  Thank you for your beautiful words – I also love your “10 Books A Day” photo – what book is underlined in the photo – it’s exsquisite! 🙂
    I will be linking my list up at my blog by next week:   http://www.sarahcomley.blogspot.com
    Blessings and Thanks to you!! 

  • You may want to smack me for this but I have not read a single one of these books. Of course I must now go and devour each and every one by tonight. So thaaaaanks. 😉

  • I have loved all your book posts this week! So many new good ones to add to my ever growing list. 🙂

  • Michele Minehart

    I had no idea I had such a memoir fettish until so many of my favorite reads were listed! I’ve loved everything Lauren Winner makes available and I’m going to have to look for l’Engle (I’ll never forget the teaching Mrs. Dodds did on “the most awful thing ever” with a wrinkle in time – and when we couldn’t come up with anything worse than dying, she let us in on “being exactly the same.” I simply must reread that book). 

  • I’ve read most of these books because I, too, am a sucker for a spiritual memoir (that seems to be a poor metaphor!). Anyway, I just read “The Pastor: a memoir” by Eugene Peterson. YOU MUST GO GET IT RIGHT NOW. Whatever you are doing, stop, go to your libraray and get it (actually, you are going to want your own copy, so it might be worth the risk to just buy it). As much as I loved the ones you listed, I loved this one even more.

  • I love memoirs as well.  And I think I would say that Anne Lamont’s did it for me.  I think my favorite line in her book is her point of conversion, not sugar coated or prime & proper…the most appropriate time to curse (as in the wrestling match with the Creator).

  • I love Surprised by Joy, though I never seem to finish it. Yes to Traveling Mercies, though it took me a long while to chew on it. And Acedia & Me, though it’s not really just memoir, and though I also have yet to finish it (I’m a serial non-fiction non-finisher).

    • ooh, and one more, if you can believe it: The Confessions of Augustine. Profoundly and equally disturbing and enlightening. Read it in college, should probably read it again (this one, I *did* finish!).

  • Some really good picks here – Traveling Mercies is an all-time fav – I re-read it every couple of years or so. And I love Lauren Winner (haven’t read her new one yet!). I would add Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor. I also LOVE Expecting Adam (I am blanking on the author’s name – sorry!) – it’s not purely a spiritual memoir, but definitely has elements of spirituality.

    • Smoochagator

      Expecting Adam is by Martha Beck, and dear Lord it changed my life.

  • We totally need to meet!!! My memoir list is quite similar to yours [The Cloister Walk is not on mine, but that is because it is sitting in my library bag after my most recent trip, just waiting to be devoured!!]. 

  • Love Manning!

    I had a different response to Miller’s book.  And though I love that man’s writing craft–such a good writer!!–that particularly book kinda messed with me in an entirely different way.  (My review found  HERE

    I love memoir, too.  Mary Karr is an amazing memoirist as of course is Anne Lamott. And I  really love Joan Chittister for spiritual memoir.  Do you know her?  Amazing writer!

    One of my fave memoirs, though, is Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tamant. An autistic savant, this writer reveals what goes on in his mind and how growing up autistic in the UK and discovering his uncanny gifts with numbers and language have shaped his life.Wonderful read. This is the book that gave me courage to write freely about my own life, too, for we each learn from the other no matter how far removed our stories from each other. 

    (loving your book series!!!!)

    • actually my Amazon review gives the full story rather than the blog post. If you take time to saunter to my blog post, be sure to click the amazon link at the end. That’s where I wrote the review in full.  

  • Thanks for this list. I, too, am a spiritual memoir addict in need of another fix. There are several in your stack I haven’t read, but all my favorites are in here, too. I’d add anything by Robert Fulghum among the mix… who has a way of weaving all things spiritual into all things ordinary, a technique I’m particularly fond of. 

    • Handsfull

      Oh yes, have to second the Robert Fulghum recommendation – he writes gorgeously.  The first book of his I stumbled across was called ‘All I needed to know I learnt in kindergarton.’  Or something like that.  Funny, wise and bittersweet.

  • I’ve been out of the blogging world for about a week and missed that this was happening. I’ve enjoyed your book recommendations this week.  What a coincidence that I put up a reading list on my blog this week, too! Great minds and all that.  =)  It’s not exactly memoir-laden, but it is spiritual:  http://bodytheologyblog.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/balance-from-the-bookshelf/.  I always appreciate your tone and quality of writing, Sarah.  Looking forward to more of the same!

  • Clairezip

    your lists are killing me.  I just keep adding and adding and adding to my ‘must read’ list!

  • Mar

    My very favorite category … I will make note of all these, plus many from the commenters … And pretty please will you do the socially conscious biography list?

  • Sarah

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this series of lists.  Nothing I enjoy more than planning what I will read next.  I just wish I had more time to read.
    Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favourite authors of all time.  I fell in love with her in my teens when I read her book “A House Like a Lotus” and then read almost everything she wrote after that.  I have forgotten about her a little bit – you have inspired me to go back and read her again.
    I really enjoy Lucy Maud Montgomery’s early journals, too.  I don’t think they could truly be called “spiritual memoirs” as I think she really struggled with life and didn’t discuss it much in faith terms but I identify with her so much.  As a child of three generations of Presbyterian ministers and a Canadian woman, I just feel such a kinship with her.  Her later biographies are rather grim but I think she struggled with a. being a woman with greater vision and intelligence than the man she married and b.  the darkness that hides in our ethnic temperament but her earlier journals resonate with such hope.

  • Sam

    Madeleine is my patron saint, too, as well as Anne Lamott. Her journal series was what gave me serious hope as a college student and I should probably pull them out again. (Are you following her on Facebook? She is SO FUNNY. It’s like your crazy aunt got ahold of Facebook but in the best way possible.) I love so many of these books here, and also need to read a few. LOVE these book posts! 

  • Jessica Hall

    Thanks for your list! I’ve added some to my Goodreads TBR pile. =) One spiritual memoir I *HIGHLY* recommend is Same Kind of Different as Me. It’s by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. It’s Fantastic!

  • Smoochagator

    My favorite spiritual memoir is Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. I could SO relate to this Episcopsl priest’s bone-deep exhaustion after decades in ministry, and I suspect many others can as well. After I finished reading it, I put my head in my hands and cried & cried. I couldn’t believe how tired I was, still, years after leaving the church myself, and Paradoxically, how much I MISSED it.

  • Now you’re speaking my language. I am all about the memoir genre (it was my focus when I did my master’s in creative writing.) I just picked up the first of the Crosswick Journals from a used book store and couldn’t help but start it immediately, even though I am currently in the middle of several other books.

    I’d add to the list some less overtly spiritual memoirs that still seem to reach for God. Havel Kimmel’s “A Girl Called Zippy,” was delightful, but I really loved the follow-up book she wrote about her mother, “She Got Up Off the Couch.” Joann Beard’s “The Boys of my Youth” couldn’t probably be called a spiritual memoir, but her essay in there, “The Fourth State of Matter,” still takes my breath away.

    I’m sure there are more, but those are a few that come to mind. 🙂

  • Love All is Grace. Have read most of the others, and just started reading Circle of Quiet for the first time this year. I’m 40. Where have I been all my life? 

  • I am convinced it was spiritual memoirs that kept me in church as a teenager. They inspired me with their faith and their struggles. I read God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew, anything I could gte my hands on by Corrie Ten Boom, I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh, Freedom Fighter by Stephen Lungu, The Cross & the Switchblade by David Wilkinson… I could go on and on. 
    But it’s been a while since I read any new, so I’ve added some of your to my “to read” list. 

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  • Johanna

    I have just stumbled in from the garden (heat exhaustion!) and from the grandkids (energy depletion!) and visited my gmail only to discover that I have found another soul sister! I, too, read and rejoice in spiritual memoirs because I believe that it is in the dust of our ordinary existence that God writes His eternal Love Story! I have written a book which I think will be another candidate for your list (sorry, but that`s the way it is!)….It is called `Graffiti On My Soul`, my journey from the life of a nun to a nightmare–lyrical, funny, raw and mystical–and it is waiting for you on Amazon!!

  • Kelsey H

    Traveling Mercies (any essay book by Anne Lamott really) or Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.

  • seniorcit

    I have six of your 10, and all the Crosswicks Journals. I’m presently rereading Lauren Winner’s “Still” for the 3rd time. Have to see if my library has her other books.

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  • Diane Kulkarni

    I have read several of your favorite spiritual journey stories and would like to recommend a few others that speak to me of God’s faithfulness in the midst of war and suffering. These mentors have inspired me during my darkest times: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, To End All Wars by Ernest Gordon, He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, and Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose.
    Also, because I love to encourage people to write their stories and you might be interested in reading a preview of a collection called A New Song: Glimpses of the Grace Journey, which I and four other editors put together. Go to this link and click on A New Song: http://www.mscbc.org
    I’m so glad I was introduced to your blog by my good friend and fellow editor!

    • Diane Kulkarni

      kindly remove the “and” in the second graph. I don’t know how to edit my entry. Thank you.

  • Great list- and some new ones for me! Love Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris – although Amazing Grace is my favorite of hers. Loved Elisabeth Elliot’s quirky book, These Strange Ashes. Phil Vischer’s book on failure. Probably forgetting many others.

  • Lenora Rand

    Thanks so much for this list. Many of my favorites here. I wondered if you’d read Nora Gallagher’s wonderful spiritual memoirs, Things Seen and Unseen, and the follow up, Practicing Resurrection? She’s so funny and honest — her spiritual growth actually grew out of her social justice work — doing a soup kitchen at the local Episcopal church. Sounds like she’d be right up your alley.