Throughout the centuries of the church, Christian writers have expressed the deepest thoughts and longings of those who are seriously seeking to live a devout Christian life. While there are thousands of writers who have greatly influenced readers, none would be more significant that those who have penned their own devotional thoughts and insights. From medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich to contemporary writers such as Catherine Marshall or Kathleen Norris, their themes are similar in the devotional genre relating to life and faith. Regardless of the era, the purpose of this type of literature is directed toward satisfying the spiritual hunger if the reader. Since medieval times, Christian women in particular have sought through writing to find strength to meet the demands of life. This devotional style of literature seems to meet the universal need of spiritual nurturing and of seeking to make God relevant in one’s everyday life. This is especially interesting when one looks at the diverse lifestyles and experiences of women across the past thousand years. Some of these women were part of the monastic movement, unmarried and childless, with hours to pray, meditate and to record their contemplative thoughts. Others have struggled with family duties, serious illnesses, difficult marital situation and heartaches that are too great to bear. Some of these writers are genuine mystics, while others are very practical and modern in their approach to Scripture and its application to daily life. (We don’t know much about women from early church period, only what men have written about them. There was no public speaking or teaching, only women in convents were literate). Their writings, though, are transcendent, in that they rise above the particular historical period they are written, and relate on a heart level, to the common experiences of believers.
This type of literature can take various forms. Some are in calendar outline, others in short meditations. A devotional may be penned in book form, with chapters, intended for meditation rather than daily use. Often it is similar to a diary or a journal. Whatever form it takes, the purposes are generally the same: self introspection and spiritualencouragement, mostly taken from the author’s own experiences and insights. It is common for the devotional thought to consist of a scripture reference, quote or an account of a Biblical event. From that point, the writer explores various applications with her own perspective and wisdom. Often a prayer or a meditative thought is included.
It is interesting that so many popular devotional books today were written almost a century ago, including Streams in the Desert by Lettie Cowman and My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. It is also remarkable that many contemporary devotional writers have studied the medieval writers,, drawing upon their spiritual experiences and showing a timeless appreciation of their devotional work. The writers of these books aree generally unknown in the literary world, yet their works have influenced thousands of people. They often present interesting historical and cultural statements concerning the reconciliation of Biblical truths, God’s ways and the everyday struggles of life. Often these works differ in theological details, in spirit and in thought, but the overriding themes are always inspirational and offer timeless encouragement and hope to readers of all ages and times. They are like OLD FRIENDS who continue to speak to us year after year.
“The medieval period was rich with Christian life, the eager search for intimacy with the living god as well as constant prayer and careful thinking in edifying relationships with other believers.” These mystics were often the inspiration for the modern day devotional writers. Writers such as Julian of Norwich emphasized the emotional and passionate element of faith. Her spiritual quest reflected an intense hunger for God and a reaction to the corruption of the church at that time. Julian was a Benedictine nun who lived in Norwich England in the 14th century. Her two best known works are Revelations of Divine Loveand Showings. Julian was well educated and was skilled in understanding the Vulgate and the teachings of the church. Her book Revelations distinguishes her today as the first great female writer in the English language (Amy Oden, In Her Own Words). As was the case with many of the mystics, Julian suffered from serious illnesses, but according to her own account, while praying one day, she heard God speak to her about His love and goodness. It was this encounter with the Lord that encouraged her to begin to write about God’s compassion and grace, love and mercy. These are the overriding themes in all her works and she used them to encourage her readers to reflect on the goodness of God. This is especially significant when we consider the times in which Julian lived.
“Given her own age’s insistence on God’s punishment for sin, Julian turns her attention to the Trinity and to Christ’s role in mediating love and compassion for a fallen humanity.”
In the middle ages, the justice and judgment of God was emphasized – Christ as warrior, King, winning victory over His (and the church’s) enemies. So, in the context of her times, this perspective was a fresh one. Julian emphasized God’s love and the human need for it. She frequently used the metaphor of Christ’s love and maternal love, which was characterized by nurturing and tenderness. She considered one’s meditating on the goodness of God to be “the highest form of prayer.”
“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them. It is only with the help of His grace that we are able to persevere in spiritual contemplation with endless wonder at his high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in His goodness has for us.”
Julian’s obervations are important in light of the modern Christian’s perception of God’s goodness. Some people consider God’s goodness to be show primarily in His material blessings, but her emphasis on divine love and the spiritual life of devotion and prayer helps the searching soul to see the spiritual dimension of God’s great love for mankind.
Another well known mystical devotional writer is Teresa of Avila who lived in Spain in the 16th century. Always interested in spirituality, Teresa entered a Carmelite convent in the city of Avila at age 20. While there she became seriously ill and was forced to spend time in quietness, reading books about the spiritual life. Soon after her recovery, she had a vision of Christ. This vision led her to establish new Carmelite convents that were soley devoted to the contemplative life and the study of Scripture. She was a “reformer” of the medieval church and worked alongside John of the Cross by establishing 14 monasteries. She is quoted as once saying, “How is it, my God, that Youhave given me this hectic life and so little time to enjoy Your presence?” (Now really! How busy can you be in a convent!!) However, she is best known for her devotions on the spiritual life in her works Autobiography, Way of Perfection and Interior Castle.Her theme is always prayer, and in Interior Castle, she describes the spiritual journey in allegory, using the rooms of a castle. She begins with the soul outside of the castle, then entering the castle and traveling through the many rooms until it reaches the center room where it is united with God. Using this word picture, Teresa urges her readers to engage in serious prayer and strive to reach oneness with God. Her unique view of prayer and service is illustrated throughout this book. Much of Teresa’s work is difficult to understand, but her emphasis is always on spiritual growth. Unlike some ascetics, Teresa’s focus was not on penance, but on developing an increasing love for God and for His people.
“For our works have no value unless they are united with faith, and our faith has no value unless it is united with works. May God grant us the ability to see how much we cost him, to see that the servant is not greater than the Masster, to see that we must work if we would enjoy His glory. For this reason we must pray, lest we continually enter into temptation.” 
The writings of mystic Jeanne-Marie Guyon are one of the great legacies of the church. Madame Guyon lived in late 17th century France. One can not truly appreciate the spiritual understanding and depth of Guyon unless one understands the context of her times. The 17th century world was very cynical, skeptical and disillusioned with religious institutions. This was primarily due to the Thirty Years War and the depraved court life of Louis XIV, who claimed to be a Christian. Additionally, the movement of rationalism was emerging, signaling a fascination with the intellect. Therefore, a heartfelt faith in Christ was not only viewed with disdain, but was also seen as a threat, since anything that might destabilize the church would destabilize the government. That in turn would cause the nobility to lose its wealth and influence. Thus, Madame Guyon’s faith in Jesus was seen as a threat to the religious and social order of the day. The church was corrupt, and it valued human reasoning and internal politics more than faith. Because of these conditions and because of her openness regarding her prayer life and her walk with God, Madame Guyon faced intense persecution.
Although she was born into a religious family, Guyone suffered illness and rejection as a child. She married early (as most women did) and endured more suffering and abuse from her invalid husband and mother in law. For the rest of her life she endured persecution and imprisonment, simply because she believed with all her heart (and insisted on sharing this with others) that Christians should experience the richness of personal prayer with God. This was one of her major themes – finding a spiritually deep, personal walk with God. After being widowed, Madame Guyon traveled extensively through France and Switzerland teaching on the contemplation of God. She was soon imprisoned by jealous authorities who resented her popularity with the common people and saw her faith as a threat to the church. Most of her sixty books and poems were written while in the Bastille. One of her great contributions to devotional literature is the book entitled Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, which she wrote during the time of her imprisonment. This book reportedly had enormous influence on Watchman Nee, Francois Fenelon, John Wesley and Hudson Taylor. It is also said that Adonirum Judson, the martyred American missionary to Burma, comforted himself in prison by repeating Guyon’s verse to God:
No bliss I seek, but to fulfill
In life, in death, Thy lovely will
No succor in my woes I want
Except what Thou art pleased to grant
Our days are numbered – let us spare
Our anxious hearts a needless care;
‘Tis Thine to number out our days,
And ours to give them to Thy praise.
Although Madame Guyon was not the leader of an official reform movement, her influence was profoundly felt in Europe and still is today. She is widely read and is regarded as one of the greats in mystical devotional literature.
Frances Ridley Havergal was a devotional writer, poet, hymnist, and musician who was born in 1836 to a cultured, religious family in Worcestershire, England. She was the youngest child of William Havergal, a church musician who wrote around one hundred hymns. Frances was very bright and began reading the Bible at age four and age seven she began writing verse. At fourteen she was converted and began memorizing the New Testament and Psalms. She was educated at private schools in England and Germany, where she excelled at language, particularly Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Although she was a socially refined woman, Frances had a simple, but strong, faith in her Lord. She was disciplined in prayer and once stated that she never wrote a line without first praying over it. Gradually, all of her work was directed toward sacred music and devotional writings. Her most famous hymn is “Take My Life and Let It Be”, in which she penned these words, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” At that time she had just sent many of her lovely jewels and dressing room ornaments to her church missionary house where they would be sold and used in God’s work. Later she said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.”Franceswrote many other hymns, including “I Gave My Life for Thee’, “Like a River Glorious”, and “I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus”. Frances also wrote numerous devotional tracts and small books of poems and hymn texts. The themes of her work were simple faith, consecration and service. An interesting note is that she was a contemporary of another beloved hymn writer, Fanny Crosby. Although they never met, they each admired the other and corresponded by letter. In one of Frances’ letters she wrote,
“Dear blind sister over the sea,
An English heart goes forth to thee,
We are linked by a cable of faith and song,
Flashing bright sympathy swift along,
One in the east and one in the west
Singing for Him whom our souls love best
Sister, what shall our meeting soon be
When our hearts shall sing and our eyes shall see?
One of Frances’ most loved works is Royal Invitation; Daily Thoughts on Coming to
Christ,which was published in 1882.
“’Come unto Me.’ This is the Royal Invitation. For it is given by the King of kings. We are so familiar with the words, that we fail to realize them. May the Holy Spirit open our ear that we may hear the voice of our King in them, and that they may reach our souls with imperative power.”
Frances Havergal eloquently expresses the heart of believers and those who wholly
consecrate their lives to Christ.
One of the most widely read authors and outstanding missionaries of the church wasAmy Carmichael, an Irish woman who served fifty-five years in India ministering to the poor and disadvantaged. She was also an accomplished writer with thirty five books to her credit.Amywas born in 1867 and fale called to missions as a young teenager. After a short stint in Japan, she felt led to Indian, where she would spend the rest of her life. She moved to Dohnavur and became i
involved in the work for which she will always be remembered. Amy began noticing the young girls that were being sold by their families and forced to become temple prostitutes in the pagan temples. During this time, she met a young girl who had literally escaped from the Temple authorities, terrified of life there. Her mother had forced her to return (because she had sold her to the Temple priests) andher little hands had been branded with hot irons as punishment. She again ran away, and Amy immediately took her in. Thus, her rescue work began to take shape. This quickly led to bitter enemies in her community who hated her and her work and did everything within their power to thwart her ministry and rescue attempts of these young girls. Additionally, being a single woman on the mission field made life even more difficult for her. The loneliness, depression and anxiety were overwhelming to her at times, but Amy found great strength in God, who had promised her during a time of great fear of her future, that “None of them that trust in Me shall be desolate.” According to her own testimony, God fulfilled that word to her by meeting her in prayer and contemplation. It was during those years of seeing the degradation of the pagan lifestyle and intense sufferings of the Indian people that Amy wrote some of her most profound works.
One of her most well-loved devotional books is If. It was written for Christians who had “the solemn charge of caring for the souls of others”, which was her life mission. This book succinctly described the message of the cross which she calls “Calvary love.” Elizabeth Elliot credited Ifwith helping her understand that being crucified with Christ was not “a morbid thing, but the very gateway to Life.” Amy wrote “Some of the ‘ifs’ appear to be related to pride, selfishness, or cowardice, but digging deeper we come upon an unsuspected lovelessness at the root of them all.”Thisis the heart of her message: Calvary love.
“If I can easily discuss the shortcomings and the sins of any, if I can speak in a casual way even of a child’s misdoings, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I put my own happiness before the well-being of the work entrusted to me; if, though I have this ministry and have received much mercy, I faint, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If the praise of man elates me and his blame depresses me; if I cannot rest under misunderstanding without defending myself; if I love to be loved more than to love, to be served more than to serve, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Her piercing words call readers across the years to love with “Calvary love”, which can only be found in a life devoted to Christ.
Springs in the Valley and Streams in the Desertare two of the most popular devotional books of the twentieth century written by Mrs. Charles (Lettie) Cowman. In order to appreciate the contribution made by Mrs. Cowman, one must first understand what was happening in the country at that time. The decade of the 1920s was the time of the Scopes “monkey trial” and anti-Darwinians. Bookstores in the country were flooded with requests for works on science and evolution. However, another instant best seller was Mrs. Cowman’s Streams in the Desert, perhaps a backlash to the anti-Christian diatribes of the day.
Charles and Lettie Cowman had been missionaries to Asia from 1901 to 1917. Because of their difficult work on the mission field and because of the heartache she endured while sitting by her husband’s deathbed for several years, Mrs. Cowman wrote Streams in the Desertin 1925 to strengthen discouraged and weary believers. Several years later she published the companion work entitled Springs in the Valley. Mrs.Cowman’s work is especially interesting because she is one of the first modern devotional writers who used the daily “calendar” form, which is a reading for each day of the year. Within her devotionals are references to many other works by outstanding Christian writers, such as F.B. Meyer, C.G. Trumbull, A.B. Simpson and other poets and religious writers. Mrs. Cowman sets up her theme of overcoming suffering by quoting Julian of Norwich in the foreword to a less known devotional book entitled Handfuls of Purpose: “He said not thou shalt not be tempted; thou shalt not be afflicted, but He did say, thou shalt not be overcome.”
Mrs. Cowman’s devotionals repeatedly emphasize this theme. First, the calendar form assumes that the believer will make time during the day for meditation each day of the year. She obviously expected her readers to read her book year after year. She uses metaphors and her own experiences to encourage her readers to do what they already know to do, not to necessarily provide them with new insights. Secondly, her titles also reflect her theme, picturing the Biblical metaphors of spiritual thirst and hunger. Mrs. Cowman writes about her own griefs, questions and sorrows, and she makes her readers her intimate companions on a spiritual quest, seeking spiritual water in the desert of life.
“’He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills’ (Psalm 104: 10). Let us claim our inheritance in these coming days, and find the hardest places of life’s experience God’s greatest opportunities and faith’s mightiest challenge. Springs in the valley are very unusual; but He will give us both the upper and the nether springs.’”
One of the best loved devotional books of all times is My Utmost for His Highestby Oswald Chambers. However, this book (and many others) was made possible only through the tireless efforts of his wife, Gertrude. Oswald Chambers was born in Scotland in 1874 and was educated at London’s Royal College of Art and at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of twenty-two he felt God calling him into ministry. Eventually he met Gertrude Hobbs who was accomplished at shorthand and stenography. They married and opened their hope in Clapham, England to students interested in Bible studies and courses that would prepare them for the ministry. Biddy (as Oswald called her), began her ministry of hospitality at this time and continued it for many, many years. When World War I began, Oswald felt God calling him to minister to the troops on the front. In October of 1915 he left Gertrude and their two and a half year old daughter, Kathleen, for Egypt. Soon after, they joined him, and Oswald served as Chaplain while Gertrude used their home for ministry. In 1917 he tragically died of complications following an operation to remove his appendix, only forty-three years old. One hundred officers escorted the gun carriage bearing the coffin. They walked the entire funeral route with arms reversed – a tribute to a beloved and respected man. Gertrude and Kathleen returned to England, and she began the painstaking work of transcribing her notes, which had been taken from her husband’s lectures. She began to send the transcripts to those who were interested, and eventually Oswald Chambers Publications was born.My Utmost for His Highestwas first published in 1923 and has remained in print ever since. In 1966 Gertrude died, knowing that she had fulfilled the ministry God had entrusted to her. This woman, who remained hidden behind the work of her husband, did a powerful work for the Kingdom of God. In the foreword to My Utmost, Gertrude gives the background of the material that was taken from Oswald’s lectures at the Bible Training College in England and at the Y.M.C.A. Huts in Egypt. She gives her reason for compiling the devotionals:
“’Men return again and again to the few who have mastered the spiritual secret, whose life has been hid with Christ in God. These are of the old time religious, hung to the nails of the cross’ (Robert Murray McCheyne).
It is because it is felt that the author is one to whom teaching men will return, that this book has been prepared, and it is sent out with the prayer that day by day the messages may continue to bring the quickening of life and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
She signs her name as only “B.C.”, a tribute to a humble woman, who found her mission in life. All believers since that time are indebted to her.
Catherine Marshall, another well known and loved Christian writer wrote devotional material, although not in a “calendar” form. Catherine, born in 1914, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. Always a quiet and studious young woman, Catherine attended Agnes Scott College in Georgia and graduated in 1936. While she was there, she met Peter Marshall, pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Upon their marriage in 1936, Catherine immediately entered the public eye. Her husband became pastor of the prestigious New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. soon after their marriage. As one would expect, Catherine became very involved in church ministry and service. Peter Marshall was an eloquent and winsome speaker, tall and nice looking with an intriguing Scottish accent (his family had immigrated from Scotland). He quickly became very popular and respected in Christian circles, and he and Catherine enjoyed a very successful ministry together. But in 1943, Catherine was struck with tuberculosis, which was then a serious and life-threatening disease. She spent the next two years bed-ridden, struggling through a crisis of her faith.
She slowly recovered, but would be in poor health for the rest of her life. Peter Marshall suffered a serious heart attack in 1947, the year he was named as Chaplain to the United States Senate. He served in the Senate in that position for two years, until he died of a second heart attack in 1949.
Thus Catherine Marshall, at age 35, was forced to begin a new life as a widow. She was approached by the publishing company of Fleming Revell to edit some of her husband’s sermons, which resulted in the book Mr. Jones, Meet the Master. This volume became a best-seller, leading to a full biography of Peter Marshall entitled A Man CalledPeter. This book reached bestseller status in ten days and remained there for three years.Catherine then began to write extensively. She wrote To Live AgainandBeyond Ourselves, reflecting and meditating on losing a loved one and facing life alone. She wrote numerous books on prayer, including Something More, Adventures in Prayer,The Helperand A Closer Walk. One of her best known works is the inspirational novel Christy,a story which took place in the mountains of West Virginia, not far from her native Tennessee. It is significant that Catherine Marshall’s works became so well known among the American public. It should be noted that her career testified to the way in which most women’s religious concerns of her day became increasingly public throughout the course of the century. Her openness, her steadfast faith even during times of great doubt, and her desire to share her insights with others touched the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. She was an editor of Guideposts magazine, she helped establish a publishing company, and she spoke frequently at conferences until her death in 1983. Catherine’s personal struggles with sickness and death and the believer’s hope in God’s goodness and faithfulness are the themes of her devotional writings.
“I believe that the old cliché, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is not only misleading but often dead wrong. My most spectacular answers to prayers have come when I was so helpless, so out of control as to be able to do nothing at all for myself.
The Psalmist says, ‘When I was hemmed in, thou has freed me often.’ Gradually I have learned to recognize this hemming-in as one of God’s most loving devices for teaching us that He is real and gloriously adequate for our problems.”
A modern day devotional writer is found in best selling author Kathleen Norris. Although she does not write in the form of a daily devotional, her books clearly fit the genre of this literature. A poet and writer, Norris returned as an adult to her native South Dakota from the stimulating literary community of New York City. Her life there opened up another world to her, especially in her interaction with a Benedictine monastery in her community. Kathleen was raised a Protestant with little knowledge of religion and with many doubts regarding Christianity. Nevertheless, she often felt an interest in spiritual matters, a quest which she began in earnest as an adult writer. Her first two books were The Cloister Walk andDakota, both critically acclaimed. In these works she explores the daily demands of life with the admonitions and teachings of scripture, usually observed at the monastery. Like many devotional writers, she does not claim to always have answers to her questions, but she finds solace and rest in Biblical truths. It has been said of her,
“Norris writes in the spirit and shape of Terersa of Avila’s meditations on the language of faith, focusing on those words that before her conversion repelled, confused, or dismayed her – hard words like Christ, salvation, repentance, heresy. Hers is a theology that any woman devotional writer from the middle ages would have recognized, for not only does Norris share the shape and form but also the humility of those writers, asking readers to forgive her shortcomings while entering into the process of faith.”
In Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith,Norris begins her eighty entries with a quote (true to the devotional form). In light of this history of devotional writings, it is especially interesting that Kathleen is drawn to medieval writers and thinkers. She says,
“I think we could use more medieval thinking these days, and not less. We might come to value the mindset that could conceive of poetry, religion, medicine, and the natural sciences as discipline having more in common than not, employing much of the same language, metaphor and imagery.”
Perhaps Amazing Gracecould be considered a continuation of medieval thinking in the tradition of devotional literature. She has been called an “heir” of earlier medieval writers. The worlds of Kathleen Norris and the women mystics of medieval times are vastly different, and yet their insights reconciling faith and life are amazingly similar.
(Read from Dakota,pg 186)
Each woman who enters this genre shapes it for her own time. All of these writers and many others, reveal their hunger for spiritual nurturance and daily sustenance, obviously a universal need.
Suzanne Forbes has written an interesting book on devotional literature called Women of Devotion Through the Centuries. She makes this observation,
“The devotional is democratic, by which I mean that it turns no one away. It reflects Christ’s words, inviting everyone who is weary to come. All are welcome. None are excluded…It lies close to home, indeed even becoming home, a place for pilgrims to rest, recuperate, and then return to the daily demands life makes.”
These constantly repeated themes of suffering, hope and trust that speak to followers of Christ over hundreds of years give us a sense of transcendence. Despite the drastically diverse cultures and lifestyles between their worlds and ours, their words of wisdom, quickly digested and meditated on throughout the day give strength to the weary. These women and many others exhort us to persevere and trust our lives to our