I'll fess up and admit to being a rabid manualist (of the first kind). The alternative seems to be spiritual direction, and I've had no luck with that, partly because spiritual directors are such nice people. Cosy chats with nice people who make you feel good about yourself, that is all I seemed to get.... Maybe Christ spent a lot of time doing that and it never got recorded in the Gospels. However, encountering and following Christ seems to me to be something far more uncomfortable.
A good manual will have distilled the basic truths of our Catholic Faith and present them with a sound, disciplined look at how to live a virtuous life. It will then take you through your journey of spiritual growth from beginner to advanced, with things to look out for on the way and notes on how your prayer life will change and the challenges you may face. Much of this is simply a summary of the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, but put in such a way that even a numpty with no prior theological knowledge can grasp. There will be no flowery language, no touchy feely stuff and certainly no hiding from the fact that you are a sinner, and you must continually WANT to stop being a sinner if you are to make progress.
I will mention below a few choice examples that I have come across, there may be one to suit you. This are my personal thoughts, they are not meant to be definitive summaries.
- The Spiritual Life- Fr Adolphe Tanquerey SS (1930). A fine, clear manual designed for seminarians but used extensively (before it went out of fashion) in the training of all religious and for the laity. A soft, paternal style that gently gets you moving forward in the spiritual life. It remains a classic and the one that personally I like to use. It fell off a bookshelf into my hands for the princely sum of £1 two years ago and I haven't looked back since. It also has a bibliography at the front that will make any lover of classic spiritual writing drool.
- The Theology of the Spiritual Life- Fr. Joseph De Guibert SJ (1953). Less weighty than the Tanquerey but very well written and very clear. It seems to be the last of the manuals, I can't find one later than this. You can sense that by 1953 manuals are beginning to out of fashion and the author is desperately trying to say that you mustn't dismiss the old ways, Tanquerey and others have much that is good to say, listen to them, they are still relevant.
- Christian Perfection and Contemplation- Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1937). A manual more suited to those with brain cells. It lacks the numbered paragraphs of the previous two I've mentioned so it is easy for me to get lost, and is very scholarly as you would expect from the author. It is beautifully and seductively written nevertheless.
- Abandonment to Divine Providence - Fr J P de Caussade SJ (d.1751) . This book is the letters of a spiritual director to various religious sisters who were in his care. It is very caring and covers all the possible things a devout soul may be going through, with a helpful index so that you can home-in on the advice you need.
- An Introduction to the Devout Life- St Francis de Sales (1608). A beautifully written classic from a Doctor of the Church. A gentle, gentle book, so gentle people may slip into it like a hot bath, then forget its message is actually rather a tough one. Despite its gentleness, it is particularly hard on widows, I simply couldn't do what it was asking of me (I'm more Ruth than Naomi and more of a fool with it). I recommend it to all who are not widowed.
- The Spiritual Combat- Fr Lorenzo Scupoli (1598?) A violent little manual which strangely was much loved by St Francis de Sales, but is so very different in style. This is hard, heavy weight punching stuff: you are a sinner, you must stop sinning, you must not trust yourself. This is a particularly useful manual if you have one particular vice that you really are struggling to overcome. Sins of the flesh meet their doom if this manual is followed.
- The Science of the Spiritual Life - Fr James Clare SJ (1896). This takes you through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in a most beautiful way. It is heavily scriptural and meditative. It really is a beautiful book, if you can find it. You can follow it as a 4 week retreat or pick particular sections to work through.
- Manual for Interior Souls- Fr Jean Grou SJ (1803) Written by a Jesuit who fled to England from revolutionary France. It is most similar in style to the Caussade but it is not written as a series of letters. It is the least dry of the manuals I have mentioned and may appeal to those who wish to have their instruction flavoured with a more generous helping of holy sentiment.