IN HIS address to the synod of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome in 2012, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke about the centrality of contemplation in Christian faith and life. “Contemplation”, he told them, “is very far from being just one kind of thing Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity.” Martin Laird’s new book, which accompanies earlier much acclaimed works such as Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence, takes its cue from such insights.
The practice that Laird commends for silent, imageless prayer is similar to that which can be found in many other writers, both ancient and modern. It consists of a daily routine in which we sit perfectly still for 25 to 30 minutes each day and use a prayer word (such as maranatha or the Jesus Prayer) in unison with our breathing. When — as happens all too often — distracting thoughts, words, and images invade our heads, we are counselled to draw ourselves gently back to the prayer word, united with the breath.
Laird, an Augustinian monk and teacher of early Christian Studies at Villanova University, brings two particular contributions to his subject.
The first is his ability to find a telling metaphor or comparison that will help us understand something that is, by its nature, indescribable: the union of the soul with God. My favourite of these was the image of contemplative prayer as something very familiar to modern Westerners: “decluttering”. In contemplation, we are not straining forward to reach some new competency, nor trying to achieve some objective, however worthy, such as a cure for depression. Rather, we are clearing away accumulated mental junk so that we will come to know the space that already lies there, buried beneath it all.
Laird’s second particular gift is the unusual theological depth and clarity that he brings to the subject. Because God has made us, we are already united with him: “union with God is not something we can or need to acquire.” Contemplation is about realising a state of being which already exists. We may or may not be able to establish a mature practice of contemplation, in which it becomes integrated into our daily routine. But contemplation is not a goal so much as a starting-point if only we knew it: “if God were not already the ground of our being, the divine breath breathing us into being, we would not exist.”
Laird is an expert, subtle, and sure guide, who takes us to the heart of Christian life, and whose message urgently needs to be heard by a Church “anxious and disturbed about many things” (Luke 10.41).
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.
An Ocean of Light
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