Into the Silent Land
A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
In this short but substantial book, Martin Laird gives a practical introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is a difficult, because profound, subject, and an adequate treatment calls for humility and fidelity and, not least, personal experience. Insofar as I can judge, Laird is a faithful guide. He draws widely on the Christian tradition of prayer, from the Church Fathers, the Carmelite mystics, spiritual masters east and west, and from contemporary writers such as Simone Weil. Despite his academic credentials (Laird is a professor at Villanova University) he wears his learning lightly and the tone of the book is personal and pastoral.
The purpose of contemplative prayer is to dispose one to encounter God. I phrase it this way intentionally: contemplation is not a technique with a guaranteed outcome, but a practice that prepares one for a personal encounter that comes at a time and in a manner not of one’s own choosing. Laird uses the image of the sailor: there is nothing he can do to make the wind blow, but there are skills he can develop to take advantage when it does, and the Christian contemplative tradition is substantially about developing this receptive attitude. For it is an illusion, says Laird, to think that we are separated from God; in Him we live and move and have our being, but we are not aware of this. Contemplation is about slowly “excavating the present moment” in order to become aware of and receptive to God’s loving presence.
The principal contemplative practice is the cultivation of an intentional silence, a silence of body and mind. In a sense, it is quite simple: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God,” says St. John of the Cross. But inevitably there are difficulties, and chief among them are distractions — wandering thoughts, worries, day-dreams, and so on, which prevent the mind being quiet and attentive. Laird is particularly helpful in describing how to deal with such problems. He describes controlled breathing exercises (which remind me of non-Christian meditative practices, but which he plausibly argues is a neglected part of our own tradition too) and, most importantly, the “prayer word” which is repeated quietly, over and over, as a way of maintaining focus. The most common “prayer word” in the Christian tradition is the Jesus Prayer — more common in the East than the West, it is true — but it is a personal choice. (I myself lean on fragments of Psalm 46:10 and Ezekiel 36:26, or something from St. Augustine.) Laird gives quite a lot of attention to psychological aspects of contemplative prayer — to the abandonment of false personae, encounters with old emotional wounds, and other stages of spiritual maturation that are typically encountered in a dedicated contemplative practice.
This book has been for me an encouragement. The contemplative tradition has always attracted me, and I know that it is my path, but I have not been diligent in walking it. At some level I am afraid of delving too deep and dredging up a spiritual crisis of some sort; this has happened before, and it rendered me largely unfit for anything else. These days I have more or less all-consuming family responsibilities and I haven’t the luxury of being unfit. Hence my hesitation. But this book has made me reconsider my situation. Perhaps it cannot hurt to take up the Jesus Prayer again and see what happens. It’s a baby step, but one in the right direction.
The third commandment enjoins quietness of heart, tranquility of mind. This is holiness. Because here is the Spirit of God. This is what a true holiday means, quietness and rest. Unquiet people recoil from the Holy Spirit. They love quarreling. They love argument. In their restlessness they do not allow the silence of the Lord’s Sabbath to enter their lives. Against such restlessness we are offered a kind of Sabbath in the heart. As if God were saying ‘stop being so restless, quieten the uproar in your minds. Let go of the idle fantasies that fly around in your head.’ God is saying, ‘Be still and see that I am God.” (Ps 46) But you refuse to be still. You are like the Egyptians tormented by gnats. These tiniest of flies, always restless, flying about aimlessly, swarm at your eyes, giving no rest. They are back as soon as you drive them off. Just like the futile fantasies that swarm in our minds. Keep the commandment. Beware of this plague.