Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society

April 22, 2018

The Idea of a Christian Society
T.S. Eliot
(Harcourt Brace, 1949) [1938]
75 p.

Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about the potential futures for British society, and for Western societies more generally.

He saw British society as being on an edge between a Christian society, informed by Christian principles, and a pagan one, shaped by one or the other of fascism or communism. Interestingly, he didn’t consider his contemporary society as belonging to either of those broad alternatives, its formerly Christian character having been gradually worn away by subtle pressures, but rather characterized it as a “negative society”, which he described in this way:

“In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”

Western commitments to “liberalism” and “democracy” he took as being largely empty, the meaning of the words having degenerated into little more than self-congratulatory labels. (“If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.”) The salient point about a negative society, so described, is that it must eventually give way to something else, something with a more positive view of what it stands for.

The more positive social reality favoured by Eliot is the Christian one, by which he means a civic arena governed by Christian principles, even if many citizens are only nominally religious. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the general thrust of his proposal, especially for those modern Christians dandled on the knee of Kierkegaard or Hauerwas, who, turning lemons to lemonade, have convinced themselves that a small Christian community of devout believers is actually preferable to a broad social consensus comprised mainly of half-hearted religious adherents. Not so, says Eliot:

“A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more “good Christians” than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity…”

His reasons for favouring this arrangement are that it is better for the lukewarm, for it is better to be unthinkingly compliant with Christian principles than with pagan ones, and it is better for the devout, for why favour conditions that make living the Christian life more difficult? His views are rooted in an appreciation for the ways in which habits and subtle social pressures can support or erode religious faith even in the most intentional and dedicated believers:

“For the great majority of the people — and I am not here thinking of social classes, but of intellectual strata — religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures; and the specifically religious emotions must be a kind of extension and sanctification of the domestic and social emotions. Even for the most highly developed and conscious individual, living in the world, a consciously Christian direction of thought and feeling can only occur at particular moments during the day and during the week, and these moments themselves recur in consequence of formed habits; to be conscious, without remission, of a Christian and a non-Christian alternative at moments of choice, imposes a very great strain. The mass of the population, in a Christian society, should not be exposed to a way of life in which there is too sharp and frequent a conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian, The compulsion to live in such a way that Christian behaviour is only possible in a restricted number of situations, is a very powerful force against Christianity; for behaviour is as potent to affect belief, as belief to affect behaviour.”

A Christian society, then, would be “not a society of saints, but of ordinary men, of men whose Christianity is communal before being individual”, one in which men “may frequently perform un-Christian acts… [but] must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.”

This sort of social consensus could only be realized, Eliot thought, in a society “where the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold”. Thus he argued for an established church, though one in which “the temporal and the spiritual would never be identified”, and in which citizens would favour their membership in the church over their membership in the nation, as reflecting a proper ordering of attachments. How this proper ordering would be established and maintained he does not say.

*

All of this, as I say, may strike a modern Christian, grown accustomed to the oft-repeated dictum that religion ought not to impinge on the social life of the nation, and convinced that sincere faith is superior to nominal lip-service to religion, as topsy-turvy, wrong-headed, or just bad form. And it is true that a close association between the state and the church has risks. But it is possible that the sad state of religion that we observe in Western European societies which have an established church might be anomalies; certainly most cultures historically have considered some cooperation between the sacred and the political authorities to be natural and beneficial. And, even on specifically Christian terms, it seems perverse to claim that fewer Christians are preferable to many, or that Christianity ought to have little influence rather than much. The ambition of the Church is to convert the whole world.

Or, putting it the other way around, wouldn’t it be odd if the secular powers-that-be woke up one morning and announced that, since some non-negligible number of citizens harboured doubts about the goals of liberalism, or acted in ways inconsistent with liberal principles, or just lacked fervency in liberal causes, that they would henceforth relinquish their power and influence and be satisfied with cultivating devout liberals who would stand as a “sign of contradiction” to whatever filled the vacuum it left behind? Obviously this is not going to happen, and with good reason. Liberalism is strong enough and confident enough in itself to give the people what it thinks they need, and — as someone has said — to give it to them good and hard. The Hauerwasian preference for small, devoted communities of Christians might be a prudent tactic in the particular historical moment in which Christianity finds itself, but it can never be the state at which the Church aims. No pun intended.

A weakness of Eliot’s proposal for a Christian society is that he gives no indication of how this society might be brought about given our current conditions and the historical trajectory we are on. Probably he has no notion of how this might happen, and this is understandable. It is also probably fair to say that he underestimated the resilience of liberalism, “negative” or not, which is, despite signs of fragility here and there, still very much with us.

The principal value of this essay, to my mind, is its stress on the important support which religious faith draws from being practiced in community and instantiated in social customs and habits, and also its impolitic insistence that Christianity cannot finally rest content with the status of a private pursuit, but ultimately aims at the salvation of souls — as many as possible — and the consequent transformation of society into its own image.

I was helped in my reflections on this essay by hearing an episode of the Christian Humanist Podcast.

**

“A party with a political philosophy is a revolutionary party.”

“Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.”

[Understatement]
When the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.

[The self-destructive telos of liberalism]
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

[Education and the arts]
You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction–however undemocratic it may sound–between the educated and the uneducated.

Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration

March 22, 2018

A Letter Concerning Toleration
John Locke
[1689]

In this influential essay Locke sets forth a vision of the relationship between civil and religious authorities. Its basic argument is that the two spheres are “absolutely separate and distinct”, or, in another place, “perfectly distinct and infinitely different”, and that in consequence it is a blunder to mix them. Churchmen ought to have no influence over civil affairs, and civil magistrates, likewise, no influence over religious affairs.

This sounds unremarkable to us because our society has been built along the lines proposed by Locke. This vision of his is our vision too, in practice, and usually in theory also. It is interesting, though, to look at the arguments Locke gives for his position.

Religion, he argues, benefits from separation from civil authority principally because civil magistrates have no special competence in religious matters. Care of souls has not been entrusted to them by God. “Neither the right nor the art of ruling does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things, and least of all of true religion.”

The power wielded by civil authority is that of force, but the use of force in religion is absurd, for “God Himself will not save men against their wills”. Instead, religion should be the realm of argument and persuasion, for “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Indeed, he goes on to argue that it is actually not possible to believe something simply because of an obligation to do so; rather, one must be convinced in order to truly believe. To impose a religion, therefore, simply results in men lying: “A sweet religion, indeed, that obliges men to dissemble and tell lies, both to God and man, for the salvation of their souls!” We see the sense in this view, of course, though perhaps we also feel a tension with our knowledge that the sanction of civil authority for a particular view is itself, for many people, persuasive.

Instead of meddling in religion, civil authorities should tend to their principal duties, which for Locke are the provision of security of each man’s private possessions, preserving the peace, riches, and public commodities of the whole people, and providing defence against foreign invasion. Since the state does not care for the health or the material well-being of its citizens, if the citizens themselves do not care for them, it should likewise not concern itself with their souls. This is an argument that will be more persuasive to conservatives than to liberals, the latter being less likely to grant the premise of the analogy.

The complementary principle to the ousting of civil authority from religious affairs is the ousting of religious authorities from civil affairs. After all, the two realms are “infinitely different”. Religious authorities should therefore concern themselves with religious matters. And who are religious authorities? Locke’s answer is “churches”. And what is a church? Locke’s answer is as follows:

“A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of souls.”

This answer poses certain difficulties. How is it that these voluntary societies of men who have joined themselves together of their own accord have also had religious authority conferred upon them? Is it simply because they claimed such authority for themselves? If so, what prevents the civil authority from likewise claiming such authority for itself? A competent religious authority is presumably one who teaches truths about religion and religious practices, but it is hard to see how these voluntary societies, simply as such, become competent to know such truths. And, as it turns out, Locke is aware of this problem and has an answer: no church really knows truths about religion. “Every church is orthodox to itself” is all that can be said. This is a fatal admission for Locke, since it collapses the all-important distinction he wants to maintain between religious and civil authorities.

Even if genuine religious authority existed, however, the neat separation he would like to make between civil and religious affairs is complicated by the fact that they are not actually separable, and this is perhaps clearest in the realm of morality, which bears both on acts (having, in his scheme, civil consequences) and conscience (having, in his scheme, religious import). He does grapple with this problem. His leading principle is a sound one: “Obedience is due, in the first place, to God and, afterwards, to the laws.” (Indeed, this, and not the relativity of religious truth, is the proper rationale for religious toleration.) If, therefore, a civil law imposes upon the conscience of a citizen, he should not obey the law, but he should also accept the punishment prescribed by law. If, however, the law in question pertains to matters that do not properly lie within the sphere of competence of the civil authority, then the citizen ought to protest against the law and refuse to submit. In cases of irresolvable conflict, God alone can judge between the magistrate and the subject. But we must ask: if conscience resides in the realm of religious authority, what are these putative civil laws which impose upon the conscience without thereby also straying outside their sphere of civil competence?

A peculiarity of his system is that, for him, religion is individualistic and purely voluntary. One inherits nothing from others and belongs to no community that precedes one’s voluntary association with it:

“Nobody is born a member of any church… [otherwise] everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.”

(But is it not also absurd to inherit lands?)

The motive underlying the scheme Locke outlines in his essay is the promotion of religious toleration. There is an important sense in which we owe a debt to Locke for making these arguments. After religiously-implicated wars had racked European societies it was important to Locke to lower the stakes of civil government, and removing religion from its sphere of influence was an effective strategy from which, in real and tangible ways, we have benefited. This needn’t prevent our noting the weaknesses in his arguments, nor stop us from thinking about what we have lost as the price of what we have gained, but most of us, most of the time, are probably glad to live in a society where religious toleration is valued. It is perhaps especially true as governments have become more self-consciously secular that the state’s commitment, at least theoretically, to religious toleration has been, so to speak, a saving grace for religious citizens.

The confidence we can have in this at-least-theoretical commitment to religious tolerance is not, however, unbounded, and this is illustrated already by Locke, who concludes his robust defence of religious tolerance by naming a few religious groups that ought not to be tolerated — namely, Catholics and atheists, the former because they “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince” (that is, the Pope) and the latter because the denial of God’s existence “dissolves all”.

**

As I said at the top, Locke’s scheme for how politics and religion ought to relate is familiar to us because it is the blueprint for our own society’s approach to such matters. I can appreciate his motives, though it is evident that his system tries to make neat something that is in fact messy. His conception of what kind of thing a religion is, akin to a gentleman’s dinner club, is especially weak and certainly at odds with the self-understanding of most religions. Indeed, insofar as his proposal relies on the premise that there is no such thing as a genuine religious authority it could never be acceptable to a Catholic, nor to many other religious groups either, even if we are, for the sake of social harmony, willing to play along for now. Heaven, we are confident, will not be governed along Lockean lines.

Newman: Loss and Gain

August 25, 2016

Loss and Gain
Bl. John Henry Newman
(Ignatius, 2012) [1848]
432 p.

This was the first book Newman wrote after his conversion to Catholicism at Oxford in 1845, and, given its theme — about a young Oxford man, Charles Reding, who converts to Catholicism — it is natural, and probably justifiable, to see it as an autobiographical novel. It would be interesting to compare it to his Apologia pro vita sua — this is left as an exercise.

Enthusiasts for books about Oxford men named Charles who convert to Catholicism will note the similarities with their other favourite book, Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, in this Ignatius Press edition an accompanying essay by J.C. Whitehouse uses the phrase “Brideshead Previsited”, which earns full marks from me.) But (not having read that essay) I would say that the similarities between the two books are fairly slight. Waugh’s novel is a character study in which theology hardly registers (that hilarious scene of Rex’s catechism notwithstanding), whereas Newman’s novel, though not without characters — especially in the sense of “representatives of a view” — is deeply and directly concerned with theology. The book is full of conversation set-pieces in which theology and history and ethics are discussed.

John_Henry_NewmanThere is something didactic about this, and the extent to which it is tolerable will depend on how interesting the reader finds the topics of conversation. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed almost all of them. I expect that anyone who has thought much about religious conversion, or, better, who has experienced a long, drawn-out, and at least partly intellectual religious conversion himself, is likely to find the book quite absorbing and insightful about the process.

Charles is an undergraduate as the book opens, and as near as I can determine it more or less covers the period of his undergraduate career. The Oxford of his day differs from the Oxford of ours inasmuch as religion is for him a focal point of campus life, and religious ideas are matters of general discussion and controversy. When Charles visits the room of his friend Willis for the first time, he finds:

there was much in them which shocked both his good sense and his religious principles. A large ivory crucifix, in a glass case, was a conspicuous ornament between the windows; an engraving, representing the Blessed Trinity, as is usual in Catholic countries, hung over the fireplace, and a picture of the Madonna and St. Dominic was opposite to it. On the mantelpiece were a rosary, a thuribulum, and other tokens of Catholicism, of which Charles did not know the uses; a missal, ritual, and some Catholic tracts, lay on the table; and, as he happened to come on Willis unexpectedly, he found him sitting in a vestment more like a cassock than a reading-gown, and engaged upon some portion of the Breviary.

I’m not saying this scene is absolutely impossible today, or that it was usual in Newman’s day — we know from Charles’ reaction that it was not — but it is more the specific nature of the religious artifacts that excites Charles’ attention, whereas today it would be the mere presence of religious artifacts.

For Charles religion is not about feelings or wishes, but about truth (in this he is certainly Newman’s avatar), and his spiritual journey is in significant measure an intellectual one, a journey toward right belief:

He had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them.

And again, in conversation with a friend, Charles contends that:

“I did not say a creed was everything […] or that a religion could not be false which had a creed; but a religion can’t be true which has none.”

An interesting issue that the book addresses is the paradox of private judgement in Catholic conversion. If one talks to converts from Protestantism, a common rationale offered in favour of the conversion is that the reign of private judgement on religious matters in Protestant circles leads to religious chaos — each man his own Pope. Catholicism is chosen as the antidote to such chaos, for the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, dividing truth from error with Christ’s own authority. But there’s the rub: for a convert — and, in a religiously contested age like our own, for cradle Catholics too — Catholicism is chosen, which means that private judgement isn’t quite out of the picture, and indeed stands disconcertingly close to the root. Charles ponders this problem at some length:

Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgment; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing-room? what would the goodly company there assembled before a genial hearth and under glittering chandeliers, the bright ladies and the well-dressed gentlemen, say to him if he came in with a great-coat on his back, a hat on his head, an umbrella under his arm, and a large stable-lantern in his hand? Yet what would be thought, on the other hand, if he precipitated himself into the inhospitable night and the war of the elements in his ball-dress? “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had not on a wedding-garment;” he saw a man who determined to live in the Church as he had lived out of it, who would not use his privileges, who would not exchange reason for faith, who would not accommodate his thoughts and doings to the glorious scene which surrounded him, who was groping for the hidden treasure and digging for the pearl of price in the high, lustrous, all-jewelled Temple of the Lord of Hosts; who shut his eyes and speculated, when he might open them and see. There is no absurdity, then, or inconsistency in a person first using his private judgment and then denouncing its use. Circumstances change duties.

And I do think that the apparent paradox has to be resolved in something like this way: a convert’s judgement gets him so far, as it must, for at that point he has nothing else to go on — unless it be grace, about which more below. But once inside it is foolhardy, and certainly counterproductive, to be standing in judgement over every jot and tittle when his attitude ought rightly to be one of docility and receptiveness, for if the Church is what she claims to be then he can only benefit from opening his heart and letting her graces and truths form him. In the process of transition, a good deal of prudential judgement is called for to get this balance right.

And though it seems that private judgement in religion is a part of the conversion process, there is something futile and even comical about it to one whose conversion is further advanced. Commenting on the tendency of Protestants to claim to discern whether and how Catholicism has corrupted the faith, Charles’ friend makes a good point:

Willis said that he supposed that persons who were not Catholics could not tell what were corruptions and what not.

That is very well said.

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to characterize conversion — conversion to Catholicism, at any rate — as a principally intellectual process that one undertakes on one’s own. Faith is not something one musters up or merely wills; faith is a gift. It comes to us; we are encouraged to ask for it. Charles’ friend Willis makes the same point to him:

“What you want is faith. I suspect you have quite proof enough; enough to be converted on. But faith is a gift; pray for that great gift, without which you cannot come to the Church.”

I have myself cautioned friends not to pray for faith unless they are serious, because in my experience this particular prayer has a startling likelihood of being answered, and then there’s no telling what might happen.

Even when we receive this gift, though, conversion is slow. We may have moments of particular significance along our way, but nobody, I think, can truly be converted in a moment, for it calls for a renewal and re-alignment along many dimensions, and it takes time to discover them all even when we are pliant — and we are not always pliant:

Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.

What I like about this passage is the sense it conveys of the convert being accompanied. Can one who truly feels alone be converted to Catholicism? The name of the Paraclete, I am told, means ‘one who comes alongside’, and in my experience this is what a prospective convert actually experiences. One has the sense of being on a road, going somewhere, but also of the road itself having been somehow prepared in advance. To my delight, Charles makes exactly this point:

He could not escape the destiny, in due time, in God’s time—though it might be long, though angels might be anxious, though the Church might plead as if defrauded of her promised increase of a stranger, yet a son; yet come it must, it was written in Heaven, and the slow wheels of time each hour brought it nearer—he could not ultimately escape his destiny of becoming a Catholic.

This is putting it a little more strongly than I would, but I think he is here undoubtedly describing the real quality of the experience that at least some converts have.

For Charles, living in the time and place that he does, the decision to become a Catholic is not without cost. He becomes estranged from his family and from respectable society. “Yes, I give up home, I give up all who have ever known me, loved me, valued me, wished me well; I know well I am making myself a by-word and an outcast.” He can no longer continue at Oxford, so departs for London, not really knowing what will become of him. In the final act of the novel he lodges in London with a friend, just prior to approaching a priest to request reception — at this point, he still doesn’t know any priests! — and Newman stages a kind of parade, as person after person, having heard of his intentions, knock at his door with the intention, apparently on the principle that someone who gives off believing one thing is ready to believe anything, of diverting him to their particular systems of belief. This section of the book is diverting, but not very successful beyond that. The finale is rescued by the final scene, in which Charles is finally received into the Church:

“Too late have I known Thee, O Thou ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”

**

[Aphorism touching Church authority]
When an oracle equivocates it carries with it its own condemnation.

[Pondering the Anglican and Catholic churches]
“Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself, as I have just been saying. Again, a prophet of God can allow of no rival, but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture. Now, it is impossible to say whether our Church acknowledges or not Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, the Nestorian and Monophysite bodies in the East. Nor does it clearly tell us what view it takes of the Church of Rome. The only place where it recognizes its existence is in the Homilies, and there it speaks of it as Antichrist. Nor has the Greek Church any intelligible position in Anglican doctrine. On the other hand, the Church of Rome has this prima facie mark of a prophet, that, like a prophet in Scripture, it admits no rival, and anathematizes all doctrine counter to its own. There’s another thing: a prophet of God is of course at home with his message; he is not helpless and do-nothing in the midst of errors and in the war of opinions. He knows what has been given him to declare, how far it extends; he can act as an umpire; he is equal to emergencies. This again tells in favour of the Church of Rome. As age after age comes she is ever on the alert, questions every new comer, sounds the note of alarm, hews down strange doctrine, claims and locates and perfects what is new and true. The Church of Rome inspires me with confidence; I feel I can trust her. It is another thing whether she is true; I am not pretending now to decide that. But I do not feel the like trust in our own Church. I love her more than I trust her. She leaves me without faith. Now you see the state of my mind.”

[A description of Rome]
It was so dreary, so melancholy a place; a number of old, crumbling, shapeless brick masses, the ground unlevelled, the straight causeways fenced by high monotonous walls, the points of attraction straggling over broad solitudes, faded palaces, trees universally pollarded, streets ankle deep in filth or eyes-and-mouth deep in a cloud of whirling dust and straws, the climate most capricious, the evening air most perilous. [Ed. — Personally, I don’t recall the climate being all that capricious.]

[On the experience of Mass in the old Rite]
Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.

 

Laird: Into the Silent Land

February 5, 2013

Into the Silent Land
A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
Martin Laird
(Oxford, 2006)
154 p.

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.

[St. Augustine]
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.