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Book Review

Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Martin Laird OSA, Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2006

One question that often puzzles people: what is contemplation? It is likely that if you asked this question of ten different people who are in some way classed as ‘contemplatives’, you would get ten different answers. The lack of an agreed answer is off-putting, and those who had ideas about practising it might be discouraged and decide to leave it to others. If this sounds familiar, then Martin Laird’s book will make you think again. For Laird, contemplation is nothing more than ‘seeking communion with God in the silence of our hearts’ (Laird, page 1). Being contemplative is something that we are all called to – it is in our nature.

How then are we to set about becoming contemplative? Laird tackles this by first assessing a common problem – that we all too easily think of God as some distant ‘thing’, somewhere out there, far removed from us. The early part of his book seeks to remind us that we discover the sacred within, because God is, as St. Augustine put it, ‘closer to me than I am to myself’ (City of God, IX.7). Further discussion of this concept is given, drawing on the scriptures in particular, but using other sources including The Cloud of Unknowing, Eckhart, and St. John of the Cross.

The next problem Laird addresses is that of 'the noise of the heart', which stifles our ability to pray. This leaves us unaware of the great vastness and freedom to be found in God, and we end up chasing our tails rather than roaming free (page 20). His answer to this problem is to suggest repetition of the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me’. This invocation of the Holy Name is seen by the Orthodox Church as the foundation of contemplation, and is also endorsed by the Catholic Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church §435). Such a prayer helps us realise what our distractions and anxieties are but also draws us away from them to a deeper level of reality: our union with God.

Laird speaks also of the importance of the body in prayer – the importance of posture and breath to aid relaxation and attentiveness. These things combined are not contemplative prayer as such – it would be a mistake to think that our own efforts are enough. But these practices should help us to become people who are alert and focused enough to receive the gift of prayer from God, when it is given.

Laird is without doubt a man of prayer himself. He is honest about the fact that contemplative prayer is likely to expose something of our wounded human condition, and the problems of temptation, of pride and of failure (Laird, page 117). However, he persuades us that in persevering we may truly find healing and wholeness through the power of Christ.

This book is a real gem. Its brevity means that can be read in a short time but its profundity means it needs to be read and re-read to absorb as much of its wisdom as possible.

Robert Gay OP


Anonymous commented on 30-Aug-2017 02:14 PM
thanks for good review. hopefully many will read it. Steve Palmer

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