Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
By Martin Laird
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Review by Carl McColman
Here is one of the loveliest, most poetic, and most useful books on the practice of mature Christian prayer that I have ever read.
First of all, what this book is not. It is not a comprehensive guide to Christian spirituality, or even to Christian prayer. The author does not bother discussing the sacramental or liturgical life of the church, or lectio divina, or the quest for personal or collective holiness. Nor is this a manual on meditation in its classical Christian sense — e.g., meditation as reflection on the spiritual life, such as found in the writings of Ignatius of Loyola. And while there are some superficial similarities (particularly in the emphasis on the “prayer word”), this is not about centering prayer or John Main’s approach to Christian meditation. Laird anchors his approach to contemplation in the desert and eastern traditions, quoting authors such as Evagrius, John Climacus, Theophan the Recluse, Hesychios, and Gregory of Sinai. But he doesn’t ignore the west: John of the Cross, Augustine, Meister Eckhart and John Ruysbroeck are frequently cited as well. If you’re the kind of reader who pays attention to footnotes, you’ll probably come away, as I did, with the sense that this is a book thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Christian spirituality.
Laird discusses the Jesus Prayer and the scripture-based prayer of John Cassian, but he clearly prefers — and thus, writes about — monologistic prayer: the prayer of gentle, unforced awareness, anchored in a synchronized attention to one’s breath while repeating a single prayer word. This, of course, is the approach to contemplation advocated by one of the towering giants of mystical literature, The Cloud of Unknowing. By praying this way, we enter into our own deeper place of always-existing silence — what Laird calls “the silent land” — where we do not find God so much as we allow God to find us, or, perhaps even better said, where the idea of creator and creature finding each other simply falls away as just another thought gently laid aside within the all-encompassing presence of the Divine Mystery.
This approach to prayer — and spirituality — is thoroughly mystical, which is to say it is predicated on the theology of God’s presence within us, even “while we were yet sinners.” As Laird puts it, “When Paul looks within and sees Christ, I do not suggest he sees Christ as an object of awareness. Paul speaks of something more direct and immediate, which pertains to the ground of awareness and not to the objects of awareness. The awareness itself is somehow about the presence of Christ in Paul.” In other words, moving into the silent land means moving beyond some sort of subject-object duality where “I” find, see, or in some other way apprehend “God” or “Christ.” When Paul said “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me,” Martin Laird takes the apostle at his word — and invites us to do the same, affirming that it is only in the silent land that we can experience this reality for ourselves.
The entire book is a delight, but what I found particularly useful is Laird’s gentle, hopeful, and practical discussion of how to deal with distractions during silent prayer. He notes that distractions are normal, indeed are simply the mind doing its work: the mind is about thinking just as the heart is about beating. The point is to gently, and over a several stage process that Laird describes as “thresholds,” disengage ourselves from the normal pattern of becoming caught up in our thoughts — and weaving elaborate stories (more thoughts) out of them. As we move deeper and deeper into the silent land, we learn to watch thoughts arise and fall, without needing to comment on them or otherwise get engaged by them. We learn to “look over the shoulders” of our thoughts at the pure, vast, depthless depth within, beneath, and beyond the chatter of the mind. Laird uses the analogy of weather patterns on Mount Zion: our thoughts are the weather, and the silence is the mountain: the mountain where true prayer may occur. “As our silence deepens we are able to meet our thoughts and feelings directly, without commentary, without telling a story to ourselves about them… Gradually we see the simplest of facts, so simple and yet we have missed it all these years: our thoughts and feelings appear in something deeper, in a great vastness. This vastness is not yet another object of awareness but the ground of awareness itself.” Here we are closing in on what George Fox called “the inner light” and Thomas Merton described as le point vierge: that place where, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”
Laird recognizes that this way of thinking might frighten those who are afraid of anything that smacks of pantheism. “Some who are tediously metaphysical might worry that all this talk of union with God blurs the distinction between creator and creation. Far from blurring this distinction it sets it in sharper focus. John’s Gospel says that we are the branches and Christ is the vine.” But he avoids getting mired in theological debate, rather simply describing the experience of contemplation and how to best respond to the kind of mental and emotional resistance that inevitably accompanies the quest to be silent before God. The book ends with down-to-earth considerations of how contemplative practice can be beneficial for those who suffer (as in serious illness), or those who are engaged in the process of letting go of debilitating fear or temptation. Acknowledging that such deep inner work often may require the assistance of a professional therapist, Laird nevertheless makes a convincing case that contemplation is not just something we do to feel good with God — it has holistic repercussions for anyone seeking to live a life of what the Cistercian tradition calls “joyful penitence,” in other words, ongoing transformation in Christ.
This is a wonderful book. Any aspiring contemplative will, I believe, find it helpful and inspiring. And even those who have been exploring the silent land for many years now will find it useful.