Journey to the Heart

Journey to the Heart August 9, 2012

Journey to the Heart
Journey to the Heart

A relatively new offering from Orbis Books provides a very nice overview of the history of contemplative spirituality within Christianity. Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation Through the Centuries, edited by Kim Nataraja, features an anthology of writings by some of the most respected writers on Christian spirituality today: Laurence Freeman, Esther de Waal, Kallistos Ware, Shirley du Boulay, Andrew Louth, among others.

Nataraja is a meditation instructor with the World Community for Christian Meditation (which is based on the teachings of the Benedictine contemplative John Main and directed by Freeman). The book does a wonderful job at highlighting the specifically contemplative dimensions of the teachings of Jesus, John and Paul, and traces how a variety of saints and mystics from Clement of Alexandria in the second century, to John Main in the twentieth, have embodied, contributed to, and transmitted the contemplative dimension of Christian wisdom through each passing century.

The book is beautifully illustrated, and could function as a “coffee table” book. But it is meant to be read and pondered. Like any anthology, some chapters are stronger than others — the chapter on Hildegard of Bingen was particularly disappointing, whereas the chapters on Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths were all delights to read.

A few figures not often associated with the contemplative or mystical tradition were  included: St. Dominic (usually overshadowed by his theological heirs Aquinas and Eckhart), Dante Alighieri, and Etty Hillesum each were given a chapter. The book’s origin in London probably contributed to the generous covering of British figures: from all of the fourteenth century mystics, to George Herbert, Thomas Traherne and Evelyn Underhill.

But I was surprised to see George Fox omitted; likewise, Aelred of Rievaulx was left out, along with his comrades Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry — indeed, the only Cistercian to be included was Thomas Merton.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is its narrow tracing of the contemplative thread in the twentieth century. We cannot truly appreciate contemplative spirituality in the postmodern age without addressing the encounter between Christianity and other faiths, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Journey to the Heart emphasizes the turn to India (Abhishiktananda, Griffiths) but then abruptly ends with a look at John Main, which is perhaps not surprising given the book’s ties to WCCM. Main, of course, built his practice around the use of a mantra (which he learned in Malaya), so the interest in India makes sense in that context.

But Main is only one of several important teachers of contemplation in the years following the death of Merton. M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Tilden Edwards and Gerald May are conspicuously absent from this survey, which to this reviewer seriously weakens it. Each of these teachers was influenced by the East-West dialogue, whether through Merton (in the case of the Centering Prayer movement) or through Tibetan Buddhism (in the case of the Shalem movement). Clearly, we are still waiting for a truly comprehensive survey that considers all the ways in which contemplative spirituality has benefitted from the twentieth century’s encounter between Christians and the spiritualities of the East.

But I suppose any effort to create a manageable survey of the history of spirituality will result in leaving out figures that others will insist should have been included. So I’m willing to appreciate this book for what it is: a useful and beautifully designed survey of the tradition, geared toward the followers of a particular movement (WCCM), but helpful for anyone who would like to connect the dots between the wisdom teachings of Jesus and the contemplative practices of our time.

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