Rejoice, my friends. The author who is arguably our most eloquent and learned living authority on Christian contemplation — at least in the western church — has released his third book on the topic. And it’s a gem.
Martin Laird’s An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation combines the author’s lyrical, accessible writing, along with his scholarly knowledge of the Christian contemplative tradition and astute insight into the dynamics of contemplative practice today.
If you’re familiar with his previous books on contemplation, Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence, you’ll want this one as well. And if you haven’t discovered Martin Laird — well, a treat awaits you.
Fr. Laird is a professor of early Christian studies at Villanova University. He is renowned for having his students sit in silence as part of their learning process in studying ancient church history.
But this book, like his previous two, is not a dry academic treatment of contemplation. Rather, it is warmly written, practical and down-to-earth, and filled with insight and instruction to help anyone who embraces contemplative prayer to pray deeply and well.
Naturally, he draws on the wisdom of great mystics like St. Teresa of Ávila, Howard Thurman, and Meister Eckhart to illustrate his teachings. But he is just as likely to quote a literary figure like Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, or David Foster Wallace.
In doing so, he reinforces a central theme of all his books: that contemplation remains relevant and meaningful in our time; it’s not just a dusty spiritual practice more suited for mediæval monks. You don’t need a horsehair shirt or cilice to embrace silent prayer: on the contrary, this is a healthy, life-affirming spirituality that can help us lead happier and more meaningful lives today.
Many people who embrace contemplative, or silent, prayer struggle with the experience of interior distractions: the endless chatter of thoughts, images and feelings that forms the stream of ordinary consciousness. In his first book on contemplation, Into the Silent Land, Laird offers a brilliant analysis of why we have distracted minds and how to move through the distractions to an ever-expanding awareness of silence.
Now in An Ocean of Light, he offers nuanced insights into why we become so distracted, and how to pray through our distractions to uncover our God-given “luminous mind” — an inner ocean of light.
From Reactivity, to Receptivity, to Luminosity
Laird takes the traditional understanding of mystical spirituality — as successive movements through purgation, illumination, and finally union with God or deification — and reframes this process in terms of the experience of prayer. When we enter into silent prayer, we notice our minds. At the beginning, we notice that we suffer from a reactive mind — our thoughts and feelings seem indisciplined, uncontrollable, and constantly commenting on whatever happens to be going on.
Taking time to persevere in gentle silent prayer can lead to a place where we become less trapped by our inner reactivity. This breakthrough Laird calls the receptive mind — a way of perceiving that allows rather than reacts, and in such allowing is more capable of “receiving” not only whatever is happening in our lives, but even the tendency to interiorly comment on what is happening. We move from automatic reactivity to a gentler, more spacious ability to be present. Reactivity doesn’t go away entirely, but our awareness feels more open and spacious.
Continuing on with prayer allows that awareness of openness and spaciousness to deepen and expand. Prayerful perseverance reveals that, beneath the reactivity and receptivity that normally fills our awareness, is the ground of our being — the luminous mind that is deeply silent, one with God, and always present. Learning to rest in the ocean of light doesn’t make the “normal” awareness of reactivity or receptivity disappear, but it does help us to cultivate a more spacious, trusting, gentle awareness — in prayer and in all of life.
The book concludes with a chapter on the contemplative experience of depression — what Laird whimsically calls the “uninvited guest” that can often be painful for those who seek silent prayer. His treatment of the dynamic of moving through depression in a contemplative way is honest — he avoids the trap of suggesting silent prayer is a panacea — but offers hope that, in simply learning to pray through depression, even when it is chronic, we can discover God’s presence — even in the midst of affliction.
This book is said to be for beginners as well as more seasoned contemplatives. I think that’s true, although if you haven’t read one or both of Laird’s previous books — Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence — I’d recommend starting with them. But whether you read An Ocean of Light right away or a few months from now, be sure to read it. It’s one of the most enjoyable and insightful contemplative books I have read in quite some time.