Title: A sunlit absence: silence, awareness and contemplation.
Author: Martin Laird
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Location of publisher: New York
Year of publication: 2011 (Kindle edition)
Number of pages: 208
Fiction or nonfiction: Nonfiction.
Have I read this book before? No.
Date I finished reading it: 1 February 2017
Genres: Religion, spirituality, Catholicism, contemplative religion, meditation, mindfulness, mental health, Christian mysticism.
Personal reflections upon reading this text:
I first heard of Fr Martin Laird in a video lecture shared on the YouTube channel of the interfaith dialogue community Festival of Faiths and indeed, in reading this book, recognised some of the anecdotes that I had heard in this lecture. I was intrigued enough by the lecture – which I listened to multiple times – that I decided to buy this book. It took me a long time to read it: it was one of these books that force me to stop and think. Which is good. It means I’m learning something new.
I can’t recall precisely when I developed an interest in mindfulness, contemplation and Catholic mysticism. Was it buried somewhere in my earliest memories of a lived spiritual experience at a very young age that my child’s mind could only attribute to the mystical, unknowable presence I assumed to be God? Was it in the Catholic school lessons on silent prayer and meditation, designed to relax and calm fractious teenage students? Was it in the awe-struck wonder of an Easter vigil, incense smoke hanging thickly over the sanctuary, feeling like the music that poured forth from my flute intermingled with the choir to make heaven’s own music? Was it in the blessed relief after anxiously stepping into a Taizé prayer service for the first time as a 30-something, in a German language church in the city, where I couldn’t understand most of the German and Latin songs, yet discovered there was a kind of kindred spirit in the chilly candlelit space adorned in flickering candles and iconography? Was it in the writings of St John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich who proclaimed a God vastly different to the cruelly punitive narcissist parent in the sky who had thus far ruled my adult theological ontology, instead pointing to a God who was truly love personified? Was it in the poetry of Thomas Merton and Gerard Manley Hopkins, or in the joyful prose of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating? Perhaps it was simply in the words of my Atheist clinical psychologist who explained to me that while I could never be 100% cured, there were a variety of practices that would help me live my life in spite of my illness, with mindfulness and meditation being particularly promising as a mechanism to support the traumatised mind, in conjunction with responsible and science-based medical treatment.
The point is, I have spent most of my life hearing whispers of these ideas that the God we meet in standard religious practices is a mere shadow of something far greater, kinder and more loving than mainstream religion wants to know about. It is hard to get people to conform to a system of social control if they are living a life secured in the sense of the essential goodness of God. And one way to access this understanding of God is through active silence, mindfulness and contemplation. It’s an experiential spirituality, rather than merely being assent to a set of intellectual and ideological propositions.
Fr Laird’s book offers some very practical ideas on how and why to practice a specifically Catholic kind of mindfulness, which I appreciated greatly. But what I personally really liked about this book was his level-headed approach to mental illness and recovery. Unlike the fundamentalist and Pentecostal commentators I heard throughout my 20s, who were thoroughly convinced that mental illness represents a spiritual oppression, Fr Laird acknowledges the necessity of science-based medical intervention. He writes about how contemplative practices can help and support a mentally ill person experience life more fully, while never diminishing nor disrespecting the physically embodied nature of mental illness. That was my personal favourite take-away from this book.
I also particularly enjoyed his anecdote about the people on a silent retreat grappling with a neighbouring farm’s use of terribly loud machinery… but I won’t give it away here, you’ll have to read it for yourself!
I don’t know where I sit on the spectrum of religious beliefs. The books I read reflect that fairly obviously. As a child it was simple – I was a Catholic, because that’s what I was raised in, that’s what most of my family was, that’s what my schools were, that’s just what I took for granted as a normative Australian childhood. In my late teens and early 20s I adopted the label of Wiccan (though having since learned a lot more about different types of paganism, I don’t think Wiccan is accurate, and it would’ve been more correct to describe myself as a Celtic and Norse-inspired solitary pagan). In my 20s I was a born-again Pentecostal follower of Jesus Christ, in that heady black-and-white certainty born of both normal expressions of young adulthood and the dualistic philosophising of the religious fundamentalist. Now I’m in my mid 30s there is far less clarity or certainty. And I’m comfortable with that, despite knowing that it makes a number of my acquaintances very uneasy. They would find it far more convenient to be able to label me as a Christian or backslider. They would like to be able to say, “I told you so,” when they think about how they just knew that I would revert to my wicked heathen ways. They see Catholicism as functionally no different to Witchcraft, and deem both as evil. They look at the unifying, peace-oriented silent prayer of Taizé and call it a pathway to the devil while ignoring the fact that the average Taizé service has more Bible reading content in it than most Pentecostal services I can remember. I read about Norse Paganism and Celtic Druidry with a kind of desperate yearning I cannot express, while simultaneously reading the Gospels of Jesus with a profound hope and joy in following His teachings as far as I can. I practice Lent and pray Bible verses while finding God in the depths of a forest, as though the trees and animals and soil itself revealed God’s fullness in a way organised religion never could.
And so I find in contemplative Christian practices a way to connect to the teachings of Christ, as an emulation of the many Biblical references to Him going to a silent, lonely place to pray, wrestling with the satan in the desert (my Pentecostal teachers taught that it was a literal demonic being taunting Jesus; my Catholic teachers referred to ‘satan’ as a symbolic system, no less real, but the very tangible experience of discovering great discord within ourselves as we embark on a contemplative path). But in doing so, following Him into the wilderness, into the Dark Night of the Soul, there is a great and vast beauty, and a disintegration of the cage-like labels we use to define ourselves as different to (and presumably ‘better than’) perceived ‘others.’ Distinctions come to matter less than connections. We learn that the real enemy is within ourselves, our chaotic, disordered, fragmented, dissonant minds and hearts, and in experiencing the depths of God’s unifying love can no longer scapegoat the person whose skin colour is different, whose gender is different, whose words for God are different. (I say all this while acknowledging that I am very much a beginner in this journey of contemplative practice; also that OBVIOUSLY this doesn’t represent a kind of vague moral relativism or shrugged shoulders towards genuine evil – a contemplative may well become more convinced of the necessity of social justice and action, rather than disconnecting from genuine human and environmental need. Just look at Thomas Merton’s life and writings for starters.)
Labels become less and less important to me as I carry on this path of contemplative practice, no matter how infrequent and amateur I am on the path. I am learning to be less defensive, less rigidly dualistic, less fearful, and more at peace with myself and the world around me.