An Ocean of Light:
Contemplation, Transformation, Liberation
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2018.
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[ Hearts & Minds Books ]
Reviewed by Christopher Brown
The town where I live in Colorado sits on the edge of the plains at the foot of the mountains. To the west of us, Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker rise to elevations of 14,259’ and 13,911’ respectively. They are immense, immovable mountains that have given me new perspective on Psalm 125:1: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever.” Some days the view is crystal clear, free of any haze and without even a cloud touching the mountains. On other days I watch as storms encircle the peaks, covering them in snow and blotting out my view of them. These constantly changing scenes often remind me of Martin Laird’s words in Into the Silent Land, “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion” (16).
Laird’s newest book continues to describe the landscape of the contemplative path, moving from mountains of stillness to an ocean of awareness. An Ocean of Light is the third book in Laird’s series on contemplative prayer, following Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. In An Ocean of Light, Laird builds on themes from his previous books, though he does so from different perspectives and in greater detail. Part I focuses on the illusion of God’s absence and the reality of God’s presence. Though we tend to assume God’s distance, and mistakenly think we can overcome such distance through effort or technique, Laird says,“God does not know how to be absent . . . The problem is that our vision is heavily lumbered, our minds deeply cluttered” (18-19).
In Part II, Laird describes how the decluttering of our minds moves a contemplative practitioner through states of reactive mind, receptive mind, eventually to luminous mind. Part III addresses depression in relation to contemplative practice and invites the reader to see depression as “the context for escaping the tyranny of an isolated self, as well as a solid base” that ties those suffering depression “to the wider community of those who suffer” (216-217). Laird writes with an intimate understanding of depression in Part III, suggesting a personal familiarity with such suffering that enables him to avoid any triteness or lack of empathy. Here, as with other states of mind described in the book, Laird leads as a guide who has come to know his territory through years of disciplined personal exploration.
By inserting third person narratives into otherwise abstract portions of the book, Laird invites the reader to walk alongside various characters through this landscape of the contemplative life. I was drawn in by the story of James, a character whom Laird uses to depict the reactive mind. Despite being fascinated with contemplative prayer and well-read on the subject, James, “has an arsenal of procrastination techniques to defend himself against doing what he desires most to do: to be still in the presence of the Lord (Ps 46:10).” From taking out the trash to cleaning the kitchen to reading text messages and checking Facebook at 5:30 in the morning, James “body-mind is a beehive of activity” preventing him from actually engaging the stillness he desires (64-65). Other characters bring different portions of Laird’s landscape to life: Millicent and Jonas catch glimpses of lightamid depression. Evelyn shows us a life of active service carried along by the current of awareness.
Compared to one another, these stories illustrate the fruit of a disciplined practice of contemplative prayer: Where James’s ego interfered with his practice of prayer, Evelyn’s ego has become translucent. Tracing this path from a glacier on the mountain to a unitive sea, Laird writes:
The ‘Sun of Justice’ (Mal. 4:2) melts egoic ice into water, reactive ego into receptive ego, which now flows into a stream. In turn the stream flows into creeks, rivulets, each with ever more abundant communities of ecosystems, and then into the mighty river that seeks but one thing: ocean (113).
An Ocean of Light is a field guide for those who dare to explore the inner landscape of the contemplative life. May those who read it be blessed to discover the rivers of living water which flow from the heart (John 7:38).
Christopher Brown is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, CO, and a New Worshiping Communities coach for the Presbyterian Church (USA). He has also contributed chapters to Urban Ministry Reconsidered: Contexts and Approaches and Essays on the New Worshiping Communities Movement