Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation Through the Centuries.
edited by Kim Nataraja,
including contributions by Lawrence Freeman OSB, Esther de Waal, Kallistos Ware, Shirley du Boulay, Andrew Louth, and others
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2011.
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Reviewed by Greg Richardson.
Journey to the Heart is a solid, substantial book that presents a comprehensive and varied story. The chapters grow out of talks given over four years for a course that traced both the diversity and common thread of contemplative Christianity. It provides a context and perspective for understanding the story of Christian contemplation.
This new book describes the community of Christian contemplatives that stretched from Jesus, John, and Paul through our times. Each chapter fits its subject into the context of this tradition and explains how it contributes to the growth and development of the tradition.
Beginning with the New Testament roots of contemplative Christianity, the reader is led through the Desert Mothers and Fathers and their monastic heirs, through the English Mystics and the Spanish Mystics, up to modern times. Their diversity of voices gives the book richness and depth, while their shared focus gives the book common theme.
This journey begins at the beginning of Christian contemplation, with Jesus. In the silence, Jesus speaks. Within the context of mysticism that forms an essential part of many religious and wisdom traditions, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Our response reflects our own balance of contemplation and action. Each person who responds adds to the growing, developing tradition.
The people profiled in Journey to the Heart are captivating. Beginning with Jesus, John, and Paul, they are people who do not accept easy answers. They get to the heart of the situation, and they ask excellent questions. They listen, and they open themselves to the wisdom of silence. As Christianity becomes more socially acceptable, they need to find ways to avoid distractions. Recognizing that God is mystery beyond our understanding and our ability to explain, they strive to pass beyond analysis to being present with God.
Included here are people like Clement of Alexandria, the head of a school for those wanting to be baptized, and Origen, who succeeded him as head of the school. It includes the Cappadocian Fathers; Basil of Caesarea and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. They, along with their close associate Evagrius, describe the integral connection between theology and practice. It includes Anthony and the men and women who followed him into the desert.
Each generation of contemplatives influences and provides the foundation for the next.
John Cassian and his writing are a key link between those who went before him and those who came after. He translates and distills wisdom and teaching in ways that shape the practices of early monastic communities and Benedict’s Rule. A seeker of spiritual life and depth, John Cassian describes prayer practices to purify emotions and actions. His writings help lay the foundation for Benedict’s vows of commitment to stability, conversion of life, and obedience.
Benedict invites the generations after him into the community. Hildegard of Bingen and the many others in the Benedictine family, as well as Francis, Dominic, and the others in their branches of the contemplative family.
Meister Eckhart, a Dominican, lived a life balanced between responsibilities within his Order and the study and teaching of theology. Finding the balance that encompassed the extremes, he was a contemplative activist who was concerned with teaching ordinary lay men and women. His theology resonates with Clement, Origen, Evagrius, John Cassian, and those who went before him.
The English Mystics, including Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowning, and Julian of Norwich, are examples of the diverse ways Christian contemplation can be expressed in a particular time and culture. The Spanish Mystics, including Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross give examples from a different culture. Each of them demonstrates the deep and vibrant life that contemplatives bring to those around them, and the challenges that contemplatives can create in organized structures.
George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, English clergymen of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are examples of how Christian contemplative can help point the way beyond immediate struggles and provide a larger perspective that allows us to see a larger picture. Their creative expressions of contemplative faith kept a window open to the community during challenging times in the church and in society.
While contemplative faith was sometimes feared and restricted by the organized church in Western Europe, contemplative practices continued to feed the spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Contemplative faith began to blossom again in the twentieth century. People including Evelyn Underhill in England, Etty Hillesum in the Netherlands, and monastic leaders including Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, and John Main reached back to the earliest members of the Christian contemplative community and translated their ideas and practices into modern language. They also serve us as portals to the community today.
Journey to the Heart shows us that there are many ways to be a contemplative Christian, and gives us diverse examples to follow. It points us in some beneficial directions, and reminds us that we live in a time when we have grateful access to the writings and wisdom that light our path forward.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com