Martin LAIRD, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford Press, 2006. pp. 154. $18.95. ISBN 978-0-19-530760-3.
Reviewed by Jane KOPAS, University of Scranton

Despite its sub-title, this is not just one more "how-to" book on spirituality. It is one of those rare books that gives readers a glimpse into their own souls. Laird's slim volume is an invitation to journey into the uncharted territory of contemplation that is one's true home, a place where a deeper self resides beneath the endless chatter of daily life.

All of us, according to the author, have a natural capacity for contemplation even though most of us do not realize or develop it. We remain unaware of this capacity because we rely too much on thought processes which distance us from God. We need to learn to let thought fall away so that we can walk into the silent land of God's presence within us.

Laird offers guidance and encouragement, but not techniques or an easy path to spiritual growth. He describes skills and disciplines (posture, breathing, a prayer word, etc.) which prepare one to enter the silent land of God's presence. But he gives no promise of shortcuts as he articulates the challenges a prayer encounters within a sincere quest for truth. Despite the absence of easy answers, the reader comes away with a sense of the real possibility of contemplation.

Laird's original use of metaphors in his chapter titles—parting the veil, the wild hawk of the mind, the three doorways of the present moment, the riddles of distraction, from victim to witness— suggest the pious cliche has no place here. His images and examples offer opportunities to approach contemplation with new eyes and new ears.

For example, well chosen images bring his position into sharp focus. In one telling metaphor he recounts his observation of a man out walking with his terriers. Three of them raced over the fields while a fourth stayed close to his master running in tight little circles. The owner told Laird that the dog had been caged for long periods and had learned to take its exercise in confinement. He never unlearned the pattern and did not learn to use the freedom that was his. Laird observes that we are as free as the dogs to express ourselves, but we often run in tight little circles of our mental cages unaware of the grace and freedom that is ours. In another lively image he points the way to moving from being victims of our obsessive mental habits to being witnesses who can observe our fears but not be controlled by them.

The chapter on "The Riddles of Distraction" is especially insightful. Here Laird covers an array of distractions and sheds light on why it is so hard to deal with them. He explores the tendency to identify with one's thoughts and feelings and reactions to them. The inner life becomes an ongoing and extended commentary on what one thinks and experiences. One best addresses these riddles through basic awareness of the shapes and patterns of the distractions rather than thinking about them, or trying to get rid of them. Once one sees these distractions for what they are, the path opens to the heart of true identity which lies beneath the surface processes that people usually allow to define them.

This book is neither the recycling of tired ideas or an easy fix for what ails one spiritually. It should come with a caution like that given by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Don't read it if you aren't serious about deepening your spiritual life. For that reason, though beginners in the spiritual life can benefit from this book, committed and weathered seekers who have been tested will find it especially illuminating. It offers a rich resource for understanding of the art of contemplative prayer and a spiritual anthropology that is attuned to the temptations of contemporary culture.

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