Kim NATARAJA (ed.), Journey to the Heart - Christian Contemplation Through the Centuries. An Illustrated Guide. Orbis Books, pp. xx, 428, 2011. $35.00 pbk. ISBN 978-1-57075-938-3.
Reviewed by Christopher Rupert S.J., LaStorta Jesuit Residence, 2320 Liverpool Rd., Pickering, ON L1X 1V4.

Journey to the Heart distills the lecture notes from a thirty session course sponsored by the London Christian Meditation Centre on the Roots of Christian Mysticism as seen through classic texts of teachers, practitioners, and movements. Among those examined are Jesus, Paul, and John; the Early Church Fathers: Clement, Origen and others; the Desert Tradition: Macarius, Evagrius, Cassian, and other Desert Mothers and Fathers; the Jesus Prayer; famous church teachers: Augustine, Hildegarde, Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Meister Eckhardt, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila; several English Mystics and poets including Dante; and some modern day mystics including Merton, Bede Griffiths, and John Main.

Each chapter, written by a specialist for the masters under consideration, briefly locates the masters in the history of their time and geographical location with a short biography accompanied by portraits and / or pictures of where they lived. The presentations range from ten to fifteen pages each. The particular method of contemplation for each master is described largely by quotations from his or her writings without critique – a phenomenological approach. A brief bibliography for each chapter is appended at the end of the book – a useful feature for those who wish to look further into its master’s understanding and way of contemplation. Although it lies outside the intent of the book, an appendix discussing Christian contemplation’s value, shortcomings, potential abuses, and what scientific studies of it have revealed would be useful.

The book is well written, fascinating, and enjoyable. Its subject, apophatic prayer, needs supplementation with kataphatic (meditative prayer) and an examination of conscience to engage one with one's neighbour, else there is a danger of withdrawing from society and tripping out into quietism. This caveat was foreseen by several of the masters treated, and downplayed or even ignored by some others such as John Main. (In the 1990’s Main’s centre was under scrutiny from the Catholic Church because of this.) The chapter on John Main makes no mention of this. Intimations of this danger are found between the lines in several chapters. Particularly interesting is the dispute between Meister Eckhardt, a Dominican, and his Francisan Archbishop regarding the theology underpinning Christian meditation. It was not a new dispute. The early fathers of the Church also engaged in the same struggle with their mutual disagreements over the need for also engaging in kataphatic prayer to supplement the apophatic, and to avoid suggestions of pantheism. The fruits of contemplation: theosis (a sense of God’s presence, i.e. unitive prayer), inner peace, mastery of ones compulsions, and freedom from anxieties shine through in each chapter. The chapter on Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican, is outstanding, a ‘must read.’ She detaches her comments on meditation from its history. Evelyn writes: [Mysticism] is the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and the mystic is the person who attains this union, not the person who talks about it” and “It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process, entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent form of consciousness.” My own experience in teaching prayer is that everyone can attain theosis but often by routes not described in this book. These include nature prayer, visual centering, and gratitude. An additional chapter or treatment in the preface mentioning these long-known routes would be welcome.

Would I recommend this book? Certainly. It is a wonderful read well-suited for anyone interested in the development of Christian meditation. I do not recommend it for learning how to meditate. For that, I would prefer something that also gives information about other ways to reach theosis, about the caveats of contemplation and blocks to attaining it, and about why this strand of contemplation lost favour from the 17th century until the 20th century.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books