Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review: Answering the Contemplative Call by Carl McColman

So if life is a journey, then spirituality is an essential part of the passage. Mysticism is not some sort of static experience, a moment in time in which a person feels especially united with God. Rather, it is a process, an unfolding dimension of movement and change that takes place over the course of many seasons. - Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call

Whenever I tell people that I'm in a program to be certified as a spiritual director, there comes the inevitable attempt for me to explain what exactly that means. I confess that I still haven't found the best way to do this: I muddle through something about coaching people in their prayer life, leading them through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and walking with them on their spiritual journey.

One of the main reasons I wanted to pursue this program was due to a perception that many Christians, particularly in American Protestantism, don't seem to be incredibly aware of the deep, rich tradition of spiritual practices and writing that is available to us. As a result, some may be curious and not know where to begin looking, others may write off Christianity as being little more than the single incarnation to which they've been exposed and give up.

How might one answer the question of where to start if one wishes to explore the mystical and contemplative traditions of Christianity? What might one say to another who wants to engage spiritual practice at a deeper level?

In Answering the Contemplative Call, Carl McColman begins to answer these questions. His is a basic introduction to what engaging in spiritual practice entails, as well as the thought behind it. Along the way, he engages many great spiritual writers: Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Julian of Norwich, and Gerald May, among many others.

This book is not just a how-to, but a why: in bringing in such a glut of spiritual figures, one of McColman's goals seems to be to explain why this sort of exploration matters: "the goal of the journey is, at least in part, to have no goal; the purpose is not so much to find God as to find ourselves in God." (p. xiii) McColman presents the spiritual path as ever unwinding ahead of the person, never fully complete during this earthly life. Instead, it is an ongoing journey of discovering God's presence and how that awareness may influence our daily living.

McColman divides his book into three sections. The first, "Recognizing the Call," is the setup for the journey ahead. As both this section title and the book title indicate, McColman uses the language of call quite frequently, stating that God is ever calling to each of us, trying to get us to recognize God's voice. On the other hand, we experience a longing for the divine, and as we begin to respond to this longing, we begin to respond to God's call.

I must say that I had a quibble with how McColman characterizes the longing he describes. At one point in this section, he briefly recounts the journeys of three figures: Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. At one point, McColman notes that they didn't merely "wake up" one day and become fully receptive to God's presence in their lives; rather, it took years of prayer and preparation for this to take place. He thus seems to conflate longing with this preparation undertaken by these three spiritual giants. I would push back and suggest that longing can be characterized in other ways, and by people who have not had such extensive spiritual backgrounds. Perhaps such a longing doesn't come from spiritual study and instead from harsh life experiences that "make our hearts tender" to receive God's presence. It's the same end, but a much different way of getting there. I wish McColman had broadened his scope on this point.

The second section of the book is "Preparing for the Journey," which suggests that after one recognizes and begins responding to the longing within, one may begin to collect resources for responding further. McColman covers a variety of options in brief, including seeking out spiritual writings on which to reflect, creating the appropriate internal space for contemplation, and seeking out "spiritual companions" such as a pastor, friend, or spiritual director. McColman recognizes and conveys the importance of preparation rather than jumping in with both feet; that one does not become an expert right away (although, do any of us ever truly become such?).

The final section of the book, as one might expect, is "Embarking on the Adventure," or the actual pursuit of the journey. Here McColman deals with the practical matters of spiritual discipline, exploring topics such as silence, worship, meditation, and the use of music and images. This was a decent introduction, although it is a relatively brief overview of a variety of topics in fairly quick succession.

And really, that's the point of the entire book. This is not an exhaustive treatise on spiritual practices, nor is it meant to be. Rather, McColman is providing an appetizer of sorts, a sampler of the many different writers, traditions, and disciplines available to the reader if one chooses to pursue things further. For what it is, an introduction and explanation of contemplative practice, it would be an excellent resource for someone curious about how to start. As I continue through my own training as a spiritual director, I am considering purchasing a stack of Answering the Contemplative Call to give to future directees.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)