“A Sunlit Absence”
In a follow-on to his earlier book “Into the Silent Land”, Martin Laird’s “A Sunlit Absence” weaves together the deep insights of Christian Saints, Mystics and Poets with case studies of everyday people and Laird’s own deep awareness of the contemplative path to provide a powerful guide for those seeking a deeper level of contemplative awareness.
Laird transitions us from his previous work by reminding us that contemplation is a prayer art that seeks God not by active searching in the way one would search for an ordinary object, but instead surrendering ourselves and allowing God in his Grace to reveal an awareness beyond words and thoughts; an expansive, pure and enlightened state, “A Sunlit Absence”.
While disengaging our minds from the distractions of our exterior life, which have the power to otherwise devour us is central to this practice, Laird underscores that contemplative prayer is not a means of escaping our lives. Instead it works within the context of our lives to form an integrated dynamic to open us. Laird best expresses this by saying “As our practice matures and deepens, so will our experience of ordeals, sorrows, and joys of life, however they happen to be at any given moment, also expand into generous, receptive maturity”. In short, we learn to pray contemplatively through our difficulties, not around them.
Laird introduces basic tools honed throughout the centuries by Christian Mystics. Fundamental among them is the awareness that certain patterns of life, with potential to ensnare us into compulsive and disruptive behavior, can pull us from the contemplative path. These thoughts, first codified by Evagrius, a 4th century Egyptian monk, are known as the eight deadly sins or “afflictive thoughts” and are identified here as gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride. It is not “if” but “when” we are caught up in the whirlwind of emotion churned up by these thoughts that we lose contact with reality grounded in our true selves and God. Rather than despair, Laird instead shows how this seemingly hopeless state, when coupled with our contemplative practice, can be transformative. Emphasizing this, Laird cites St Isaac of Nineveh who tells us that “Without temptations, God’s concern is not perceived, nor is freedom of speech with him acquired, nor is spiritual wisdom learnt, nor does the love of God become grounded in the soul”.
Much is said about silence. While, physical silence facilitates focusing the mind into resonance with stillness, it is merely a catalyst in opening the door to the deeper expanse of internal Silence. It is this internal Silence that is the bedrock awareness we seek. Its limitless expanse cradles and permeates the physical and emotional realm, embracing both the turbulent and tranquil, the quiet and noisy, providing a context wherein we can be of the world yet not be consumed by it. To this point, Laird cites Meister Eckhart speaking to his students of this inner Silence “if he is in the right state of mind, he is so whether he is in church or in the market place”.
Having pierced the veil of compulsive and obsessive thought that opens us to the ground of awareness, we face the challenge that this awareness extends beyond any capacity of the thinking mind to grasp for we have now entered into the unknowable referred to by the 14th Century classic “The Cloud of Unknowing”. The resulting stage of spiritual growth is what St John of the Cross terms the “night of the senses” and is many times accompanied by a spiritual aridity or boredom. Laird notes “that with nothing for the thinking mind to do, it feels board or even anxious”. Far from an excuse to abandon the consolation of our once juicy prayer practice, this stage of growth is a positive signal according to Laird that “our prayer is going deeper than where our thoughts and feelings reach”. It is in this phase of our journey that we are called to begin abandoning ourselves unconditionally to God and through the continued vigilance of our practice enter deeper with in this Mystery as we slowly learn to “walk by faith and not by sight” as St Paul instructs us.
Possibly the greatest obstacle to our contemplative journey is our vainglory and pride or ego, played out in scenarios that St John of the Cross termed “Sharp Trials of the Intellect”. Rather than oppose the grace that seeks to displace it, our ego slyly embraces it as its own and then smothers it in the way a boa constrictor suffocates a sleeping prey; slowly and silently without struggle, almost undetected until the end. This underlies a key trait of the ego, it simply does not want to let go which is diametrically opposite to the contemplative path. Here, Laird points out that boredom, “serves to pry loose egos grip on whatever it is holding on to”, and that illustrates that once the role of the ego is illuminated by our practice that “This humbling self-knowledge is a crucial component to the deepening of our practice”. Turning again to St John of the Cross who “insists that this light we are filled with is a “very loving light” but for lengthy stretches of the spiritual journey, as our practice deepens, this “very loving light” enables us to see aspects of ourselves that we would rather no see but nevertheless bear our name”. It is at this stage of the journey we must rely solely upon faith alone to direct and sustain us, as our senses, manipulated by the ego, tell us that our lives are falling apart at the sight of what we see in ourselves. In the end it is this very faith that is one of contemplations greatest gifts.