Answering the Contemplative Call: a book review

In many ways I’m a failed mystic. I am too extroverted to not feel threatened by silence and solitude. I’m too undisciplined to make contemplative prayer a daily routine. Even my other spiritual-routines (i.e. Bible reading, intercessory prayer, book reviews, etc.) are things that I feel I need to vary fairly often because I get bored and listless with mundane practices. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a better pray-er and have depth in my spiritual life; I want to know God better and be filled up with the Spirit’s presence. I know dailiness is the way to do it, but I tend to try on different spiritual practices the way my kids try on temporary tattoos.

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman

Carl McColman has written a book for people like me, who feel the call to the contemplative life but have had too many false starts to really make a go of it.  In Answering the Contemplative Callhe invites his readers into a life of prayer shaped by the Christian mystics. He does occasionally refer to other faith traditions and religious mystics, but in the main, remains Christocentric in his mystical theology.  His pages are littered with references to everyone from the Desert Fathers, Meister Eckhart, The Spanish Carmelites (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), English Mystics (Julian of Norwich, the Cloud of Unknowing author, Walter Hilton), Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc. C.S. Lewis is also referenced a lot because McColman is a Christian and quoting Lewis is what we Christians do.

The book is organized into three sections. In the first section, McColman discusses what it means to recognize ‘the contemplative call.’  In part two he gives advice on how we can prepare for the journey into contemplative prayer. In the last section he paints a picture of what first steps into contemplation may look like.

There is a lot about this book that I really liked. For one thing, I appreciate where McColman roots his insights in the Christian tradition. He delves into the major Christian texts of contemplative theology and commends them to readers. He doesn’t pretend that he says all that needs to be said about mysticism but points his readers towards some pretty great books. Yet he is also not afraid to criticize these masters for their sexism, neo-platonism, or bad theology. A deep experience of God does not entail that an author gets everything right and McColman calls people out.

Also I appreciated the balance he brings. While he explores briefly both the cataphatic and apophatic tradition, he doesn’t pit them against each other or  try to suggest one is more holy or deeper than the other. He commends both. Similarly he also commends the practice of corporate worship to wanna-be-mystics who want to simply get away from people and spend time by their introverted selves in contemplation. McColman rightly points out that that will not do because for Christians  to thrive and grow, private practice is not enough. We are formed in community. A third way where I find McColman balanced in his presentation, is he is careful to guard us from where mysticism can become escapism. By grounding his practice of contemplation in Christ, he keeps the focus of this work Incarnational and warns against spiritualities which attempt to escape embodiment.

I also loved that his description of mysticism/contemplation includes both kenosis and theosis. Kenosis refers in theology to Christ’s self-emptying (as described in Philippians 2). McColman suggests that contemplation similarly calls us to empty ourselves so that we may have a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. Theosis describes the movement in the spiritual life where we are gradually transformed into the image of God and partake in his likeness. This is where contemplation (and the Christian life in general) ought to lead. McColman recognizes this. Kenosis and Theosis describe two important aspects of the Spiritual life. They are not in opposition but dovetail nicely.

All this being said, I remain suspicious of aspects of contemplative practice. I have no real qualms against centering prayer, silence and solitude, but my faith has been shaped by the Evangelical commitment to the Bible and the life of Christ. Where these practices (centering prayer et al.i) may be fruitful, I am wary of where they have been divorced from historic commitments of Christian belief. McColman is a religious ecumenist (as I hope am I) but I wonder if his mystical vision, in places, has lost some of it’s particular Christian shape and character (though clearly not all).

This is an introductory text so McColman does not try to say everything that needs to be said.  I did find that this book made me hunger to enter deeper into my practice of prayer and I appreciated a number of insights I found here.  I give it four out five stars.

I recieved this book for purpose of review via Speakeasy and have given you my honest opinions. Thank you for listening to me.

 

 

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