Answering the Contemplative Call – First Steps on the Mystical Path

I’ve been feeling harrowed lately. Yes, harrowed.

harrowed  past participle, past tense of har·row 

  1. Draw a harrow over (land).
  2. Cause distress to: “a harrowing film”.

I’ll be you haven’t heard that word in a while. Maybe harassed would be a better word.

harassed  past participle, past tense of ha·rass 

  1. Subject to aggressive pressure or intimidation.
  2. Make repeated small-scale attacks on (an enemy).

Not harassed by any particular group (although the constant barrage of noise from my neighbor’s garage might conceivably constitute harassment), but more by my life, or perhaps my own choices in how I’m spending my time: too much go, go, go and not enough rest, rest, rest. My refusal to purchase a Smart Phone or I-Pad does not seem to be making a discernible dent in my own slavery to technology and desire for escape into canned entertainment. As a result, I’m exhausted … most of the time.

So, in an attempt to find some (inner) peace and quiet, I purchased a couple of outdoor chairs, a small table, and a citronella candle to place on my side porch for at least the opportunity to take a breather while bird-watching (sans mosquito bite welts, if possible). About this time the book Answering the Contemplative Call became available on Speakeasy (the site where I can find free books in exchange for a review). My difficulty in finding time to read the book I find ironic. But somehow I managed.

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More and more I’m finding joy in reading the introductions to books, especially when it comes to non-fiction. In this case, I’m positively thrilled to have taken time to read the introduction! As some of my readers already know, I have a few battle scars which the Evangelical church left behind in its wake. For what I think are obvious reasons, these scars have left me with some negative associations when it comes to reading “Christian” books. One of the first things to jump out at me from the intro was the author’s acknowledgment of people in my shoes. In fact, not just my shoes, but all kinds of shoes. Carl McColman did a wonderful job in the introduction of laying out some disclaimers and guidelines to help the reader move forward through the book despite real difficulties arising from their past understanding or experiences regarding Christianity. I appreciate when the author of a book like this takes time to understand and address his audience.

Secondly, the introduction invites the reader to make an effort to apply understanding to action. He does this by offering 3 simple applications to be conscious of while moving forward. I admit it: I almost did not request a copy of this book – simply because the word “steps” was in the title. I have become quite the skeptic when it comes to self-proclaimed self-help books offering change in any number of easy steps. If that’s the kind of book you are looking for, I believe you might be disappointed in this one. However, if you are looking for a book which ignites a thirst for something deeper, then, perhaps, you have managed to stumble upon a gem.

The book is divided into 3 parts: Recognizing the Call, Preparing for the Journey, and Embarking on the Adventure. In each section Mr. McColman breaks down his ideas into brief and concise chapters which impart great information without sounding like a 10-step program.

The first section focuses on hearing, understanding, and responding to the call of God (or even of one’s own soul) into contemplation. It is ironic to me that the way to stillness is awakening; but what I most appreciated about this section was that McColman did not make “cleaning up the mirror” into a riddance of sin (legalism) but rather focused on the importance of making space (for listening, praying, and loving others). In my own past experience, making space triumphs over legalistic actions (i.e., church attendance, compulsive Bible study, or even self-denial as a means of conquering sin) every time. The flesh rarely produces any discernible long-term difference in one’s experience of God’s presence.

My disappointment in this section stemmed from the lack of any Scriptural basis for the author’s arguments. It is all well and good to look at other mystics and take your cues from them, however, the first question which I believe should be asked is whether or not the contemplative life is encouraged or even pointed to by example in the Bible. I do not believe McColman addressed this question in the book.

Most disturbing for me in the end of section 1 was the author’s focus on the supernatural experiences of three of the mystics he cited. My problems with that are myriad, but all boil down to one basic example of a book I read many years ago called “A Divine Revelation of Hell”. This book remains on Christian bookstore shelves to this day and is actually considered a credible account of Mary Baxter’s experience with Jesus. This would be precisely why I reject any basis for a belief or practice which is not founded solidly upon the Scriptures. The author did not do a good job in section 1 of convincing me that the contemplative life is the norm, at least, not from any Biblical account.

The next section was devoted to preparation. While part 2 contained more Scripture and a definite call to delve into the Scriptures, there was again a heavy emphasis on the writings of other mystics for guidance. This continues to bother me in today’s world of Christian books. Although I am much more open to the influence of experience than I was when I was a staunch conservative Presbyterian, I still find myself asking the question when I read books of this sort, “Where is it in the Word?” Again, the author failed me on this count.

All that said, Carl McColman saved the best for last! He kind of began the theme in section 2 but really honed in on it at the end: The Focus of a Contemplative Life must be on Christ. And, in the end, God – in Christ – in us remains a mystery that is beyond us to comprehend. Section 3 was definitely the fullest section of the book. At times a bit overwhelming (I had the sense the the author was trying to stuff more than he wanted to in at the end), his chapters on silence, worship, prayer, and finally, kenosis (emptying one of self) were rich and filling in terms of learning to digest what it means to heed a contemplative call. Taken in chunks, section 3 could give a person years of study-worthy material.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a deeper walk with Christ. While not all of McColman’s assertions resonated with me, there were many things he said in the book which have helped me quiet myself a bit and learn to appreciate the silence in the soul, and even Scripture teaches us that to hear God we have to learn to be quiet. There are definite sign-posts to peace in this book, and who isn’t looking for that in this day and age?

I hope you will find the time to read this book. I believe it will bless you, perhaps in ways you do not now expect. May God richly bless you on your journey deeper into Christ.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

If you would be interested in getting free books to review on your blog, check out Speakeasy.

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