An Ocean of Light

Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Martin Laird
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $18.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199379941.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is the third volume of Martin Laird’s book series on the practice of the contemplative life that began with Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford University Press, 2006), continued with A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Oxford University Press, 2011), and now culminates in An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation. The series is less of an academic treatise on Christian spirituality than it is an extended exercise in spiritual direction under the wise and discerning tutelage of an experienced guide. This remains the case with this third volume, as Laird instructs his readers in the skills of contemplative interiority (9), the goal of which is a continual awareness of God’s presence that leads into freedom from ego-driven preoccupations and the corresponding expansion of love and compassion (12-13).

Procedurally, this book is clearly and elegantly arranged. It is divided into three parts. The first part is a call to contemplative practice that accounts for what the ancient desert monastics called the scoposand telos(the immediate and ultimate goals) of the spiritual life. The second section develops a typology of the mind as it undergoes a series of “intellectual purifications” (17) toward the ultimate goal of the contemplative life: a non-dualistic awareness of union with God. As Laird describes it, “[c]ontemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God” (57). The final section offers an insightful and sensitive exploration of how contemplative practice is often accompanied with depression and its friends: “anxiety, dark thoughts, poor sleep, nausea, and loss of appetite” (185).

There are many ways that An Ocean of Light contributes to the saturated marketplace of books on spirituality and contemplative practice. Laird is attentive to the increased cultural interest in mindfulness practices, but he is wary of the corporatization of that interest, especially as this corporatization can nurture an unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves, our spiritual progress, and the quality of our mindfulness. He sees how this preoccupation with the quality of one’s spiritual progress becomes another avenue for anxiety and spiritual fragmentation. Countering this, Laird pushes his readers to think of contemplative practice, not as a strategy for self-improvement, but as a habitus, a way of being in the world in relation to God and neighbor. Contemplation, as Laird presents it, is less a strategy for self-improvement and actualization than it is an increasing awareness—an important word for Lairdof one’s presence to God, an increasing transparency to divine presence, and life that frees us from habits of ego that imprison us. Laird advances this clearly in the book’s second section by developing a typology of mind that articulates the movement of the mind towards holy awareness. As Laird presents it, the mind of the contemplative moves from the “reactive mind,” through the “receptive mind,” and into the “luminous mind.” Each type of mind has its own dedicated chapter that describes the defining features of that state of mind, identifies its characteristic practices, and suggests specific contemplative practices for liberating and transforming the ego-driven habits that define each state of mind. Contemplative practice involves “unselfing” the self (85). Laird’s guidance helpfully counters the ingrained and restrictive habitus of the “selfie” culture that marks our time, pushing towards the freedom and transformation of becoming transparent to the love of God. 

The second thing that Laird brings to the table is his pastoral sensitivity to the way the contemplative life is vulnerable to infiltration from depression, anxiety, and all manner of psychological and spiritual disquietude. This is an important contribution, especially given the therapeutic benefits with which mindfulness and meditation are often associated. While Laird does not deny any of these therapeutic benefits, he is wary of over-promising what contemplative practices can do. He describes the ways that depression and anxiety can take up “squatter’s rights” (185) in our lives, and he does not shy away from emphasizing just how common this is. When depression takes up residence in our lives, it can often result in making us feel like “pious frauds” (186), especially if we pursue contemplation primarily as an avenue for psychological wellbeing. Laird does not want to frame depression and anxiety as signs of contemplative failure, but suggests instead that “depression itself simply becomes our contemplative practice” (191) by re-framing it as an opportunity to learn compassion, both for self and others who deal with affliction. Laird counsels that those struggling with depression practice spiritual stewardship with it by inhabiting “an intercessory role for others who have the same struggle but who have no contemplative practice to turn to” (191). In this way, contemplative practice does address depression and mental health, not only by struggling against it, but also by transforming its meaning and its presence in our lives. This concluding argument is perhaps the most important and helpful contribution Laird makes to the marketplace of practical guides to spiritual and contemplative practice.

With this three-volume series, Laird has penned a modern classic of Christian spirituality. He writes about difficult and intimate topics with gentleness and clarity, without mystification, pretension, and preciousness. As he introduces topics of considerable spiritual and psychological nuance and complexity, he is quick to offer helpful analogies, guiding questions, and personal testimonies to help the reader understand more deeply the richness of contemplative practice. By drawing generously from a variety of ancient, medieval, and modern masters of the contemplative life, as well as from a number of poets, novelists, and theologians from across the broad swath of the Christian tradition, Laird offers a spiritual theology that is expansive and hospitable, even as it is rooted in the particularity of Christ and Catholic spirituality. An Ocean of Light is a feast of a book that offers rich bounty to the spiritually hungry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew A. Rothaus Moser is Lecturer in Theology at Loyola University, Maryland.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Laird is Professor of Early Christian Studies at Villanova University. Laird is the author of several books on Early Christian thought and Christian contemplative life, including Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. He lectures widely through the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

Keywords: 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments