Martin Laird, O.S.A., journeyed to Wernersville last week-end to lead a two-day contemplative prayer retreat ~ for me, the retreat within a retreat. Ninety people, probably all of them familiar with his books, Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence, showed up to listen to his presentations and to spend time in silence with one another.
(Michelle and I spent some months awhile ago blogging back and forth about Into the Silent Land; those posts remain linked in my bar above. I've read A Sunlit Absence as well and, to tell the truth, I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I will probably give it another try soon.)
I thought I'd offer just a very few vignettes from the presentations, and explore them in more detail later, as I sort through my own prayer and reactions. I'm using quotation marks even though these are not verbatim quotations; they're close enough, and I want to indicate that the source is Martin Laird rather than myself.
"Inner silence constitutes inner spaciousness."
"In our spiritual lives, we are like someone fishing for minnows from the back of a whale ~ sitting on the greatest catch of all, and yet satisfied with something puny."
"You will know that you are in the countryside of prayer when you experience joy and reverence at the same time." (That one comes from Evagrius rather than from Marty Laird.)
"The purpose of the Christian life is to open the eye of the heart, where God may be known." (That was one of Augustine's contributions.)
"In the practice of contemplative prayer, we move away from the chatter of discursive prayer in our heads in which, no matter how dreadful the narrative, we always have the starring role." (A Laird riff on Evagrius, which I found hilarious, and oh-so-true!)
As you might be able to tell, the presentations were divided roughly into material on the history of Christian contemplation and reflections on its actual practice. Marty Laird is the master of metaphor, and listening to his measured, unhurried observations is itself an exercise in contemplative prayer.
I've studied a lot of the material he presented and I'm somewhat familiar with the development of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition. (And even in my Presbyterian seminary, we were offered a tinge of an introduction to the desert fathers and mothers in the context of our church history sequence ~ a linear and factual introduction, not an invitation into the spirituality of the desert by someone who had himself delved deeply into its pathways.) But to hear a master of the tradition, someone who has spent his life exploring its nooks and crannies, bring it to life is to be yourself immersed, however briefly, into that sea of prayer.
We do, in reality, mostly relax in our beach chairs on top of the whale.