Sunday, June 23, 2013

(Probably the Last) Book Review (for a while): Answering the Contemplative Call

What follows is a brief review of Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2013; 168 pp.; USD $16.95) for the Speakeasy network

It's no simple task to present contemplative, even mystical spirituality as palatable and non-threatening to a mixed literary audience; but author/speaker/spiritual director Carl McColman meets the challenge head-on in his latest book. The result isn't quite a home run, but it's certainly a stand-up triple: he strikes and often maintains a careful balance of introducing ideas that would be new to many of his readers, without estranging either the readers or the ideas themselves.

As his subtitle indicates, McColman invests deeply in the motif of the spiritual-contemplative life as a journey, and this motif governs the three-part structure of his book. In part one, "Recognizing the Call," he invites readers to join in the journeying: having gently introduced the thought that the mystical path is (perhaps surprisingly) inclusive, open to anyone, he now unpacks the link between mysticism and the mysteries of life -- and of God. He goes on to acknowledge, quite sensitively, the existential and/or experiential problems that some readers may have with the God of the Bible, but he also responds to such issues with a well-phrased apologetic of human longing as a response to God's own longing love for people (11). He spends much of this section on the need to "wake up," to recognize our longing, the journey it requires, and the fact that God seeks us even more passionately than we seek God. At times McColman's language is wonderfully subversive, as when he writes of submission, "my American allergy to surrendering control may need some recalibration" with respect to the infinite mystery of God (19); while it would have been fascinating to see where such thoughts would lead him, that is not his primary focus. He retells the mystical awakenings of Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton as illustrations of epiphany (a term which he helpfully defines, though other words like prevenient and ineffable go unexplained). And, speaking of language, he takes the time to reclaim words that he thinks important for the mystical quest, including beholding as a reflective response to divine mystery.

Parts two and three, "Preparing for the Journey" and "Embarking on the Adventure," map out the path -- to the extent that there is a path at all -- of the calling toward God and a responsive vocation of loving God, others, and self (47; rooted in biblical texts such as Mark 12:28-34). With the chapter "Do Your Research," McColman encourages his readers to explore the tradition(s) of Christian mystical literature, but not at the expense of cultivating their own spiritual growth. He also insists, wisely, that finding a spiritual director (and, beyond that, a supportive community) and pursuing spiritual disciplines are vital priorities; it is unfortunate, however, that his discussion neglects foundational voices like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, or more recent conversation partners like Ruth Haley Barton. McColman's defense of his preference for explicitly Christian spirituality is, er, spirited, and thoughtfully expressed (though I'm not sure that he's correct that the many biblical stories he names here will seem familiar if the reader has "been attending a Church for more than a year or so" [80], given how widespread biblical illiteracy is...). And his explanations of kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God, of the practice of lectio divina, and of kenosis (self-emptying, as in Philippians 2:5-11) comprise the high points of the book.

McColman excels at making complex and potentially off-putting ideas simple and user-friendly. He shows special skill in recapitulation, whether he restates important concepts himself, or allows the voices of past contemplative greats to facilitate such reviews. There are moments where catering to a mixed audience begins to work against him, as when he says in his discourse on kenosis, "I rather suspect that there is an Angel of Kenosis hovering over each one of us" (137). Statements like these certainly provoke reflection, but also risk distracting readers from his main points. Fortunately, these statements are relatively rare, and detract little from this otherwise helpful book.

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.

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