Book Review: Answering the Contemplative Call
Author: Carl McColman
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Co.
This will likely be one of my most enjoyed books of the 2013 reading year…and for many reasons. The most prominent reason for my enjoyment is identification. I thoroughly connected with the path that Carl McColman outlined in Answering the Contemplative Call as it so often echoed the arc of my own Christian journey.
The second thing I appreciated was the patience displayed by McColman as he made effort to “demystify” the mystical path. This is/was no easy task. When speaking of the Christian tradition in particular, words like “mystical path,” “Christian mysticism,” “contemplative” or “meditative prayer,” and “Christian meditation” start to cause a great deal of nervousness in some circles. It has been my experience that many of us Westerners do not care for the things we cannot explain. Perhaps this is an over generalization, but I think most people don’t like mystery…especially when it pertains to their “god” (deliberately spelled with small “g”). I think most people like to give reason and account for the things they profess to believe in; this is especially true with things like religion.
The reality of the Judeo-Christian faith is mystery; no matter how much God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the mystical and unexplained are still pervasive in the precepts of the Biblical revelation. Take for instance some of the more basic mystical elements: ours is a religion based on “faith,” the substance of things unseen and unrealized, but hoped for. We worship, look for, and hear from an invisible God. We profess our God is one, but yet also three distinct persons and try to give quick explanation of this by saying “God is Trinity;” as if this explains it perfectly. We claim our God was also a man and he has existed eternally even though he was physically born of a woman…who incidentally was a virgin. These are just a few of the mysteries we make effort to give rational explanation. Truth is; our faith is not one that can be explained outside of the great mystery of faith. This is why I appreciated the tender effort of Carl McColman to discuss and identify some of the mile markers along the path of the Christian journey.
About the Book—
This book might not be for everybody; in fact, I know it is not. If you determine to read the book based upon my review, I would recommend most emphatically that you read the introduction. The author offers a very humble disclaimer that our language fails us when we speak of the things of God. He also makes the point that our family of origin and life experience will color how we approach our call to enter the mystical relationship between humanity and God. Acceptance of some of what you will read in Answering the Contemplative Call does not necessarily infer endorsement or approval of every word written. I suggest reading with open heart and open mind all the while listening for the guiding voice of God the Holy Spirit.
McColman arranges the book in three major parts: Part One is Recognizing the Call, Part Two is Preparing for the Journey, and Part Three is Embarking on the Adventure. He uses the experiences of three individuals to help clarify what the contemplative call is and to explain the call may look very different from personality to personality. The persons he has chosen to use for these illustrative purposes are Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. While these three individuals are prominent recurring vignettes throughout the book, McColman uses many other well-known and highly-respected figures in the history of the Christian tradition (eg., Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and many others). The book is well annotated (over 100 well-organized references) and includes a wonderful reading list in the bibliography.
Considering the subject matter is or can be very esoteric at best, I think the author has done a remarkable job of bringing the content to a conversational level. I did not find any chapter or verse difficult to understand and was able to track very closely with the illustrations, stories, and metaphors that McColman used. Another thing I liked, and believe helped me to focus was the short chapters. Keeping the information concise when presenting new ideas and using short transitions were helpful in keeping my attention… this feature or literary tool was also helpful when I needed to take a break to consider at more length what I had read.
As I have clearly indicated, I really enjoyed this book and connected with it in a very personal way. The end result of this enjoyment was a very highlighted, underlined, and “sticky-note” marked up book. There were; however, a number of chapters that really stood out for me. All of “Part Two,” Preparing for the Journey, was very notable to me. The chapter, The Pathless Path helped me to understand there is no definitive program for spiritual transformation; it is a process, this is for sure, but no program can define the process… it is a pathless path: a journey into the unknowing. Also in “Part Two,” was the chapter, Do Your Research, which I found helpful in determining what Christian literature might be helpful to me along my own journey. There is a veritable treasure trove of titles and authors in this brief chapter… pure gold. This section, “Part Two,” also introduces the idea of spiritual direction and having a mature spiritual mentor to help guide you along the way of your Christian journey.
I could go on and on about what I liked and how much I enjoyed each chapter of the book. Suffice it to say that my favorite section was “Part Three” as it entered discussions I would associate with practical application and activities within the Christian experience and contemplative call. Some of these experiences are various acts and disciplines involve in prayer/worship and the contemplative-meditative styles of engaging God’s word… other acts would include silence, solitude, reflection, and adoration to name a few more exercises and disciplines. McColman concludes the book with a wonderful summary that I won’t spoil here, but I will say it was a very fitting conclusion.
I complete my review with restating this book won’t be for everyone, but for those whom it is for, you will enjoy it and reap much reward.
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.