The ground of the heart: A review of "Into the Silent Land'

by Father Michael Hickin

“Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” by Martin Laird. Published by Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006. 154 pages.

Ever seen the bumper sticker, “Honk if you love silence?”

On the prairie, silence is one of our strengths. And yet…

Noise, from the Latin for sea-sickness (nausea), is toxic for humans. Noise can increase blood pressure, corrode the heart and damage cell tissue. Time spent in the quiet, especially out in nature, strengthens memory, reduces depression and improves cognitive skills. Yipee! Right? But is our North Dakota heartland lifestyle really any less yoked to TV, internet, phones, etc. than folks in NYC or Tokyo?

Is escape as easy as hitting a power button? Try it.

If you do try to unplug, one of the first things most people realize is that the noise “out there” is but a mask for the noise “in here.” A still mind is hard to come by. Silence is a cultivated habit. Maybe that’s why turning off noise-makers is difficult in the first place. Have we grown to accept a barrage of mental distractions as our norm?

For love of God and for love of mental health, and its primary by-product — energy, people in every age have tried practicing some form of contemplation.

Father Martin Laird, Augustinian monk and professor at Villanova, offers a compendium of the Christian approach to silent contemplative prayer. He roots the practical skills of this art in early Church history, fortifying his observations with Scripture, the sacraments, and the writings of the saints, as well as drawing on contemporary literature, poetry, and the lives of ordinary people who have struggled their way into the silent land.

“Union with God is not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being… The special focus of this book will be on the practical struggles many of us face when we try to be silent — the inner chaos going on in our heads, like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host.”

This really is a how-to book, but not in the sense of step-by-step. He lays out the skills, illustrates the pitfalls, and provides encouragement to persevere. To give our imagination some handholds as our spiritual feet inch their way into an inner, endless, sunlit prairie, Laird uses many comparisons.

For example, practicing silent prayer is like gardening. The gardener doesn’t grow plants, but only practices some basic skills that facilitate the growth. Again, a sailor doesn’t move a boat from here to there, but merely practices some skills to harness the wind. Gardeners don’t produce plants and sailors don’t produce wind. Even so, contemplatives don’t make union with God happen, but there are skills that can favor the encounter.

I must admit, I’m currently on my seventh read of this book since I purchased it in 2011. Every page has markings. If my contemplative experience remains shoddy, Laird writes with enough lyrical force that I’ve yet to tire of turning the pages. I keep going back hopeful that the toolbox he has assembled will one day yield to skills in my spiritual hands. Along the way, maybe, just maybe, there’s been an upgrade in the quality of my Christian walk.

Besides personal benefits, reading Into the Silent Land has bolstered my conviction to invite others into this world. When a mother-daughter team was unable to attend our parish’s confirmation retreat, the mom asked if they could stop by to catch up on what they’d missed. We had a wonderful conversation, watched some videos on the sacraments, then as a parting prayer, I invited them to be quiet. We had just considered the Holy Spirit as wind and breath. This prepped an invitation to spend three minutes in quiet, focusing only on their breath and how God wants to breathe into them his very own Spirit.

When the mantle clock chimed, the mother with her daughter, who went and sat under her mom’s arm during the prayer, both made a little gasp for joy and smiled at one another. Each had encountered something simple and enthralling: time together, quiet time, a shared God-moment.

Like honking for love of silence, humans live in the grip of a paradox. We are geared for social interaction, but we do it best when the deepest ground of our identity is periodically soaked in silence.

In mid-May, my parishes of Westhope and Bottineau received St. Isidore crosses for our fields and gardens. On the cross, Jesus’ heart was tapped. It’s the key to opening the terrain of our soul too, offering access to the life-giving aquifer of God’s special language, silence.

Fr. Michael Hickin is the pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Bottineau and St. Andrew’s Church in Westhope.