Mindful Silence, Phileena Heuertz (Foreword by Richard Rohr, OFM; afterword by Kirsten Powers). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018.
Summary: Part narrative, part instruction, this work traces the author’s experience of “deconstruction” and how Christian contemplative practice enabled a deeper relationship with God and knowledge of herself.
Phileena Huertz and her husband worked with a humanitarian organization dealing with the victims of war in Sierra alone, encountering horrors that challenged everything she believed. God seemed silent. She was introduced to Father Thomas Keating, and through him, to the practices of contemplative prayer and the long Christian tradition behind these practices. She describes her experience as one of awakening from sleepwalking, and in turn dying to a false self, to enter into the resurrection life.
This led Huertz eventually to found her own ministry, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. In the book, Huertz traces her journey, with practices for the reader to engage at the end of each chapter:
- Withdrawing to Engage: She describes her time at Gethsemani Abbey, the writing of Thomas Merton, and how solitude reveals the false self. Practice: Breath Prayer
- Finding Liberation by Discernment: She writes about the Ignatian exercises, how we hear God, and experience Him in our bodies, through the scriptures and the consolations and desolations in our lives. Practice: Examen
- Discovering Darkness is Light: She introduces us to St. John of the Cross and The Dark Night of the Soul and how we may move from talking to God to Being with God to Being one with God. Practice: Lectio Divina
- Exploring a Deep Well: On a visit to Assisi, she discovers Clare, the contemplative “deep well” to Francis’s “raging river” and how the two together show the power of linking contemplation and action. Practice: Labyrinth
- Dying for Life: She narrates a meeting of contemplatives with Father Keating as he was dying, and work with the dying with Mother Teresa. Practice: Welcoming Prayer (where one welcomes and then lets go of each of the sensations and emotions of the body).
- Unknowing to Know: She discusses The Cloud of Unknowing and the practice of Apophatic prayer, that is prayer without words, describing at type of “knowing” that “is about analyzing less and loving more.” Practice: Centering Prayer.
The concluding chapter is an invitation to wake up, through contemplative practice and concludes with encouragements to unplug, get out into nature, and to adopt a puppy! On this last, Huertz movingly describes the impact of owning a dog has had in her life.
The power of this book is addressing the challenge of “deconstruction” many of us face, often at mid-life when our spiritual beliefs and practices no longer seem to work. We want to know and commune with God, and not simply know about God. We want to find the inner resources to sustain our lives, particularly as we age. We discover that we need to listen to our bodies. The discussions and practices in this book engage all these issues and I would say that a number of these have proven meaningful in my own journey.
At the same time, I find myself unable to fully endorse this book because it seems to me to depart from the center of Christian orthodoxy to embrace a more eastern worldview. A key passage that was concerning to me was this:
“In direct contrast to a widely accepted theory of atonement, I was led to let go of redemptive violence in exchange for redemptive suffering. This sheds great light on the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and how it applies in our daily life. The cross reveals a way to hold the tension of pain, suffering, paradox, and evil. In this way, we learn how to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). When we hang in the tension between good and evil, we are stretched, and it feels like a psychological and spiritual crucifixion. But this alone is what will bring forth resurrected life–the kind of life that in the face of pain, suffering, and evil can genuinely extend hope, healing, and love.” (p. 143)
The author doesn’t name it, but it seems she is repudiating the idea of substitutionary atonement (with an interesting rhetorical turn of language describing it as “redemptive violence”). As I read and re-read this passage, it seems that Jesus dies only to offer a way of living in the tension of suffering and evil, an example of living with (and dying with) unresolved pain. Furthermore, there is a discussion of “oneness” or even “at-one-ment” that seems very different that biblical ideas of our union with Christ. The oneness of this book is oneness of body-mind-spirit, oneness with the world around us, and oneness with God that seems to this reader more the oneness of pantheistic monism than Christian theism. Is the cross even necessary for such oneness?
What troubles me is that contemplative spirituality as it is cast in this book (and I have not found this true with all writers in the Christian contemplative tradition) seems to suggest a way of salvation apart from the cross of Christ. Kirsten Power’s afterword seems to confirm this when she says, “But you don’t need to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to benefit from this teaching. Contemplative spirituality is for everyone.” (p. 176). I’ve been similarly concerned about some of the more recent writings of Father Richard Rohr (for example, Falling Upward, reviewed here). Rohr is one of Huertz’s mentors and writes the foreword to this book, and I fear Huertz evidences similar tendencies in her own thought.
I regret raising these issues because there is much of value in the traditions and practices Huertz advocates. Huertz believes in linking contemplation and action but seems to oppose contemplation and theological acuity, a divide that seems prevalent in the separate circles of theological reflection and contemplation. I would propose a tripod of contemplation, theological reflection and activism as a far more powerful paradigm. Might that be possible?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.