By Daniel P. Coleman. Barclay Press, 2017. 232 pages. $20/paperback; $6.99/eBook.
At the end of his remarkable book, Daniel Coleman speaks of a “profoundly clarifying moment” during his research when he visited the Christian Meditation Center in Neptune Beach, Fla., near Jacksonville. The center is in an otherwise undistinguished business park with insurance and real estate agents, massage therapists, and a yoga studio. Although the center is based on the writings of the Benedictine monk John Main, it is nondenominational, run by volunteers, and supported by donations. Group meditations are offered several times of day, and the meditators come from a variety of backgrounds, from Catholic to Buddhist, although Coleman seems to have been the first Quaker to have visited there. What Coleman found there was a “vibrant and worshipful community,” “a working alternative (or adjunct) to traditional church, without pastor or pulpit or denominational affiliation or doctrinal statement.”
Coleman is a true seeker, who left his evangelical church after 20 years and started a house church, where he hoped to find “a greater depth of Christian spirituality.” He is an avid reader (as is clear from his very well-researched book) and stumbled upon Quaker writings, which led him to join an evangelical Quaker church and eventually to Earlham School of Religion. There he studied the contemplative writings and practices of Quaker, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox mystics. While at Earlham, he discovered Buddhist vipassana (mindfulness or insight) meditation, which enriched his spiritually Christian beliefs. The first fruits of his journey are in this book, a rich amalgam of Christian, Buddhist, and Quaker contemplative practices as well as a beautifully concise chapter on process theology, which “offers a bridge for interfaith dialogue between religions, and even a potential path for ‘double-belonging’ to more than one faith.”
“Apophatic prayer” is not part of Quaker vocabulary, but maybe that will now change, for apophatic prayer is silent prayer, which in earlier times was very much part of Quaker tradition. “Apophatic” is from a Greek word meaning “unsaying.” “In apophatic prayer—the via negativa, the way of silence, the way of darkness, the way of unknowing—one surrenders, forgets, empties oneself of cognition and self-reference, seeking instead to simply be in the present moment in an undifferentiated manner.” There is a very rich tradition of apophatic mysticism in many of the world’s religions, and Coleman lays out its various histories, characteristics, and practices with great erudition and clarity. He also makes clear how vibrant this form of prayer, meditation, and contemplation is today.
Centering prayer is the most familiar form of apophatic prayer today, especially through the writings of Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Cynthia Bourgeault. Based on the fourteenth-century The Cloud of Unknowing, it is a simple practice of letting go of one’s thoughts during meditation or contemplation by focusing on a sacred word that is “an expression of one’s intention” and helps bring you back to your awareness of God within (or the Inner Teacher). One also “uses attention to the breath as a sacred symbol.” The purpose of centering prayer is “inner transformation,” and, in Keating’s words, centering prayer “is a way of awakening to the reality in which we are immersed.”
Coleman’s discussion of Christian meditation and the teachings of John Main, Christian Zen (Merton as well as contemporary writers such as Paul Knitter and Kim Boykin), and Buddhist-Christian interpenetration (the work of Marcus Borg, among others) underscores his call for “faith-mixes,” where “people will tolerate, maybe even appreciate and celebrate, one another’s spiritual mosaics.”
If there is a shortcoming in this otherwise thought-provoking and insightful book, it is the all too brief chapter called “Meditation and Quakers.” While George Fox, William Penn, Thomas Kelly, and David Johnson are mentioned in passing, Coleman’s main focus is on Teruyasu Tamura’s Pendle Hill pamphlet, A Zen Buddhist Encounters Quakerism. Tamura’s suggestion that “in their daily devotion, [Friends] should keep regular practice of complete inner silence, say for an hour or half an hour” is certainly valid. Yet Coleman makes no mention of A Guide to True Peace, or the Excellency of Inward and Spiritual Prayer, compiled anonymously by two Quakers from the writings of three eighteenth-century mystics (Fénelon, Guyon, and Molinos). According to Howard Brinton, the pocket-sized devotional went through at least 12 editions and reprintings from 1813 to 1877, and was reprinted by Pendle Hill in 1946 and 1979. It is a fount of Quaker apophatic mysticism.
Coleman, however, is completely correct in concluding that it is time for Quakers to acknowledge their apophatic heritage: “Quakers could have a role in facilitating the adoption of apophatic contemplative/meditative practices in twenty-first-century North American culture, but only if Friends first reclaim private apophatic practices for themselves and find creatively authentic ways to engage the culture at large with their unique approach to active, prophetic mysticism.”
This is a book that deserves a wide audience among Friends and seekers of all faiths.