The Contemplative Heart by James Finley

James Finley is best known for having been a student at the Abbey of Gethsemani under Thomas Merton, and his best known book is Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, which deals with Merton’s concept of the true and false selves. Finley himself eventually left Gethsemani, married, trained and still practices as a psychotherapist, but he never left the contemplative life behind.

Finley claims early on in The Contemplative Heart that he is writing an introduction to the contemplative life. This is true: you can be introduced to contemplation in these pages in the same sense that you can be introduced to swimming in Lake Michigan. Folks looking for an introduction should probably look elsewhere, however, because this book can be overwhelming both in its content and in its writing style.

Conservative Christians may come to the book and be turned off immediately. Finley tends not to want to make much distinction between God and human beings (or anything else), he’s not interested in using precise theological language (at least in the academic sense) to describe the human experience of God, and he is quite open to non-specifically-Christian spiritual paths.

The names of the book’s parts make clear its depths and particularity: (1) A Contemplative Vision of Life; (2) Find Your Contemplative Practice and Practice It; (3) Find Your Contemplative Community and Enter It; (4) Find Your Contemplative Teaching and Enter It. This is about contemplation as a discipline, not as a life strategy or a technique for managing stress or anything else but as a life in and of God. (Not to say that Finley would have any problem with people starting wherever they start.)

This is an excellent book, with excellent insights, which are drawn from decades of reading, practice, and leading others in practice. Finley draws from deep wells: his own Catholic faith, his time as a monk, his training in psychotherapy, his relationship with his wife, as well as his knowledge of Eastern traditions (Buddhism in particular). I would love a chance to do a retreat with him.

To gain the most from this book, do not get a copy and decide to read it like a novel. Parcel it out to yourself, day by day. I spent about two months with it, and that was the right pace; it’s rich food that takes time to experience, savor, chew, and digest.

Here’s a tidbit, complete with Finley’s writing style asking to be taken in in small pieces, intentionally drawing the reader into a contemplative posture even while reading:

Our egocentric self sets out with an egocentric understanding of what it means to be free of the tyranny of egocentricity. This egocentric understanding is that of having to jump over a bar that is set so high that only the most finely tuned spiritual athlete could ever hope to clear it. Our struggles with distractions, sleepiness and indifference brings us to a point of near despair, convincing us that our doubts were true concerning our inability to master such a seemingly unreachable challenge. Then, just as we are spent in the futility of investing ourselves in our own illusions concerning the nature of the fulfillment that alludes us, the saving event happens. Love steps out and places the bar flat on the ground! Approaching the bar, disoriented by the unthinkable simplicity of the task, we trip over it, falling headlong into God, wholly poured out in and as who we simply are—all precious in our fragility, strangely whole and one with God in the midst of our fragmentation.

And, yes, Finley does spell it alludes, not eludes. I believe it may have been intentional.