Cover Image: Beguiled by Beauty

Beguiled by Beauty

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Modern versions of Christianity have been one of activism and various spiritual practices. Some even call for greater participation in social justice. The rush to do first without adequate contemplation can become a form of short-term gain without long-term benefits. Living in a busy world is already a hectic routine. With the evangelical fervor that pushes us to do more, no wonder Christians are in need of a vacation. Some might even need more such breaks. What if we could incorporate more regular retreats and opportunities for spiritual renewal? What if we could adopt a discipline of slowing down and being more contemplative in everything? More importantly, what if we could turn our contemplative activities into opportunities to behold God's work on earth and bless the community that we interact with? Before we can do that, we need to understand what contemplation is. This is how author Wendy Farley begins, by showing us the meaning and the reasons for contemplation. Beginning with an explanation of what contemplation is, she aims to help us cultivate this discipline in our everyday lives. She helps us "cultivate habits of wonder" as we become more aware of beauty and compassion. She defines the contemplative life as "a general attitude for integrating all the aspects of one's life into a spiritual whole." Everything from personal lifestyles to relationships, from the acknowledgment of nature to the recognition of its innate beauty, we are given tools to sharpen our awareness of the Divine, thus the title of the book. Contemplation takes us beyond the aesthetics into an admiration of the essence of God's creation. It takes us deeper from the visible to the invisible; to use our eyes to see the seen and to train our hearts to appreciate the Truth encapsulated in the unseen. Contemplation is not the end in itself. It is a way to grow closer to God, so that we may grow with deeper compassion to others in society. The author aims to help readers not only to appreciate the goodness of creation but the goodness of the Divine God. Farley begins with a declaration that we are made for God. Those familiar with the Westminster Shorter Catechism would be familiar with this purpose of human beings, to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. In practical terms, it would be doing good and to glorify God.

With the help of the spiritual practices of various religions and the spiritual wisdom of the saints, she describes the "intimacy and mystery" of contemplating the Divine. She points out the need to bring back the contemplative element in a culture that is filled with moralistic activism, social justice, and technological determinism. For contemplation is not simply about things we can do but also about the state of being. It is not just about accomplishing tasks but also about appreciating the beauty of creation. Beauty is that window into such a world. The premise is that beauty is the way to promote compassion and justice. It is a way to see the Divine. It is a way to build communities of love.

Having said that, there are tangible ways to accomplish the goal of compassion and community building. Ways like the spiritual practice of prayer. In prayer, we unite the habits of the heart, mind, and soul. In fact, prayer is a powerful way to re-calibrate our purpose and to push back against a world of hush. Contemplative prayer involves the practices of silence, solitude, and service. It is soul work. Gradually, Farley describes the many other practical ways we can cultivate contemplative living.

My Thoughts
Firstly, this book is about contemplation. This is the fourth base of the four-point field of the ancient spiritual art of lectio divina. It is hard to practice contemplation in a noisy and restless world. That is because contemplation is the antithesis of a goal-getting and attention-grabbing culture. I must agree with Farley that we have become too busy for our own good. We have allowed technology to rush us to do even before we consider the meaning of it all. By coming back to the need for contemplation, we learn to pause our rush and to rest if necessary. A life without contemplation will be like trying to piece together a large jigsaw puzzle without first eyeballing the complete picture. Contemplation awakens our need for marvel. It helps us stay sane in this crazy world. Beauty is not something to be solved but to be admired. In doing so, we will not become so distracted into doing things but become more aware of who we are doing it for. If any part of the book could orientate us in this direction, it would have been worth the price of this book.

Second, we learn to see the world through the window of contemplation. Instead of starting with a goal in mind, it begins with who we are, what we have, where we are, and why we are here. It brings us back to the fundamental questions surrounding identity, meaning, significance, and purpose. These are the basics of life, something that our modern culture simply presumes we know. The problem with hurry is impatience. Farley shows us that contemplation is not some passive call to do nothing. Actually, it is an active way to ignite our capacity for contemplation. The human being is not meant to be running on just one leg of activism. We need the other leg to bring balance to our walk of life. We need contemplation to show us our need for intimacy with the Creator. Here, Farley shines when it comes to putting contemplation into practice. This use of the window of contemplation gives us a fresh perspective on everything we do. It promotes gentleness in a world obsessed with achievement. It encourages us to adopt nonjudgmental attitudes as we interact with people. More importantly, it helps us build a sense of wonder (positively speaking).

Finally, Farley is not afraid to include the difficult issues of life. Sometimes, authors can try to paint a picture of beauty only in the highlights, and ignoring the lows of life. Not Farley. What makes this work quite unique is that we can learn to cultivate a contemplative mindset even in times of pain and suffering. This should be the way as real life is really a journey of ups and downs. By recognizing the presence of pain and suffering, we learn to appreciate the Son of God who had gone through the whole process. The purpose is not to solve the problem of pain but to learn to journey through it. This is what life is about. Suffering can drive us to pray in a more profound way. We do not have to run after suffering in order to experience it. More often than not, suffering comes looking for us and when that happens, we need to be prepared. This way of contemplative thinking equips us to do that too.

Hopefully, this book about contemplation can serve as a spiritual starting torque to propel us to cruise along the ups and downs of life, without losing the hope of tomorrow even as we deal with the challenges of today.

Wendy Farley is Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality and Rice Family Professor of Spirituality in the Graduate School of Theology of the University of Redlands.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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