Contemplative Prayer: Praying When the Well Runs Dry
by Joann Nesser
Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books, 2007
Reviewed by Tara Mansbridge, MTS
This is a concise, readable resource to give spiritual directees as an introduction to the contemplative life. Although many publications go into depth about various aspects of the spiritual journey and the way of contemplation, very few can be given to a person in crisis or transition—the very life circumstances that cause many people to seek out a spiritual companion or director. In times of physical, emotional, or spiritual stress, the information that can help a spiritual directee find a place of transformation must be simple, bite-sized and accessible.
This slim volume provides those unfamiliar with the contemplative prayer a clearly marked path into the vast wisdom of contemporary and ancient practices of the spiritual life. Nesser’s perspective and terminology are clearly Christian; nonetheless, much of her thought concerning various prayer practices and many of the exercises she provides for reflection could also be adapted for other faith traditions.
Nesser first introduces her readers to her own spiritual journey and desire for a deeper communion with God. She then empathizes with readers who are seeking more in their spiritual lives because of difficulty or loss. Nesser skillfully reframes this seemingly negative place in which the spiritual directee stands, stating that, "The experience of dryness and emptiness is an invitation to move into unfamiliar territory" (8).
Contemplative Prayer provides an easy-to-follow map of the territory of emptiness and dryness. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Christian spiritual growth. Chapters include topics such as keeping a spiritual journal; descriptions of what prayer will be like at the beginning of the journey; the important of solitude and silence; and creating a rule of life. Most chapters are between three and six pages in length, an important thing for spiritual directors to take note of. While the paucity of text necessarily means Nesser cannot go into depth in any one type of prayer—from imaginative meditation to the prayer of examen—it is the very same brevity that makes the content accessible and non-threatening to those at the end of their spiritual rope, or, as the subtitle suggests, whose wells have run dry.
To fill up those wells, Nesser provides exercises for reflection and contemplation at the end of each chapter, allowing the engaged reader to apply the information for spiritual transformation. The exercises are neither complicated nor intimidating—a perfect first step for those to whom the contemplative lifestyle is completely foreign.
Tara Mansbridge, MTS, is a Christian spiritual director living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. The founder of Anam Cara Ministries, she speaks and writes on the contemplative life and the intersections of sexuality and spirituality. She enjoys poetry, artwork and hiking mountains with her husband.