Blessed Relief: What Christians Can Learn from Buddhists about Suffering
by Gordon Peerman
Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008
Reviewed by Susie Polnaszek, MATS
Gordon Peerman is an Episcopal priest, psychotherapist, and storyteller who writes about Buddhist mindfulness for those "walking the Christian way" (169). He focuses on nine Buddhist teachings and follows each chapter with a simple instruction to guide the reader into the practice. He is generous with sharing both high and low moments from his own practice of meditation and mindfulness. Spiritual directors should note that Peerman also includes a helpful glossary of terms—from accedia to zazen—and a bibliography to continue a bridge between Christian and Buddhist contemplative practice.
Peerman’s strength is in his stories, and the descriptions of his many retreat experiences would make a great resource for retreat directors. Our planning team for Ignatian silent retreats in a college campus setting typically gathers readings and resources to help retreatants prepare for several days of consecutive silence. We include poems by the Jesuits and selections from Thomas Merton, for example. Many retreatants are new to the experience of renouncing cellular telephones and MP3 players, and find it difficult to let go of familiar gadgets. Others struggle with mental noise that floods their prayer time. For the next retreat, I will incorporate stories from Blessed Relief. In Peerman’s story of a wilderness kayaking retreat in Alaska, he acknowledges that all of us struggle to some degree with the mental habits that arise during mindful silence and prayer: "At the beginning of any retreat, the outer silence of a desert or wilderness often exposes not inner calm but a distressing degree of noise and struggle" (15). He goes on to tell of monks and abbas who also have struggled with noisy demons of inferiority, boredom, restlessness, and the like. Sharing this with retreatants will help them appreciate how silence and renunciation fit in the broader context of a contemplative tradition.
Buddhist practice has brought Peerman greater freedom and relief. He explains, "In the experience of silence, and whatever arises in it, I find a blessed relief from religious words, from the stories we tell ourselves about our words, and from our life-and-death attachment to our stories" (19). With this freedom comes greater flexibility to act compassionately in the world. Peerman writes "Both activating and meditating soften the heart, and each needs the balancing effect of the other" (163). Many people who make the silent retreats in our college setting are very active with social justice ministry or preparing to graduate and enter into their working lives. It will be very helpful for them—or any of us—to encounter silence and mindfulness as tools for maintaining a soft, flexible heart capable of responding to and relieving suffering. I will be sure to share Peerman’s description of this critical balance of action and contemplation in our retreat materials and when I companion others.
Susie Polnaszek is developing her retreat and spiritual direction ministry in the central coast of California, USA. She earned her master’s degree in Transforming Spirituality from Seattle University in Washington, USA.