Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer
Richard J. Foster
165 pp., 22.00
"An Open Wound of Love"
This was a hard book review to write. You can only read so much elegant prose inviting you to pray before you feel guilty for not actually praying. Richard Foster notes this difficulty, quoting Thomas Merton: "You cannot learn meditation from a book. You just have to meditate."
True enough, but good books help, and Sanctuary of the Soul is a good one. Not a sentence is misplaced, each drives you to the next with the expectation that good things will be waiting. Like all of Foster's work since his landmark book The Celebration of Discipline, this one presents the spiritual disciplines to an evangelical audience as disciplines that are (not paradoxically) grace-filled. If Ron Sider and Tony Campolo made it possible for evangelicals to speak of social justice, Richard Foster has done the same for spiritual disciplines.
I wish I could say Foster's work has actually changed the evangelical world. Speaking of meditation in particular, "Today," Foster himself laments, "serious teaching and practice from a Christian perspective is minimal, if present at all." He finds worship more commonly to be an experience of distractions strung together rather than an invitation to contemplation. This despite his own publishing success, the extensive conferencing and speaking circuit of his Renovaré organization, and the efforts of such gifted co-conspirators as Dallas Willard and the late Robert Webber. Foster and others may have changed the publishing landscape of evangelicals and offered arguments about why the spiritual disciplines are good things. But until evangelical churches are known for the depth and power of their meditative practices, his work remains incomplete.
The church I'm now privileged to pastor is an example. We have a longtime prayer ministry built on the American revivalist model. Dedicated prayer team members train and wait to pray with people after worship if they want a prayer partner. But hardly anyone ever comes for prayer. Why would they, unless they experienced a Billy Graham-style conversion? This tall steeple church in a college town hasn't seen a live-wire conversion in decades. So the group met recently to imagine how to reconstitute its work. Someone timidly suggested, "I don't mean to sound too Catholic, but couldn't we do some meditation?"
It's the description "Catholic" to which Foster puts the question. It's hardly a Catholic (or faux Buddhist or whatever else) divine right to meditate. Foster's work has been showing evangelicals for decades that this is their birthright too—for the simple reason that meditative prayer practices are biblical.
Perhaps my parishioner's trouble is that she's not been taught an evangelical version of meditation. And this would be the perfect book with which to teach such a thing. The Hebrew word for "meditate," Foster notes, could also be translated as mutter, moan, rehearse, muse, or, my favorite, coo. And unlike some popular understandings of meditation, involving groovy music and hippie lettuce, a specifically Christian practice is shaped by Jesus' own habits. When he hears a word from his Father, he obeys it. So too his followers when we meditate. Foster uses a favorite evangelical verse, "Behold I stand at the door and knock," and points out that Revelation 3:20 was written to Christians, not as an invitation to unbelievers. Scripture constantly calls God's people to open their hearts so he can eat with them, and they with him, in an "unbroken life of humble adoration." We see here a kind of "mere Christianity" side to Foster: what follower of Jesus would not want precisely that?
Yet Foster also has a catholic side. He calls his readers into a multi-millennia conversation about prayer to which they're invited to contribute. He does this occasionally by direct shaming: "How unfortunate that we today know so little of the vast literature on Christian meditation by faithful believers throughout the centuries!" But he more often gently introduces the reader to that tradition by sharing from its greatest luminaries. He quotes the magnificently named Theophan the Recluse to the effect that "to pray is to descend with the mind into the heart"—a perfect balance between respecting the mind and not worshiping it. Francis de Sales speaks of imagination "confining the mind"—more Romantic versions of imagination would have it unbound, but here it encompasses, borders, hems. Foster commends Brother Lawrence's insistence that prayer and business are not distinct activities. And he lifts up Hans Urs von Balthasar's insistence that prayer is not first listening to God, but beholding his beauty. What do these aphorisms mean? I'm not entirely sure, and that's almost beside the point. The point is to enter into conversation with dead saints for the sake of living ones about the prayer they both join. By the time he gets to his own vision of God's heart as "an open wound of love," we see Foster rightly as joining a long line of faithful meditators or, to use language I don't notice Foster much using, mystics.
The book is good enough to leave me with questions that Foster cannot be expected to have answered in a short volume. When he suggests that we all require much formation before we can "stand the fires of heaven," I wonder whether there is a place for purgatory in his theology, and, if so, what it looks like. On one page Foster can insist that meditation is "utterly, utterly up to God." A good, Protestant notion—God's saving work is all grace. Yet on the very next page he suggests that "if certain chambers of our heart have never experienced God's healing touch, perhaps it is because we have never welcomed the divine Scrutiny." This seems true to experience in a way. In another it seems a direct contradiction to the prior page—is the transformation of our hearts up to us, or God, or both? In one section Foster explores the use of icons, agreeing with the 7th Ecumenical Council (AD 787) that Christians can draw pictures of the divine Son because of his incarnation. In a footnote, though, he says he himself doesn't use icons in his prayer: "Icons have never seemed to speak to my condition." Well, to be technical about it, the 7th Council said we must depict and reverence icons or else we will fail to worship the incarnate God (a ruling much more observed in the Eastern than Western churches). In another section, on the question of how we can know a voice we hear is God's, Foster suggests we attend to "the Christlikeness of God." A wonderful phrase. Yet I found myself longing here for a mention of the church, which finally must test the spirits of individual members for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
These questions hint at a weakness I find in this work of Foster's, one perhaps owing to his evangelical Quakerism. Where is the church in his thought? In one way it is powerfully present in his use of the communion of the saints for wisdom on prayer. Yet I found few references to the sacraments or to the church as a doctrine in his thought. Quakerism, of course, has never been enthusiastic about the traditional Christian sacraments, and Foster leaves me wondering whether his personal catholic sensibilities or his Quaker eschewing of the physical win out in the end.
This criticism could be as unfair as the high bar I set for Foster above: transforming the prayer habits of evangelical churches in North America. We may now be seeing a moment of ressourcement among evangelicals akin to that enjoyed by Catholics in the last century. Our publishing houses are producing eminently useful volumes of patristic, medieval, and Reformation biblical commentary. Evangelical theologians are enthusiastically drawing on ancient Christian sources as they rarely have before. A critique of Richard Foster in an evangelical magazine, of all places, can fuss at him for failing to be sufficiently ecclesial or catholic. God may be renewing catholic sinews in the evangelical church yet. And if so, we will all have Richard Foster to thank.
1. I'm grateful to James Wilhoit of Wheaton College for this observation in personal correspondence.
2. And to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, for this one.
Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Duke Divinity School.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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