This introduction to meditative prayer is more helpful than harmful.
Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer
Author: Richard J. Foster
Publisher: IVP Books
The need for discernment has never been greater. With so many winds of doctrine, one can easily be tossed about like the waves of the sea.
Having heard frequent warnings from some Christian circles about contemplative prayer, I decided to review Sanctuary of the Soul by Richard J. Foster. In an old song, Amy Grant sang, “She's got her Father's eyes, / Her Father's eyes; / Eyes that find the good in things, / When good is not around.” Pointing out error is valid, especially if it is flagrant, but my hope was to find some good. Bible teacher Derek Prince likened it to eating fish; eat the flesh, spit out the bones. It seems that some prefer to completely reject any teaching or person that they deem wrong. There may be a time when that is warranted, but I prefer like Ruth in the Old Testament to glean, collecting what I can use. I’m not against pointing out error, but in this case, I will leave that to others if they feel it necessary.
As I began to read, I immediately enjoyed Foster’s excellent writing. He is concise and adorns his prose with thoughtful quotations and stories. With all the foreboding storm clouds that I had imagined, this was like a refreshing summer rain. Devotional writing is my favorite, and though this is instructional, there is plenty of inspiration.
The subject made me a little anxious. I wondered if Foster would add to my burdens. My fears were relieved by Foster’s humility and gentle encouragement. His kindness was like that of Boaz towards Ruth.
I welcome Foster’s highlighting of biblical meditation, which may be a lost art or at least neglected today. It’s the contemplative prayer aspect that some find troubling. Near the back of the book in “A Potpourri of Questions,” Foster offers the following definitions: “Prayer in general is the interactive communication that transpires between God and ourselves. Meditative prayer in particular is the listening side of this communication.” One problem with this view is that you must learn to discern when it is God speaking. Since this is an introductory book, the author writes broadly about a number of issues and does not go in depth on this aspect but points the reader elsewhere. Good News for Anxious Christians (see my review) by Phillip Cary is a recent resource for those who want an opposing view of this type of hearing from God.
I like the book’s emphasis on quieting ourselves before God. Foster sees distraction as the primary spiritual problem of our day. In writing about modern worship services, it’s easy to agree with Foster despite his cynicism, “Today, for the most part they have become one huge production in distraction. Worship meant to draw us into the presence of God has become little more than an organized way of keeping us from the presence of God.” In another place, he tells of a different kind of experience at “Quaker Meadow,” the name of a camp where he participated in a retreat for 150 college students. This is one of three detailed personal experiences that end each of the books’ three sections. They are used to illustrate and expand on the subject matter.
The Quaker Meadow meeting reads like a genuine account of a move of God, one where the participants are being led by the Spirit and are caught-up with a sense of the presence of God. Initially, it was marked by silence followed by spontaneous hymn-singing with different ones leading out. A time of confession ensued. After this, “Songs of praise and thanksgiving began to erupt spontaneously.” Foster wisely does not hold this out as the ultimate experience, one that should be copied. “It is not wise for us to hanker after such heights,” he writes. “Worship can be fully valid when there are no thrills or flights of ecstasy. The group, just like the individual, must learn to endure spiritual weather of all kinds with serenity of soul.”
Having become more interested in poetry, I was delighted to find Foster encouraging a selective use of it in a section titled “Words Dancing with Beauty.” He points out three ways it can useful in settling our minds. “First, poetry startles us with its economy of words and beauty of language.” Second, understanding a poem often requires multiple readings, which helps to calm minds down. “Third, the mind is often captured by the metaphor of a poem.” The book was worth the read just for this small section.
I’m not against a creative use of imagination, but my most uncomfortable moment was Foster’s sample meditation experience for dealing with a wandering mind, which included picturing Jesus in the room, etc. This is intended as a helpful example, but the images are a little odd.
I never want to be undiscerning in relation to mysticism and contemplative prayer. There have been obvious excesses and abuses, and they should be avoided. In the past, even evangelicals like A. W. Tozer and Alexander Whyte, who are both referenced among others in the book, were more willing to learn from the mystics, adapting the good they found for their own purposes. That attitude no longer seems to be in vogue. That is unfortunate, since Foster’s insights are useful in cultivating a closer relationship with God.
Foster is practical, and his candor is surprising. The book does not leave you feeling condemned. Foster keeps it simple, which makes it easy to follow. I found the book to be more helpful than harmful. Even so, the need to be discerning remains: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV).