Thursday, October 13, 2011

Richard Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer (IVP, 2011)

Contemporary culture, writes our (Quaker) author, ‘is good at training us in almost everything and anything… except prayer’. His opening quote is from Elizabeth O’Connor: ‘Churches have no courses on meditation, despite the fact that it is an art that must be learned from those who have mastered it, and despite the fact that the supreme task of the church is to listen to the Word of God’.

Now why don’t churches teach meditation? Well, for example, evangelicals either have a hunch that meditation is an esoteric Eastern practice (and one must not risk contamination from those religious ideas), or that somehow God can sanctify one’s reason but not the imagination, or ‘we’ve got to be practical: sitting around waiting for nice ideas/feelings isn’t going to get things done’. [1]

All of the biblical leaders spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts. What did they do there? They certainly didn’t start up seminaries to teach courses on conflict resolution, or theories about the authorship of the Pentateuch… Richard Foster’s answer: they relinquished into God’s hands their ‘imperialist ambitions to be greater and more admired, to be richer and more powerful, to be saintlier and more influential’.

There they experienced what Elizabeth Barrett Browning declared:

Earth’s crammed with Heaven.
And every common bush afire with god;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

There are two major texts for meditation: the Bible and the ‘book of nature’.

Meditation is about ‘experiencing the unifying grace of recollection and the liberating grace of beholding the Lord, [as we are] ushered into the prayer of listening’. (On this subject Foster shares his indebtedness to Dallard Willard’s Hearing God, IVP 1999). Out of such deep listening, Richard-the-pastor tells us about his calling a parishioner: ‘Ron, I am not asking you to do anything, I am just wondering how you are doing’.

As the little boy said when asked why he was throwing starfish back into the sea one by one, when there’s miles and miles of beach and so many hundreds more starfish: ‘Well, I am making a difference for this starfish’.

Meditation is the listening side of our communicating with God. How does this relate to the gathered experienced of worship? Well, ‘the entertainment show that is so characteristic of contemporary worship will begin to feel plastic and artificial’ whereas people are ‘instinctively seeking something deeper, more profound’.

For one thing, our spiritual lives need to be more grounded in silence. ‘Remember T S Eliot in Ash Wednesday when he asked.

'Where shall the word be found/ where will the word/Resound?/Not here, there is not enough silence.

Does a meditative life involve mystical experiences? Yes, sometimes: though it took Paul 14 years to be able to share what happened when he was ‘caught up into the third heaven’.

This is a book more about encouraging us ‘into the silence’ than giving us a list of ‘how to’s’.

His recommended ‘Resource books’ are by these authors: Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Madame Guyon, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Jean-Nicholas Grou, Ole Hallesby’s Prayer (I couldn’t get into this one), Frank Laubach (amazing man), Sadhu Sundar Singh, Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Poustinia – beautiful!), A W Tozer (Pursuit of God: see ), Thomas Merton...

Interestingly, Richard hadn’t heard of W E Sangster, so I once gave him a copy of Sangster’s magnum opus  ‘The Pure in Heart’. My hunch is that he still hasn’t read it!

Speaking of magna opera if you wanted to buy just one book by Richard Foster, get his Streams of Living Water – a brilliant summary of the six major traditions of Christian spirituality.

[1] The best exponent of St Paul’s mysticism vs. the Protestant emphasis on justification etc. that I’ve read is in James Stewart’s  A Man in Christ - especially his chapter on Mysticism and Morality. See

Rowland Croucher
October 2011

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