“Single-minded Devotion to God’s Kingdom”
A review of
??Sanctuary of the Soul:
Journey into Meditative Prayer
by Richard J. Foster
Review by Craig D. Katzenmiller.
“Sometimes I wish these stinking monks would get out in the world and do something!” My friend’s outburst caught me off guard. Kyle and I had visited the Abbey of Gethsemani together two times prior to this trip, and the experience had always been refreshing. On this day, Kyle, who has been accepted to work with a peace organization in Palestine, was trying to understand what good monks offered to the real world. “I don’t think I could live that way,” Kyle confided to me. The cloistered paradise of rural Kentucky just didn’t jive with his desire to “be the change.” I tried to defend the monks’ vocation by saying that they offered prayers for the world and offered the world a place to pray, but Kyle wasn’t buying it. He barked in frustration, “They’re just running away from real life.” Thus was the subject of conversation on our third pilgrimage to Gethsemani. But the vocation of prayer should not be considered as flight away from the things of this world, and many authors have affirmed this claim.
Writing in early 1970s, Dorothee Soelle observed that prayer becomes a subversive act in modern societies because it provides speech that enables the people of God to respond to the events of life in ways worldly powers reject as naïve and unrealistic. Now, nearly forty years after Soelle, Richard J. Foster has reaffirmed the subversiveness of prayer in Sanctuary of the Soul, a book about meditative prayer. Whereas Soelle was writing about prayer in the context of giving voice to suffering, Foster writes to critique today’s distracted and fast-paced society. In Sanctuary of the Soul, Foster, who is the founder of Renovaré in Denver and the author of several other books including Celebration of Discipline, attempts to persuade readers of the value of meditative prayer in three stages: first, he gives an historical and theological defense for the practice of meditative prayer; second, he describes steps for entering into meditative prayer; and third, he gives practical reflection on meditative prayer while also answering questions about the practice.
Beginning with an historical and theological survey of meditation, Foster roots his book in the affirmation that Jesus Christ “is resurrected and at work in our world. He is not idle. He is alive and among us as our Prophet to teach us, our Priest to forgive us, our King to rule us, our Shepherd to guide us, our Friend to come alongside us” (19). The question, then, becomes how does one hear the voice of our resurrected prophet, priest, king, shepherd, and friend. The answer, according to Foster, is through the silence of meditative prayer, a practice that allows the still, small voice of God to transform one’s own heart into the image of Jesus’ heart. However meditation is not only about hearing God but also obeying God. Therefore Foster points to the goal of this sort of obedient hearing: to build friendship with our Lord, Jesus Christ, who “desires a perpetual Eucharistic feast in the inner sanctuary of the heart. Jesus is knocking; meditative prayer opens the door” (26).
When the door is opened to Jesus, he enters and subverts the wisdom of the principalities and powers. Thus the claim that meditative prayer is itself a subversive act finds its grounding. Foster notes that the first stage of meditative prayer is recollection, which “involves a re-collecting of ourselves until we are unified or whole. The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we have become truly present where we are” (60). Recollection, according to Foster, creates a “glad surrender” to God. “We surrender,” writes Foster, “control over our life and our destiny. . . . We relinquish into God’s hands our imperialist ambitions to be greater and more admired, to be richer and more powerful, to be saintlier and more influential” (63). Recollection also inspires repentance, confession, and acceptance of God’s ways, which “are all patience and love, all grace and mercy.” There can be no space left for our methods, which “are all domination and control, all manipulation and guile” (67). The ambitious desires of our hearts for wealth and power and control are all exposed as inconstant to the ways of God through meditative prayer.
Once one has been recollected from the distractions of power and vainglory, Foster shows how meditative prayer allows us to experience the presence of God—what Foster calls “beholding the Lord.” While beholding the Lord, Foster claims that we become more acutely aware of Gods presence, allowing us to enter into the prayer of listening. It is during the prayer of listening that we hear God’s transformative word. Foster quickly notes, however, we must be sure to rightly discern what we hear because we may be hearing any number of voices in silence. Such discernment, according to Foster, involves familiarity with the quality (“divine authority”), spirit (“exalted peacefulness”), and content (consistency with Scripture) of God’s voice (81-82). Through all the listening of meditation, Foster observes that “[t]he goal, of course, is to bring this stance of listening prayer into the course of daily experience. Throughout all life’s motions . . . there can be an inward attentiveness to the divine Whisper” (86). So listening should bring us into constant communion with God, living ever more harmoniously with God’s kingdom.
Foster concludes his book with reflections on the practice of meditative prayer. First, Foster offers a helpful explanation of the ways meditation critiques our age of distraction. Alluding to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, readers are reminded that because of distracting technologies our brains are rewiring themselves so that our ability to sustain attention is decreasing. But Foster does not want to simply focus on the flakiness of technological distraction but on distraction as a whole, calling it “the primary spiritual problem in our day” (104). Meditation, then, helps us “crucify the spirit of distraction” (106). Concretely, Foster suggests reading poetry or imagining Jesus sitting with us as two ways to quiet and settle our minds for lengthy periods of silence. Yet Foster recognizes that our minds wander during the early stages of meditation; he suggests just letting each thought pass away without punishing ourselves and to also ask if the distraction itself has anything to say to us (e.g., might thoughts that pop up without welcome be something we need to ponder further later).
Next, Foster considers the metaphysical realities that seek to destroy our spiritual lives. Here Foster’s rather otherworldly language of devils and demons can strike one as a bit off-putting. To my mind, Foster could have here enhanced the force of his discussion of demons by speaking to the demonic nature of the principalities and powers, following the witness of, say, William Stringfellow, who spoke much more concretely to the reality of demonic structures that really do destroy lives. But lest I give the impression that Foster is only concerned with otherworldly matters here, it is worth noting that in his consideration of the Temptation of Jesus, Foster affirms that the story is about this-worldly stuff: economics, religion, and politics. Thus, when Jesus resists Satan’s temptations, Foster reminds us that Jesus “undercuts the leverage of the three great social institutions of his day . . . and of ours—exploitive economics, manipulative religion and coercive politics. We too must learn to defeat Satan precisely in these realms” (117).
Overall, Foster’s sage wisdom for entering meditative prayer is the book’s greatest strength. One gets the sense that Foster has an intimate knowledge of finding friendship with God through prayer. The greatest potential for deficiency in a book like this is that it could advocate individualistic and ecstatic “spirituality,” but Foster has avoided such pitfalls. To the extent that he addresses individuals, he is also addressing members of communities and even gives examples of how corporate prayer can have formative effects for a community. And he purposefully avoids ecstatic language, reminding readers that knowing God requires both heart and mind. And knowing God changes who we are and how we live.
Thinking again of my friend Kyle, it is perhaps worth considering the great contribution that the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani and elsewhere make to the world. Monks, who practice contemplative, meditative prayer as part of their lives’ rhythms, remind us that avoiding distraction is possible, that Christ-centered work is possible, and that befriending God is possible. While not all of us are called to a monastic vocation per se, we are called to seek God’s kingdom first. And perhaps the example of monastics most clearly demonstrates single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom, allowing those of us who are not cloistered to go and do likewise wherever we find ourselves. And I suspect that Foster’s book too demonstrates this sort of single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom.
Craig D. Katzenmiller has an MTS from Lipscomb University and currently works at a theological publishing house in Nashville, TN. Since 2009, he has been part of a Benedictine-inspired community that meets inside the walls of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution once a week.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com