Sanctuary of the Soul, Journey into Meditative Prayer by Richard J. Foster. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011, 166 pp. Paper $16.00

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Sanctuary of the Soul is published by the formatio arm of InterVarsity Press which is dedicated to producing books promoting spiritual formation and mysticism.  The Sanctuary of the Soul adds virtually nothing to Foster’s previous works all the way back to his Celebration of Discipline written in 1978.  He still draws from the same sources of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Quaker mystics:  Teresa of Avila (p. 29, 38, 78-79, 152), St John of the Cross (p. 81), Thomas Kelly (p. 33), Agnes Sanford (pp. 121, 141, p. 43), Francis de Sales (p. 38), George Fox (p. 34, 54), Henry Nouwen (pp. 42-43), St. Benedict (p. 46, 90), Thomas Merton (pp. 61, 131, 135), Evelyn Underhill (pp. 62, 105), Mother Teresa (pp. 66, 134), Kierkegaard (pp. 66, 144), Madame Guyon (pp. 73-75) and St. Francis (p. 135). 

It is from these “masters of the spiritual life” (p. 36) that Foster draws the spiritual disciplines that he promotes including: visualization (p. 36), icons (pp. 40-42), lectio divina (pp. 46-47), centering down (p. 54), and reciting of the Jesus Prayer (p. 132).  Additionally, concerning spiritual warfare, Foster recommends the writing of Agnes Sanford and John Wimber.  Foster concludes Sanctuary of the Soul by recommending twelve books to aid in our spiritual journey.  Of those twelve, ten are from confirmed mystics and the other two draw partially from the mystics.  It is no secret where Foster wants to take his readers. 

But it is the discipline of meditation, better known as contemplative prayer, that is the heart of this volume.  “It is meditative prayer that ushers us into divine-human fellowship,” Foster believes (p. 17, see pp. 27-28).  Meditative prayer however is not prayer as defined and demonstrated in Scripture in which the believer communicates with God; “It is the listening side” (p. 125).  Contemplative is not cognitive, rational prayer.  Rather it supersedes the senses; it is wholly mystical (p. 38).  Lectio divina, or sacred reading of Scripture, applies the same approach to the Bible.  Quoting Madame Guyon, “We are not reading the Scripture to gain some understanding but to ‘turn your mind from outward things to the deep parts of your being.  You are not there to learn or to read, but…to experience the presence of your Lord’” (pp. 73-74). 

This goal of meditative prayer is to hear the voice of Jesus not audibly (at least not as a norm), but “an inward whisper, a deep speaking into the heart, an interior knowing” (p. 13).  Foster assures us that many characters in the Bible had this experience including Moses and Elijah (p. 18).  What Foster and all promoters of mysticism fail to notice is that when biblical characters heard from God or angels they heard an audible voice, not an “inward whisper.”  For that reason rarely does anyone in the biblical accounts ever question that he was hearing from God.  Not so the mystic who must “learn to hear the voice of God” (p. 18).  Foster assures us that in time we will be able to distinguish the voice of God from all others, including Satan’s and our own.  One way to determine this is to remember, “Satan pushes and condemns, God draws and encourages.  You can tell the difference” (p. 130).  Of course this is a gross over-generalization for we know that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and judgment (John 16:8).

The basic steps of meditative prayer are recollection, beholding and listening (pp. 62-88).  Here Foster is following the three-fold road of mysticism, normally termed “purgation, illumination and union.”  Foster defines these as follows:

• Recollection – letting go of all competing distractions, even good ones, until we have become truly present where we are.  This can be done by focusing on a name, word or phrase (pp. 62-70).

• Beholding the Lord – “An inward steady gaze of the heart upon God, the divine Center…The soul, ushered into the Holy Place, is transfixed by what she sees” (p. 71).  During this phase some have experienced intense heat around their hearts (pp. 71-73), others speak in tongues (p. 78).

• The prayer of listening – it is at this step that God speaks to us and we enjoy His full presence (pp. 80-88).  We can learn to discern God’s voice by experience (pp. 82-83), but Foster cautions that we can be mistaken about what we hear (p. 84). 

Again it is vital to note that Foster is not developing his theology of prayer from scriptural texts but from his own personal experiences and from those he admires.  This is highly dangerous and subjective ground and is a far cry from the sure and certain Word of God. 

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