Satisfy Your Soul, Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality by Bruce Demarest, (Colorado Springs: NavPress 1999), 312 pp., paper $10.50.
Dr. Bruce Demarest, longtime professor of theology and spiritual formation at Denver Seminary, offers this book as a polemic for what is commonly called spiritual formation, a method of spiritual development created and promoted for centuries within Roman Catholicism. Demarest assures us repeatedly that he is evangelical in doctrine (see p. 10) but discovered something lacking in his life which his theology could not address. He similarly assumes that those reading this book have a similar need in their souls (pp. 7, 17, 22). Due to the author’s perceived lack of spirituality he decided to participate in a six-week residential program at the Renewal Center at the Roman Catholic Benedictine Abby in Pecos, New Mexico (pp. 23-24). There he was instructed that “for centuries Christians understood what it meant to ‘live by the Spirit’….[but today evangelicals] are not taught how to find the growing edge of our souls—where we hunger for God” (pp. 17-18; see pp. 23, 167). In order to solve this problem he now believes help can be found when we “turn to our Christian past—to men and women who understood how the soul finds satisfaction as we grow in God, and how His Spirit finds a more ready home in us” (p. 23). By this Demarest does not mean turning to Jesus or the apostles or the New Testament Scriptures, but to the Catholic mystics and contemplatives. Specifically he likes, among others, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and various desert fathers and mothers. Among modern mystics he promotes: Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Morton Kelsey, and Brennan Manning.
Demarest believes the Catholic contemplatives discovered a method of sanctification called “spiritual formation” which the author defines as “a form of discipleship we are rediscovering today…an ancient ministry of the church, concerned with the ‘forming’ or ‘shaping’ of a believer’s character and actions into the likeness of Christ” (p. 23). Spiritual Formation has long been practiced among Catholic and Orthodox mystics, hermits, and within monastic settings, but more recently was introduced and popularized among Protestants mainly by Richard Foster. Demarest admits that it was quite a stretch, given his theological pedigree, to embrace spiritual formation, but at the retreat he was taught to move beyond Scripture and read the mystics (pp. 26-27). He soon began agreeing with much of what he read (p. 28) and now believes there is much to learn from Catholics (pp. 29-30). Despite huge doctrinal differences he will later call secondary (p. 75), he decided he “wanted to reconnect with the ancient wisdom of the church” (p. 30). Once he “got past (his) old prejudices and misunderstandings, [he] accepted more than [he] rejected” of the Catholic traditions and beliefs (p. 35). Demarest, unlike many others who progress this far in their acceptance of Catholicism’s spiritual formation, does not want to cease being an evangelical. He wants instead to merge the three major traditions of intellectualism of the West, mysticism of the East and relationalism of the tribal people worldwide (p 85), choosing the better part from each tradition (p. 89). Additionally, he is open to Richard Foster and Foster’s Renovare’s combining of six Christian traditions: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational (pp. 76, 262-264). As would be expected, Demarest is strongly critical of only one tradition – conservative evangelicals (such as Michael Horton – pp. 75, 79) who claim, as Demarest sees it, “I alone have the truth” (p. 87).
The author believes Protestantism has reduced God to a theological idea and what is needed is an experience of God that the “ancient spiritual masters” can provide (p. 96). Therefore “the goal for Christian spirituality is not information, it is transformation into the likeness of Christ,” (p. 96). With this statement, we strongly agree, the issue is how does such a transformation take place? This is where we part company with the message of Satisfy your Soul. Rather than turning to the New Testament teachings, examples and practices, Demarest turns to the ancient contemplatives and Catholic Church traditions. While he occasionally references Scripture to attempt to prove his point, he does a remarkably sad job of exegesis, especially considering he is a professor of theology (see pp. 97, 101, 104, 127-129, 135, 167, 168-169.) Clearly the author’s ground of authority is not the Word of God but the “spiritual masters” from the Catholic mystical tradition.
Demarest describes Christian mysticism as “the believer’s unmediated experience of God, ministered to the heart by the Holy Spirit which facilitates Christ-like character and empowers for kingdom service” (p. 114). At first this sounds much like an acceptable definition of discipleship, but the key is found in the words “unmediated experience.” The mystic seeks an experience directly with God. That is, he or she makes an end run around any links to God including the mind, Bible study, rational prayer or the people of God. Union with God is the ultimate goal of all mysticism, of any religious stripe, and that union is individualistic, indescribable and not subject to the senses.
How does one achieve such an experience? This is where the spiritual disciplines come into play. Catholic mystics (Demarest’s “spiritual masters”) invented numerous disciplines in which they believed aided in bringing about the unmediated union which they sought. The primary discipline, without which there would be no Christian mysticism, is contemplation. At this point it is important to distinguish contemplation from meditation. Demarest defines meditation as “the art of turning our attention from the things of the world to the things of God” (p. 164). This fits well the biblical teaching and desire of God’s people to meditate on the Word and on the Lord Himself (Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2; 119:15, 24, 27; 19:14). But Demarest distinguishes meditation from contemplation which he describes as “turning our attention from the things of God to attend to God Himself” (p. 164). By this he means, “Contemplation is the practice of focusing our inmost being by fixing the eyes of the inner man on God Himself” (p. 159). How does one go about “fixing the eyes of the inner man on God Himself”? Not through the rational mind or traditional study of Scriptures but through contemplative approaches to prayer and Scripture never found or taught in God’s Word.
Contemplative prayer goes by various names including “centering prayer,” “prayer of the heart,” “prayer of simplicity,” “entering prayer” and “breath prayer” (p. 159). Key to the method is recitation of a mantra or, as Demarest says, “Lovingly reciting a biblical word or phrase” (p. 160). Some, such as Henri Nouwen, suggest repeating this word or phrase for up to 20 minutes to “create an inner stillness and thus listen to the voice of God” (p. 160). Our author admits that practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM) use the same basic techniques but for different purposes (p. 161). It is true that TM seeks an altered state of consciousness while the Christian mystic is seeking an indescribable experience with God. But, both in practice and in experience, contemplative prayer has far more in common with TM than biblical Christianity.
Speaking of practice, those entering into centering prayer begin with quieting their hearts through use of a mantra (the “Jesus Prayer” is a popular mantra used by many, p. 160). This is followed by resting in the Lord, then listening to His voice, and attempting to sense His presence (p. 163). As Thomas Merton said, “[contemplation concerns the] secret and obscure promptings of the Spirit of God” (p. 157). As these techniques are not found in the Bible, Demarest attempts to support contemplative prayer through testimonies of past practitioners (pp. 164-167). This section is followed by a short, pitiful attempt at finding a biblical base from such accounts as Elijah’s “still small voice” and a translation of Colossians 3:1-2 from The Message, followed by a quote from Mother Teresa (p. 168). These attempts fail badly.
The same techniques are applied to Scripture in what the contemplatives have called lectio divina (pp. 135-140, 152-153). Lectio is not a method of Bible study but rather a contemplative technique for attempting to experience the presence of God in an imaginative way as one reads Scripture. It is important to note that lectio is nowhere taught or alluded to in the Bible. Demarest also recommends contemplating images and icons (p. 143), and supports use of labyrinths (to a degree) (pp. 178-180), Catholic liturgy (pp. 173-178), use of spiritual directors (pp. 188-218), psychology (pp. 220-254), inner healing techniques (pp. 241-250) and visualization (pp. 250-251).
As Demarest draws Satisfy Your Soul to a close, he chooses two post-Reformation writers to showcase and the two he chooses are most enlightening. He starts with the Counter-Reformation nun Teresa of Avila (pp. 269-274) whose “classic” book Interior Castles is a virtually incomprehensible description of a mystical fantasy that spiritual formation disciples love. Having read the book, I seriously doubt that many have any idea what she is talking about as she describes her supposed visions from the Lord (although Demarest tries hard to explain them).
Thomas Merton is next (pp. 274-277). Merton was a priest in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky and died in 1968. No modern mystic besides Richard Foster has had more influence on the Spiritual Formation Movement than Merton. His work and promotion of contemplative prayer cannot be overestimated. Yet Demarest admits that, towards the end of his life, Merton became attracted to Eastern mysticism and believed that Zen meditation and Christian contemplation pursue the same goal (p. 276). Ultimately, he saw no difference between Buddhism and Christianity and once visited the Dalai Lama to “discover truth in dialogue” (p. 276). Demarest disagrees with Merton at this point, but still recommends Merton as one of the best two post-Reformation writers who provide us with spiritual riches (p. 269). What Merton really did was to show where Christian contemplation, logically and consistently, takes the practitioner, not to biblical Christianity but to a mystical lifestyle not supported by Scripture and very similar to Eastern mysticism.
Satisfy Your Soul, attempts to lure evangelicals into ancient Catholic and Orthodox contemplative practices in order to draw us closer to God, experience His presence, and hear His voice apart from Scripture. In order to embrace this mystical form of spirituality, Demarest is willing to compromise at every turn. Central doctrines such as Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura are shrugged off as secondary. Techniques not found in the Bible as pathways to spiritual growth are promoted as the true means of knowing God and heretics such as Thomas Merton are seen as reliable spiritual guides. Demarest has sold out to Catholic mysticism and abandoned the clear teaching of Scripture. Sadly, in the process, he will take many undiscerning evangelicals with him.