At Rest in the Sanctuary of the Soul

My thanks to the folks at Patheos for an invitation to participate in an on-line roundtable devoted to Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul.  Foster issues a fresh invitation to journey into God through meditative prayer. Exploring the way in which Scripture, icons, silence, and other practices can serve us on that journey, Foster succeeds in teaching us to pray without losing sight of the real invitation: a life of intimacy with God in Christ.  The post that follows is not a review, but a reaction to Foster’s work.  For more on Foster’s book and the reaction of other contributors to the roundtable go to:

Richard Foster has been a reliable and thoughtful guide to the spiritual life and his new work, Sanctuary of the Soul, is no exception.  Of course, there is no introduction to prayer and meditation that can completely assuage the fears of its readers.  Meditation and prayer is not the natural environment of most Americans.  We are an activist, engineering, and inventive culture.  And the prospect of silence and reflection can be off-putting.

I was struck then by Foster’s caution, which I have often given to others as well: “Be gentle with yourself.”. That is sage advice.  But it also requires a bit of added explanation, because heard in isolation, it sounds like a tautology: “Be serious, thoughtful, focused, but then, again, don’t be.”  Knowing how careful Foster has been himself and — sensing the pastoral tone of this new book — I am reasonably confident he would agree.  So, for those who are drawn to the promise of intimacy with Jesus, but find the path into that intimacy far too daunting, allow me to offer my own take on what it means to “be gentle with yourself.”

One, remember, you know what you know when you know it…the great gift of listening to veteran pilgrims is that they are familiar with the turns and pitfalls along the way.  The spiritual life is open to anyone who has a passion for a relationship with God, but it helps to have a guide.  The difficulty, however, is that it is perilously easy to be discouraged by the seemingly dramatic difference between our own spiritual condition and the condition of those who have preceded us.  So, being gentle with yourself involves remembering you know what you know when you know it.  Ignorance of the road ahead is no sin.  Failing to act on what you have learned is.  Embrace the experiences you have had.  Let them shape you.

Two, resist the temptation to indulge endless postmortems…if what you know now is what is important, then regrets are a distraction.  Release the mistakes you have made along the way, embrace God’s forgiveness, and forge ahead.  You wouldn’t berate a small child for failing to keep pace with you.  God will not treat you in that fashion.

Three, don’t compare your progress with others.  Recently a colleague observed, “if you compare, you will despair”  and “comparing our insides with someone’s outsides” is particularly innervating. Each of us is God’s gift to the world in the making.  In that way, comparisons are irrelevant.  The life that is your gift is yours alone, with it’s own path.

Four, receive what you are given with gratitude and joy…The spiritual life is not a forced march, it is a journey into wonder.  When we begin thinking of it as a forced march we brutalize the experience.  The reassurance Jesus gives his followers that his “yoke is easy, his burden light,” were words of comfort spoken to a religious world that had lost it’s way in the effort to be faithful.

Fifth and finally, rest where you are.  You cannot force or engineer intimacy with God.  All you do is rest into it.  The good news is that Jesus has promised to be there when you do.

And therein lies the deepest wisdom of the advice, “Be gentle with yourself.”

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.