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.”