The seemingly ever-increasing popularity of Eastern meditation practices demonstrates an obvious need in our culture for inner peace and rest. My heart is burdened that it seems almost assumed that the place to take one’s anxiety and inner chaos is a yoga studio or the practice of Zen. Meditation and the East are almost synonymous now, but what has been left off the public radar is that the Christian heritage of meditative prayer (which in some eras has been categorized as Christian Mysticism, even if only for the belief that an individual can experience and commune with the living God) is a practice that is old enough to date back to the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th century, not to mention the pages of both Old and New testaments. One need not borrow from the East to cultivate an inner tranquility that opens the heart to hear God, nor need one feel pagan to confess that they meditate.
To counteract these assumptions I offer a modern Christian Mystic and D.Th.P of Fuller Theological Institute, Richard Foster, who draws his writings from a long line of heroes of the faith such as St. Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas À Kempis, Elijah, and David. Foster is refreshing in that his understanding of meditation is without reference to Eastern practices except to highlight the uniqueness of the Christian tradition, and is simple. He presents no new truths or freshly unveiled techniques—just the gospel reality put in a language that is eye-opening and practical. Though Foster may be less accessible to someone starting from an Eastern perspective, he provides invaluable depth and a firm foundation for those in the faith.
A good starting point is Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer. This short, almost devotional sized book is written in a conversational tone that can be read in a breeze. The first six chapters provide an introduction to Meditative Prayer which Foster presents as “a well-nigh unbroken life of humble adoration before the presence of the living God” as we cultivate a heart that is an inner sanctuary for God. His opening defense for the biblical foundation for meditation is “the great reality of God speaking, teaching, and acting that lies at the center of the scriptural witness.” God speaks, our job is to ask, listen, and obey. This is the main contrast that Foster highlights with Eastern practices—for the Christian, inner silence is not its own goal but culminates in character transformation and obedience as that quietness opens our ears to hear God’s way. It is not an emptying of the mind, but a filling with Christ. Not a de-personalizing detachment from the world, but an attachment to the Divine Person (Foster, Celebration of Discipline). Each chapter offers nugget sized truths that demand chewing time. For those new to the idea of Meditative Prayer, this book provides an introduction to the topic and casts an alluring vision for fellowship with our Creator.
Entering much more in depth on the topic of prayer (an extension of meditation in Foster’s understanding) is his work Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. Most books on prayer I find discouraging as they list the benefits I could have if only I were more self-disciplined, which I fear is a long time in coming. Instead, in this work Foster says he hopes to clarify ways that the average Christian already communes with God without labeling it prayer, so that we can recognize how God has already been at work in our lives. This was exactly my reaction. Many times I was able to say, “Yes! I’ve experienced that!”, and received encouragement that God has taught me to pray when I have been unawares. Each of the twenty-one chapters defines a different type of prayer. Intensely practical, I could only handle one chapter at a time, taking a week or so to process and work out what I learned. I learned not to hide my immaturity from God—honesty in prayer means praying “self-centered” rather than inflating my spirituality by avoiding this in favor of “other-centered prayer”. Secondly, I learned to pray not only with the mind but with the emotions, inviting God to break my heart to literally weep over sin. Another lesson was praying by little daily deaths, such as “giv[ing] smiling service to nagging co-workers, listen[ing] attentively to silly bores, express[ing] little kindnesses without making a fuss.” Finally, I rejoiced in the prayer of simply resting in a quiet state of attentiveness to God. These were just some of the portions that stuck out to me even in the first few chapters. This stands as a book that will offer something different under each reading, depending on where a person is at on their God-journey.
It is important to remember that peace and rest cannot be manipulated by our own success at creating the right internal state—they are only gifts of grace and are part of the whole package of sanctification that God is patiently working in each of His children. However, Christ Himself said that one thing is needed—sitting at His feet, gazing in His eyes, and leaving everything else aside as less important. Pursuing this gaze is the life-goal of those who call upon God as Beloved. Richard Foster has spurred me onward in this pursuit and I believe his gift will be an encouragement to anyone who opens his pages.
For an understanding of Christian Meditation from beloved “root sources” see:
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. A collection of writings from the first Christian monks who chose a secluded life to contemplate God before such a choice was formalized. 3rd century.
Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Written in 1395 by the first woman to write a book in the English language (Wikipedia). This work records a series of visions of Christ’s suffering, with a focus on a new level of understanding His love and compassion.
The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. Written in 1579 by a nun in Spain who was persecuted by the Inquisition for pioneering the idea of a personal relationship with God (paraphrased from Mirabai Starr’s introduction). Her writing views the soul as a castle that a person must travel through towards the center chamber where God dwells.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (17th century monk). A short series of exhortations on how to live in God’s presence in the midst of every day mundane activities.