I will admit it. When I first picked up Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline,” and saw that the first discipline in the book is meditation, I almost put it down. Images immediately came to mind of a cloistered monastery; cold, damp walls reverberating with a collective “ommmm” as robed adherents rocked gently back and forth, index finger to thumb in the lotus position. I thought of Thomas Merton and Mahatma Gandhi, Henri Nouwen and John Michael Talbot; good people all, great even, but high on a pedestal and unattainable for mere mortals like me. And I thought of all those times when I’ve been put off by “new age” people on “a journey,” who seemed to be so insistent on gazing at their own navels that they rarely noted the wider world just beyond their consuming selves.
But the book had come highly recommended by a close friend whom I trusted, so I resisted that initial dismissive impulse and began reading. The first chapter was a transforming experience in which a whole host of preconceptions were challenged and dismantled, and a rich world opened before me.
Foster grabbed me with the very first lines: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied. Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, ‘Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.'”
Even for folks like me who long ago gave up on the notion of a literal little red guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork living underground; it is a compelling image of what Paul called “principalities and powers,” and what Foster calls our “Adversary.” The things that stand against us, he seems to say, are less obvious than the traditional pitchfork-yielding Devil of Medieval art. They are things that seem good at first glance: busy schedules, crammed agendas, frenetic activity, active social calendars, and instant information/communication. Foster wrote this book long before the internet or the phenomenon of Twitter/Facebook/MySpace or, yes, blogging; but there’s no doubt all these things have only intensified the “muchness and “manyness” and “hurry” that characterize our day and makes our Adversary smile.
Foster begins his book with meditation because he believes it is the doorway to all the other disciplines. We must, for our own sakes and for the sake of the world, go beyond the superficialities of our day, slow down, go “deep into the recreating silences,” and find that center where God longs to commune with us. God is always speaking, always revealing Godself to us, both individually and communally. We are the ones who find it hard to hear for all the noise.
To hear God’s voice is not only for the Merton’s and Nouwen’s of our day, but is God’s gracious gift to all God’s children. Cultivating the discipline of meditation is one way to place ourselves in the arena of grace (to use an idea of Shirley Guthrie). We cannot control God, we cannot dictate to God where and how God will speak, but we can put ourselves in the place where God has been known to speak before. The biblical witness and the witness of Christians through the ages is that we can hear the voice of God more clearly when we silence other voices vying for our attention, when we practice intentionality in our inner lives.
Foster is not big on mushy sentimentality. He eschews the popular notions of meditation and spirituality that claim a “buddy-buddy,” “me and Jesus” outcome. Rather, he describes meditation as both “intense intimacy” and “awe-full reverence.” Foster is likewise quite dismissive of the ideas of some forms of meditation that try to get people to detach from the world in some blissful inner state and never re-engage. The purpose of meditation is to experience the deep peace and presence that comes from communing with God in order to re-engage the church and the world in a way that will be effective and grace-filled.
This has always been my biggest criticism of much that passes for spirituality in our culture – especially our religious culture – today; that it is too focused on the self and not the other, that it devalues the importance of life in Christian community (the church), and that it is unconcerned with the social engagement that was so much a part of Jesus’ witness and work. Foster shares these criticisms and yet is unwilling to do away with the idea of spirituality and meditation because of these contemporary corruptions. Rather, he seeks to reclaim them.
He convinces me. So I took on the challenge of expanding my conception of prayer and implemented some of the methods he recommends for meditation. Foster encourages at the beginning the setting aside of a particular time and place each day. It needs to be a time and place quiet and free of interruption, with no telephone (or cell phone or computer) nearby. You should have a posture that reflects an inward state of calm and contemplation, whether that is sitting, standing, or kneeling. He recommends opening the palms upward to instill a feeling of receptivity. You might either close your eyes or look out on nature.
There are numerous forms of meditation. One can meditate upon a favorite Scripture passage, reading it through several times and listening for emphases that seem to come to your mind. Another form – and one I found very helpful and have practiced with some regularity since first reading this book almost twenty years ago – is called “re-collection.” I begin by placing my palms down as a symbolic way of indicating my desire to turn over any concerns I have to God. I might say, “God, I give over my insecurity over the upcoming meeting today.” Whatever is weighing on my mind, I symbolically release it. Then I lift my palms up in a posture of receptivity and receive God’s grace, peace, and joy. It is always amazing to me what these simple movements will do for my sense of God’s presence and my prayers both for myself and for others. Through this I have discovered that meditation is not just for the spiritual giants, but God’s gift to us all.
Meditation is really a doorway to the other disciplines, which all in one way or another call for the simple yet difficult practices of setting aside time, slowing down, quieting the mind, and reflecting on our relationship with God.
I would love to hear your own experiences with meditation or your reactions to these ideas. Perhaps you have a story of a way this discipline has affected your life, or you want to help fill out these reflections with thoughts of your own. Meditation remains a highly misunderstood concept in the western church, and I freely admit that I am often quite critical of some of its most ardent advocates. But Foster has a way of cutting through a lot of those concerns for me and getting to the heart of the matter. What about for you?