A Serious Look at Richard Foster’s “School” of Contemplative Prayer
By Ray Yungen
In Portland, Oregon there is a large bookstore devoted entirely to New Age spirituality. Every Eastern mystical and metaphysical topic under the sun is found there. Interestingly, there is a sizable section on contemplative prayer with Catholic monk Thomas Merton having a whole shelf devoted just to his writings. Why would a New Age bookstore give valuable space to a topic that purports to be Christian? That is a legitimate question. May I suggest the reason is that the “Christian” mystical tradition (i.e., contemplative prayer) shares a sense of profound kinship with the Eastern mystical tradition. There is ample evidence to support this claim.
In this booklet, we are going to examine a few of the major players in the contemplative prayer movement to show that Richard Foster’s “school” of contemplative prayer does not belong in Christianity. In fact, as you will see, the message behind it is the very opposite of biblical Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is the “School” of Contemplative Prayer?
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says “we should all without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.” What does he mean when he says “school” of contemplative prayer? When Foster uses the word school, he does not mean, of course, a building or an institution somewhere. For example, Webster’s New World College Dictionary has nine different definitions for the word school. The one that fits what we are trying to get across is:
. . . a group of people held together by the same teachings, beliefs, opinions, methods, etc.3
When one examines the spiritual context of this definition, one can see what kind of spiritual “fruit” it produces. The only way you can ascertain the real essence of a movement is to look at the leaders or prominent individuals in that “school” to see just where their practices have led them, what conclusions they have come to, and what propels their vision of truth.
Let’s first establish what is meant by the word contemplation. Carl McColman in his Big Book of Christian Mysticism explains the context of it in the following way:
[Contemplation] comes from the Latin word contemplare, which means “to observe” or “to notice.” The word is also rooted in the word “temple,” however, relating it to sacred space. . . . Once Christianized, contemplation lost its association with divination [soothsaying] and came to signify the prayerful practice of attending to the presence of God.4
So if Foster is correct, the leaders of this movement are those who have turned to the presence of God in a unique and profound way, and their methods should be followed to achieve the same results.
Now let’s look at the spiritual perspectives of these leaders in the “school of contemplative prayer.”
Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, is the most widely recognized of the modern-day contemplative writers. His influence is enormous in the contemplative field. Richard Foster quotes Merton over a dozen times in Celebration of Discipline and in other books as well, and many other evangelicals also quote Merton. The following entry from Merton’s published work, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (written during his last trip to Asia*) speaks volumes as to Merton’s spiritual sympathies:
We went looking first for Chatral Rimpoche [a Tibetan holy man] at his hermitage above Ghoom. . . . We were told he was at an ani gompa, a nunnery, down the road. . . . So off we went toward Bagdogra and with some difficulty found the tiny nunnery . . . and there was Chatral, the greatest rimpoche [a Buddhist teacher] I have met so far and a very impressive person.
. . . We started talking about dzogchen and Nyingmapa meditation and “direct realization” and soon saw that we agreed very well. . . . The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization . . . and that it was a grace for us to meet one another. I wish I could see more of Chatral. He burst out and called me a rangjung Sangay (which apparently means a “natural Buddha”) . . . He told me, seriously, that perhaps he and I would attain to complete Buddhahood in our next lives, perhaps even in this life, and the parting note was a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it in this life. I was profoundly moved, because he is so obviously a great man, the true practitioner of dzogchen, the best of the Nyingmapa lamas, marked by complete simplicity and freedom. He was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian and at one point laughed and said, “There must be something wrong here!” If I were going to settle down with a Tibetan guru, I think Chatral would be the one I’d choose.5 (emphasis added)
An equally revealing aspect of Merton’s Asian trip is what he experienced at a Buddhist shrine in Ceylon:
. . . an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. . . . All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya [the unity of all things and all people]. . . I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely . . . my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I . . . have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains.6 (emphasis added)
Why would someone who was so heavily involved in “Christian” mysticism be so entwined in and enthusiastically embracing of Buddhist mysticism? I considered titling this booklet Something’s Wrong Here because even though Chatral meant it in a positive way, when he said those words to Merton, he himself was shocked that Merton, a professing Christian, was basically on the same page as him and that they were able to fellowship.