Reviewing, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson

sfIn Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Marjorie J. Thompson, an ordained Presbyterian minister and director of the Pathways Center for Christian Spirituality, provides a compact and well organized exploration into seven significant disciplines of the spiritual life. Originally published in 1995, the 2005 edition contains the original Foreword from her spiritual mentor, the late Henri J. M. Nouwen, and a new Prologue that does well to humbly explain both the success of her title and the movement toward increased spiritual awareness in today’s culture.

Marjorie notes her purpose “is to help people of faith understand and begin to practice some of the basic disciplines of the Christian spiritual life…(with the aim of engaging the) mind and heart together in seeking nourishment for our spiritual hunger.” She also intends for her work to be “used, not simply read” and offers suggestions on how to work through the subject matter in an intimate and meditative fashion.

Soul Feast is divided into nine chapters; the first and last chapters serve as wonderful book ends, with the former introducing the disciplines and the latter providing counsel on how to apply the seven basic spiritual disciplines of her work, which are: Spiritual Reading, Prayer, Worship, Fasting, Self-examination/confession/awareness, Spiritual Direction, and Hospitality. The bookend chapters, The Spiritual Yearning of our Time and Developing a Rule of Life, package this book into one of the most important expositions I have read on maintaining an intentionally, spiritually directed life amid a growing society of increased stress and non-spiritual preoccupation.

Spread throughout Marjorie’s work are a plethora of wonderfully placed quotations, from Scripture, those heralded in spiritual formation life, and words of guidance from Marjorie herself; each snippet encourages the reader to stop for a moment and reflect on the section currently being read. In all, nearly one hundred reflections are collected to complement her challenges. Far from forming a reader distraction, the delicate placement of these quotations provide rest and reflection. Within the first pages, it is clear that an immense amount of time and thought has been placed into the preparation and organization of Soul Feast. In the Acknowledgements, Marjorie mentions she was afforded the privilege of having eight readers advise and help guide the development of her book.

Additionally, Marjorie includes nearly thirty pages of back material; a Group Study Guide, a Notes and Reference section providing sentence descriptions of each referenced work, and a Select Bibliography organized into nine sections, one section for each chapter. The back material is an invaluable resource for engaging in further exploration in the issues covered and assists the reader in using the book in its intended format—to be used and not just read. This section alone is worth the purchase of Soul Feast.

In chapter one, The Spiritual Yearning of our Time, Marjorie suspects that our culture is witnessing a resurgence in the interest of spiritual discipline and describes the movement as being close to that of the Great Awakening. The rhymes and reasons of this advance, as she phrases it, are cultural factors, such as technological advances, superficiality, and fear, personal factors, such as suffering and tragedy and dissatisfaction with the traditional church model, and spiritual factors. The remainder of chapter one is spent introducing significant terms that will guide the following chapters, such as spirituality, spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, followed by a plea to embrace the need of making oneself spiritually well in a holistic manner. She offers,

The Spirit of God is the depth dimension of all that we know as life. The spiritual life is not one slice of existence but leaven for the whole loaf. It is the broadest, most encompassing dimension of who we are, embracing in its mystery what we call physical, mental, emotional, and volitional aspects of life. Nothing that we do, think, or imagine is without its impact on our spiritual life, and the spiritual life influences every other dimension of our being. Spirituality is naturally holistic. (15)

Chapter two, The Nature and Practice of Spiritual Reading, immediately dives into the importance of incorporating a steady and meditative diet of Scripture reading. Marjorie describes spiritual reading as having “as much to do with the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to the words as it does with the nature and content of those words. Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity” (20). In our current society, where volume and quantity are often valued more highly than quality, this is a difficult practice to maintain. She continues by offering a wonderful analogy of Scripture, as an immensely deep lake that has never fully been plumbed, and speaks of the process where one moves from reading Scripture to having the Scripture actually read the person, becoming a judge to one’s thoughts and heart. She concludes this chapter by giving attention to the ancient, and resurfacing, practice of Lectio Divina; Lectio approaches Scripture reading as a four part process that includes reading, meditation, response, and contemplation.

Marjorie begins chapter three, Approaches to Prayer, by simply saying that our “real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core” (33). She provides several valuable sections in this chapter; prayer as communication (listening and speaking), various approaches to intercessory prayer, practical exercises and methods for successfully preparing oneself for prayer, and a section on contemplative prayer.

Chapter four, Our Common Worship, addresses the need of living a life actively engaged in the constant worship of God. Approached in part to speak against the highly individualistic society we are becoming, Marjorie exposes many benefits in gathering corporately for the worship of God, while also offering healthy suggestions for maintaining one’s personal and private worship. One section that I feel should have seen extended was on recapturing the discipline of the Sabbath, a practice that seems to have nearly left our culture. Perhaps the most helpful section of this chapter is Marjorie’s advice on how to remain engaged during corporate worship, even when we feel disconnected to some portion of the service. She provides ten wonderful exercises to help remain engaged despite preoccupation or distractions due to a particular worship approach or style. Marjorie concludes the chapter with a few pages directed to ministry leaders, in which she provides ways the pastors may benefit as well from the service.

Chapter five, Rediscovering the Fast, is the shortest of the seven middle chapters; it provides the expected guidance toward fasting from food, drink, and activity, but also offers an invaluable and rarely mentioned section on other forms of fasting non-related to bodily nourishment. Marjorie’s approach to fasting is both refreshing and challenging and offers many practical ways to implement the practice into our every day spiritual life.  Marjorie approaches fasting from the standpoint of withholding from distractions and becoming more spiritually aware of the things we take for granted.

The very idea of intentionally being without (food) for even a day may threaten some of the unconscious assumptions on which our lives are built. In a more tangible, visceral way than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them. Food is necessary to life, but we have made it more necessary than God. How often have we neglected to remember God’s presence when we would never consider neglecting to eat! Fasting brings us face to face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source…We will comprehend little of how we are nourished by Christ until we have emptied ourselves of the kinds of sustenance that keep us content to live at life’s surface. (77)

In her section on additional forms of fasting, Marjorie mentions removing from our days the background noise of the radio and television and instead being gently guided by the natural sound of our silent surroundings. She also speaks to our addiction of receiving acknowledgment in our deeds and encourages anonymity in charitable actions to help fast from the need of personal recognition. Largely related to abstinence, fasting encourages the person to examine what it is being done in excess. “Fasting is not primarily a discipline through which (one gains) greater control over (one’s) life, but one through which God gains access to redirect and help (one’s) body, mind and spirit” (84). As a quote from Macrina Wiederkehr expresses, when women and men move away from their appetites for food, recognition, and other temptations, new hungers arrive in their place, such as hungers for justice, goodness, and holiness.

Chapter six, Self-examination, Confession, and Awareness, encourages the reader to face God, rather than the self, by committing to consistent spiritual evaluation and confession. Marjorie provides a helpful section on how to perform a Life Review and examines the spiritual fruits discovered in better knowing one’s self. This chapter leads seamlessly into chapter seven, The Gift of Spiritual Direction, where Marjorie speaks to the importance of seeking a spiritual mentor or guide along the daily path of spiritual living. With helpful examples of spiritual direction during early Christianity, the general role and various styles of a director, and how to choose a director, this chapter is invaluable when it comes to applying the concepts of spiritual health and accountability. Providing samples of various spiritual direction settings, Marjorie offers vivid demonstrations of the benefits incurred during the process. “Spiritual companionship in the Christian life is a precious grace. Our journeys are not meant to be utterly solitary. Trying to be fruitful to God can be a lonely and trying path. We need each other. We grow best in community” (123-4).

In chapter eight, The Spirit of Hospitality, Marjorie begins her discussion with the ways in which God first demonstrated hospitality, through creation itself, and secondly, post-fall, through the Incarnation. These two immense acts of hospitality are to serve as the catalyst for our own actions to sisters and brothers today. Our first act of hospitality, therefore, is to receive from God his glorious acts of creation and redemption. This demonstration to God is further carried out and expressed “in our intentions and actions toward every creature God loves. We are not permitted to separate our love for God from our love for others” (133). Marjorie provides several wonderful sections on applying hospitality holistically—in our home, our workplace, our neighborhood, and in our churches. She concludes beautifully,

Our hospitality is rooted and grounded in God’s hospitality to us in Christ. Until we know this love deep in the core of our hearts, we will have neither courage nor trust to share hospitality with others in more than superficial ways. Christian hospitality is a risk taken in faith. It is an act of sacrificial joy offered in the full light of the risen Christ, a light that transforms our perspective on everything. (143, emphasis mine)

The final chapter, Developing a Rule of Life, brings the seven discussed disciplines together by providing practical approaches of application and a warning against trying to implement each of these practices immediately, again stressing Marjorie’s deliberate approach to quality over quantity. She refers to a rule of life as the spiritual structure required to achieve spiritual growth; it is structure that supports and encourages our freedom to grow in faith. This concluding chapter provides examples of historical rules that helped guide such towering figures as Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day.

Marjorie’s final words are an appeal to the reader to remain accountable to one’s self, to take seriously one’s spiritual well-being, and to be considerate in the careful application of the spiritual disciplines discussed. For, it is “far better to commit to a single practice and stick with it than to take on five and quit altogether because you cannot keep up. The spiritual life is not a heroic achievement. It is a matter of gradual growth in faithfulness. Realistic commitment is an expression of humility” (151).

Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life is a highly recommended resource for those interested in moving beyond shallow faith and dip their feet in the deep, deep waters of spiritual formation. Marjorie’s wise, sincere, and practical advice guides the reader through the complicated and yet urgent command to resemble the image of Christ more and more each day.

Click here to learn more about Soul Feast.

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~ by blogger on 07/13/2009.

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