Sanctuary of the Soul

Developing a "familiar friendship with Jesus"
Sanctuary of the Soul

In meditative prayer we are growing into what Thomas à Kempis called "a familiar friendship with Jesus." We are learning to sink down into the light and life of Christ and becoming comfortable in this posture. We experience the perpetual presence of the Lord (omnipresence, as we say) not just as theological dogma but as radiant reality. "He walks with me and he talks with me" ceases to be pious jargon and instead becomes a straightforward description of daily life.

Please understand me: I am not speaking of some mushy, giddy, buddy-buddy relationship. Such insipid sentimentality only betrays how little we know, how distant we are from the Lord high and lifted up, who is revealed to us in Scripture. John tells us in his Apocalypse that when he saw the reigning Christ he fell at his feet as though dead … and so should we (Rev. 1:17). The reality I speak of is akin to what the disciples felt in the upper room when they experienced both intense intimacy and awe-full reverence.

An Inner Sanctuary in the Heart

In meditative prayer we are creating the emotional and spiritual space that allows God to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart. The wonderful verse "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock" was originally penned for believers, not unbelievers (Rev. 3:20 KJV). Jesus is knocking at the door of our heart—daily, hourly, moment by moment. He is longing to eat with us, to commune with us. He desires a perpetual Eucharistic feast in the inner sanctuary of the heart. Jesus is knocking; meditative prayer opens the door.

The wise apostle Paul reminds us that we are no longer strangers and aliens to the divine fellowship. We have become members of the household of God, a household based on the solid foundation of the apostles and prophets. Jesus himself is the key cornerstone, and it is through him that "the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:20-22, emphasis added).

Allow me to underscore that phrase: my heart, your heart is being made into a dwelling place for God. Now I don't know about you, but if my heart is to become a dwelling place of God, some major renovations are needed! Teresa of Avila, reflecting on the evil in her own heart, once prayed, "O my Lord, since it seems you have determined to save me, I beseech Your Majesty … don't you think it would be good … if the inn where you have to dwell continually would not get so dirty?"

All real formation work is heart work, as the great Puritan divines dubbed it. The human heart is the well-spring of all human action. It is the center of all volition and the deep realities of the spirit. John Flavel, a 17th-century English Puritan, noted that the "greatest difficulty in conversion, is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God … Heart work is hard work indeed."

Two Central Realities

As we consider the transformation of the human heart, we need to keep two central realities clearly in mind. To begin with, we simply cannot program our own heart. We cannot program anyone else's heart. There is a whole theology that stands behind these statements. I will not go into extreme detail here; I will just state it in this flatfooted manner: You are not in charge of the transformation of your heart. Neither am I. This is God's domain, and you and I are utterly dependent on God to accomplish the work of heart transformation.

Second, the human heart itself is part of our problem. We are, each and every one of us, a tangled mass of motives: hope and fear, faith and doubt, simplicity and duplicity, honesty and falsity, openness and guile. God knows our heart in ways we can never know. Supernatural abilities are needed to untangle the mess. God is the only one who can separate the true from the false. Only God can purify the motives of the heart.

So, you see, we are utterly, utterly dependent upon God to do this transforming work in us: the work of heart purity, or soul conversion, of inward formation, of life transformation. This solitary and interior work within the heart is the most important, the most real, the most lasting reality in human life.

Therefore, the devotional masters' constant appeal to heart purification speaks an important word for us. It is no vain thing for us to return to our first love over and over and over again. It is an act of faith to continually cry out to God to search us and to know our heart and to root out every wicked way in us (Ps. 139:23). This is a vital aspect of the salvation of the Lord.

Let me stress this central reality once again: God is the ultimate former and transformer of the human heart. Having said this, I hasten to add that God has graciously invited you and me to participate in this highest, deepest work of heart transformation. Remember, God does not come uninvited. If certain chambers of our heart have never experienced God's healing touch, perhaps it is because we have never welcomed the divine Scrutiny.

Reprinted from Sanctuary of the Soul, by Richard Foster, copyright 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.

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