Where prayer meets contemporary philosophy
Contemplative Prayer: a New Framework
by Dom David Foster
(Bloomsbury Continuum. 216pp. PB. Rec. price: $29.95. Available from Freedom Books.)
Dom David Foster OSB is a Benedictine Monk, currently teaching at the Benedictine University of Sant’Anselm in Rome. Previously, he was Prior and Novice Master at Downside Abbey in the UK.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes a very useful summary of Catholic teaching about prayer which will help us understand contemplative prayer, and how it fits into church belief and practice.
According to the Catechism, every Christian needs “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.”
It quotes St John Damascene, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
The Church recognises a number of different expressions of prayer: vocal prayer which we experience in informal or formal groups or in the sacred liturgy, as well as meditation and contemplative prayer.
The Catechism tells us that meditation is above all a quest. “The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain.
“We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality” and so on.
In contemplative prayer, the Catechism says, we enter into an intense and close relationship with Jesus and through him, the Father.
It quotes St Theresa of Avila, “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
Dom David Foster’s book is about the philosophy of contemplative prayer, and as such, is complex. He begins his work with a personal account of a time at Oxford University when he felt desperately lonely, completely alone.
And in this moment when he felt completely disconnected from God, he says, “To re-engage with God became the only thing that mattered.”
He adds, “It is the question that I was asking myself back then: how can I be so sure of the immediacy of God when I am aware of his absence? Contemplative prayer is how we explore this question.”
He discusses how modern philosophical thinking from the time of Descartes has challenged traditional thinking about contemplative prayer, particularly in the area of human subjectivity.
He attempts to engage with this thinking, and discusses post-modernism, scepticism, faith, rationality and irrationality.
He then attempts to re-state what contemplative prayer is, in a world where thinking is influenced by modernism and its successor “isms”, and to re-evaluate the links between contemplative prayer and scripture and liturgy.
Contemplative Prayer has an extensive index and bibliography, and will be particularly useful to those wanting a deeper insight into the contemplative life.