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Saturday, November 1, 2014

"Soul Feast, Newly Revised Edition" (Marjorie J. Thompson)

TITLE: Soul Feast, Newly Revised Edition: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life
AUTHOR: Marjorie J. Thompson
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (200 pages).

This book is a potpourri of spiritual food that invites hungry guests to come and feast. Even if one is not hungry in the first place, it would certainly whet the appetite. Such is the beauty and inspirational of a classic published nearly 20 years ago and is still making a powerful impact. Now in its newly revised edition (third), while the contents remain very much the same, there is an additional foreword by renowned preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor who calls this book full of "effective sermons" and ranks Marjorie Thompson in the same category as the Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen. In the original foreword, Nouwen calls Thompson's work a "clear, concise way the essence of her ministry." Indeed, my appetite was more than whetted just on the basis of these two honoring forewords and captivating topics of spiritual disciplines. More importantly, it is not a book that teaches to invite ourselves into spiritual disciplines. It initiates us into the Christian spiritual practices that are historic yet relevant; grounded in Presbyterian traditions and yet ecumenical; old ideas and yet very fresh for the soul. Thompson notes that in the 90s, there was an acceleration of interest in spiritual formation matters which led many clergy toward Roman Catholic centers. Toward the end of the twentieth century, there was a surge of resources about Christian living, with particular focus on the spiritual life. The author also notes the rise of the "Nones" or the religiously unaffiliated group in this era, as well as a resurgence in the "spiritual but not religious" wave, first observed in the 60s. Amid the changes, Thompson reminds us once again that if we learn to "dwell in trust," we can be confident in God, who is the One who "creates, renews, and fulfills all things" and I believe that includes the use of spiritual practices that are evergreen and deeply satisfying, in God. Her encouraging tone throughout the book injects hope even in the midst of discouraging news about cultural resistances toward the gospel. This book is an attempt to bring back inspiration and fascination to a world inundated with spiritual information and fears of religious fanaticism. Also, the rise of technology also means people are able to search out other religions with much ease and depth. The downside is the rise of distractions and inattentiveness as well, something that the spiritual practices in the book aptly addresses. The brief notes below will demonstrate why this book is a spiritual feast.

Each of the ten chapters focuses on one spiritual practice. The first chapter is about spiritual hunger and thirst, sparked off by Ps 63:1. It recognizes that hunger is spiritual. The centuries of religious and cultural waves are but a reflection of the very emptiness of the human soul. Hiding behind the four cultural waves of rationalism; technological advancement; glorification of the superficial; and paralysis over security fears; the hunger is only deeper and more intense. Personal factors like suffering, restlessness, and disappointment over religious institutions have only elevated the need for a spiritual center. Here, Thompson patiently lays the table for a feast by defining what spirituality is, by describing the character of the spiritual life and the spiritual disciplines. The key is to be gentle with our fears, be open to testing our experiences, and to be certain about God's love and grace toward us.

Closely following the heels of spiritual hunger is enthusiasm, which is the second chapter that builds the foundation of Christian Spirituality with the Word of God through spiritual reading. Like reading a personal letter, it is a call for us to move away from reading that merely informs toward reading that forms and transforms. It is meditative and flourishes when done with open hearts in an unhurried manner. It lets God's Word reads us. Thompson guides us through the ancient practices of lectio divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

The third chapter covers prayer, which Thompson points out as an exercise that begins with God. It is a two-way communication. It is being present to God while experiencing the presence of God. Through listening, speaking, and various paths of intercessory prayer, we learn not only to communicate but grow toward communion with God. We learn about the Jesus Prayer, contemplative prayers, centering prayers, and other practical matters about praying.

The fourth chapter talks about worship where the audience is God. Liturgy is about letting God be the center as we live in community. Noting the common frustrations about worship practices, Thompson urges the practices of worship that is structured in the promise of God, united by themes, led by worshipers, experienced by all, in the liturgy of letting God be the focus and glory of all our worship.

The fifth chapter deals with the important topic of Sabbath that revels in the beauty of boundaries and borders. Learning to cease and to observe the rhythms of life is a powerful spiritual practice. Letting Sabbath be a form of trust in God, embracing Sabbath time is about a mindset shift from doing to being; a reshaping of attitudes from accumulating to contemplating; to create space that we may become reserviours.

The sixth chapter is the challenging practice of fasting. Called the "practice of self-emptying," it is the buddy of prayer. Looking at Lent as a great "fast year" of the Church calendar, we can learn from tradition on how the Church has been practicing Lent. It is about learning the rhythms of feasting and fasting. Apart from the practical tips on physical fasts, Thompson gives us some spiritual exercises to do during the fasting process. The end result is promising with "release, clarity, and freedom" as some of the benefits.

The seventh chapter is self-examination, self-awareness, and personal confession. With Ps 139 as a guide, self-examination stems from us opening ourselves willingly and letting God deal with our inner selves. Based on the truths of God's love and our own personal brokenness, we recognize that we cannot fix ourselves and only God can make us whole again. Using a "Life Review," we learn to search ourselves for our own behavioural traits, attitudes, emotions, character weaknesses, experiences, faith struggles, and so on. Not only that, we are encouraged to practise confessions with a friend. We also learn about two processes of self-examination: 1) Life-Centered Prayers; and 2) Daily Journal writing prayer.

The eighth spiritual practice is spiritual direction. Whether one is a believer or a seeker, the fact is that we are all searching for some purpose and meaning in life. For the Christian, it is basically learning about the spiritual life and the need for spiritual guidance in life. Thompson offers five responsibilities of spiritual guides; various styles of spiritual directions; finding a spiritual director; and what topics to talk about during such sessions. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

The ninth chapter is about the discipline and practice of hospitality. Probing both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, we learn that hospitality is a very natural practice in the Ancient Near East. Moreover, the spread of Christianity in the first century is not because of some powerful evangelistic speeches done by famous people, but ordinary hospitality done by ordinary believers. Simply put, it means providing the basic needs of visitors, strangers, and guests with a touch of love. Such hospitality is a reflection of the gift and grace of God showered upon us. From the home to churches, workplaces to public arenas, there are many places to show hospitality to all.

The final chapter is about developing a rule of life, that supports the practices that have been put in place. It is like a support structure to make sure we stay the course and not detract from the destination of holiness. In Christian tradition, this is called the "rule of life." It can be corporate or personal rules. It could evolve over time, especially the movement from a "time-based to a situation-based" spiritual practice model. It comprises stretching one's faith as well as balancing one's disciplines. It means making decisions and establishing accountability.

So What?

A test of a good book is not how much it satisfies but how it creates a deeper longing for. A test of a good Christian spirituality book is not how much information it supplies, but how it inspires readers to want to be a part of the spiritual formation exercises. This book certainly fits both dimensions. It is a rich offering of spiritual practices for us to learn about. That is why "soul feast" is such an appropriate title. In an age of social media, cultural upheavals, and ever changing technological landscapes, it is good to know that Christian spirituality does not shift with the winds and fancies of the world. It is steadfast because the Word of God is steadfast. It is standing on the promise of God because Christ is the Rock of our faith. It is creative and rich because God our Creator is creative and magnanimous. The ten practices include some of the more well known practices like spiritual reading, prayer, worship, fasting, and Sabbath. The lesser known ones like the "rule of life" (for many Protestants) are so essential because it helps keep one on track after learning something. Sometimes I feel that Christians are great in starting something, but not so great at following up what we have learnt.

This book remains one of my favourite books on spiritual formation and would be essential reading for any courses on spiritual direction. Three words come to mind as I read this book: Rooted, Relevance, and Respondent. Spiritual practices must first and foremost be rooted in Christ, and the Word of God. By building on solid ground, our work will not be easily broken or blown away. Secondly, it needs to be related to our experiences and relevant for our times. Otherwise, we may be separating the head from the heart when it comes to matters of faith and experience. Thirdly, it needs a response from us. There is only so much we can read or learn about. We need to put what we learn into practice. In doing so, we invite God, the author and finisher of our faith to guide us along. True spiritual direction is never self-taught or human-directed. It is Spirit led.

NOTE: It is with sadness to know that the author's husband, John Mogabgab, a good friend of Nouwen as well as the founding editor of the famous Weavings journal passed away on August 8, 2014, at the age of 67 in Nashville, Tennessee. My condolences to the author on the passing away of John, and may the peace of God that transcends all understanding bring peace and grace to all.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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