Book Reviews

The Attentive Life, Discerning God's Presence in All Things by Leighton Ford

I am often asked my opinion about particular Christian leaders.  I am hesitant to answer such questions because “the times [and people] they are a-changing.”  A case in point is Leighton Ford.  Ford is best known as an effective evangelist who has been closely associated with Billy Graham.  Throughout his long ministry (he is now approaching 80) he has had the reputation of one who preached an uncompromising gospel message, even if some of his ecclesiastical associations were compromised in the process.  It would appear that it has been these compromised associations that has led to Ford’s spiritual position as outlined in this book.

The Attentive Life gets top-billing in the recent advertisement release by InterVarsity Press promoting the formatio series of books which they claim “follow the rich tradition of the church in the journey of spiritual formation” (p. 229).  What is really taking place is that, under the banner of “spiritual formation,” formatio is flooding the evangelical world with Roman Catholic practices and theology.  InterVarsity is hardly alone in this effort, but perhaps rapidly becoming the leader.

Ford’s contribution is to promote the Benedictine Hours and Rule of Life as created by St. Benedict in the fifth century.  The “Divine Hours” are eight time periods for prayer scattered throughout the day that have been practiced by Catholic monastic orders for centuries (pp. 21, 205-210).  Ford was introduced to the Benedictine Hours when he participated in a retreat at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina.  It was there that he first experienced what he calls the attentive, or contemplative life (p. 23), of which Ford says, “Paradoxically, attentiveness may be just the opposite of ‘fixing our attention.’  Instead it involves a letting go of our usual need to control, and opening of ourselves to what we are being told or shown” (p. 25). Later he remarks, “Attentiveness means a willingness to listen for God’s voice—and readiness to obey” (p. 38).  In practice attentiveness looks like this: “I will sit in a favorite chair in my study with a cup of coffee with classical music playing, not trying to form a prayer with words but waiting, listening, until perhaps I sense the Spirit bringing to the surface a word from God.  Then I offer just a simple ‘Thank you’” (p. 77).  As can be readily seen, The Attentive Life is not biblical teaching on prayer, the study of God’s Word or meditation, but is a wholly mystical approach in which the mind is actually disengaged while one waits for an extra-biblical word from God.

If there is any doubt about the above critique, Ford removes it in a number of ways.  First, he equates his attentive practices with centering prayer as explained by Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Keating, “We wait quietly in God’s presence, perhaps repeating a ‘sacred word,’ [mantra] and let go of our thoughts….  Centering prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention” (p. 179; cp pp. 11-13, 24, 129, 176, 190).

Secondly, the methods recommended for the attentive life come primarily from Roman Catholic mysticism:  the Benedictine Prayer Hours, monasticism (p. 21), labyrinths (pp. 51-52), lectio divina (pp. 65, 93-96), use of spiritual directors (p. 66), praying the Jesus Prayer (p. 77), centering prayer (pp. 129, 176, 179), the examen (p. 197), Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (p. 197), with a dose of Quakerism (p. 26, 124) and Celtic “thin places and prayers,” thrown in (pp. 159, 211).

Finally, virtually all of Ford’s spiritual heroes are mystic: Douglas Steere (a Quaker), G.K. Chesterton, Julian of Norwich, Henri Nouwen, Simone Weil, Gregory Nazianzus, Vincent Donovan,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Eugene Peterson, St. Fursey, Lesslie Newbigin, Dallas Willard, Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, Anthony Bloom, Kierkegaard, fourth century monk John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, Alice Fryling, St. Francis, Hilary of Tours, Marcus Loane (Archbishop of Sydney, Australia), Carlo Carletto, David Steindl-Rast, Bishop A. Jack Dain, Quaker Thomas Kelly, Hwee Hwee Tan and Catherine of Siena.

In addition, Ford makes strange statements that border on pantheism (p. 91), describes God as “pure energy” (p. 177) rather than Spirit and talks about being able to see Christ in our faces (pp. 194-196).

To say all of this is disturbing is an understatement.  What little value might be contained in The Attentive Life is completely negated by the unbiblical practices and teachings found throughout this book.  It is astounding that a man who once preached the gospel of Christ could have drifted so far.