Just over five hundred years ago, in 1509, Henry VIII became King of England and it was because of him that Protestantism was introduced into England. In that same year, John Colet, son of the Lord Mayor of London introduced stoicism into the St Paul’s school that he founded, which became a paradigm for the other Public schools and then the Grammar Schools. John Colet was introduced to stoicism whilst glorying in the triumph of the Renaissance in his grand tour in Italy.
While the Credo of the Catholic Church begins with “I believe in God,” the Credo of the Renaissance begins with “I believe in man.” The men he was going to form in his new school were going to be renaissance men who believed in themselves. They were taught how to take control of themselves and make themselves into the modern equivalent of the ancient classical heroes whom they were inspired to emulate – namely, perfect English gentlemen. Instead of sandals and the toga, in came pinstripes and the bowler. Sadly they were set on the wrong path; they were set on the way to hubris, that is if they succeeded in doing what the greatest of the ancient Stoics, Seneca, said was impossible – making themselves perfect. Such supermen only appear in comics, never in real life. The right way is not to enter into ourselves to take control but to
Let God Take Control
Christ takes control when we enable his power to take us up into his mystical body where we share in his very being. But that is not all. For in his mystical body we are taken further, not just into his being, but into his acting and into his continual loving of his Father. It is here that our weak human love is transformed infinitely beyond its own power. In other words, as we try to give ourselves to God in prayer, he gives himself to us. In our very endeavour to turn away from distractions in order to raise our hearts and minds to God, our endeavour becomes the channel through which our love rises to God and God’s love descends into us. This only becomes possible because we not only do this in Christ but in, with and through him. Then, as our weak human love is suffused and surcharged by the divine we can begin to love God like never before. That is why Blessed Angela called prayer the ‘School of Divine Love’, not just because it is the place where the selflessness that leads to love is learnt but for something further. In the words of St Francis of Assisi, “It is, in giving that we receive.” In other words, as we try to give ourselves to God in prayer he gives himself to us. Then we can begin to observe the new commandment that Jesus taught us, which is to love God with our whole heart and mind, with our whole body and soul.
At first glance, it might be thought that this is not a new commandment, but the old commandment that the Jews in the Old Testament were taught. Yes, it was given to the Jews in the Old Testament, but they could never observe it as God wanted them to until Jesus came to show them how. Remember when St Peter told the crowd that the love of God promised in the Old Testament was on that very day being unleashed upon all, he told them to turn and open their hearts and minds to receive it. However, he told them to do something else too. He told them to be baptised to undergo the new initiation ceremony. This initiation would not so much mark their entrance into a new organization, institution or religion, but their entrance into a person, the person of Jesus himself, now Risen and glorified. So now when they were told to keep trying to raise their hearts and minds to God, they could do it, because they could do it in him and, together with the same power that had raised him from the dead.
Say Yes to God
The daily battle against distractions that we thought prevented us from praying, now takes on a new meaning. For now, it enables us to participate in Christ’s death and Resurrection by daily dying ourselves each time we say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to God. Once prayer is seen in this context then what was originally seen as a pointless activity can be seen as the most important activity that we could ever perform. My latest book published by the ‘Catholic Truth Society’ may well be called Prayer made Simple but that does not mean that it is easy. After all, who would expect that learning the most important thing that any human being can learn would be easy? Learning to love in the School of Divine Love may not be easy, but it is the most important thing that we can learn, not just for our happiness on earth, but for our ultimate happiness hereafter.
Selflessness Learnt in Prayer
The selflessness learnt in prayer helps us outside of prayer too, as the habit of selflessness practised and practised again in prayer gradually leads to a habit – the habit of selflessness. This habit that can be learned there, enables us to love others too, our families, our mothers and fathers, our husbands and wives, our children and others too who have need of our love. Now we see that the second of the new commandments becomes possible. It is so often misquoted as commanding us to love others as ourselves. I am afraid that is the teaching of the Old Testament. The second of the new commandments, as given to us by Jesus himself, is that we should love others as he loves us. This can only become possible when, as we try to love him in prayer, our endeavour becomes the channel that enables his love to enter into us and into our loving, enabling him to love others through us.
Self-Love and Control
Our self-love is so deeply rooted within us that it takes a long time and a long spiritual journey trying to practise the two new commandments as Jesus promised at the Last Supper. When Our Lady turned and raised her heart and mind to God and said, “Yes”, his Holy Spirit was able to conceive Christ within her immediately, because in her there were no obstacles to his grace. Her Immaculate Conception meant that the sin and selfishness that is in us was never in her, so there was nothing to prevent the instantaneous conception of Jesus within her. Because we are not immaculately conceived, what happened to her instantly can only happen to us gradually; and only if we keep saying, “No”, to self, and “Yes”, to God in days, or rather in years, practising loving in the ‘School of Divine Love’. As this loving is being learnt, the love of God begins to do in us what was done in Mary, as the obstacles that were never in her are gradually purified away by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is Born Again in Us
Eventually, as Christ is born again in us, the love received from him overflows outside the special times set aside for prayer to irrigate everything that we say and do in the rest of our lives. In this way, we gradually begin to practise the prayer without ceasing, as every moment of our day becomes the time and place where we try to love God in all we do, and through those, we try to love. The sacrifices involved in doing this becomes the offerings that we take with us to Mass. This is the moment when, with the rest of the Christian community we offer up to God, in, with and through Christ, all the sacrifices that we have made as we tried to pray without ceasing throughout the previous week. These sacrifices added to the great sacrifice of Christ himself enables God to fill us with his love in return, for it is indeed in giving that we receive. The great liturgical writer Joseph Jungmann SJ but it this way: “Christ does not offer alone. His people are joined to him and offer through him. Indeed they are absorbed into him and form one body with him by the Holy Spirit who lives in all.”
It is important to emphasise that the capacity to receive his love in return will not just be determined by the quality of the love that we try to generate once we have gone into the church, but by the quality of the love that we have generated in the prayers, the good works and the sacrifices that we have tried to make during the previous week. These are the sacrifices that, when offered at Mass, determine the measure of the love that we will receive in return. It is this love that will enable us to go out and make the rest of our lives into the Mass. For, as the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner put it: “The Mass should so form us that the whole of our lives becomes the Mass, the place where we continually offer ourselves through Christ to the Father.”
Teach Our Children This Profound Mystical Spirituality
This is the profound mystical spirituality that we should be teaching our children not the ‘I can make myself perfect’ stoicism that John Colet was the first, but not the last to teach in schools. Of course, it appeals to arrogant teenagers, as it appealed to me, but it leads to disaster, as I discovered for myself. Believing that you can make yourself perfect needs a lot of self-deceit and always leads to hubris. However, believing, as Christ taught, that, “Without me, you have no power to do anything,” never does. It leads to the humility from which all the virtues come. These are the virtues that come through love, God’s love, not from human reason as the Stoics taught.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics