I remember going to watch the musical Godspell over forty years ago. I think I was the only person present who did not like it. However, it did inspire another most unusual theatrical idea that I thought was quite wonderful. The idea came from the Shakespearean actor, Alec McGowan, and it hit the London stage in the 1970’s, when, in a personal tour de force he rendered the whole of St Mark’s Gospel. Against all predictions, he performed to a full house night after night. When the same thing happened in New York where it was performed at the Marymount Manhattan and Playhouse theatres, a Catholic impresario had an idea. He approached Kieron Moore who had made a name for himself playing Count Vronsky in the film version of Anna Karenina opposite Vivien Leigh. He asked Moore, who was a devout Catholic, if he would ‘star’ in a similar stage production, but this time in a rendering of St John’s final discourse of Jesus at the Last Supper.
“It cannot be done,” said Moore, “And it most certainly will not be attempted by me. Only one person could utter such deep and profound mystical truths, and that is Jesus himself, and when they are read they can only be read and understood by those who are inspired by the same Spirit who inspired him.”
The sublime and awe-inspiring plan of God for all of us to share in his glory was not detailed fully by Jesus during his life on earth. He only had less than three years to explain to his compatriots, the revolutionary transformation to their religious beliefs that God had sent him to bring to fulfillment. At the same time, he had to instruct the apostles whom he chose, to bring his work to fruition after he had gone. That he was going to leave them he knew well, but there is evidence to hand to show that even he was surprised at how quickly the powers of evil were organised to destroy him.
The way in which so much esoteric and mystical teaching was crammed in the discourse that Jesus gave to his closest followers at the Last Supper seems to support this theory. Knowing that his time had come and that he had still not finished their training, he promised to send the Holy Spirit after his death to make everything plain to them. Now the Holy Spirit does not just transmit the love of God, but his truth too, the fullness of the truth that the untimely death of Jesus had prevented him from explaining, as he would have wished. That is why it is only later that the full plan of God for humanity is understood by the apostles, and explained in their teaching and in their writings, although everything is to be found in the sublime teaching given at the Last Supper. Perhaps the fullest and best explanation of this plan was given by St Paul.
God’s plan , The Mysterion
St Paul called God’s plan The Mysterion. You will not come across this word when you read the New Testament, instead, you read the expression God’s plan or God’s secret plan. However, in the Greek language in which he originally wrote his letters, the word he used for God’s plan was the word Mysterion. This word simply meant – secret or hidden. In Greek, it was used to describe the rites of initiation used to introduce novices into the Greek mystery religions, like the Eleusinian mysteries, for instance.
For the early Greeks, this word did not refer to any subjective psychological experiences, but merely to the secret rites of initiation performed in order to receive novices into the cult. These rites were so secret that to mock or divulge them meant to commit sacrilege and had serious consequences. Four hundred years before Christ the famous Athenian orator and general, Alcibiades, made a mockery of them when he was in a drunken stupor, and was exiled from Athens for his profanity, despite his previous popularity.
Mysterion Meant Secret
The word Mysterion for St. Paul, simply meant secret and he used it to describe God’s secret plan conceived from the beginning, long before creation took place. It was secret because it was only revealed partially in the Old Testament, and only gradually, and never completely by Jesus in the New Testament. This was not just because time was against him, but for fear of being misunderstood by myriad revolutionary firebrands, who he knew would be listening to him. Jesus did not want his kingdom to be interpreted as a Jewish state to be set up after a military defeat of the Romans. But, after Pentecost when the first Christians came to see and understand the full and spiritual meaning of God’s plan, they began to proclaim it from the rooftops.
The same Holy Spirit who God had sent to fill Jesus, was also sent by him to fill others, so that they could be caught up in the supernatural tsunami unleashed at Pentecost, drawing them all together and taking them back to their ultimate home in heaven. Jesus came in the first place and remains with us still, as the means by which God’s love can continually surge outwards into the world he first created. It reaches out to all, surrounding everyone with his love, as the sea surrounds a sponge, simultaneously penetrating every part of it. Then the power of this spiritual tsunami draws back everyone into the infinite ocean of love whence they came, with the power of an otherworldly magnetic force that is only experienced by those who continually respond to it. This hidden or mystical journey cannot be seen by others, even though it can be experienced by those who totally commit themselves to it
This is why the first Christians, who had committed themselves to this journey by embracing the same profound daily prayer life that Jesus had lived, were called mystics. They were called mystics because this journey into the Mysterion remained unseen, hidden to their pagan contemporaries. They were not called mystics because they had esoteric psychological experiences, but because they had committed themselves totally to a daily spiritual journey that encompassed everything that they said and did, and that was offered in, with and through Christ to the Father.
Mystical or Hidden Prayer Life
No one could see their mystical or hidden prayer life, but they did see the results of it. This was the way they loved others as Jesus had done before them. It was this quality of love that could be seen, not just by the way that they loved each other, but others too, even those who would persecute, torture and even put them to death. It was this quality of love that the pagan world had never seen before that drew them to the new religion like iron filings to a powerful magnetic force. It was this love that bore witness to the abiding presence of the Risen Christ, that in a matter of three hundred years, transformed a Roman Empire into a Christian Empire.
It was only later, much later, that thanks to the influence of Neoplatonism that began to spread two hundred years after the Resurrection, that the word mysticism, a word never incidentally used by the Fathers of the Church, came to refer to esoteric states of awareness. For a Christian in their secret or mystical journey, they will undoubtedly experience moments when they will come to know something of the height and depth, the length and breadth of God’s love that surpasses the understanding. They may even come to experience what it means to be lifted up into what St Paul called the Third Heaven, but what it will certainly entail is the Cross, for Jesus made it quite clear that unless we take up our daily cross we cannot be his disciples.
This Mystical Journey
All who pursue this mystical journey will come to experience joy and sorrow, the agony as well as the ecstasy, but none of these experiences define a Christian mystic. What does define a Christian mystic is a fundamental commitment, in faith, to pursue above all and everything else, the hidden or secret journey into the Mystery of God’s love. Then, in, with and through him, to participate personally in the Mysterion every day and every moment of that day, not just for themselves but for others too. In the early Church, this journey was undertaken by all – it defined what it meant to be a Christian. There was no place for what was later called a nominal Christian.
The truth of the matter is that those who seek mystical states will never experience them, at best they will experience their counterfeit. The true Christian mystic does not seek pleasurable psychological states of awareness for their own satisfaction, but the deep, personal, and loving relationship with Jesus that leads to union. Those who peddle simplistic techniques that promise the former are deceiving others, as they have no doubt deceived themselves. Only those who are prepared to give to God, to love him, to seek his honour and glory alone and not their own, will come to know the love that St Paul says surpasses the understanding.
These are the new evangelists that we need. More mystics please!