A Primeval Prayer
When we say that God created us in his image and likeness, we mean that it is God’s love that is deepest in us, despite what nature and nurture have done to distort it. Now it is from this love that, a profound primeval prayer rises up from the depth of our being, that takes the form of a desire to know and experience the ultimate source of all love which is God. St Augustine was referring to this prayer when he wrote, “Our hearts are restless ’til they rest in you.” This deep desire or longing has to be supported and sustained by prayer if it is to lead us to the One who placed it within us in the first place. Prayer will change in all of us over the years.
However, with perseverance the desire that is so subtle, to begin with, becomes stronger and stronger, as it is fuelled and finally purified, to attain the union for which it craves. It is because this inner spiritual growth cannot be seen that it has been called from the beginning a hidden, secret or mystical growth or journey. The word is derived from the Greek word Mysterion that simply means secret or hidden. A person who gives over their life to taking part in this journey came to be called a mystic. The study that specializes in studying this journey and in guiding people through it, is called mystical theology.
The Mystical Journey Begins
This journey begins with God who is responsible for making his love the very ground and foundation of our being. It is from this foundation that the primeval desire, or prayer, as I have called it, arises quite naturally to reach out for that for which it was created – ever increasing and never ceasing infinite loving. Although this desire may always be there, the influence of nature and nurture may make it more pronounced at sometimes, rather than at others. Even though it is always there, it will inevitably wax and wane like the moon unless something is done by us to sustain its continued presence and growth. In order to do this, we need to construct a spiritual way of life for that purpose, in which we endeavour to do all in our power to nurture this God-given desire. If this is not done then the desire that can literally become our salvation will continue to wax and wane like the moon throughout our lives without changing us one jot or one iota. The only love that can nurture, sustain, and perfect God-given love is God’s love itself. That is what Jesus gave to his first disciples.
However, this was not possible in quite the same way for the second wave of followers who had never seen him in person. It was for this reason that an entirely new way of prayer was designed for the very first time. It was designed to introduce those who had never known Jesus in person to meet him in what came to be called ‘meditation’. Those who had known Jesus in person, told new followers all about him as they were being prepared for membership of the first Christian community. Sometimes at weekly Mass, there would be more than one apostle or disciple who would enrapture their listener with stories about all that Jesus had said and done. Then evangelists like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and others would write their recollections down so that later followers like us could take part in this new form of prayer that teaches a person how to come to know and be united with Jesus, through love. Then finally, in, with and through him, by entering into his secret or mystical body, we are united with God himself through mystical contemplation.
For the Fathers of the Church, the prayerful reading of the scriptures was a sacred mystery or a sacrament. It was a unique sacrament because anyone could turn to it at any time of the day or night. In the first centuries when Greek, not Latin was the language of the Church, meditating on the scriptures was seen as one of the other great mysteries after baptism, because it could lead the faithful on through meditation into Jesus Christ, the flesh and blood embodiment of God’s love. But that is not all. It leads us on further, not just into Christ’s being, but into his action – into his never-ending and utterly absorbing contemplation of his Father, and therefore into the beginning of the ecstatic bliss that will have no end this side of eternity.
Wisdom from William of Saint-Thierry,
William of Saint-Thierry, a good friend of St Bernard who was his mentor, once said, “You will never love someone unless you know them, but you will never really know them unless you love them.” If you wish to go deeper into the spiritual life, therefore, you have to learn first of all how to come to know and love Christ. The more you come to know him, then the more you will come to love him. The question is, how in the first instance do we come to know this adorable human being now, over two thousand years after he lived on earth? How do we communicate with him now?
There is nothing mysterious about human communication. How does anyone come to know anyone else except by using words? The spaces between people are bridged by words. They enable us to find out more about them, to draw closer to them and, if they are loveable, to love them. This is why Christians have always regarded the Gospels with such reverence because they enable us to come to know and love the man who was the perfect human embodiment of God’s infinite loving. When we learn to listen to his words, we learn to listen to God. When we learn to love him, we learn to love God.
God Is Both a Mother and a Father
In the Old Testament God was sometimes referred to as a mother as well as a father. The same can be found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church too, who referred to what they called the anima and the animus, or the masculine and the feminine in God. Like the Greek philosopher, Plato, they believed that the love that is found imperfectly in men and women on earth is to be found perfectly in God. If God is love, then his love is neither masculine nor feminine but a perfect blend of both. If they are one in God, they must also be one in the perfect embodiment of his love on earth, namely in Jesus Christ. Despite the fact of his male appearance then, the perfect blend of masculine and feminine loving that characterised his relationships with others also enabled him to teach the most balanced and the most sublime religious teaching that the world has ever known. In getting to know Christ then, men and women can find in him a person who they can come to know and love in a way that is completely satisfying and fulfilling. Who would not want to know and love such a person, and in knowing and loving him receive the love that he promised to return in kind, but in far fuller measure? It is this love that will gradually make us into more perfect, balanced and fulfilled human beings, with a destiny that we never dreamed of before.
A Body Full of Love
Many of the early Christians knew whole passages, if not all of the Gospels off by heart. They had no other prayer books to hand, nor did they have need of them. When the first Christians used the scriptures, most particularly the New Testament, they were not interested in how much they read, but in how deeply they penetrated the sacred texts in their search for wisdom. The wisdom for which they searched was not a body of facts, but a body full of loving, who continues to love now, as he did when he was on earth. They would read a few verses at a time going over them for a second and a third time, poring over them, entering more profoundly into their dynamic inner meaning. Then they would pause in moments of deep interior stillness to allow the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures in the first place, to inspire them too, with knowledge and love for the man who had come to redeem them.
When they had savoured one particular text, they would reverently move on to another, and then repeat the process, leaving pauses for silence for the impact of the words to seep into the very marrow of their being. As this prayer grew more and more intense, the moments of silence would become more and more prolonged, and as love blossomed, words would naturally give way to periods of profound inner contemplative loving. This is why, whatever other methods of meditation we may at times find helpful, we must never forget and always turn back to the scriptures as the Christian prayer book par excellence. For it is here that we first begin to nurture the deep primeval prayer that can alone lead onwards to come to know and experience the infinite loving that is our eternal destiny.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics