The essential principles of Christian spirituality are to be found in the teaching of the first Apostles that they received directly from Jesus Christ, It is this teaching that should be the source and the fountain from which all later Christians spiritualities should draw their strength and vitality.
It was the first of the apostles, St Peter, who presided over the outpouring of divine love that first penetrated and permeated the Apostles themselves on the first Pentecost day. It was immediately after this that he once more presided over this same sublime love, as it was poured out on the crowds outside and henceforth to the end of time. The only question to be asked was, had Jesus risen from the dead, and is he still alive and loving us? That was believed without any question. The real and most important question of all was what must be done to receive his love, his Holy Spirit. This was the only way that practising Christians could become filled with, and inspired by, the self-same life and love that animates Our Lord Jesus Christ? The answer to this question is to be found in the profound mystical spirituality that was freely and lovingly embraced by the early Church.
To Love God Like Never Before
The more our first forebears turned to God or, continually repented, as St Peter first told them to do, then the more their sins were forgiven. This would enable the Holy Spirit to enter into them and then draw them up into the risen and glorified body of Christ to love God with their whole hearts and minds, with their whole bodies and souls, and with their whole strength like never before. I say like never before because, although they were fulfilling the ‘greatest of all the commandments’ as laid down in the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy (6:4-7), they were now loving God in a new uncompromising, and far more powerful and effective way than ever before. Before Christ’s death and Resurrection, all his followers observed the same commandments, together with Christ, in the way in which they prayed and acted but after the first Pentecost day, they were doing it, in, with and through him, because the Holy Spirit had taken them up into his newly transformed, transfigured and glorified Body. This body was soon to be called his mystical body. The word mystical comes from the Greek word that simply means hidden, unseen, or secret because it cannot be seen nor can the loving be seen that takes place there, as divine and human loving become one. A profound mystical oneness takes place, as a person is gradually fitted into Christ. Not just into his being but into his acting. By this, I mean into Christ’s own loving of his Father in a sublime act of mystical contemplation that unites him, and all who are in him, to God who is their common Father.
With Love, All Things are Possible Even the Impossible
Although this loving cannot be seen, the fruits of this loving can be seen and were seen by the pagan world into which Christianity was born. At the last Supper, the second of the new commandments was given by Jesus himself. Unlike the old commandment, it was not to love others as ourselves, but as Jesus himself loves us. This was the fruit then, of the profound contemplation that the first Christians experienced as they loved the Father, in, with and through their Risen Lord. Jesus had insisted that ‘it will be by their fruits that you will know them’, and it was this supernatural quality of loving that the pagan world had never seen before and it drew tens of thousands, no hundreds of thousands, even millions to the new Christian faith. To this day secular historians are at a loss to explain how, what appeared to be no more than a small heretical group of Jews, could transform a pagan empire into a Christian Empire in such as short space of time.
With love, all things are possible and with Christ’s love, even the impossible is possible. And that does not just mean 2,000 years ago but today through those who are prepared to give over their lives to him, as the first Christians did. They could then say like St Paul, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’. It is important to notice that all this took place before Monasticism, before the Desert Fathers had such an influence on the Church, and before there were religious orders. It was the Holy Spirit working through ordinary people like us, who dared to give themselves up to lives of prayer – the prayer that leads through Meditation, where love is first learnt, in a personal encounter with Christ, to Contemplation, where that love is purified, to be united with the divine contemplation of the Risen Lord himself.
St Thomas Aquinas on Contemplation
To use the words of St Thomas Aquinas, the vocation of the Church and that means every one of us in the Church, is ‘to Contemplate and to share the fruits of Contemplation with others,’ as it was in the beginning. Contemplation, therefore, is not an extraordinary way for a few chosen souls, but the way, and the only way for all. He does not say we are to pray and share the fruits of our prayer with others, or even to meditate and share the fruits of our meditation with others, but to contemplate and share the fruits of contemplation with others. And so there could be no doubt, he defines contemplation as ‘a simple gaze upon the truth accompanied by awe’. And the truth is that God is loving, infinitely loving and that we are called to experience that loving, beginning here in this life through Contemplation, and continuing to eternity in the next because there is no end to this journey in which we find our ultimate happiness. The reward of the traveller is to go on travelling, the solace of the searcher is to go on searching, for there will be no end to the ever-deepening and ever more fulfilling happiness that God has called us to enjoy with him from the beginning.
Take Love Away and All Falls Into Disarray
When Contemplation and the prayer that leads to Contemplation thrives in the Church all is well. Why? Because it is the prayer that opens a person to receive God’s love like no other. When it is taken away, then all falls into disarray as can be seen by any bona fide student of Church history. With love all things are possible, but once deep, divine loving is taken away, then nothing is possible and the high road to hell is wide open.
Sadly this happened in a way that can only be described as catastrophic in the immediate aftermath of the condemnation of Quietism in 1687, and the Catholic Church has never been the same since. The teaching of the founder of Quietism, a Spanish Priest called Molinos who lived in Rome, was clearly heretical. In prayer, a person was to do nothing but wait on God for him to lead them into what St Teresa of Avila called the prayer of Quiet without any preparation or purification. Doing nothing meant doing nothing about temptations either, so until God took them away a person could do nothing about them, but give in to them, nor would they be held to account for it, in this life or the next. This led to all sorts of sexual depravity that was detailed at the trial when Molinos was condemned to live in monastic imprisonment for life at the end of the seventeenth century. The vast anti-mystical witch hunts that ensued threw out the baby with the bathwater and Mystical Theology and its teaching on prayer and Contemplation has been continually criticised and undermined, if not condemned down to the present day. When learning how to love God and experience his love in return through Mystical Contemplation, is taken away from men and women who forsake the married life to take vows of Chastity, then the consequences, as we can see in the Church today are utterly devastating. Those who have been deprived of the love that they were to have experienced as part of their noble calling, began to seek its counterfeit, not only to the scandal of others but to the devastation of those who are their victims. It is here that the laity can be crucial in the renewal and transformation of the Catholic Church.
However, it is one thing to talk the talk and quite another to walk the walk. For the mystic way that leads to pure contemplation involves carrying one’s daily cross, dying to self, time and time again and therefore embracing what the first Christians called ‘White Martyrdom’, glorying in what St Paul called, Christ and him crucified. For once first fervour has evaporated, as it always does, the way forward in prayer involves learning to love by practising selfless loving over and over again. Whatever form or method of prayer that is best suited to you at the particular point at which you are now in your spiritual journey, one thing is for sure, there will be a hundred and one temptations and distractions that will assail you. Far from hindering your journey, it is in the very act of turning away from these distractions time and time again, that you are practising the selfless loving that will eventually open you to receive and experience the love of God in pure mystical contemplation, in a way and on a level that you have never dreamt about before. That is why St Teresa of Avila said that you cannot actually pray without them! If you fall asleep you are not praying because you are doing nothing. If however you are suddenly swept up into an ecstasy you are not praying either because you are doing nothing because God is doing everything. True prayer is between the two when by practising dying to self continually, although you think that you are doing nothing and are endlessly tempted to give up, you are in fact practising the most important thing any human being can do and that is practising selfless loving. If you only have two temptations or distractions and they manage to absorb your attention for the whole of your prayer time, then you will have indeed been wasting your time, but if you have had one hundred and two distractions it means that one hundred and two times you have rejected them, each time saying no to self and yes to God. Believe me that has not been a waste of time, as you will see one day, for this is precisely how loving is learnt.
In the end in God’s time, not yours, the quality of your endeavour will enable infinite loving to make his home in you and begin to enter into your loving so that divine and human loving become as one, sweeping you up into true Contemplation in, with and through Christ to glimpse something of the glory of God even in this life, that will be your reward in the next.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics, and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy