Many years ago, I attended a retreat given by Fr Michael Hollings, who was in great demand as a fearless and outspoken preacher. The retreat was for religious from many different orders. After joining the community for the communal recitation of the divine office, Fr Hollings began his first lecture with a tirade that reminded me of the hellfire sermons that I attended as a boy. He blasted the priests for the mindless way they rushed through the office, “like starving cattle hungry to get to their morning fodder.” Everybody was, not only chastened but somewhat mystified, after all, they were only doing what they did every day of their lives in their respective religious communities!
If the Heart Does Not Pray. . .
The following year I spent a month on retreat at the Franciscan hermitage of Fonte Colombo high up on the hillside above the town of Rieti in Italy. The hermitage as it stands today was built by St Bernardine of Siena, the great Franciscan reformer. The very essence of his wisdom can still be seen written in words of gold around the sanctuary. It is here that the friars said their daily office, attended their daily Mass and all the other great liturgical ceremonies throughout the year. To remind them continually of the inner spiritual energy on which their liturgy depends, the words he had written were these, Si cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat – If the heart does not pray, then the tongue labours in vain. The liturgy is the communal expression in words, psalms, canticles, and prayers of the love with which, united in Christ, we give all honour and glory to God. It depends for its power and effectiveness on the quality of love previously generated by each member of the community in what the Franciscan mystic, St. Angela of Foligno called the Schola Divini Amoris – The School of Divine Love, which is prayer.
The School of Divine Love
A school is a place where you go to learn. The school of divine love is the place where you go to learn how to practise raising your heart and mind to God, inspired and supported by the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus for this purpose. It is here that the spiritual muscles of the heart are developed day by day, year by year. When everyone who participates in the liturgy goes to this school regularly, as regularly as the early Christians did, then its communal celebration will be alive, vibrant and full of life. It will become the most sublime experience possible on earth because the Christian community will experience together, the joy, the peace and the spiritual intoxication of experiencing all the fruits of giving and receiving love, in and through Jesus the Risen Lord. But as the liturgy is the expression of the communal love of the community, it will, as it always has done, depend on the quality of the love generated in personal prayer long before we even enter the place where the liturgy is to be celebrated. It was this profound mystical dynamic that not only enabled the early Christians to be filled with the love of God but to be filled with his goodness too. It was the fruits of that goodness, the otherworldly and transcendental virtues that they embodied, that so mesmerised the ancient pagan world that it literally converted and captivated them. What happened then to that pagan world, can happen again to our pagan world if we only learn from our early forebears, if we only follow the example set by them.
Why Does God Allow Such Things to Happen?
Is the degradation and the depravity of the modern world any better or any worse than that of the ancient world? If you listen to the local, the national and the international news on any day you choose, you will hear of frightful horrors and myriad stories of what the depravity of human beings can do to other human beings. And if you listen to the frustrations of those to whom we have failed to teach the truth, you will hear their relentlessly cry, “Why does God allow such things to happen? Why does God not do something about it?” In the true answer to this cri de coeur lies the essence of all that I have been trying to say in all my articles. For the human catastrophes that we hear about day after day in the media to be ended, and for peace and justice to reign where hatred and inhumanity reigned before, something that seems all but impossible must be done. All the vices and viciousness that rule in a fallen humanity must be replaced by all the virtues that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount.
Forced Love is a Contradiction in Terms.
But, all these virtues can only come to humanity sheathed within the supernatural love unleashed by Jesus on the first Pentecost Day. That this love is still being given on every day, is the essence of what is called the Good News that Christians are called upon to preach and teach to others. However, whenever you hear good news, news that seems too good to be true, there always seems to be a ‘but’. Here is the ‘but’. Love cannot be forced on anyone. Forced love is a contradiction in terms. It is physically impossible, as everyone who has loved or been loved knows by their own experience. What is true of human love is true of divine love. That the great plan of God, which St Paul called the Mysterion be brought about, this love must be made available continually to every human being. In order to bring this about God sent Jesus, so that his infinite love could be transformed in him into human loving, so it could reach out through him into other human beings. But we have to choose freely to receive this love, by turning to receive it, as St Peter explained to his audience at the birth of Christianity on the first Pentecost Day. Then, by continually turning to allow the source of all the virtues to be reborn in us, God can indeed do something to change the world, but only through us.
Love is Not Magic
The love of God in which all the virtues we need to bring about heaven on earth is contained within a single shaft of God’s love, but love is not magic. It cannot bring about instant change. I believe in instant coffee, instant tea, even instant physical healing and instant physical miracles, but the instant inner spiritual healing that leads to sanctity is quite another matter. As the pure and perfect love of God penetrates our inner being, it must first purify away and do to death all that prevents the indwelling of love. It is this indwelling of love that gives birth to the virtues that the world needs to restore it to wholeness. That is why St Francis of Assisi insisted that we cannot possess any of the virtues unless we first die. That is why death and resurrection is the central mystery of our faith. I do not just mean the death and Resurrection of Jesus two thousand years ago, but our daily death and resurrection as we try to follow him now. This is a lifelong journey. It leads directly to encountering and experiencing the fullness of love imperfectly here on earth, and perfectly in heaven, whilst at the same time, sharing the fruits of that love with others, here on earth so that they may share our joy, the joy that can alone bring peace to the world.
Come the Revolution
Ever since the Book of Revelation promised a new heaven and a new earth, social and political reformers have been preaching their versions of liberty, fraternity, and equality to bring it about. After destroying all and everyone who stood in their way, they never realised the dreams they used to inspire others. All victims tend to identify with their oppressors, and revolutionaries are no exception to the rule. Time and time again you find that once they come to power they become little more than the monsters who once oppressed them. The initial idealism they believed could transpose their dreams into reality has long since been crushed out of them by jealousy, greed, bitterness, and hate. This is why the revolution that Jesus preached is the only one that can work, because it brings heaven down to earth, not by destroying the past but by bringing its deepest desires and yearnings to perfection. It does this by re-energising people from the inside, with a love capable of generating all the goodness and fruits of goodness that can bring about a kingdom of peace and joy, of justice and equality here on earth as the springboard for our infinite fulfillment in heaven.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics