I just received a devastating email from a one-time fan to say that in my most recent article, ‘some of the stuff’, I wrote in a previous article was repeated. Shock, horror! It is true; I repeat my main messages about contemplation, albeit slightly differently each time, just like Jesus repeated his stories again and again.
T.S. Eliot once said that he had only one thing to say and he spent his whole life trying to say it in as many different ways as possible. I say Amen to that. When Jesus went out to preach almost every morning he did not have a different sermon for every day of the year. He endlessly repeated himself, often telling the same stories, giving the same or similar examples. That is how he put his teaching across, not just to the crowds who came to hear him but to the disciples who were always with him so that they came to know his teaching by heart. That is why they could hand it on to us intact through the scriptures that some of them were to write, and the tradition that one generation handed on to the next so that we could receive it over two thousand years later. You have guessed it; all this is a preamble for me to repeat myself, yet again, and lose a few more fans.
However, if you read carefully you will see that the old buffer has learnt a thing or two since the last repetition of ‘some of the stuff’ that he wrote before. Let me begin by summing up the essence of our faith.
The Immaculate Conception
Jesus was not only born of an immaculately conceived mother, but he was conceived without sin himself. This meant that over and above all he said and did each day, he was able to gaze upon his loving Father in profound mystical contemplation. It was from him that he received the love he needed to do what would have been impossible without it. With love all things are possible. without it nothing is possible. The very essence of his teaching was that he came to offer to all who would receive it, the love that he received.
This love would draw us up into his mystical body and then into his mystical prayer, his continual contemplation of his Father. Here we would receive the love that he received and all the fruits of this love that would make us a living image of himself. That is why it is true to say that all are called to contemplation in, with and through Christ, for that is the only way to heaven, beginning in this life and ending in the next where the divine love that we experience here is multiplied by infinity. All this was God’s plan from the beginning and in order to make it possible and bring it to fruition, he sent Jesus to introduce a profound mystical spirituality. It was called mystical because it would be put into practice within the mystical body of the Risen Christ and everything that it taught would be to lead people ever deeper into him and into his mystical contemplation of his Father.
The Meaning of Catholic Spirituality
What would be received in turn would be the love that bonded the Father to the Son, namely the Holy Spirit from whom we get the expression ‘spirituality’. How the power of this love, not working through great academics or intellectuals but ordinary men and women changed the greatest pagan Empire ever known into a Christian Empire in such a short time, still baffles purely secular historians. It is in fact testimony to what the power of infinite love can do, working through all who choose to receive it.
What was done then can be done again today, if we only relearn and practise the simple but mystical spirituality that God devised and Jesus introduced to the Early Church. In the historical mini-series that I am introducing I want to show how in the following centuries this profound mystical spirituality was lost to view, at least in all its original simplicity. As its restoration depends totally on the restoration of the God-given spirituality that leads us all to share in the contemplation of Christ I would like to write a few more words about the meaning and purpose of the contemplation to which we are all called.
The Meaning of Contemplation
The word contemplation itself means to gaze, to stare, to concentrate on something or someone. What is central to the word is the Latin noun templum meaning a sacred place. For Christians then, contemplation means being in a sacred place, more precisely in a temple, or rather in the new temple which is Christ. The prefix ‘con’ means that we are contemplating, not just in him, but with him and through him. Then the closer we come to the One on whom we are contemplating, and as purification sharpens our spiritual vision, we begin to glimpse albeit in a very distant way, something of the glory of God that God promised us as our final destiny. We are not just onlookers or bystanders then, but because we have been united with Christ we become participators with him in the glory that he experienced from eternity, from where his Father decided to create us to join him.
Into the Glory of God
Because he was not afflicted from within by the demons that harass us, Christ was able to contemplate his Father’s glory at all times throughout his life on earth. That is why at the Last Supper he described himself as a man of joy, and why he wanted his followers to become men and women of joy too. This did not mean that his life would be continually full of sweetness and light, for the demons that were never in him were in others all around him, and demons never take lightly to hearing the truth. The glory of God is the outward expression of the infinite love that St John insists pertains to the very essence of who God is. To gaze on his glory means to participate in that glory by receiving his love. But in God, love and truth are one, so that the one who receives his love will always receive his truth simultaneously, that must be both lived and proclaimed no matter what the consequences.
When the purification that always takes place in contemplation is complete mystics enter immediately into the mystical marriage with Christ, often called The Transforming Union. It is then that for the first time they are able to experience the continual contemplation of God that Jesus experienced at every moment of his life on earth. They are able to do this because the demons that once ruled them from within rule them no longer and so like Christ they become continually aware of the presence of God.
To Contemplate and to Share the Fruits of Contemplation
When St. Dominic founded his order of friars he wanted to base their lives on the lives of the first apostles. In order to explain the very essence of what this meant, his illustrious spiritual son, St Thomas Aquinas, said that the work of the Dominican Order was, ‘To contemplate and to share the fruits of Contemplation with others’. What he said sums up the vocation of the Dominican order, but it also sums up the vocation of the whole Church. The fruits of contemplation were most certainly the lifeblood of the early Church.
Contemplation is for all – it is our God-given Destiny
A more modern Dominican, perhaps the greatest spiritual theologian ever, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP insisted that this vocation is for all, not just for monks in their monasteries or nuns in their nunneries who did not, in fact, exist when Christians first received their vocation from God. It was almost over three hundred years before St Antony, the father founder of monasticism inspired the monasteries that would become spiritual oases everywhere in the deserts around him. It was clearly for all as it is today for ‘ordinary’ mums and dads and their whole families, for all are called to contemplation and to share the fruits of their contemplation with others. In Christ’s mystical body no one is ordinary for all are called to the most extraordinary destiny imaginable. This calling to contemplation is not a sort of optional extra. It pertains to the very essence of the mystical spirituality given to us by Christ, and it is our great and grave responsibility to follow it. In the articles ahead, I will show how the power and influence of the Church over the world depended on the rise and fall of the practice and experience of mystical contemplation.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Christian Mystics which complements this series.