Witch-Hunters and the Hunted

saints, discipleship

The heresy of Quietism (1687) involved a complete misunderstanding of the classical mystical authors by various groups of religious enthusiasts that led to all sorts of gross immorality. One of its principal protagonists was a priest called Molino who preached that we should be so passive that we should not even resist temptations. He was convicted of over eighty cases of gross sexual indecency. The inevitable condemnation of Quietism led to anti-mystical witch-hunts throughout Christendom, led by people quite incapable of distinguishing authentic mystical prayer from the counterfeit.

Perhaps the greatest mystics the world has ever known, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross came under a cloud and were openly condemned with anyone else who wrote about docility, passivity or recollection in prayer. Work, work and more work was the best antidote to Quietism. The effects of these witch-hunts have remained with us to the present day. It is interesting to notice that although the five centuries before the Council of Trent produced the greatest crop of front-line mystical writers that Christendom has ever known, the four centuries after Trent have produced hardly any. Who is there between St John of the Cross and the present time who could be classed as an original mystical writer of the first order? Yet between St Bernard and St John of the Cross, they are almost two a penny.

I don’t want to give the impression that genuine spirituality stopped after the condemnation of Quietism and the anti-mystical witch-hunts that followed in its wake, nor do I want to draw any ridiculous black and white conclusions about the last four centuries. These centuries have given the Church saints, martyrs and men and women of extraordinary spiritual calibre, but only because, in spite of the prevailing attitude to the contrary, they became poor in spirit.

How Mystical Prayer Simply Fell into Abeyance

It was as a result of the Church’s zeal in crushing this heresy and in promoting the Gospel of good work for fear that Catholics would fall into Protestantism, that mystical prayer simply fell into abeyance. The enormity of this and its consequences down to the present day cannot be exaggerated. It meant that the primacy of love that dominated Christian spirituality before was simply taken away almost overnight. Knowledge alone will never change anyone permanently. But the experience of being loved will. All this happens in the mystic way where saints are made out of sinners and where the great spiritual leaders are formed to lead us back to the contemplation that dispels darkness and bathes us in the light of God’s love.

The mystic way in which the saints, the mystics, the martyrs and great spiritual leaders of the past had been schooled for thousands of years, was not only misunderstood, it was condemned. This has led to an increasingly superficial spirituality from which we have all suffered. It all too often consists of a vast mosaic of myriad pious practices that have led to a ‘pick and mix’ spirituality.

Although they are not bad in themselves, these practices do not naturally reflect or flow out of the liturgy of the Church, nor do they clearly prepare the way for its meaningful celebration. The best of them may well be good, and good enough to lead people into the mystic way wherein purification they would see the truth, but then it is highly likely that the way would be blocked to them or declared dangerous. This happens when even the most respected authorities misdirect the faithful because they themselves are the casualties of the anti-mystical witch-hunts, the effects of which have continued since the condemnation of Quietism to the present day. The original passion of the first zealots who sought to dismantle, demolish and destroy all forms of prayer that had the mere whiff of Quietism about them may well have gone, but the convictions that drove them have become endemic in the spiritual ethos that we have inherited.

 Out Went  the Baby With the Bathwater

They have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and the bath water that has been thrown out is the water of the second baptism, that Jesus called upon his disciples to accept (Mark 10:38), where love is learnt and brought to perfection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. All spirituality that has been stripped of the mystical theology that teaches where, and details how love is learnt and brought to perfection, is going nowhere but around and around in circles. The whole point and purpose of Christian spirituality is to teach believers how to be stripped of self-love, preparing the way for God’s love to suffuse their love with the only love that leads to union.

Quietism is the error of those would-be mystics who misunderstand and misinterpret the teaching of the saints and mystics of the counter-Reformation and so get it wrong. They get it wrong because they do not have the time, the energy, the inclination or the authentic teaching to lead them into the place where a purification takes place. It is only here that true Christ-like love is learnt. This purification does not begin immediately after a person has seriously embarked upon mental prayer, but later, in months rather than years if they keep to their daily time for mental prayer. Then it is in years rather than months of being purified in dry and arid prayer that a person first begins to experience moments of inner peace.

St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross

As the demons within are being put to death, their inner soul is being put to rest. St John of the Cross put it this way:

“On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings – oh, happy chance! – I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest”.

St Teresa calls this God-given state of rest when a house once at war with itself,  is at peace, the ‘Prayer of Quiet’. This infused prayer, the first stage of true mystical contemplation must not be confused with Quietism. Quietism is the name given to the movement that promises the ‘Prayer of Quiet’ to those who have not been prepared to undergo the inner purification that would enable them to receive it. To become a master craftsman, a stone mason, a sculptor or a great artist, they must go through a prolonged apprenticeship to learn to perfect their art under the direction of a master.

The same is true of the spiritual life. If you want to perfect the art of loving, to love God and others as Jesus did, then you have first to become an apprentice for many years. This is where loving is learnt and brought to perfection under the guidance and direction of the perfect lover in what appears to be a continual dark night. The Quietists wanted to bypass this spiritual apprenticeship and attain the ‘Prayer of Quiet’ by their own ill-advised endeavours and as quickly as possible. The result is an unholy spiritual chaos that usually ensues when human beings try to do what only God can do in those who are pure and humble of heart. Inevitably they confuse others as they have confused themselves. They confuse them, not just about prayer, but about the whole gamut of the spiritual life, from self-absorbed scrupulosity to endless disputes about mystical states.  I have spoken about Quietism in the past tense but sadly their descendants are still with us, albeit in slightly different attire.

Sheep Without Shepherds

The importance of the great mystical master craftsmen and women is of vital importance to the Church and always has been. They are the spiritual leaders, the teachers, the doctors and the consultants on which the present and future health and well-being of the Church depends. You would not think of going to seek the advice of doctors who have not passed through the equivalent of their long apprenticeship, nor would you trust a surgeon to operate on you without an even longer professional preparation.

The serious demise of mystical life in the Church in the aftermath of the condemnation of Quietism has deprived the Church of the indispensable spiritual teaching, inspiration and guidance needed for continual growth in the spiritual life. It has further deprived us of the best educated and practised mystical doctors and consultants. In short and in biblical language, it has left us as sheep without shepherds.

All the above themes can be found in David Torkington’s books, Wisdom from the Western Isles- The Making of a mystic and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way.



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4 thoughts on “Witch-Hunters and the Hunted”

  1. It is only because of my responsibility to those Catholics who look to me for guidance in these matters, that I must state the truth as clearly as possible to avoid confusion. Firstly in the Catholic tradition spiritual purification is the essential feature of the ‘mystic way’ that takes very many years. Without it union with God would be impossible. Secondly any form of prayer that teaches a person to do nothing, but remain totally passive is teaching the heresy of Quietism.

  2. Interesting and deep article. To be honest, I found the best part came when you quoted from St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I loved studying about both of them in college and attempted to write a “scholarly” piece about John of the Cross as a final paper in one of my courses. I ended up listening to some music by John Michael Talbot that featured some of the poetry of the mystics. It was then that I understood what the dark night of the soul was really all about. I’ve been a poet at heart ever since. My favorite line from your piece is, “If you want to perfect the art of loving, to love God and others as Jesus did, then you have first to become an apprentice for many years. This is where loving is learnt and brought to perfection under the guidance and direction of the perfect lover in what appears to be a continual dark night. ” A lot of people think that communion with God has to be some deep, overwhelming purgation that strips us of identity – hence why they avoid the whole thing or fall into heresy about it – but I find the point where I surrender to Christ and realize I no pretty much nothing about him, that I find my greatest sense of communion with him. Thanks for a great piece!

  3. ‘Mysticism’, a word never used by the early Christians, nor by any of the Greek Fathers. It is used today by many disparate groups, from modern day Neo- Platonists to myriad different forms of New Age enthusiasts. They all want to seek out exotic or esoteric transcendental experiences of one sort or another for their own personal pleasure, well-being, or satisfaction. It tends to be anthropocentric rather than theocentric.

    The word ‘mystic’ or ‘mystical, for the early Christians, simply meant ‘hidden’, or ‘secret’. It referred to the ‘hidden’ spiritual life of the early Christians, whose whole lives were given over to taking part in what St Paul called ‘God’s secret Plan’, called in Greek the ‘Mysterion.’ God’s plan was to draw all, who chose to enter, into Christ’s mystical body, thence back into himself, as to their ultimate destiny. It is from this word ‘Mysterion’ that the words ‘mystic’ and ‘mystical’ have their origin, as also do the word the ‘mysteries’, because they lead us into, and sustain us, as we participate in ‘God’s Secret Plan’. When Latin took over from Greek, as the official language of the Church, the ‘mysteries’ came to be called the ‘sacraments’. You may find it helpful to read my books ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles’ and ‘Wisdom from the Christian Mystics’ for space and time prevents me from explaining more here. You may also like to listen to the second podcast of a series of talks that I gave on mystical prayer at Belmont Abbey on my website.

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