This new sequence of posts will be developing into the most important and personal series that I have ever published online. Nothing is more important than prayer, because it is quite simply the daily living out of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that he be formed in us. This central mystery of our faith that is continually re-enacted in the Mass is to be repeatedly lived out in our minds and hearts in prayer, leading on to its daily re-enactment in all that we say and do. Throughout the course therefore, the words of the great theologian Karl Rahner should be continually borne in mind, because they are the context in which all that I write must be understood: – “The Mass should so form us that the whole of our lives should become the Mass, the place where we continually offer ourselves through Christ to the Father.”
This series has been written after over sixty years of trial and error, of successes and failures so that you can learn from my mistakes as well as from my personal discoveries, and from the wisdom that I have learnt from others, most particularly from those saints and mystics who have handed on our sacred spiritual tradition from the beginning. If you find it as helpful as I intend it to be, please help others by spreading news of this weekly series to as many of your friends as possible. As the series develops you will be directed to other blogs previously published on my website if they help explain or develop my current theme. You will, in time, also be directed to my podcasts many of which have still to be put on line. Most are recently recorded but some will be taken from the many hundreds of lectures and talks that I have given since I first began to tape them in the early eighties. But now let me continue from where I left off last time.
My family used to spend their summer holidays in our little cottage on the Yorkshire moors just below the mighty Ingleborough, which was the nearest thing I’d ever seen to a mountain. I loved to watch and listen to the moorland birds. My favourite of all was the kestrel. Kestrels were comparatively rare in those days, at least to a townie like me, so I watched it for hours hunting in the heather. I loved the peat moorland and the majestic Ingleborough towering over our little cottage. No other landscape has affected me more deeply, perhaps because it was my first love, and there’s always something special about your first love. I loved that land where my forebears had lived for generations before me. All of them had been taxed into poverty and jailed when they were no longer able to pay, for refusing to receive communion in the Protestant church. That’s why they were called Recusants because they refused. Some of them had been put to death for the faith that I could all too easily take for granted. I am a direct descendant of one of them, a layman called Nicholas Tempest who, in 1537, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn by Henry VIII for challenging his authority as head of the Catholic Church in England. Henry Vlll then plundered the monasteries for his own personal gain.
One day I had a strange experience, as I gazed at the ‘Windhover’ balancing on high, it was as if something from that landscape was reaching out to envelop me in a way that I couldn’t put into words, so I never tried. The further the kestrel floated away on the wind, the smaller it became, and the more it drew me in within myself and made me ever more open and sensitive, to receive the sense of presence that raised me up above myself. From the beginning, mystics have always found that some sort of fixed point, real or imagined, can help concentrate the mind and heart on what they desire more than anything else. I suppose this was the first natural mystical experience that I’d ever had, ‘though I didn’t quite know what it was at the time – I just knew I wanted more of it. To my great disappointment I discovered that it was even rarer than the bird that drew me out of myself. So I don’t want to give the impression that my youth was strewn with natural mystical experiences, because it wasn’t, but they did come to me frequently enough to make me wonder and pause to reflect on their meaning.
When I went to senior school we were taught that prayer was ‘the raising of the heart and mind to God’, so I thought that perhaps that’s what I’d been doing on the moors. I hadn’t the courage to ask the priest who taught us, because what I’d experienced seemed so personal and private, and anyway I didn’t want the other boys to think that I was soft, so I said nothing. I was later to discover that these experiences, far from being unique to me, were common to most people especially in their youth.
As far as I can remember my early spiritual life was composed of two parallel worlds – the world of religious experience and the world of mystical experience that had developed side by side without ever meeting in any way that enabled one to make sense of the other. The world of religious experience was specifically Catholic, it was the world of Sunday Mass and weekly confession, of days of fasting and abstinence, of special feasts and holidays. It was the world of Catholic schools, of catechism to teach me my faith and show me how to live it, of apologetics to show me how to reason round it and explain it to others, of annual retreats to set me alight in the Church with what bored me to death in the classroom.
The world of what I called my mystical experiences wasn’t specifically Catholic at all. It was an experience that I had in common with others, other Christians of different traditions to my own, with Muslims and Jews, with Buddhists and Hindus, with Gnostics and Agnostics and for that matter with Atheists too. They all seemed to have access to the same experience that I had at first thought was personal to me alone, though they all interpreted it according to their own religious or non-religious convictions. When I reflected on it, I thought it strange that I’d never experienced through the practice of my Catholic faith, what I’d experienced on my beloved moors, through my favourite music, or on those nights when I’d gazed for hours at the star-studded sky, experiencing what had made me mourn for days, without knowing for what or for whom I mourned. There had been occasional ‘feelings’ that had filled me with a certain peace of mind after a ‘good confession’, or a sense of goodness as I walked home after early morning Mass, or was it only smugness? My emotions had been moved from time to time during parish missions, or at the singing of the Credo at Lourdes, or at the Easter Blessing in St Peter’s Square, but never anything to compare with those profound and personal experiences that did not depend on the rites and rituals of the Church into which I’d been brought up.
These two streams of experience seemed to have trickled through my early life side by side without ever converging, at least not in any way that I could understand. The priests who taught us our religion never gave the slightest hint that what I’d experienced had anything to do with the faith that seemed so important to them. Nor did the priest who introduced us to the romantic poets ever suggest that the sense of the ‘Numinous’ that inspired the poets had anything to do with our spiritual lives. Nevertheless we were all profoundly moved, and felt we could identify when the priest who taught us English read the following passage from Wordsworth’s poem composed above Tintern Abbey: –
And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round oceans and the living air,
And the blue sky, and the mind of man.
When one of the students asked whether the poet’s experience through creation, was one and the same as the One whom we encountered through the sacraments of the Church, the priest became defensive. He went on to warn us that such ideas could lead to a form of Pantheism that had been condemned by the Church. It might have been the first time, but it wasn’t the last time that a member of the Church’s hierarchy gave the impression that there was something, if not wrong, then at least suspect about such forms of religious experience, not least because they were open to believers and non-believers alike. For my own part I had no doubt that there was something not only good, but also something sacred about them. They always seemed to leave me with a deep desire to raise my horizons high above the ground and to reach for the stars. Noble desires and ambitions inspired me to do something more worthy and more spiritually fulfilling than the ordinary and commonplace pursuits that were expected of me. If you happened to have been brought up in the Catholic tradition like me you could easily be led to believe that your experience of the ‘Numinous’ should lead you not to become a poet, but a priest. And when you found that the priests who taught you seemed unsympathetic, it was hardly surprising that you began to think that a cloister might be a better place to continue your search.
When I announced that I not only wanted to become a priest, but that I wanted to join a religious order, my brothers couldn’t stop laughing. Although I was deeply hurt it made me even more set in my determination. But why, oh why did the very idea seem so laughable. Was it because I was so much younger than them, or was it something else that they could see and I couldn’t, that they knew and I didn’t?
As my years at school progressed and I didn’t, I began to see what they were laughing at, but although their laughter still hurt me I remained determined. Come what may I wanted to follow my star, to experience in ever-fuller measure what so far I had only glimpsed from afar, despite the dyslexia that nobody understood in those days, least of all myself. That September I packed my bags and set off for the Franciscan Novitiate at Chilworth near Guildford, Surrey.