When Charles Dickens wrote, “God is love,” on the workhouse wall, he was of course being sarcastic. He knew there was no love in that workhouse, as Oliver Twist was about to find when he begged for more gruel. Yet, Dickens was right; unlike any other religion, Christianity is founded on love, not on our love of God, but as St John insisted, on his love of us.
The word Gospel means ‘good news’ because it is the best news that any human being can receive. It is the news that God’s love has been embodied in the flesh and blood of the most perfect man who has ever walked on this earth, so that he could transmit it to us too. All those who came to love him, not only wanted to be close to him and to be with him always, but to enter into him, to experience the love that had inspired them, and which animated him. After his Resurrection this became possible like never before. The enduring love of the first Christians became for them like a mystical ladder, enabling their love to rise to him and his love to descend into them. This love would gradually draw them up into him and into what was later called his Mystical Body.
At the very beginning many Christians had known and come to love Jesus while he was on earth, but as time went by this ‘happy few’ grew smaller and smaller. Nevertheless, the memories were handed down so that new generations could also come to know and love the most adorable man who ever lived. In order to help those who never knew him personally to come to know and love him, a new form of mental prayer was born that had never been known before. It came to be called Christian meditation. Even in the pagan world there had been mental prayer, called ‘meditation’. It involved using all sorts of different man-made methods and techniques to try to gain experiences of the divine. After the Resurrection, however, the word meditation was given a new Christian meaning. Using the memories of those who had known and loved Jesus in the past, and reading what was written about him in the scriptures, the early Christians were introduced to this new form of mental prayer. They were taught to use their memories and their imaginations to bring Jesus back to life in their hearts and minds. It was here that the most loveable person who ever lived was reborn again to be loved once more. When this love grew and grew with frequent meditations on all Jesus had said and done, a fervour fired their hearts and minds. Love, of its very nature desires union; it desires to be united with the one whose love has set them alight. The union for which they began to yearn then was nothing less than union with Jesus. In his Confessions St Augustine put it this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Although it is quite possible to love someone who once lived in the past, it is quite impossible to be united with them; after all they are dead. However, the same Jesus who once lived on this earth is, thanks to his Resurrection, alive now in the present, where the union for which they desired can be consummated. I say can, because there is such a moral disparity between him and us that before that union can take place a deep spiritual purification has to prepare us. It is at this point that the meditation that had become pleasant and rewarding suddenly comes to an end. The reason is simply this – the pure desire for union reaches outward and upward, as it were, to enter into Christ as he is now in his risen glory, but the rest of us remains behind where we will remain until we are sufficiently purified to follow our hearts’ desire. In the operetta Iolanthe, the hero, Strephon, is half fairy and half human, half spiritual and half physical. So he complains that although his spiritual half can pass under a door, through a crack in the window, or through a keyhole, his physical half cannot. It is the same with us, although our spiritual yearning reaches up to God, our physical self cannot follow it, at least until it become purified or ‘spiritualised’ by the Holy Spirit.
This new stage, or transition, as it is sometimes called, happens very suddenly. One day the meditation that was so pleasant comes to a sudden end. Although the desire for God is still there the rest of us is enveloped with distractions and temptations, the greatest of which is to pack up prayer altogether, as many do. The tragedy is that this happens all too often just at the time when we are about to be purified by the Holy Spirit who is at work trying to unite us with the Risen Christ. St John of the Cross calls this strange new world the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. However, as purification enables us to go forward we go forward into it what is called pure contemplation when the darkness gives way to ever-more penetrating and all-enveloping light. It is the light of God’s love that enables a person to experience that love to shattering degrees of intensity – to ecstasy and beyond, as what was so far mainly experienced in the head, overflows into every part of the body. The experience of this ever-more complete union with Christ is described more perfectly than anywhere else in St Teresa of Avila’s masterwork, Interior Castle, which sums up the whole Catholic mystical tradition.
You may of course be thinking, how very interesting, but that’s not for me. Sorry, whether you like it or not, the mystic way is for you and it must take place. If it is not completed in this life in what St John of the Cross calls the ‘Dark Night’ then it must be completed in the next life in what the Church has traditionally called purgatory. How else can imperfect love be united to Perfect Love.
While he was on earth Jesus himself did not need to meditate to generate God’s love within him, as we do. God’s love that conceived him in the first place, possessed him at all times throughout his life. The reason for this is simply because there was no sin or moral impurity in him to prevent his continuous and uninterrupted contemplation of his Father. Jesus was therefore the first perfect contemplative, the first great Christian Mystic.
For us, however, it is different because firstly we have to learn how to love through Christian meditation. For us this means the slow and prayerful reading of the scriptures or other forms of meditation like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the exercises of St Ignatius, to mention but a few. The acid test of all of them is – do they help generate love? Secondly, the love generated there has to be purified in the ‘Dark Night’ so that through contemplation we may be fitted ever more fully into the Risen Christ. Not just into his being, but into his acting, into his contemplation of God, Our Father.
Here we are joined together with the whole communion of saints, and that includes our own loved ones with whom we are re-united too. This is not where our spiritual journey ends. It is here that it begins like never before, as together with the whole communion of saints we set off into an ever-more joyful and ecstatic journey into the Fullness of Love, and to all eternity. In short, Meditation generates love; Contemplation purifies and brings it to perfection. Then we are finally able to journey on, in, with and through Christ into what St Gregory of Nyssa calls Epecstasy. This is the never-ending ecstatic bliss of contemplating and entering further and further into eternal love to all eternity, together with all we have ever loved and held dear. If therefore anyone tries to sell you mindfulness or pleasurable mental states as Christian meditation, beware, they are selling you the counterfeit. These techniques will never ignite the sparks that generate divine love. They will not take you on a mystical journey, but just round and round in circles getting nowhere.