chilworth3Prayer and my Personal Journey

It took more than twenty years after leaving school years before I  discovered that I was a dyslexic, thanks to a chance meeting with a doctor who knew something about what she called ‘my gift’. It was a tremendous relief to meet someone at long last who understood what nobody had been able to understand before, and that included me. At school my teachers subscribed to one of two theories – either ‘That boy is stupid!’ or ‘That boy is lazy’. For myself I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that I wasn’t stupid; I knew I had a good mind even if it didn’t easily conform to traditional teaching methods devised for the majority and the examinations set to validate them. When my form master wrote on my school report, ‘You could scourge this boy and he wouldn’t work’, I just had to accept that what he said was true. Funnily enough, when in later life I had managed to master most of the other deadly sins, I found that despite what I had been forced to believe, I never really mastered sloth.

It was a welcome relief to have an explanation for something that had puzzled me all through my life. I came to see that what is generally seen as a terrible affliction had in fact been for me the spiritual equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. At first it had seemed to be little more than a curse that made me an academic cripple, the school dunce and the comedian of the class, as I used the wits I undoubtedly had to draw attention away from the strange inexplicable debility that shamed me.

I don’t remember too much of my school days because my ‘little problem’ made them one long continuous dark night that I wanted to blot out of my memory for good. However, things began to change for the better when the priest giving the annual school retreat said that God was not only everywhere, but knew everything, and knew each one of us through and through, even our most secret thoughts. It suddenly occurred to me that if this was true, he would know what was wrong with me and could show me how I could make something of a life that seemed doomed to failure before it had hardly begun. There and then, I decided to turn to him for the help that I hadn’t been able to find from anyone else. Fortunately for me the school had its own spiritual director. I asked him to sign me up for his weekly seminar on meditation for those who wanted to learn how to pray. When he told me that the natural mystical experiences I had on the Yorkshire moors were a genuine experience of God through his creation, I was delighted to have my deepest convictions confirmed. Then, when he went on to tell me that St Augustine had similar experiences to myself and that they had led him on to come to know and love the Masterwork of God’s creation, Jesus Christ, I knew I had to follow his example. I threw myself into prayerfully poring over the sacred scriptures day after day, as if my life depended on it, because in a sense it did. I never gave less than half an hour a day to prayer and I often gave much longer. Meditation soon became comparatively easy, even enjoyable, and within months I was enjoying my ‘first fervour’, which lasted for more than a year.

Suddenly my lack of academic achievement seemed as nothing; indeed I had already begun to see it as a gift, because it had led an otherwise godless youth to turn to the only One who could help him. The fervour and the feeling generated in prayer made me feel special, made me feel that I was called to lead and guide others with the profound spiritual wisdom that had been given me. However before St David of Didsbury could begin converting the world, he felt  the need to join the Franciscan Novitiate at Chilworth in Surrey, after all, even St Francis had to have sometime in solitude before he changed the world. The friary is well known as the place where the composer Albert William Ketelbey was inspired to write his masterpiece – ‘In a monastery garden’. When next you next listen to the piece and hear the friary bell tolling, think of me ringing the Angelus three times a day.

What I had hoped would become my heaven on earth was to become for me it’s opposite. It became my personal ‘annus horribilis’.  It all began when, after the Novice master had explained that the friary had been built thanks to the generosity of a  local group of distillers, my perverse sense of humour got the better of me. When I enquired whether or not that was the reason why the Friary was dedicated to ‘The Holy Spirit’ the Novice Master crashed his fist on the table, turned as red as a turkey on heat, and did what was called in those day a jitterbug, before  shouting at the top of his voice – ‘Blasphemy’. On the spot I was ordered to humiliate myself by performing ‘the prayers of the Cross’ in front of the whole community before the evening meal. This entailed kneeling down in front of the whole community in the refectory immediately after the grace at the evening meal. Then I had to prostrate myself to kiss the floor before returning to my knees to open my arms like a cormorant drying its wings. With my head bowed low, I then had to  recite ‘Our Fathers’ until the superior called an end to the mortifying charade by ringing a little bell. The only ‘kindness’ the Novice master ever showed me was to send me to several opticians and one doctor to try to find why I stumbled and spluttered my way through the Latin office in the choir and stammered my way through the readings in the refectory, but without success.

To make matter much worse in the middle of my prayer that was usually full of sweetness and light, things suddenly changed. At the very moment I thought I had arrived at the top of Mount Carmel I found myself at the bottom, banished without rhyme or reason from the new and exciting spiritual world that I was beginning to think was my birthright. I was utterly bereft. When I had completed the Novitiate and been transferred to the student house at East Bergholt in Suffolk I turned to one spiritual director after another, but nobody could help me. When I told them about my first fervour they all said, ‘Oh, we all go through that at the beginning’, but nobody seemed to know why it suddenly came to an end and what, if anything, came next.

Then quite by chance I came across a book in the library called The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross, whom I’d never heard of before. I couldn’t believe what I read; I couldn’t believe how this Spanish Carmelite saint, who had died over four hundred years ago seemed to understand with such precision exactly what I’d been through, where I was at, and where I should be going. He described with embarrassing accuracy all the faults and failings that I had fallen into during my ‘first fervour’: all the arrogance, all the pride, and all the presumption about which I had been totally unaware. Then he explained why I had to be led into the ‘Night’ to be purified of everything that stood in the way of what I desired more than anything else. Finally, in chapter nine of his ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ he explained the characteristics of my present predicament with such accuracy that I could be in no doubt about his profound spiritual insight.

Dr Victor Frankl, in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘  said that you can bear anything if it has meaning, and St John of the Cross had given meaning to what had been meaningless before. It was this knowledge that encouraged me to journey on, come what may. In time and with perseverance, light began to enter my darkness to encourage me along the way of purification. It was then that I turned to St John’s ‘big sister’ in Carmel, St Teresa of Avila, and to her masterwork Interior Castle, which explained these moments of light as clearly as he had explained the darkness. I hungrily devoured all their works. They not only helped my spiritual life but they helped my dyslexia too, because I simply had to read and reread their every word, to plunder the spiritual riches that I couldn’t find anywhere else. But nevertheless they did nothing to lift me out of my very dark night at least for more than eighteen months when something rather dramatic happened that I will tell you about next time.

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