The local Charismatic group were celebrating forty years since their foundation and were preparing a special Mass for that purpose. The readings, the psalms and the prayers had all been chosen to echo the overall theme of asking God to give his love to all those present and to the whole world that would be lost without it. The visiting preacher came straight to the point.
“Why waste your time praying for God to pour out his love. Whether you pray for it or not, his love has been sent, is being sent and will continue to be sent whether you pray for it or not. Why not save your breathe to cool your porridge, or rather save your breathe to pray that we will be given the knowledge and the strength to take whatever steps are necessary in our lives to receive that love, no matter what the cost. Our spiritual lives and our ultimate well-being and destiny depends upon it.”
From the very beginning the great spiritual writers have all been at one in insisting that we cannot love God as he would wish, until we have learnt how to receive Christ’s ever-present free-flowing love into our hearts. This enables our frail and feeble love to be suffused and surcharged with Christ’s love; to be taken up by him firstly into his own mystical body, and thence into his mystical loving of our common Father.
In order to understand how this mystical process begins and how we can continue to maintain it, come hell or high water, let us go to the very first time that the outpouring of Christ’s love was announced by St Peter on the first Pentecost day. The crowd were predominantly Jews who knew that the spiritual Tsunami that Peter was announcing had in fact been promised by their own Prophets with the coming of the Messiah. Once Peter convinced them that their Messiah had indeed come, and his mystical love was being poured out there and then, the question was how to receive this love that would change their lives? The answer is as important for us now as it was for them, for the love they received is being poured out now at every moment and to the end of time. Peter told them that only one thing is necessary, but this response must be continual until it becomes commensurate with our whole lives and every moment of our lives. This, and its consequences, would be explained in far greater detail by the great mystical writers in subsequent centuries.
An ancient Chinese sage was asked, if he could do but one thing to change the world, what would it be? He answered that he would give back to words their original meaning. That is what I want to do for the word that St Peter used to teach his listeners how to receive the continuous outpouring of God’s love on that first Pentecost day. He simply told them to repent. The word has become so weather-worn with overuse that our eyes glaze over at the mere mention of it. I must therefore try to give back to this word its original meaning, so that, if put into practice, it can do for us what it did for the first Christians.
It meant they had to turn away continually from the world in which were living, where self-seeking, self-indulgence and self-absorption was the norm, to be filled with the love of Jesus. But its precise meaning was even more telling, for in Hebrew and Aramaic the language that Jesus spoke and preached in, there was no word for someone who had repented, but only for someone who was continually repenting, every day and every moment of their lives.
An ancient Jewish Rabbi used to tell his students that they must repent at the moment of death. When he was asked how they were to know when that moment had arrived, he told them that he could not – that is why they must repent at every moment. In other words, the day offered to God at the beginning of every morning has to be offered again and again throughout the day, not so much in words, but in and through all that is said and done, at home, work, recreation, through good times and bad. Simone Weil the Jewish Philosopher once said that a person is no more than the quality of their endeavour. It is the quality of our daily endeavour to keep trying to turn and be open to receive God’s love in all we say and do, that embodies the quality of our continual repentance. This determines the quality of the love that we are able to receive in return. This continual repentance enabled the first Christians to follow Christ’s call to take up their daily cross and follow him, making their whole life a sacred sacrificial offering to God.
Although this profound and mystical giving and receiving took place every day and every moment of the day for the first Christians who had learnt from the example of Christ’s own daily spirituality, that was not all. For it took place liturgically at Mass too each Sunday by the whole community.
I was first inspired to take part in the mystical spirituality that Jesus lived and handed on to the first Christians by my mother. It was not so much by what she said, but by what she did. When our family went to Mass each Sunday, I saw her totally absorbed in what I took all too easily for granted. My selfishness during the previous week meant that I had little to offer. Frankly I had done little if anything to say, no to self, and yes to God. What sacrifices had I made to turn to God and away from self? Even if I had known the meaning of the word repentance, the very idea of continually turning to God would have been meaningless to me. Ironically, whilst I was lost in self my mother was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice for others, most particularly for her family, as she repented continually in all she said and did during the previous week. This meant that she received to the measure of her giving.
Without any formal theological education, she discovered for herself that the Mass is not only a sacrifice, the place where we offer ourselves, in, with and through Christ to the Father, but something more. It is also a sacred sacrificial meal where we receive the love that is endlessly pouring out, onto and into all who are open to receive it, through daily sacrificial giving. It was here that she received the help and strength she needed to go on repenting, go on carrying her daily cross by selflessly giving in the forthcoming week for the family that she loved so much. Each day she reminded herself of this, her sacred priestly calling, by making the morning offering that she taught to me, as her Recusant ancestors had done for hundreds of years before her. If ever I forgot to say mine she would remind me of the words of the Curé d’Ars who would say, “All that we do without offering it to God, is wasted.” And he was right, but it has taken me a long time to learn what she was trying to teach me!
If anyone is tempted to think that this is a recipe for an austere joyless spirituality then they have never tried it. It was firstly the spirituality of Jesus himself, who despite all he had gone through and was about to go through, called himself a man of joy who wanted to share the joy that he received with those who would follow his ‘way’. You can read this for yourself in the famous discourse at the Last Supper in St John’s Gospel. For the ‘way’ of selfless giving is also the way of joyful receiving. Whenever you meet someone who genuinely embodies the faith in their daily lives, you will always meet a man or a woman of deep joy whose very presence brings joy to all who meet them. Joy is one of the first signs that the love of God has finally found a home where joylessness reigned before.
So don’t waste any further time asking God to send his love; save your breathe to cool your porridge, or better still to devoting your life to trying to receive it. If you have been a bit wishy-washy so far during Lent, now is the time to make one final effort during this Holy Week. It will help to make Easter all the more joyful For it is in giving that we receive and what we receive at Mass on Easter day will depend on what we have been trying to give during Holy Week.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics