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 had 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.
My First Love
One day on my beloved moors 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 could not 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. I suppose this was the first natural mystical experience that I had ever had, although I did not 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 do not want to give the impression that my youth was strewn with natural mystical experiences, because it was not, but they did come to me frequently enough to make me wonder and pause to reflect on their meaning.
Religious Experience and Mystical Experience
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 around 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 was not specifically Catholic at all. It was an experience that I had in common with others, other Christians of different traditions to my own, 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, although they all interpreted it according to their own religious or non-religious convictions. When I reflected on it, I thought it strange that I had never experienced through the practice of my Catholic faith what I had experienced on my beloved moors through my favourite music, or on those nights when I would gaze for hours at the star-studded sky, experiencing what had made me mourn for days, without knowing for what or for whom I mourned.
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 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……..
……Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake.
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, warning us that such ideas could lead to Pantheism. 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.
St Francis of Assisi Saw Dazzling Truth
When I raised the subject with the Franciscan priest who came to give the school retreat, he gave me an answer that I would never forget. He said that when a great saint like St Francis of Assisi was filled with the Holy Spirit, his whole being was changed, transformed from within in such a way that he could see and understand truths so dazzling that they blind the rest of us. What Francis saw was that the little baby born on the first Christmas Day who died on the first Easter Day and who ascended into heaven on the first Ascension Day was the One in whom the whole world had been created from the beginning. When therefore we enter into him, we enter into a family that embraces the whole of creation to whom we relate as brothers and sisters.
This led St Francis to realise that, if everyone and everything had been created in the one he called Brother Jesus, then the whole world must be a friary. The Greek philosopher Plato said that the whole world was a prison and men and women merely prisoners. Shakespeare said that all the world was a stage and that men and women were merely players. A President of the United States said that all the world was a marketplace and men and women were merely buyers and sellers. But for Francis of Assisi, all the world was a friary, and everyone and everything within it were, therefore, brothers and sisters to one another. It is not just Brother Francis and Sister Clare then, but Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Lamb, Brother Fire and Sister Water, for the whole of creation is a brotherhood and sisterhood with a common Father in whose embrace all were created from the beginning. That is why any man or woman who can be stilled for long enough by the beauty of creation or any part of it, can experience their creator if only for a brief unforgettable moment. For the profound truth is that he is harboured in every part of his creation, for he is the All in all.
God Is The All In All
But what St Francis teaches by his example, is that what is seen and experienced in these brief unforgettable moments can be seen and experienced in every moment, for the person who through daily and regular prayer enters ever more deeply into Brother Jesus. Brief mystical experiences, therefore, should never be seen as rewards for the just, but as wake-up calls for sinners. They are a call to journey onward through a consistent daily life of prayer, to enter into the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to contemplate in, with and through him, the One who is the All in all. There, all who have not resisted his love, will experience and be drawn up and into the ecstatic bliss of endless supernatural loving, as it passes to and fro between the Father and the Son. What was once experienced briefly and partially on earth, will now be experienced continually and fully in heaven and to all eternity.
Published on Catholic Stand
David is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles which teaches the reader how to pray, from the very beginning to what St Teresa of Avila calls the Mystical Marriage.