Recently I wrote about the sacred touch used by the first Apostles and their successors to hand down the love that had been received by Jesus to successive generations. Here I describe common experiences that we have all had, particularly in our youth. You may be at a party, having a good time with your friends. There is plenty of fun and games, plenty of food and drink. There is music and dancing and everything is in full swing when suddenly it happens – A touch of God. It’s not a physical, but a spiritual touch, that amidst all the merriment makes you suddenly feel alone. It makes you feel that you don’t belong, makes you want something further, something higher, something nobler, though you’d be hard put to give a name to what you really do want if someone pressed you. But if you were pressed, you’d probably say – God.
On the other hand, you might be sitting by the sea, listening to the waves lap against the shingle on the shore; the sun bloods the sea red as it settles down to rest behind the distant hills. There’s a gentle caressing breeze, the sound of the curlew piping over the marshes, then it happens again – A touch. When this happens you can close your eyes. You have no need to gaze at the scene any longer to savour the One who has reached out and touched you through what you have seen. Then you find yourself enveloped by deep melancholic sadness that is worth all the joys of the world ten times over.
When I was in Paris I was taken to see the opera Aida. It simply bowled me over. The music wasn’t entirely new to me, but the overall effect of the production was beyond all my expectations. When the curtains fell at the end of the Grand March I was literally entranced. I didn’t want to go to the bar with the others for a discussion on the merits or de-merits of the current production. I just wanted to be transported back into the solitude of my own room to savour what I had received. Somehow, through the medium of the composer’s music, I had been able to experience something of the beauty, something of the glory and majesty of God, and I didn’t want the experience to be dissipated by a lot of cultural claptrap. A moving film, a beautiful piece of music or an artistic masterpiece can have the same sort of effect. Intense study can lead to a similar experience.
The question, is why should God suddenly decide to reach out and touch us in this way? Remember, St John said that ‘God is love’. I think it would be more accurate to say that God is loving, and he is loving all the time. The reason why we don’t experience his loving all the time is because we are so lost in ourselves. Then, all of a sudden, by the combination of some powerful external stimulus and an inner receptivity of mind and heart, we are able to experience for a short time the love of God that is there all the time.
I call these experiences mystical premonitions because that’s really what they are. They are an experience in advance of the mystical awareness of God that eventually becomes far more commonplace for the true contemplative who has been sensitized to God’s presence through a long spiritual purification. These touches actuate a sort of holy restlessness that enables a person to know by experience what St Augustine meant when he said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Now they want to search for the One who has touched them, to experience in ever fuller measure the love without measure that has briefly reached out to them. Sometimes these experience are mistakenly interpreted as a call to religious life. But that is not true, it’s not a special call to the religious life, but to the fullness of life, and that’s for all.
Long before my father met my mother he knew all about the experiences that we’ve been talking about. The geography master at school had interested him in astronomy and he used to stay up to all hours on the school roof gazing at the stars. To start with, his knowledge was purely academic; to end with, it was purely mystical. He didn’t bother with the telescope when the grandeur and majesty of the heavens spoke to him and touched him with the sort of knowledge that you don’t find in books. The same thing happened with mountaineering. He started to climb the highest peaks he could find, because, as Mallory said, “they were there”, but he ended up climbing them because he experienced that Someone else was there. His mother told him he’d fallen in love with love when she saw him daydreaming, and she was right, he had. But he didn’t see his experiences as a call to religious life, and it never crossed his mind for a moment that he should be a priest or a religious. But he did want to know more fully and experience more deeply, the One whose presence had touched him in those mysterious moments that made him mourn for his Maker. That Presence reached out to him in a new and unexpected way the day he met my mother. She was to be for him an even greater and more perfect embodiment of the One he was searching for.
You see, it is not man, but mankind that is created in the image and likeness of God, man and woman together, who in their mutual loving manifest the most perfect embodiment of God’s loving. The masculine and the feminine that are perfectly balanced as one in God, are manifested as two on earth, so that man and woman, in entering into the other through love, experience God in a unique embodiment. When my father met my mother, he came to experience through her, something of the beauty, the goodness and the truth of God, clothed in a feminine form that excited his heart, his mind and his body and led him on into an experience in which God’s Presence made itself felt more fully than ever before. It was an experience that became more and more perfect as, with the passing years, the selfishness that still kept them apart, was gradually purified through the suffering and self-sacrifice involved in bringing up a family together.
For the success of this journey in the sacrament of love, another parallel journey is called for at the same time. It is an ever deepening journey into the fullness of love that we come to experience through prayer. This journey is made in, with and through Jesus, who while leading us on towards the fullness of love in heaven, gives us the help and strength we need to encounter that love here on earth in the sacraments of love. Remember the words of Jesus at the Last Supper – “Without me you have no power to do anything.” Everyone is called to the mystical life, because the mystical life is the expression used by Christian tradition to describe the experience of being plunged ever more fully into the love of God. This is for all, whether we are married, unmarried or celibate. The journey begins here on earth and is brought to completion in heaven, where there is no longer any need for the sacraments.
In this life they were essential to enable us to glimpse the uncreated love of God through his creation, but in the next life these signs, these symbols, these shadows disappear. They disappear as the full splendour of God’s love blazes out from all eternity and to all eternity to draw all he created on earth into his uncreated love in heaven. When at last it dawns on us that it was for this glorious destiny that we were created, then it is time to act. It is time to use every moment of every day striving towards the destiny for which we have been created in, with and through Jesus in whom the journey begins here on earth, and in whom it is completed hereafter in heaven.
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.