I said in the first part of the lecture to launch my book, that the famous moral philosopher Professor Joad insisted that the teaching of the Gospels was absolutely impossible. In saying this he wrongly believed that he was damning Christianity for good, when in fact he was describing it perfectly. If you read the Gospels you will find the impossible being made possible on virtually every page. The Gospels say repeatedly that, yes, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, because God is love – infinite love. This can be seen time and time again in the lives of the great saints from the beginning. However, when the branch of theology called Mystical Theology that teaches how to receive the love that makes us one with Christ is taken away, we are reduced once more to doing what is quite impossible, without it – as Jesus himself said, “Without me you have no power to do anything” (John 15:5). Sadly, and with disastrous consequences, this profound mystical teaching was taken away from us after the condemnation of the heresy, Quietism in 1687.
Quietism was the teaching of a Spanish priest called Molino who lived in Rome in the middle of the seventeenth century. He was at the time believed to be a living saint with a massive following all over the Catholic world. The authorities therefore were reluctant to act against him, as they are against the plethora of modern Quietists today, albeit in slightly different garb. However, his teaching contained two major fault lines that alerted the Vatican and forced it to act. The first was that in prayer you have to present yourself to God like a lump of dough waiting to be soaked in syrup. “It is by way of doing nothing that you will attain union with God” (Spiritual Guide – Molino). Secondly, doing nothing included doing nothing about temptations too, most particularly sexual temptations. That is why he was not only condemned for falling into the heresy of the primitive reformers, but for a series of sexual sins cited at his trial. Vigilantes who could not distinguish between genuine mystical prayer and its counterfeit were outraged. They were aroused into a mindless mob of spiritual iconoclasts who inaugurated anti-mystical witch hunts that damned any form of prayer that had the slightest whiff of Quietism about it, all over the Catholic world. Even the writings of St Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross came under suspicion. Even though these self-righteous ignoramuses are no longer with us they have managed to breed into our spiritual psyche a fear of Mystical Theology, just as the black death filled us with a fear of rats. In his monumental History of the Church, Monsignor Philip Hughes put it more soberly:
“The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole… At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of mystical contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.”
The mystic way in which the saints, the mystics, the martyrs and great spiritual leaders of the past had been schooled for thousands of years, was not only misunderstood, it was condemned. It was replaced by a moralism that had its origin not just in the teaching of Jesus Christ, but in the teaching of the stoics introduced into Christianity through the schools at the Renaissance, thanks to the Catholic humanist John Colet who founded St Paul’s school in London in 1509 – the year when Henry VIII came to the throne! This school became the model, the paradigm for the other Public schools and Grammar schools down the centuries. These two moral teachings, one from the Greco-Roman tradition, the other from the Judaeo-Christian tradition were, when harnessed together, meant to form perfect English gentlemen. They have managed to survive side by side down to the present day without ever integrating as originally intended, causing a certain spiritual schizophrenia for students like me, who were taught to sing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ in the school Chapel and ‘The British Grenadiers’ in the music room. We were encouraged to imitate the great saints in religious class and the heroes of classical antiquity in history class. Could I be blamed for choosing Alexander the Great and his mentor Achilles as my heroes? I found it far more inspiring to destroy my enemies than to allow them to destroy me. The idea of offering the other cheek didn’t appeal to an arrogant teenager like me. That is until I grew out of pimples and into poetry and read those famous words of William Butler Yeats.
“Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline”
This was my Damascus road experience that set me on a journey to discover a theology of love and the mystical theology that makes all things possible, even the impossible. The truth is, no one can live the moral teachings of either the Judaeo-Christian tradition or the Greco-Roman tradition for that matter without the inner mystical love to transform them from within, the love released by Jesus on the first Pentecost day.
Love is a complete mystery, whether it is divine or human love for that matter; not because it is irrational, but because it is supra-rational. However, one thing is for sure, selfish self-centred people cannot receive or give it fully, at least for any length of time. Mystical Theology teaches people how to become more and more selfless, more and more capable therefore of giving and receiving the most important commodity in life upon which our happiness depends more than on anything else, not just in this life but also in the next. Often enough in the past I have heard people say that my teaching on Mystical Theology is for the birds – far from it – is for human beings because only human beings can love and share that love with others. But this is only possible to those human beings who are prepared to learn how to love in what the mystic, Blessed Angela of Foligno called the School of Divine Love, which is prayer. It is the place where the selflessness that alone enables a person to receive love is practised, like anything else that is worth attaining. In mystical prayer it has to be practised, sometimes in ‘dark nights’ where you have to face the truth about yourself, and sometimes in ‘clouds of unknowing’ behind which God seems to have hidden himself from sight. This is the place where cupboard lovers pack up prayer, for they are only in it for themselves. Mystical Theology teaches that it is the place in which perfect lovers or saints are formed by learning to love through endlessly giving when nothing seems to be received in return. Eventually, those who persevere without continually asking when the Resurrection is due, are lifted out of themselves as St Teresa of Avila describes in Interior Castle.
Deep down in each one of us, whether we count ourselves religious people or not, there is a primeval prayer that takes the form of a desire to love and to be loved, and then to go on loving and being loved to all eternity. This prayer embodies our deepest desire and longing even if we cannot put it into words. St Augustine referred to this unspoken prayer when he wrote:
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The you to whom he referred is the God in whom ultimate and infinite love resides. In this our final destiny, St Augustine explains that we will be taken out of ourselves with all whom we have loved on earth, to experience the fullness of love in a state of ecstatic bliss that has no end. However, Saint Gregory of Nyssa takes us even further, and in order to do so he has to manufacture a new word. He attaches two letters ep to the Greek word for ecstasy to form the new word Epecstasy to express the true nature of our ultimate destiny. It is not just to be taken out of ourselves into ecstatic bliss, but to be continually taken out of ourselves again and again and to all eternity. The more we give of ourselves to infinite love then the more we receive what continually opens up within us the capacity to receive more and more love. This ineffable process will go on and on, for there is no end to the journey into infinite loving. The reward of the traveller is to go on travelling, the solace of the searcher is to go on searching, for there is no end to this journey into infinite loving. As the journey gathers pace we continue to grow, for the love that possesses us enables us to become more and more our true selves, as we blossom under the influence of God’s relentless loving. In this way we become the persons he wanted us to become from the beginning. Nor do we travel alone because on this journey we are united with all our loved ones. The more we travel onward the more we are united ever more deeply with them. For in heaven the human frailties and the inbuilt selfishness that kept us from the closeness that we always desired on earth are spirited away. Then, the more we grow into our true selves, the more deeply we can be united with all our loved ones, as we journey on together into eternity. As the journey unfolds we all enjoy together the ecstatic bliss of gazing upon the glory of the One who created us for himself, and for our unending happiness with him in heaven.
No man-made myth, no fairy tale however fanciful, no fiction however far-fetched has ever conceived such an incredible story from the beginning of time. Yet it is not a story, it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – the ultimate truth about the meaning of life on earth and our destiny hereafter. If Professor Joad thought that the moral teaching of the Gospel was impossible, whatever would he have made of this mystical teaching? For reason alone, both are not only incomprehensible but impossible. But as the Gospels insist, with love all things are possible for those prepared to learn from the great mystics who have preceded us, beginning with Christ the greatest mystic of all, how to pray the Christian way, to receive the mystical life that makes all things possible even the impossible. This is the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth – so help us God to receive what you give us freely to free us from the servitude to the self-centred love that imprisons us in the me-me society in which we find ourselves to-day.
David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from The Christian Mystics was published on 26/01/2018 and is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk If you would like to hear the podcast of his talk you will find it on launch podcast