A Whistle Stop History of Catholic Spirituality

Part Four A God-centred Spirituality

Christian Spirituality was first lived by Jesus Christ himself before it was introduced into the early Church. It began with him practising the first Commandment to Love God with every fibre of his being, in all that he said and did. He was then open to receive God’s love in return at every moment of his life. That is why Christ taught his followers to follow him in doing this, so that they would receive from God the same love that made him the most loveable, the most perfect and the most adorable person who has ever lived.

Wisdom from Sir Isaac Newton

In the scriptures God’s love is repeatedly symbolised by, and likened, to light. As Sir Isaac Newton has shown, a single shaft of light contains within itself all the colours that enable creation to reflect God’s glory on earth in such an awe inspiring way.  Just as these colours can be seen when light strikes a prism, so all the infused gifts of God’s love can be seem when that love strikes a human heart, to be diffused into every part of the human personality. Gradually, if a person perseveres in the mystical prayer that purifies them ever more fully to receive this love, then something dramatic happens. Just as it did in Christ himself, it can be seen suffusing and transforming everything that they say and do.

Wisdom from St Teresa of Avila

That is why St Teresa of Avila said, “There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray. If anyone points in another direction then they are deceiving you”.

These ‘deceivers’ are not consciously trying to deceive you or anyone else for that matter. They have the best will in the world, but they themselves have been deceived by others who have been caught up in a pernicious historical tidal wave contaminated with Pelagianism. It is this that has led them to believe that they can become the architects of their own perfection, with a nominal nod to the grace of God if questioned about their orthodoxy. Authentic Catholic spirituality is totally different; in fact it is the very opposite. It means above all else seeking quality daily space and time each day to come to know and love God in prayer, knowing that his love alone will do what nobody else and nothing else can. However, post Renaissance Catholic  asceticism has primarily come to mean changing oneself through man-made forms of stoical asceticism.

A new variant of Stoical ascetism

Since the Second Vatican Council a new variant of this asceticism has spread.  Instead of seeking perfection through man-made forms of asceticism inspired by stoicism, it has now become the practice to seek it through pop-psychology in one guise or another. Most human beings need some form of psychological help in their life time and they must be encouraged to seek it to enable them to return to their normal selves. However, pop-psychology or any form of psychology for that matter, cannot transform a person through love into the most perfect person who can alone guide us to and unite us with God. In the wrong hands terrible harm can, and has been done to others, including to whole communities by believing and behaving as if socio-psychological techniques can achieve what only God’s love can do in mystical prayer.

From a non-mystical muddle to simplicity

Many years ago I knew a man who was a Benedictine oblate because he had a penchant for Gregorian chant and the monastic life. Whilst wearing a Carmelite scapular, because he felt drawn to mystical prayer, he practised Jesuit spirituality which does not officially practise or promote mystical prayer. However, he was saved from a non-mystical muddle by the wise choice he made from the current ‘pick- n-mix spiritualities’. The picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in his home continually reminded him of God’s love. The quality of this love was brought home to him whenever he made the Stations of the Cross. Each time he said the Rosary his faith was deepened as he learned to penetrate the great mysteries of our faith. When these devotional practices set alight what St Augustine called a yearning for union with God, he turned to a spiritual director to teach him the meditation that leads to that union through mystical contemplation. It was then that he was inspired, like St John Henry Newman, to study the ancient sources of Catholic Spirituality in all its simplicity.

Wisdom from T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot once said that ‘the end of all our travelling is to end up where we started and to know that place for the first time’.  In discovering the spirituality that Christ first lived himself, the Benedictine oblate found that, although it was embodied in the devotions that his parents had taught him, the way it was originally practised re-inspired his dedication to serious daily mystical prayer. It was this prayer that became the most important feature of his daily spirituality. Furthermore, he found that in moments of darkness he could still return to some of the devotional practices, like the Rosary, that had originally formed him, albeit in a new way that helped support him in the mystic way. With the Love of God that he was learning in selfless sacrificial loving central to his daily prayer, he was able to receive the pure love of God that contains within it all the infused gifts. With these profound gifts of the Holy Spirit he found that for the first time he was able to observe the second of the New Commandments that Christ gave us shortly before he died. That is not just to love others as we love ourselves, but much more. We must love others as Christ himself loves us.

True Catholic Mystical Theology

True Catholic mystical prayer is God-centred. It is not the pursuit of self-gratifying psychological states, or esoteric experiences through man-made techniques to attain instant ‘mysticism’. These counterfeit forms of ‘mystical prayer’ are more like cupboard-loving than unconditional mother-loving. They are usually referred to as ‘Mysticism’ a word that was never used by the Fathers of the Church. Only the same sort of selfless sacrificial loving that characterized the life of Christ, should characterise the prayer of those who follow him. This is the quality of loving learnt in mystical prayer that opens a believer to God’s love and enables that love to possess them. Without the selflessness that is learnt there, we will continually remain closed to the Only One whose Love makes all things new.

In order to develop the prayer that can continually help us to raise our hearts and minds to God as we practise the asceticism of the heart please follow the Podcast on prayer on this web-site entitled The Hermit – Wisdom from the Western Isles

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