Every Monday afternoon at 4.30pm there is a programme on BBC radio 4 called ‘Beyond Belief’. Last week the wife of a Jewish Rabbi said that every day she reads a page of the Talmud. The Talmud is an ancient Jewish book that details the everyday customs and prayers that are practised by devout Jews. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and the Jewish people were forced to find new homes all over the Roman Empire, it was a disaster. It was not just a physical disaster but a spiritual disaster too, because it was feared that their beloved religion with all its prayers and customs would be lost. It was for this reason that scribes and Rabbis began to collect them together for posterity in the book that came to be called The Talmud. By reading this book we are given an insight into the practical spirituality of the Jews at the time when Jesus was born.
The hidden years revealed
More precisely, we are given an insight into the daily devotional prayers and practices of the Holy Family that Mary and Joseph taught to their son, Jesus as he was growing up. All of a sudden you find that the so called ‘hidden years’ are not so hidden as we have been led to believe, at least in what really matters – the personal spiritual life that formed Our Lord. Why then are they not detailed in our New Testament? The answer is because all the first Christians were Jews who to begin with, carried on practising the customs and prayers they had been taught since childhood by their Jewish parents. Why then bother to detail what everybody knew and practised? Why tell everyone to do what they were already doing? All the writers of the New Testament practised the prayer life that was their heritage, and they assumed and assumed correctly, that their readers were doing the same. That is why they did not keep referring to them.
A lesson from the master Chefs
If you love good food you will undoubtedly be a devotee of Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein or some other master chef. No matter whether you read their books, listen to them on the radio or watch them on television, they all make an understandable assumption about their followers. They all assume they have time to cook, that they know how to cook, and they have a place where they can cook, namely a kitchen. It was the same with the first Christian teachers. They all assumed that their followers had the time to love, the knowledge of how to love, and a place to love, namely personal prayer. What the culinary teachers want to teach is their philosophy of food, how to produce it, present it, and share it with others, beginning with your own family. In the same way, what the first Christian teachers wanted to teach was their theology of love, how to produce it, present it, and how to share it with others beginning with their own families.
When you read the writings of the New Testament and the first Fathers of the Church, you will read about the God-given theology of love that Christ introduced into the early Church, and you will read how to put this teaching into practice in the exemplary moral life that you must live at all times. But you will not read about the daily life of mystical prayer that they presumed everybody was practising, precisely because it is assumed and rightly so. However, and this is crucial; without the love of God that is received in this mystical prayer that will suffuse and surcharge weak and feckless human loving, we will never have the wisdom to see the God-given theology that Christ introduced into the early Church – Never mind live the high moral life that it demands of us in the world in which we live.
True Mystical Prayer
By mystical prayer I mean the daily, invisible, personal prayer that could not be seen. Not just because it took place inside their hearts, but because it took place inside the invisible or mystical body of Christ. It was here, that through mystical purification, their hearts would be united ever more completely with the heart of Christ, to share in his mystical contemplation of his father. What they received in return was a quality of love that contained within it all the virtues that would enable them to live the same sort of virtuous life that Christ had lived, and now still lives because he continues to live it in, with, and through us. Modern readers of the scriptures then must realise that however much their readings may enthral them, and however much they may be inspired to put their moral teaching into practice in their own lives, this will not be possible without the mystical loving that has to be learnt in prayer. In the past this love was assumed because it was lived, but sadly to-day it is assumed, but it is not lived. Hence, the moral malaise in which we are living. That is why all the great saints and mystics, and now Our Lady herself, keep calling people back to prayer. But no one is listening.
How to make the Impossible Possible
In this series that details the profound God-given spirituality that Christ introduced to the early Church, it is essential that I do something else. I must as clearly as possible draw your attention to the profound mystical prayer that underpins it and without which it could not have been practised in the beginning, just as it cannot be lived today. That is why I have gathered together the teaching on Catholic mystical prayer from the beginning and made it available to you on my website. For the truth of the matter is, that without this prayer you can only stand back in awe and admire the spirituality that I will describe for you, but you will never be able to live it. The podcast that I have recorded for you is a brief ten part summary of my major book on prayer called ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles.’ If there were a Catholic Talmud in which the traditional prayer of Catholic saints and mystics have been taught through the ages I would like to think that you will find it in this book, albeit in story form, to make it as simple and as readable as possible.
David Torkington’s blogs, books, lectures and podcasts can be found at https://www.davidtorkington.com/