Whilst giving a series of lectures on prayer at Belmont Abbey, I was cornered by one of the participants who demanded to know my qualifications. Although I was taken aback, I couldn’t but concede that he had every right to know whether or not the lecturer was worth the time and money he had spent. After all, if I’d been giving a course on scripture, theology or canon law the participants would have had every right to expect that I had an MA – if not a PhD – in the relevant subject on which I was holding forth. I found it embarrassing to admit therefore that I hadn’t any such qualifications in those subjects. On reflection, however, I realized that it was precisely because I had no such qualification that I was able to give the lectures and, for that matter, write all my books.
You see, ‘My name is David and I am a dyslexic.’ It took more than forty years before I was able to say those words, thanks to a chance meeting with a doctor who knew something about what she called ‘my gift’. It was a tremendous relief to meet someone at long last who understood what nobody had been able to understand before, and that included me. At school my teachers subscribed to one of two theories – either ‘That boy is stupid!’ or ‘That boy is lazy’. For myself I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that I wasn’t stupid; I knew I had a good mind even if it didn’t easily conform to traditional teaching methods devised for the majority and the examinations set to validate them. When my form master wrote on my school report, ‘You could scourge this boy and he wouldn’t work’, I just had to accept that what he said was true. Funnily enough, when in later life I had managed to master most of the other deadly sins, I found that despite what I had been forced to believe I never really mastered sloth.
It was a welcome relief to have an explanation for something that had puzzled me all through my life. I came to see that what is generally seen as a terrible affliction had in fact been for me the spiritual equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. At first it had seemed to be little more than a curse that made me an academic cripple, the school dunce and the comedian of the class, as I used the wits I undoubtedly had to draw attention away from the strange inexplicable debility that shamed me.
I don’t remember too much of my school days because my ‘little problem’ made them one long continuous dark night that I wanted to blot out of my memory for good. However, things began to change for the better when the priest giving the annual school retreat said that God was not only everywhere, but knew everything and knew each one of us through and through, even our most secret thoughts. It suddenly occurred to me that if this was true he would know what was wrong with me and could show me how I could make something of a life that seemed doomed to failure before it had hardly begun. There and then, I decided to turn to him for the help that I hadn’t been able to find from anyone else. Fortunately for me the school had its own spiritual director. I asked him to sign me up for his weekly seminars on meditation for those who wanted to learn how to pray. I threw myself into it as if my life depended on it, because in a sense it did. I never gave less than half an hour a day to prayer and I often gave much longer. Meditation soon became comparatively easy, even enjoyable, and within months I was enjoying my ‘first fervour’, which lasted for more than a year.
Suddenly my lack of academic achievement seemed as nothing; indeed I had already begun to see it as a gift, because it had led an otherwise godless youth to turn to the only One who could help him. The fervour and the feeling generated in prayer made me feel special, made me feel that I was called to lead and guide others with the profound spiritual wisdom that had been given me. Then suddenly, quite out of the blue, everything changed. At the very moment I thought I had arrived at the top of Mount Carmel I found myself at the bottom, banished without rhyme or reason from the new and exciting spiritual world that I was beginning to think was my birth right. I was utterly bereft and turned to one spiritual director after another, but nobody could help me. When I told them about my first fervour they all said, ‘Oh, we all go through that at the beginning’, but nobody seemed to know why it suddenly came to an end and what, if anything, came next. When other boys came to the same impasse they just dropped prayer and gave all their energy to studying for university because they had a future, but I didn’t. I just stuck to prayer, no matter how difficult it became – not because I was a particularly pious youth, because I wasn’t, but simply because I had nowhere else to go and no one else to whom to turn.
Then quite by chance I came across a book in the library called The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross, whom I’d never heard of at the time. I couldn’t believe what I read; I couldn’t believe how this Carmelite saint, whom I’d never heard about before, seemed to understand with such precision exactly what I’d been through, where I was at, and where I should be going. He described with embarrassing accuracy all the faults and failings that I had fallen into during my ‘first fervour’: all the arrogance, all the pride, and all the presumption about which I had been totally unaware. Then he explained why I had to be led into the ‘Night’ to be purified of everything that stood in the way of what I desired more than anything else. Finally, in chapter nine he explained the characteristics of my present predicament with such accuracy that I could be in no doubt about his profound spiritual insight. Victor Frankl once said that you can bear anything if it has meaning, and St John of the Cross had given meaning to what had been meaningless before. It was this knowledge that encouraged me to journey on, come what may. In time and with perseverance, light began to enter my darkness to encourage me along the way of purification. It was then that I turned to St John’s ‘big sister’ in Carmel, St Teresa of Avila, and to her masterwork Interior Castle, which explained these moments of light as clearly as he had explained the darkness. I hungrily devoured all their works. They not only helped my spiritual life but they helped my dyslexia too, because I simply had to read and reread their every word to plunder the spiritual riches that I couldn’t find anywhere else. The great Carmelite mystics helped me not only to help myself, but also to help others too, who found themselves in the same predicament as myself.
When I was young, people used to go through what was called then their ‘first fervour’ behind the closed doors of a personal prayer life. However, in more recent times different varieties of prayer groups have enabled large numbers of laity to pass through their spiritual adolescence together, although this has been a mixed blessing. On a one-to-one basis, it is comparatively easy to help beginners pass through their first fervor and onward when they are led into the ‘Night’. However, it is far more difficult when what always tends to be an emotional period in spiritual development anyway is exacerbated when the group to which they belong is simultaneously set afire with adolescent fervor. When at the same time extraordinary phenomena, often engendered by group emotion, are all too readily given a theological rather than a psychological explanation, they are unfortunately deceived about the speed of their spiritual progress, and arrogance prevents them from accepting the direction that they need.
Perhaps the most common danger for these beginners is that they can so easily become ‘bounty hunters’. The success of their prayer is all too readily judged by feelings, by what they feel they have received rather than what they have been giving. However, with appropriate help and guidance, which rarely comes from their peers, they can be led on through their adolescence to spiritual maturity. Authentic guidance at this stage will always insist that the beginner must give quality space and time to prayer each day alone in ‘the inner room’, come hell or high water, whether they feel anything or whether they feel nothing. Then in God’s time, not theirs, they will begin to experience moments of light to strengthen them along the way.
It is in the ‘Night’ alone that true selfless loving is learnt. Anyone can love God when they seem to be receiving his gifts, but can they continue to love him when they seem to receive nothing in return, when he seems to have turned his back on them to speak to someone of more importance? This is when true love, rather than cupboard love, is learnt and gradually brought to perfection. This is why the ‘Dark Night’ is the place where saints are made out of those sinners who are not only prepared to enter this place of purification, but to persevere there, not just for weeks or months, but for years, patiently ‘waiting on God’. Here alone is the crèche where the saints we so desperately need for the long-overdue renewal are formed, by the purifying action of the Holy Spirit.
If ever there was a need for the teaching of the great Carmelite mystics to be heard, it is now. If they complained in their day about the quantity and quality of good spiritual directors, whatever would they say today? Despite all they wrote to remedy the need that they saw so clearly, contemporary religious and laity alike are still starved of what, thanks to them, should be the primary principles of any authentic prayer life. All I attempt to do when I write, lecture, or broadcast is to show how their teaching can be understood in contemporary language, and in the context of Christ’s own personal prayer life, and in the prayer life of our first Christian forbears. When this is done then their profound psychological insights can be seem in the wider context of the sublime mystical theology detailed by SS Matthew, Mark , Luke, John, Peter, Paul and the other apostolic writers, and by the Fathers of the Church. All too many emphasize the psychological at the expense of the theological, or the theological without understanding the psychological. It is only in a synthesis of both made by a practitioners, that true Christian Mystical theology can be understood.
As I look back on my life I can now see clearly what I was unable to see at the time – that my dyslexia, far from being the curse I once believed it to be, has been my greatest blessing. Without it I would never have turned to prayer in the first place, never have discovered and been able to understand and be supported by the two greatest of all mystical writers. I owe more to them than to anyone else for all that I have written, all that I have said and done in subsequent years, and all that I hope to do in the future. At last I can say with gratitude rather than embarrassment, ‘My name is David and I am a dyslexic.’ At long last, I can thank God for what I have finally come to see is the greatest gift that has been given me.
(Adapted from my book ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles – The making of a Mystic)