Some events and some experiences are so awesome that we find it difficult to capture them in words. The first Christians, for instance, found the Resurrection so utterly amazing that words failed them. Only the sun in all its splendour seemed an appropriate symbol to express the inexpressible world-shaking event that took place on the first Easter Day. That is why they called their holy day, the day of the sun or Sunday as a weekly reminder of this stupendous event. The sun not only reminded them of the love of God that filled Christ at the moment of his Resurrection, but of that same infinite love, as it was released to fill them on the first Pentecost day and on every subsequent day if they were open to receive it.
However, unlike the sun this infinite loving radiates outward and into all who would receive it, not just during the day, but day and night, to the end of time. If you think that I am indulging in pious hyperbole then think again. No man-made myth, no fairy tale has ever told any story like this before. No dreamer has ever dreamed such an incredible truth as this – yet it is the greatest truth ever told by the greatest man who ever lived.
Before the Resurrection Jesus was limited by the physical body into which he freely chose to enter. His choice meant that he could only be in one place at a time, so meeting him would have been as difficult as meeting any major celebrity in our time. But that has all changed now, because the same other-worldly love that raised him out of this world on the first Easter day enabled him to re-enter it on every day. So now he can enter into us as he promised, so that he can make his home in us and we can make our home in him, as he promised at the Last Supper. All this is possible, not in some distant pipe-dream, but here and now in this present moment. That is why Jean Pierre de Caussade, the great Jesuit mystic said,
“The present moment contains far more than we have the capacity to receive, for it is full of infinite treasures.”
These infinite treasures are all contained within the love of God. Then, as this love first strikes a human heart that is open to receive it, that heart acts like a prism, distributing this love to every part of the human personality. These spiritual treasures are not only full of the love we need, but the virtues too that love generates within us, enabling us to return this love in kind to God and then to share what we have received with others. Jean Pierre de Caussade calls the here and now, ‘the sacrament of the present moment’, because it is the only moment where time touches eternity.
It is the only moment where the love of God can reach out to us and we can reach out to him, to begin and to continue the journey for which every human being yearns deep down within them. It is the journey to the ultimate mystical marriage for which we all yearn, where our love and the love of Christ become one, in the Three in One, and to all eternity. This is what we call the ‘Good News’ because it is the best possible news that anyone can ever hear. But the bad news is that the infinite love that is continually available to us is different from all other forms of energy, because love cannot be forced. We know this from our own experience as human beings. No matter how we might love someone or no matter how much they might love us, if that love is not welcome, if it is not received and reciprocated, then it will have no effect at all, no matter how powerful it may be.
It is the same with God’s love. That is why from the very beginning the first question asked by the great saints and mystics is not, “How do we love God?” but, “How do we freely choose to turn and open ourselves to receive his love?” It is only then that his love can begin to enter into our love in such a way that it can suffuse and surcharge our human loving with the divine.
Then it can begin the ascent, in, with and through Christ, through whom this love is given, to contemplate the Father in whom our final destiny is brought to perfection. But, and there always seems to be a ‘but’ when we hear good news; if we do nothing to try to receive God’s love then nothing will happen except that instead of going forwards in the spiritual life we will go steadily backwards.
Making the spiritual ascent into God is rather like trying to run up a downward escalator. The moment you stop moving steadily forwards is the moment when you start moving steadily downward. A hermit once said that they did not fear a precipice, for only a fool would fall over it. It is the steady downward slope that we should fear in the spiritual life.
Going steadily forwards means finding daily time to do what St Peter told his listeners to do when he was the first to announce the good news that God’s love had just been unleased on the first Pentecost day. He told them to keep turning and opening themselves to God’s love every moment of their lives. This turning and opening oneself to receive the love of God has to be learnt, and the place where it is learnt has traditionally been called prayer. That is why there is nothing more important in our lives than prayer, because without it we cannot receive the only love that can make us sufficiently perfect to enter into the life of the Three in One to which we have been called. 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.” There is nothing therefore more important than prayer.
Many years ago I was privileged to attend a retreat given by Cardinal Hume. He first quoted and then slightly modified the definition of prayer given in what used to be called the penny Catechism. “Prayer,” he said, “is trying to raise the heart and mind to God.” The word he introduced to the old definition was ‘trying’, to emphasise that the essence of prayer is all in the trying.
The quality of our prayer is ultimately determined by the quality of our endeavour. It was for this reason that the great mystic and mother, Blessed Angela of Foligno said that prayer is, ‘The school of divine love’. In other words, it is the place where we learn how to love God by daily trying to raise our hearts and minds to him. There are different means and methods that tradition has given us to help us to keep trying to turn and open our minds and hearts to God.. There are no perfect means to help us keep trying to raise the heart and mind to God, just different means. What helps you at the beginning, may not help you later on. What helps you in the morning may not help you in the evening What helps me, might not help you.
Remember the famous words of Dom John Chapman, “Pray as you can and not as you can’t.” The acid test is, does this means of prayer help me to keep trying to keep raising my heart and mind to God?