For many of us the first brief glimpses of God came through His creation. It might have been through a beautiful sunset, a breathtaking stretch of countryside. It might have come through gazing upon a single blade of grass, an insect crawling through the undergrowth, or a caterpillar climbing up a rose bush. When your contemplation of creation enabled you to experience the Creator, you found yourself drawn inward. It was as if some soothing sedative stilled your mind and heart and made you mourn for your Maker, as for a lost friend. And yet this strange melancholy was as sweet as it was sad and you wanted it to go on and on to envelop you more and more completely. Once this had happened, you no longer needed to gaze at the scene before you, you could close your eyes and still savour the mysterious presence. The physical senses and the feelings and emotions that depend upon them have no part in what now becomes a predominantly spiritual experience.
When the experience vanishes, as it always will, the heart mourns for what has been lost. The restless heart that yearns for love unlimited is a commonplace experience for the young, who have been ‘touched’ in this way. When, like St Augustine they eventually begin to realise, or are taught, that the fullness of God’s love on earth is ultimately to be found in His Masterwork Jesus Christ, it is the beginning of a new departure in their spiritual journey.
St Jerome said that, “to be ignorant of the scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ,” so it is now the time to turn to the sacred scriptures, and follow the practice of the Desert Fathers and the most ancient and hallowed traditions of our faith, reading and re-reading everything that Jesus said and did in the Gospels. This is the only way to come to know and love the Father, made flesh and blood, in the Son, for as William of Thierry said, “You cannot love someone unless you know them”, but he adds, “You will never really know them unless you love them.”
Gradually, when meditation leads to contemplation, all one wants to do is to gaze lovingly and with fewer and fewer words on the One, who has given us all and everything that really matters. Words travel between separate parts, but in the perfect one there is perfect silence and spiritual bliss. However this is not the end of the journey, but again a time for yet another departure. This time through contemplating the divine in the human, a yearning for the divine alone and the fullness of love, becomes irresistible. When this begins to happen the physical senses can no longer feel anything as they could before. They cannot experience the One who is beginning to draw their hearts onwards towards Himself, and so their human feelings simply fall away, just like the boosters on a spaceship, as the magnetic pull of the planet to which it has been directed draws it mysteriously towards itself.
Compared with the powerful emotions and passions aroused in adolescent prayer that they have just left behind, the return of the mysterious Presence, which they first experienced through creation, seems so subtle, and so delicate. They can’t rest in God as they would wish, nor do they seem inclined to rest in anything else with any satisfaction. However there can be no going back. The feelings and the emotions of first fervour will never again return to support them in the same way. The time for meditation is over. Now a believer must learn to draw all their spiritual resources together and concentrate on the mysterious love that has already touched their hearts. In order to do this, learn from and be reassured by the words of St Bonaventure, one of the greatest of all Franciscan scholars and mystics, as he encouraged other mystics to journey onward in his spiritual masterpiece the ‘Itinerarium mentis in Deum’ or ‘The Journey of the Mind into God’:-
“Push on bravely friend,” he said, “toward mystical union, abandon the workings of the senses and the operations of the reasoning faculty, leave aside all things visible and invisible and cleave as far as possible to the One who transcends all essences and all knowledge. In this immeasurable and absolute elevation of soul forgetting all created things and liberated from them, you shall rise above yourself and above all creation to find yourself within the shaft of light that flashes out from the divine and mysterious darkness.”
Let’s assume that you follow this advice and go on giving yourself to God in prayer, as faithfully and as consistently as you did when you experienced powerful feelings and emotions supporting you. To begin with, your prayer will be characterised by darkness accompanied with endless distractions and temptations. They will ravage your restless heart, drawing its attention away from the Presence for which it yearns. Then, when you least expect it, the experience of Presence returns. The experience arises from within, and it seems to come and go quite irrespective of anything you do, apart that is, from patiently waiting in an otherwise drab and dreary prayer life, that seems to be full of nothing but a thousand and one distractions that pick and paw at your mind from the inside. When the experience of Presence returns the distractions do not totally disappear, but they are not as noticeable as before, as something or rather Someone begins to absorb your attention.
In time and with perseverance and with other suggestions that I will detail later, this subtle experience will become more and more regular and more deeply engrossing. It is exactly the same experience that preoccupied the poets and the natural mystics, except that it now becomes a far more regular and dependable experience for the person who consistently creates the right inner dispositions of mind and heart to receive it. It is not as capricious as it was before, and it comes and goes quite independently of the outer senses that are now of no more help, and can only hinder the prayer that could have helped before.
Gradually this same experience becomes more and more engrossing, and absorbing, so that you find yourself drawn into a deep recollection that is not of your own making. Then, at a moment when you least expect it, the experience becomes more and more intense and you are raised to a far higher degree of awareness than ever before. The deep, deep absorption of the mind and the heart in this new consciousness is often preceded by a lifting sensation in the head, and a gentle sliding back into the recollection that preceded it when the experience has peaked and run its course. On other occasions, even this experience pales into insignificance as another ‘touch of God’ raises the heart and mind with such sudden power and force that you don’t know what has hit you. You not only feel yourself being raised up with tremendous force, but you feel yourself spiralling, spinning upwards to rest at such a high degree of consciousness that you know you can go no further. At least you know you can go no further whilst retaining consciousness. This is not the end of the spiritual journey, but the end of all I have time to say now. Next time I want to write about the practical steps that should be taken by the person, who finds themselves at the beginning of the Mystic Way, for the methods of prayer that were helpful before will be of no further help anymore.