Many years ago Bishop Casey of Brentwood, England, asked me to set up a Residential Retreat and Conference Centre in Chingford, London. He wanted to use it as a place where priests, religious and laity could come to learn about the Biblical Theology that had made the Second Vatican Council possible. I made it my prime objective to recruit the best and most qualified lecturers in the country to this end, from whom I too could learn with everyone else. One particular theologian was outstanding in his mastery of what we then called the New Biblical Theology, although he was initially trained in Thomistic Theology in Rome where he received the highest degree possible, a summa cum laude. I therefore approached him with my misgivings about the demise of Mystical Theology. Until four hundred years ago its practical teaching from the very beginning was the bedrock of authentic Catholic Spirituality. His answer shocked me to the core. “I am afraid I know nothing whatsoever about Mystical Theology.” he said. His mastery of the teaching of the great scholars whom I had read and respected, whose teaching was responsible for the initial success of the Second Vatican Council was second to none. How, therefore, could he say that he knew nothing about Mystical Theology? It took me some time to realise that what he said could have been said by each one of them too. It finally dawned on me that I had found no deep understanding of Mystical Theology in any of their writings.
It was evident that they too had been influenced, like the rest of us, by the anti-mystical ethos that pervaded Catholic spirituality in the last four hundred years or more. Suddenly I began to see why the great document on the liturgy that meant so much to me in the beginning, failed to have the dramatic influence on renewal that we all hoped and prayed that it would. It was a masterly reconstruction of the ancient liturgy as practised by the first Christians, adapted for the modern world. However, the liturgy is the outward communal expression of the profound daily spirituality that animates the community, and from which it draws its power and strength. Nothing was done in any of the Conciliar Documents to complement the document on the liturgy by uncovering and explaining the vibrant and all-consuming mystical spirituality of the first Christian communities, and adapting and recommending it to modern Catholics. This profound mystical spirituality and the theology that explains it is of such importance that I want to say more about it, much more about it, because it is the leaven that gives the liturgy its life, the salt that gives it its savour.
It has always been believed that happiness depends on love more than on anything else. The greater the love, the greater the happiness. Yet for some unaccountable reason it does not always occur to people that, like everything else that is worth achieving, loving must be learnt. Far from being an exception to the rule, learning to love is more difficult than anything else, because human beings are insatiably selfish and learning to love means learning to be selfless. Mystical Theology is the study of how we learn to practise being so selfless that we are not only able to love others as never before, but also to yearn for, and to experience, the source of all love that resides in God. Take Mystical Theology out of Christian spirituality and you are left with laws, rules, regulations and rituals, and a moral teaching that is beyond reach. Take love out of the married or the celibate life, and people begin to seek substitutes that can be disastrous to themselves and to others, as we know only too well.
Only love, not our love, but the love of God working through those who are taught how to receive it, can lead to the perfect loving that leads to happiness. If you wish to know the meaning of life then, you will find it in mystical theology. That is why Pope St John Paul II chose to study the teachings of the great Mystical Doctor of the Church, St John of the Cross, for his doctoral thesis. He was, like me, deeply influenced by the great Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, perhaps the greatest spiritual theologian of the twentieth century who taught him at the Angelicum University in Rome. His masterwork The Three Ages of the Interior Life, well over a thousand pages long, synthesises the works of St John of the Cross with the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas. Following in that tradition I was invited to lecture on Mystical Theology myself in the extra-mural department of the Angelicum in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties.
I want to share with you what I have learnt about what came to be called the New Biblical Theology to further the understanding of this synthesis, while at the same time emphasising what theologians of this movement have sadly neglected in the past: That is the daily mystical spirituality given by Christ himself to the early Church. This is of vital importance because it is upon this that the communal expression of life in Christ celebrated in the liturgy depends for its inner life and vitality. Bringing this spirituality back again for all has been the focus of very many years of study. I would now like to share the fruits of that study with you in this and in subsequent articles. Let me begin by explaining the meaning of the word mystical so that there can be no further misunderstanding.
Before the Resurrection Christ had a physical body like us, so inevitably only a few privileged followers could pray with him at a time. However, after the Resurrection when he assumed a mystical body that was no longer limited by space and time, everyone could enter into him at any time and in any place, to pray not only with him, but in him. That is why this new form of prayer came to be called mystical, from the Greek word meaning hidden or secret. It was called mystical because it took place within the mystical body of Christ and because it was therefore hidden from all but God to whom this prayer was addressed, in, with and through Christ. The continual daily effort, come hell or high water, that enabled this prayer to become purer and purer came to be called the mystic way, because it generates a quality of love that can mix, mingle and finally merge with the love of Christ. In this way, weak human love is suffused and surcharged with the love of Christ in such a way that it can rise to God to be received and returned in kind. A mystic therefore is a spiritual adult, who is prepared to persistently persevere in prayer when the fizz and pop of first fervour evaporates. It is here in the darkness where dryness and distractions abound, that selfless loving is learnt in endless selfless giving, that seems, at least at first, to receive nothing in return. Gradually, however, this selfless loving enables us to be united with the selfless loving of Christ where we are taken up into the loving that has always revolved between the Father and the Son from all eternity.
Those who are prepared to do this are the mystics that we need to bring about the Kingdom of God’s love here on earth. It is they whom we all need, because they become the spiritual leaders, guides and directors, and the ‘saints in the making’ who can alone renew and reform the Church, as they have done in the past with the same love that was poured out on the first Pentecost day. Mystics, therefore, are the people who, like spiritual aqueducts convey the elixir that gives people life, which irrigates the land to sustain it, and then creates the environment that can propagate it, offering a future where there seemed to be no future before. We need them and we need them now to inspire us with hope before we are destroyed by hopelessness. They are the other Christs who we need more today than perhaps at any other time in history.
The mindless spiritual iconoclasts who inaugurated the anti-mystical witch hunts many centuries ago, may well be dead and gone, but the corrosive mistrust of Mystical Theology still remains. It must be finally put to bed so that the inspired teaching of the great saints and mystics, and those who perpetuate it today, can lead and guide us onward though selfless loving to the selfless receiving of the only love that can make all things new. If you want to make a New Year’s resolution that can change you beyond your hopes and dreams, and through you the world around you – do I need to spell it out? As St Catherine of Siena used to say, “The trouble with the world is me”. In his recent radio interview, Prince Harry quoted Edmund Burke who famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
If only we would all do something, he insisted, then in 2018 the world could become a far better place. So what about you? The mystic way is open to all. Or perhaps I should be saying, what about me?
The themes in this article are detailed in far greater length in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from The Christian Mystics which was published on 26/01/2018 and is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk