Transformation by God
An Introduction to Christian Mysticism
The word Mysticism is used to describe the experience of the divine life as it gradually develops in a person who is open to receive it. Almost all the main world religions have developed a mystical teaching. It is designed to help every serious searcher to go beyond the simple religious practises of the beginner to experience the action of God, who gradually makes His presence felt within. The way to Christian mysticism leads beyond the mere saying or recitation of prayers to meditation. Then onward to contemplation, which is the word used to describe the sort of simple prayer that enables a person to experience the hidden or mystical action of God making His presence felt within. In Christianity it is always Jesus Christ who is the object of meditation, but at the beginning of the mystic way, it is always God who is the object of contemplation. The believer therefore begins to wonder where the humanity of Christ has gone. The truth of the matter is it has gone nowhere, it is we who have gone more deeply into Christ’s humanity where, in, with and through Him, we are praying and offering ourselves to the Father. Now our prayer is more powerful than ever before even though we may not feel that we are praying at all. The person who remains faithful in this prayer becomes ever more open to receive the inflow of God’s Holy Spirit, who begins a profound purification. This enables us to be more at one with Christ in His act of loving the Father than we have been in the past, and more open to receive from the Father the Love that draws us relentlessly onwards into the life of the three in one.
You see unlike things cannot unite, the selfish cannot be united to the selfless. That’s why we have to be purified so that we can be united with God and come to experience the fullness of Love that we desire more than anything else. The beginning of the mystic way then is not full of sweetness and light, but of bitterness and darkness, because we are not yet purified enough to experience His presence, but only the presence of the sinfulness and selfishness that keeps Him at bay. That’s why so many people pack up prayer at this stage, wrongly believing that they are on the wrong path.
Now at this particular point in the journey a person not only sees their sinfulness as never before, but also their utter helplessness to do anything about it. The experience is not meant to turn a person away from God, but to turn them to Him, as the only One who can help them. However this purification takes some time, months or even years, depending on commitment to prayer, before they can begin to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit preparing them for union with God.
Waiting on God is easy when He seems to be close at hand listening to all we have to say and granting any request that we make of Him. That’s what’s called cupboard love. But the real test of love is when we are prepared to go on loving, go on giving, go on waiting when he seems far away, when He doesn’t seem to be listening at all, or granting what is asked of Him. St John of the Cross makes it quite clear that anyone who perseveres in prayer will inevitably come to the place where one has to wait on God in darkness amidst dryness and aridity.
Here there will be, not only many distractions but temptations too, against faith, hope and love. When there’s no experience of the presence of God for prolonged periods of time you begin to ask, not just where is God, but is there a God, and if there is no God, what hope is there? Only the person who is prepared to persevere waiting on God despite these temptations will be purified and refined in such a way that they are ready and prepared to receive the One who comes when you least expect Him. Then His love will gradually transform them into the One they have chosen to follow.
In order to grow to full stature a human being not only needs to see and accept their weaknesses, but to experience the love that will enable them to become the person they aspire to be. That’s why, when a person has persevered long enough in the ‘Night’ to show they are more interested in God than what they can get out of Him they are at last open to receive the powerful mystical love that they need. The experience of this love is so delicate to begin with that a person is only aware that they would be spiritually diminished without the prayer that seems so full of dryness and aridity. Then in what St Teresa of Avila calls the prayer of recollection a gentle absorption in God brings a sense of inner recollection and peace despite the distractions.
This same experience increases as the awareness of God’s action rises in intensity to what she calls the prayer of quiet. Then when the intensity increases to the point where there are no longer any distractions to hinder absorption in God she calls it the prayer of full union. This is ultimately surpassed when the intensity of God’s love cannot be sustained and moments of oblivion or ecstasy occur. These experiences of divine love have a profound effect on the receiver who is never quite the same again. It not only effects them personally but others too, who see something of the One whose love they are receiving at work within them. Despite these brief but awesome experiences they are but the prelude to a far more permanent experience that doesn’t just take place in the head, but envelops the whole person, body and soul. This is sometimes called divinisation or theosis in the Eastern Church. In the west it has been called the transforming union or the mystical marriage.
Now marriage is not the end of love but a new beginning that should deepen and deepen, in this case to eternity. In this, the ultimate experience of God’s love on earth the whole person, heart and mind, body and soul, tangibly feels something of the love that draws them into the vortex of life and love that endlessly revolves between the Father and the Son. This profound mystical experience gradually becomes permanent.
In experiencing this sublime union some of the fathers of the Church believed that we could glimpse something of the ever-deepening ‘conscious ecstasy’ that is our ultimate destiny. In order to express the inexpressible as best he could St Gregory of Nyssa added the Greek pre-fix ‘ep’ to the word ecstasy to make the new word Epecstasy. The force of this word means that we are called not just to ecstasy, but to continual ecstasy, to go out of ourselves again and again as we are endlessly transported out of ourselves and into God to eternity. God’s love is inexhaustible and so therefore is our journey into it and our experience of it, that is only limited by our capacity to receive. This capacity is itself continually expanded by what or rather whom it receives.
The beginning of this ongoing and ever deepening ecstasy is experienced even now in this life then for the person who is prepared to journey on come what may in the Mystic Way. This will not only help them to experience something of the mystical love that Jesus continually experienced whilst on earth, but it will also give them something of the same inner strength that He received too. It will progressively impart the inner power and vitality needed to live the sort of exemplary Christ-like lives to which we all aspire, and which is the only ultimate test of any authentic spiritual life.
There is therefore only one way forward for the serious searcher, who wants to be transformed into Christ in this life and to share to eternity in the life that continually flows between Him and the Father in the next. That way forward is, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, to pray and to enter into the profound mystical experience of love unlimited that alone can bring this union about and never to be deceived by anyone, who tries to point you in another direction.
NB The ideas expressed in this summary can be found at greater length in David Torkington’s books, details of which can be found on this website.