Next morning I wrote a postcard and ambled across to the post office to send it to my friend, Sheila who introduced me to Peter. I had too much to say and too little time to say it. My prevailing state of spiritual euphoria prompted me to write two dramatic words on the card, ‘Paradise Regained’. It was a stunning day that seemed to combine a summer’s heat with a spring-like freshness. Peter clambered clumsily out of his boat in which he had rowed to Barra from his island retreat, Calvay. He invited me to sit with him on the jetty, remarking that it was a beautiful day. I told Peter what had been going on inside me during the last twenty-four hours. I could not explain adequately what I knew was an incommunicable experience, but I knew Peter would understand what I was trying to say. He did, and even rubbed his hands together in a hardly restrained expression of childlike glee. He then began to explain.
Only lip service to the importance of Prayer
If only everyone could see things in their true perspective. If we could only see what the true priorities are, we could have our utopia almost overnight. The sad fact is that the very people who ought to be able to point the way with a steady unwavering hand have let the side down. It is a hard thing to say, but I am afraid it is true. We have only been paying lip service to the importance of prayer, to the absolute priority it ought to take in our lives. That is why we have had little or no effect on the contemporary world. You see, once you admit that prayer is merely the word we use to describe the practical way we go about allowing God’s love to enter into our lives to change us, and through us others, you have to admit that prayer is the most important thing in our lives. Nothing is more important than God’s love, because only his love can change human beings decisively and permanently for the better. No man-made machine can do this, however sophisticated its design. No purely human power can do it, not even nuclear power. We may be brimming over with ideas and ideals for ourselves and for humanity, but something further is required if we are going to be more than armchair idealists. It is all very well to talk about caring for the deprived and the neglected, stamping out racial prejudice, helping the Third World, creating authentic community, working together to prevent climate change, but it is all eyewash, it is all pie in the sky, unless our hearts are changed radically from within by God’s love. This is the only power that can change us, and prayer is the only direct means we have of coming into contact with the power of his love.
The problem is not with our heads but our hearts
The point I am trying to make is that, by and large, all of us know what we ought to do in our day-to-day relationships with others. Our problem is that we do not do it. Our main problem is not with our heads, but with our hearts. It does not take a spiritual Einstein to name and analyze the perfect qualities that should characterize the ideal other-considering person, but that will not get us very far. It is all very well to say that we ought to listen to others with genuine concern, to enter into them, to try to feel for and with them, but how on earth do we do this? That is the question. Books have been written trying to analyze the model moral behavior of Christ, to put all his actions under a microscope so that we can examine in detail and in slow motion his exemplary dealings with others. But how will this help us do the same? They may fill us with admiration and inspire us to follow – that is their strong point, but their weak point is that they never show us how.
Christianity is not primarily a moralism but a mysticism
Let me try to put what I am trying to say into a nutshell. Christianity is not primarily a moralism, it is a mysticism. It is not primarily concerned with teaching us every detail of perfect human behaviour. It is primarily concerned with communicating the love that will enable us to be perfectly human. Once love has made us perfectly human, then perfect human behaviour follows as a matter of course. The Gospels show us how this happened in Christ’s life and promises that it will happen in ours too, if we will only allow God’s love to possess us as it possessed Jesus. Our main concern is to be permeated by the love that was the mainspring of his every action; to be penetrated by the same Spirit that was the source of all he said and did.
If you want to play the part of Henry V in a Shakespearean production, it is not enough to learn the lines and rehearse the gestures that you think would be appropriate to fit them. You may get away with that sort of thing in the annual school play, but you would be laughed out of court in a serious production. The role would appear for what it is, disjointed, inarticulate and contrived. Henry would appear more a caricature than a genuine character. If you want to play the part effectively, you must not only learn the words, you must also study the man, get to know him, learn to love him, enter into him and let his spirit enter into you. Then you will be able to play the part effectively because he will come alive again in you, and his spirit will animate you. When this takes place, you will no longer need to work out artificial gestures and movements; they will happen naturally, as if they were your own because they will be your own. This is what I mean by saying that the Gospels present us first and foremost with a mysticism. They invite us not just to copy a man who completely embodied perfect human behaviour but they urge us repeatedly to allow the same Spirit who animated him to animate us.
God’s Love – His Holy Spirit
Authentic Christian spirituality does not begin with a cold and calculated determination to acquire virtue after virtue, as an athlete acquires medal after medal. It begins with the full-blooded endeavour to facilitate the invasion of our lives by the same love that filled Jesus. When the same Spirit that animated his every thought, word and deed begins to possess us, then the spiritual life has begun in earnest, and that same Holy Spirit will gradually become the principle of all we say and do.
“Just to be clear,” I asked Peter, “What do you mean precisely by the Holy Spirit?” Peter answered me with conviction.
Human beings are made of body and spirit, so when we love, our loving is both spiritual and physical at one and the same time. However, God has no body, so when he loves, he loves with his spirit alone. As a mark of reverence, therefore, his love has traditionally been called The Holy Spirit. The spiritual life is the expression used to describe a new way of life, adopted by someone who wants to start turning towards God regularly in order to receive his love or his Holy Spirit.
“How do we start?” I asked suddenly. “Where do we begin?” I was like a little boy all keyed up and ready to go. Peter had been busily squirting jets of oil on the flame that he lit within me the previous day. Peter began to explain.
We start by coming to realize more fully the truth, and the truth is that we are completely incapable of maintaining even a semblance of consistent Christian behaviour without the love of God or his Holy Spirit. Unless we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, we would have a moral breakdown; our spiritual lives would simply collapse. Prayer is simply the word that the Christian tradition uses to show how we radically open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit then is nothing other than God’s love that we first see made flesh and blood in the human body of Jesus Christ on the first Christmas Day. His daily contemplation of his Father enabled Jesus to receive his Father’s love into his human nature in ever increasing measure, gradually transforming and transfiguring him into the most perfect human being ever to have walked on this earth. Contained within the love that he received from his Father were all the infused virtues that overflowed into every part of his being and then into everything that he said and did.
Infused love and the infused virtues
In order to make this love available to us he unleashed it onto and into the Apostles on the first Pentecost Day. Then it was poured out onto the vast crowds who listened to St Peter on that day and then on all who would make themselves open and ready to receive it on every subsequent day to the end of time. God’s love, his Holy Spirit that possesses every part of Christ’s now glorified body, is continually pouring out of him. It continually pours out of him and into all who are open to receive it through an ever deepening prayer life. It is this prayer life that leads to and into the contemplation that Jesus practised while he was on earth and continues to practise now that he is in heaven. This is why and how we can receive all that made Jesus Christ into the most perfect person who ever lived. It is precisely because, by being drawn up into his contemplation of the Father, that we too are therefore open to receive all the infused virtues that we see being exercised to perfection in Jesus while he was on earth.
The Apostles, the disciples, and all who came to know Jesus while he was on earth also came to love him. It was this abiding love for Jesus while he was on earth that enabled them to be taken up into him now that he is in heaven, and into his mystical contemplative loving of his Father to receive the same love he received in return. Now you can see that true Christian Meditation is designed to do for Christians who have never known Jesus personally, what was done for those who did know him personally in the beginning. Through coming to know him by reading the scriptures we would come to love him. As all genuine love wants to be united with the one who is loved, so eventually, like those who originally loved him while he was on earth, our love will lead us up and into him in the act of loving his Father now that he is in heaven, to receive the same fruits of contemplation that he received.
Peter suddenly looked at his watch, exclaiming that he had said enough for the morning and it was time to have something to eat. I needed a break too, not just to have my lunch but to reflect on all that Peter had just said.