On the 15th February I had the honour of sharing the launch of my book, Wisdom from the Christian Mystics with Kevin Grant, former editor-in-chief of the Catholic Universe and MD of the Catholic Herald, at the Athenaeum Club in London. His book ‘More Deeps Further Shallows’ is an engrossing work of poetry that you cannot help reading at a single sitting, but to which you feel impelled to return to time and time again. What follows below is the first part of my address that sums up the essence of my book. The second part will be published next week. Both have been published in The Catholic Universe.
Most of us have a favourite aunt, mine was the BBC once affectionately known as Auntie, to whom I used to listen for hours when I was a small boy. Sadly the Auntie Balance who I knew and loved so well died many years ago, but in her prime she was wonderful and all her programs were, as Muriel Sparks would have put it, the Crème de la Crème. Long before I became a teenager I used to love Children’s Hour. Every day I would rush home from school to listen to my favourite programs like Toy Town, The Box of Delights and the boy detectives series Norman and Henry Bones; and then it was Dick Barton and Paul Temple. When I became a teenager with intellectual pretensions I used to love listening to the sharp mind of the renowned professor of moral philosophy, Cyril Edwin Joad on the Brains Trust, cutting the pretentious down to size. On one occasion, a bishop on the program began to wax eloquently about the moral teaching of the New Testament “Whether you are a believer or not,” he said, “you must accept that Jesus Christ has given the world the most sublime moral teaching that it has ever known. If only we lived by it the world would be a far better place.” Professor Joad’s answer was immediate. “Poppycock, rubbish, nonsense. ” he said. “Jesus Christ has given the world a moral teaching that no one can possibly live by. If anyone tries to live by it, as you suggest, they will not only fail but their repeated failure will lead to utter disillusionment and despair. Go back and re-read the Gospel, and you’ll see precisely what I mean.”
“The Gospels say, do they not, that we should be perfect as God is perfect: that we should not only love each other as we love ourselves, but as Jesus, the supposed son of God, said he loves us; that we should love not only our enemies, but forgive them seventy-times-seven, as he did. Further to this, we should love those who would persecute and even put us to death. Trying to do this will inevitably guide anyone so misguided as to take them seriously, to disaster. They would lead to spiritual and psychological suicide, unless the believer threw in the towel, as so many do, and settled for being just a nominal Christian. The trouble with you Christians is, that you fill your schools, colleges, seminaries and your universities with teachers who propound a moral teaching, that they have failed to live by, and which their students will also fail to live by too. Inevitably by teaching such impossible standards, that neither they nor anyone can possibly live, they teach a way of life that is nothing but a recipe for disaster. That is why so many end up as guilt-ridden hypocrites.”
Who do you think was right, the bishop or the agnostic? I side with the agnostic and so do the Gospels. The bishop would have seen this if he had only read the Gospels as well as the professor. However, even the professor had not read them thoroughly, or he would have seen that the Gospels say many times over and in many different ways, “For men this is impossible; for God, everything is possible” (Matthew 19:26). Politics may well be the art of the possible, but Christianity is the art of the impossible. The impossible becomes possible because of the unique genius of its founder. Jesus Christ was not primarily a moral philosopher, let alone a new Socrates, a Jewish Seneca or even a Christian Marcus Aurelius. He was a Prophet, the last and greatest of all Jewish prophets. His predecessors had seen some of the truth – he saw the whole truth that nobody had seen before him and few would see with such clarity after him. He came to proclaim loud and clear – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – beginning with the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth is that the love that everyone desires, but only experiences partially and for some of the time in this life, is to be found fully and for all the time in God, because God is love. With love of this power and magnitude all things are possible that are quite impossible without it.
The teaching that Christ leaves then, is not primarily a moral teaching, the most sublime moral teaching that the world has ever known, but a mystical teaching This teaching imparts the hidden or secret knowledge that shows how to access and how to tap into the inner spiritual or mystical power that makes the impossible possible, as it did for him. That is why he is primarily a mystic, the first and greatest of all mystics because he received and experienced this inner mystical love that made him the most mature and secure human being ever to have walked on this earth, able and capable of not just proclaiming the truth but living the truth in all he said and did. Read the Gospels and you will find the impossible made possible time and time again, by a man radioactive with ultimate love. Christianity then is primarily a mysticism not a moralism.
Christ was not just the greatest prophet, but the greatest mystic too, not only because he received and experienced ultimate love, but for something else too that is of vital importance for us. He was able to transform the divine love that he received in such a way that it could be transmitted to other human beings. I have a small 12 volt kettle that I used in my car to save me from the coffee-flavoured dish water that they used to sell in motor way service stations. One day without thinking I plugged it into the mains by mistake – there was a flash, a puff of smoke and the smell of burning as my kettle completely disintegrated, and I lost my hair, my looks and my confidence – my career as a supermodel was in tatters! But I learnt a lesson – 240 volts will not go into a 12 volt receiver Nor, and this is the point I want to make, can infinite love go into a finite receiver either. That is why before Christ, contact with God would mean instant destruction. That all changed with his coming, because in him the divine and the human were one. That is why he could transform infinite love from his divine being, into human love in his human being. Then he could transmit it to other human beings empowering them to do what is quite impossible without it.
Read the Acts of the Apostles and the other works of the Fathers of the Church that detail how this love generated an unprecedented quality of goodness, and truthfulness that had never been seen before. It determined how they lived and how they died.
Read the Acts of the Martyrs and you will see time and time again how they blessed and prayed for those who persecuted and informed on them, and then forgave their torturers, as they were torturing them, and their executioners as they were putting them to death, making the impossible possible by the mystical otherworldly power of love at work within them. When, while awaiting her execution St Felicity was screaming with the pains of childbirth her jailer said, “If you scream like that now what will it be like when you are thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.” “Now she answered it is I who suffer, then it will be another who suffers in me.” It was this other, who so supported her that she said not a word while she was being scourged before being thrown to the wild beasts who tore her to pieces.
Similar heroic manifestations of faith accompanied the final moments of Christians condemned for the faith that we can take so easily for granted, as you can read for yourself in the acts of the Martyrs. There was for all of them a hidden mystical power and energy within that made the impossible, possible. It was in this way that a pagan Roman Empire was transformed into a Christian Empire in such a short span of time. Not by fear or force of arms but a fearlessness and faith, and by a pure other-considering goodness and commitment to the truth that was both inspirational and infectious.
This mystical life and the mystical theology that explained it was the foundation that underpinned Christian spirituality in subsequent centuries, making it the leaven that gave it life, the salt that gave it savour until it was all but destroyed four hundred years ago by a counterfeit mysticism called Quietism that was condemned by the Church in 1687. Next week I will explain what this heresy was, its evil effects, and how they are now being overcome thanks to the ‘New Spring’ that Cardinal Newman spoke about, but never lived to see as we will!
David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from The Christian Mystics was published on 26/01/2018 and is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk If you would like to hear the podcast of his talk you will find it on launch podcast