St Catherine of Siena

Love and Happiness

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 us 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.  The Ancient Roman Empire was so astounded at the quality of love that animated the first Christians that in little more than three centuries it was converted into a Christian Empire. Nobody could see the love that was the wellspring that energised and excited them because it was generated by the Holy Spirit working unseen, deep within them. That is why it was called ‘mystical’, from the Greek word that simply means hidden or secret. But this love could be seen as it rose up from deep within them to overflow into everything they said and did, making so many great saints and martyrs. They bore witness to the fact that Jesus whom they loved and worshipped was not dead but alive. Mystical Theology is the name given to that branch of theology that teaches us how to receive this God-given love. The Church is always alive and well when inspired from within by those we call mystics who try daily to do all in their power to receive this love.

The Council of Trent and love

For one hundred years after the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) the teaching of mystical theology was so widespread and so practised in the Catholic Church that it was the dominant force to both implement and sustain  its reforms. Perhaps the greatest Catholic  intellectual genius of the last century, Monsignor Ronald Knox put it this way in his life’s work, the remarkable book Enthusiasm:-

“The seventeenth century was a century of mystics. The doctrine of the interior life was far better publicised, developed in far greater detail than it had ever been in late-medieval Germany or late-medieval England. Bremond, in his Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, has traced unforgettably the progress of that movement in France. But Spain too, the country of St Teresa and St John of the Cross had her mystics. Italy also had her mystics who flourished under the aegis of the Vatican. Even the exiled Church in England produced in Father Baker’s Sancta Sophia a classic of the interior life” (Chapter XI).

No Moral Theology without Mystical Theology

As long as the teaching and practise of Mystical Theology reigned supreme, all would be well with the Church. For her sublime moral teaching, based on the teaching of Jesus can only be lived by those who are inspired by the same mystical love that inspired and animated Jesus himself. For one hundred years after the Council of Trent all went well, until a terrible calamity took place that would all but destroy the inner spiritual life of the Church down to the present day. It was a heresy called Quietism that promoted far and wide a pernicious perversion of the mystical teaching that had  for so long been the life blood of the Church. The father founder of this heresy was a Spanish priest called Molino who lived in Rome, but his teaching had tentacles that reached out all over Europe. He had obviously been influenced by the reformers, because he insisted that in prayer everything so depends on God and on him alone that we can do nothing at all, but sit like  lumps of dough waiting to be soaked in syrup. Further to this, as we can do nothing without God, we cannot do anything about temptations either, but give in to them, until God decides to rid us of them. As this included sexual temptations it led to gross indecency by Molino himself and by his followers. This did not just include sins committed in the imagination and in the mind, but with the body and with one another too. This led to Molino being convicted, not just of heresy but of gross sexual indecency many times over, and for giving the green light to others to follow his example while deceiving themselves  that they were on the mystic way.

Monastic imprisonment for life

The whole of Catholic Europe was  so shocked and scandalised by his condemnation to monastic imprisonment for life in 1687, and the evil done by his  false mysticism, that Catholic vigilantes rose up everywhere. They  inaugurated witch hunts to hunt down and harass his followers throughout the Catholic world. These vigilantes were unable to distinguish  between good traditional mystical theology and its counterfeit, so the baby was thrown out with the bath water. All forms of prayer that had the slightest whiff of Quietism about them were crushed and the Gospel of good works alone was promoted together with a harsh Catholic Calvinism otherwise known as Jansenism. Inevitably the profound mystical prayer that taught people how to love in such a way that they came to know and experience the love of God, simply fell into abeyance. Sadly for  the Jansenists the love that inspired the Gospels had been ‘lost in translation’.

Where saints are made out of sinners

Mystical theology is that branch of theology that teaches how the love of sincere Christian searchers is gradually prepared for union with Christ. It teaches how this union is brought about through a profound inner purification so that we can finally become one with him, not just with his person, but with his personal action: In other words in his mystical contemplation of the Father. Take yeast, salt and sugar out of bread and what is left but an unwholesome indigestible lump of dough. Take the  purification that leads to selflessness  out of love and what is left but an unwholesome self-centred nobody who is going nowhere. This purification  takes place in the mystic way where saints are made out of sinners and where great spiritual leaders are formed to lead us back to the contemplation that dispels darkness and bathes us in the light of God’s love. Without the inner mystical  contemplation that was called into question after the condemnation of Quietism, we will be going nowhere. In his monumental History of the Church Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way:-

 “The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.”

The Mystical Theology that was previously taught side by side with Moral Theology was taught no more in novitiates, seminaries and houses of religious education. When Bishop Patrick Joseph Casey asked me to run his diocesan retreat and conference centre in North London,  I made a survey of all the priests and religious who came there for over ten years. It struck me to the core, for I found that thanks to the ongoing effects of Quietism none of them had any training in personal prayer never mind mystical theology. One young Franciscan said that in seven years of training he was given no training  at all in personal prayer and if mystical theology was ever mentioned it was seen as a joke. If anyone tried to take it seriously   they were warned that ‘Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism’ – a slogan coined by our friends the vigilantes many years ago. When I continued the same survey when I lectured in Rome in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties I found the same ignorance of Mystical theology from priests and religious from all over the world.

Cataclysmic sexual scandals

If  celibate priests and religious are deprived of the teaching that enables them to come to know and experience the love of God, then the disasters that we have seen everywhere in the Church in recent years  were bound to happen.St Thomas Aquinas said that if a person does not come to know and experience the love of God then they will seek illicit love elsewhere.If you think that the cataclysmic sexual scandals that are hitting the headlines at present is the fake news perpetrated by the secular media, then listen to the Catholic media, watch  EWTN news each evening and you will hear the truth. I have been writing these columns for months to detail traditional Catholic spirituality and mystical theology. I have avoided referring to the current sexual scandals in the Church so far to avoid giving scandal in the vain hope that with a return to traditional spirituality they can be undermined. I see now that this was indeed a vain hope, so in future I will not shrink from mentioning  what everybody knows anyway, as part of my call – ‘back to the future’. Then, armed with the profound mystical spirituality that animated Jesus, the first and greatest mystic of all, and those who followed him, everything will become possible. For with love all things are possible, even converting  a pagan world into a Christian world in such a short time. Only closed and hardened hearts can prevent him from doing today through us what was done before through his first followers.

That is why St Catherine of Siena said, “The problem with the world is me.” When we all begin to say the same, and then begin to open our hearts to Love as she did, then the world we all want to live in  will have begun to rise from the ashes of selfishness and self-seeking that has all but destroyed it.

These themes can be found in David Torkington’s recently published book. Wisdom from the Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way


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