When I was a student I stayed with a lecturer and his wife in London. There were six other students and a young psychology lecturer called Mark, all staying in the same house. Mark and I found we had a lot in common and, before I realized it, a deep friendship had grown up between the two of us. He was a brilliant lecturer and I often went with him to the many outside engagements that he accepted. Wherever he went, he would always begin by belittling his own competence, assuring his audience that he felt sure they knew far more about the subject than he did. If the contents and delivery of his material hadn’t blatantly belied his preamble, you couldn’t have blamed his audience if they had walked out before he’d finished. I think it was what I originally took for genuine humility in Mark that initially drew me to him. It was only later that I came to realize that he took a morbid delight in denigrating himself. It was only because we had grown close that I was able to ask him why he always had to apologize for himself, run himself down in front of others. “I suppose I’ve got what we psychologists call a security problem,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, as if it wasn’t of any consequence. “I suppose I’m a classic case!”
I could tell he wanted to talk, so I just kept quiet. He told me something about his childhood, about his parents, how they’d done their best for him, done everything for him that they thought was right. They loved him; there was no doubt about that. However, because of some Victorian ‘hang-up’ they were prepared to go to any lengths to avoid spoiling him. They shunned all manifestations of affection. He was never kissed, never caressed, never held close or cuddled; all physical expressions of love were prohibited, even though it went against the grain. Naturally all this came out during his training. As he looked back over his past, he could see quite clearly, without a shadow of doubt, that his parents loved him. He was absolutely convinced of it; but they’d never shown their love; he had never experienced it, and that made a difference – a big, big difference to his life. Because he had not received love, he found it difficult to build up friendships, difficult to let others love him, never mind love them. That is why he felt insecure and behaved so immaturely on occasions. He was quite aware of his character problems and knew the reasons for them. But as he explained himself, knowledge alone is not enough. It may give you insight into yourself, but it does not give you the power to change.
‘Knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge alone will never change anyone permanently for the better. But the experience of being loved will!’ Look at the life of Jesus. He became the most secure, the most mature and lovable human being that the world has ever known, not just because he knew his Father loved him, but because he experienced his Father’s love at every moment of his life. So far I have shown how the followers of Jesus, both before and after the Resurrection, said their daily prayers at least five times a day just as he had done. However there was another form of prayer that gave Jesus immediate and direct access to God and to the experience of his love that was not open to them – at least from the outset. There was no sin or selfishness in him that could prevent this direct contemplative ‘vision’ of God and the experience of God’s love that accompanies it. So in addition to, and alongside his daily prayers, he had this profound mystical relationship with his Father whose love therefore continually sustained him and suffused his vocal prayer with supernatural power and efficacy, as well as everything that he said and did. That’s why Jesus is the first greatest Christian mystic.
If this mystical and experiential relationship with God was to be open to his followers, then they would have to be united with Jesus through love. For it would only be in him and through him that this love could be experienced by them too. That’s why in addition to daily vocal prayer, the first Christians were taught to do something that Jesus never had to do. In short they were taught how to meditate. They were taught how to meditate, how to reflect and how to ponder over all that Jesus had said and done. Then gradually as they persevered, the sparks of love would flicker into a flame. As, in all lovers, this awakens the desire for union that would lead them into true Christian Contemplative prayer, where in, with, and through Jesus they would come to experience the love that had continually possessed and supported him throughout his life on earth.
The prayer regularly recommended for the various hours of the day for the first Christians then, was not only vocal, but mental prayer too, meditating on the life of Jesus, most particularly on his death and resurrection. This method of prayer was far more alive, far more vivid than the meditation many of us remember that was ‘inspired’ by the so called ‘meditation, manuals’ that once served the faithful in the recent past.
Ancient peoples had prodigious memories. Voluminous works like the Iliad and the Odyssey for instance, were handed on for centuries by word of mouth long before they were written down for posterity. So also was the major part of the Old Testament. When Jesus preached, even the least educated of his listeners would have understood his continual illusions to it, much of which they had not only heard from their regular attendance at the synagogue, but committed to memory too, with so many other stories and family reminiscences that were told and retold, as they gathered around the fireside. Before literacy was commonplace, everyone’s memory was a personal library from which wisdom could be drawn to fire the imagination.
The first part of the Mass, called the synaxis by the first Christians, was based on the old synagogue service where readings from the Old Testament would be followed by readings from the New Testament, as and when they were written, showing how the former was fulfilled by the latter. Then in the first century, congregations would be enthralled, listening to speaker who had known Jesus personally. Sometimes it might even be an apostle who would fire the imaginations of his listeners and whose words would be stored away, never to be forgotten, and used to inspire future generations who had not known Jesus personally. A saint, and eventually a martyr like Polycarp for instance, who had personally known St John and listened to his recollection of Jesus, handed his reminiscences on to the faithful in his sermons until his death in 155AD, well over a century after the death of Jesus himself. And these were in their turn handed on by his pupil, St Irenaeus into the following century. And there were very many others too, who were also heirs to the oral tradition about Jesus, whose words lit up the scriptures with pictures of the man who fulfilled them. They fired the imaginations of ordinary men and women and transformed their meditation with vivid heart-felt aspirations and desires.
It is important to realise that the love generated in meditation cannot unite a person with the Jesus of History. You cannot be united with someone who once lived in the past, no matter how you may have been able to fall in love with their memory. That is why it is at this moment in the spiritual life that the love for the Jesus of History is transposed into the love of Jesus in Majesty, Jesus as he is now in glory. The love is the same and so for that matter is Jesus. The only difference is, that all that you loved him for in the past has now been brought to perfection in his glorification. Further to this, his glorification means that he is present here and now to every believer simultaneously, in a way he never was while he was on earth. While on earth he was limited by the physical body that limits him no longer. That’s why the Jesuit mystic de Caussade talked about what he called the ‘sacrament of the present moment’, because this is the only time when time touches eternity, the only moment when through love we can experience the eternal love of the Father, as Jesus did, and for that matter still does. If this isn’t good news what is?
The reason why so many people give up mental prayer at this point in their spiritual journey is because compared to the emotional heights that they experienced in meditation, whether they prayed with others, or alone, the beginning of contemplation suddenly seems to leave them flat. The full mystical contemplation of God, in with and through Jesus, initially seems black and bleak compared to the sweetness and light that prevailed before. It is the beginning of what St John of the Cross calls ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ what others have called ‘The Prayer of Naked Faith’ or ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ or as St Catharine of Siena called it ‘The House of Self-knowledge’. She called it the ‘House of Self-knowledge’ because it is here that a person gradually sees within them all the sin and selfishness that never prevented the pure unimpeded contemplation that continually sustained Jesus. According to St John of the Cross 90% of people now forsake mental prayer through ignorance, and lack of competent spiritual direction. But those who persevere are gradually purified most especially of the love tainted by the self- seeking that impedes their selfless love of God. To expect that we can be united with Jesus, to experience his Father’s love, without a profound spiritual purification, is simply nonsense.
It was only because the first apostles, the martyrs, the mystics and the saints persevered through purification, that the love that filled Jesus filled them, enabling him to live and love again through them. It was this that enabled them to change an ancient pagan world into the Christian world of our forefathers. What was done in their day can be done again in our day. Once again, but not for the last time let me say – More mystics please. Because we not only need to know that God loves us, we need to experience that love too! That makes all the difference, all the difference between the part time or nominal Christians that most of us are, and the full time, totally committed Christians that we have all been called to become: The other Christ’s, who can alone do in the pagan world that we live in today, what the first Christians did for the pagan world that they lived in in their day. More mystics please!