There are rare moments in everyone’s life when there is a sudden flash of insight that strikes like lightning, so swiftly that it defies measurement. It leaves a microscopic vision that expands in your mind like the ripples from a stone tossed into a pool. This happened as I sat down in the Presbytery to reflect an all that Peter had said after he returned to his hermitage on the small adjacent island. I thought myself enlightened. I had long ago tossed aside the dead hand of the institution that always tends to emphasize the law, guaranteeing its own survival rather than the love for which Christ had founded it. I talked of love, but where I was going to conjure it from, I had no idea. I noticed that the trendy exponents of the conventional wisdom became rather vague and woolly at this point. They assumed that once the child in us was released, then the mature adult would emerge, and fountains of inner energy would flood into our conscious mind, bringing liberation, a profound inner security, and moral equilibrium. Marcus Aurelius would ride again by kind permission of modern psychology!
The dynamic rays of God’s inexhaustible love
With Peter’s help I had come to realize that there is only one source of energy to revitalize human beings. It is only when the dynamic rays of God’s inexhaustible love begins to permeate the very marrow of our innermost being, that we receive the strength to stand upright and grow, to ripen and bud under its influence, and finally to open out to blossom forth. Without this source of light, we have no more chance of growing than a drooping geranium in a dark room. We can only begin to expose ourselves to the Light if we are fundamentally convinced that we cannot grow without it. This is why the proud, the pompous and the pretentious will never be able to see the direction of the Light, let alone expose themselves to it. Once we see clearly that the spiritual life begins with God, everything else begins to slot into place. It does not begin with us trying to love him, or other people for that matter, but with trying to allow his love to burst into our lives. If we first seek the Kingdom of God’s love then everything else will fall into place. Only when this process gets under way properly will we be radically and fundamentally renewed to love him in return, create community and enter into others in a way and on a level that we never envisaged before. All this will be possible not just by the power of our love, but because Another will live in us, and love with and through us.
Lord, teach me to pray
Now the way ahead seemed crystal clear. At least the central intuition of my vision remained; everything pointed in the same direction. There was now only one road for me to follow, only one way for me to go. All I had to do was to learn anew how to open myself to God, how to welcome his love into my life and how to experience that love throbbing within me. In short, I had to start at square one, to begin again to learn how to pray. Everything Peter said or implied, everything I had seen in my fleeting vision, led to this same realization. I started years ago along the road but had been continuously sidetracked. Thank God, at last I was being given the grace to cry out with all the urgency and heartfelt sincerity of a prodigal son, “Lord, teach me to pray!” I picked up Peter’s book on St Francis and began to read what he both highlighted and underlined about prayer in the hope that what inspired him would also inspire me. Let us reflect on the words that Peter has underlined.
St Thomas Aquinas defines Contemplation
In spite of the success of the new Mendicant Orders; the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Augustinians in the thirteenth century almost eight hundred years ago, or perhaps because of their success, many supporters of the monastic ideal began to attack the new Orders. They insisted that they should be subject to the same sort of monastic rule to which monks were bound with a vow of stability. They should therefore go back to monasteries and stop mixing with the people . In answer to these criticisms the great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas coined the slogan that perfectly summed up the very quintessence of all the new mendicant orders. “Our calling”, he insisted, “is to Contemplate and then to share the fruits of Contemplation with others”.
St Thomas Aquinas always explained exactly what he meant and never used a word out of place, carefully defining every key word that he used. He did not say that their calling was to pray and share the fruits of prayer with others, or even to meditate and to share the fruits of meditation with others, but to contemplate and to share the fruits of Contemplation with others. For St Thomas and for St Bonaventure who were fellow students at the University of Paris, Contemplation was a specific form of prayer that leads to the tangible experience of being loved by God. That is why this form of prayer makes all the difference. St Thomas defined Contemplation as a simple intuitive view of the truth accompanied by awe. The truth is of course that God is infinite loving and even to glimpse him from afar is to be enthralled with ever greater degrees of intensity the closer we draw to him.
This is a pure gift of God. However, God only gives this gift to those who have shown by their commitment to personal prayer, and more specifically to meditation where love is first learnt, that they are primarily there for God and not for what they receive from him. That is why daily perseverance in prayer, come hell or high water, is essential. It was for this reason that each of the new Mendicant Orders created far more space and time each day than the Monastic Orders for the deep personal prayer that would eventually enable the Holy Spirit to lead them into Contemplation. This is the profound prayer that was at the heart and soul of everything that Francis said and did. St Bonaventure makes this abundantly clear in his Life of St Francis:
“Francis learned in his prayer that the presence of the Holy Spirit for which he longed was granted more intimately when he was far from the rush of worldly affairs. Therefore he used to seek out lonely places in the wilderness and go into abandoned churches to pray at night” (Life chapter 10).
Contemplation is predominantly the work of the Holy Spirit
It is not easy to pray all day long as you travel, sometimes for hours from one preaching engagement to another, nor is it easy to meditate. But the Contemplation learnt in solitude is quite another matter because it is predominantly the work of the Holy Spirit . Precisely because it is the profound God–given experience of his all-pervading love, it requires no effort to experience it and to be sustained by it. The sources give many examples of Francis being enveloped in deep Contemplation on his travels. Sometimes he would pull his hood down over his face so that nobody would see the joy that overwhelmed him. It is the highest and most perfect form of prayer that is first learnt in set periods of time inside solitude until it gradually begins to irrigate every moment of a person’s life outside that solitude. It should not be surprising then, that in the eight hundred years since the death of St Francis over 80% of mystical writers were mendicants not monks. Franciscan hermitages were built precisely so that this sublime form of Contemplation could be learnt in month after month of solitary prayer. Even when they returned to their friaries, hours were expected to be given each day to sustain the only form of prayer that enables a friar to become a perfect apostle. In the early days legislation was not considered necessary to enforce what every friar knew to be the ideal, so it was over two hundred years before a specific time and place was laid down for prayer in the friaries. In 1465 the constitutions of John Macriforis, Vicar General for the Nuremberg province laid down that:
“After Compline and Matins the friars are to remain in church for prayer, after compline for an hour, and more after the midnight Office until half past three.”
This was the minimum to which all had to conform. More time was of course encouraged to enable a friar to be empowered by the same Spirit who sent out and inspired the Apostles on the first Pentecost. The success or failure of the mendicant friars in subsequent centuries was directly correlated to the quality of the prayer that sustained them. Peter told me that anyone who reads the history of the mendicant friars in subsequent centuries will see just how true this is. It is like a roller coaster with many ups and downs, and sadly another down is on its way. Fifteen years later I realised that Peter was not just a mystic but a prophet too.
We all need some solitude in our lives
What was said might seem interesting to the lay reader but not really relevant to them. Not so; the principle remains the same because we are all called to Contemplation but how lay people prepare for it will be different to those vowed to the priestly or the religious life. We might not have a hermitage nearby, but like Jesus we need to find an inner room, a garden, a peaceful place or a quiet church. If your Parish church is locked ask the Parish priest for a key. Or make a rota with other parishioners so that it can be open for prayer at certain times of the day. One way or another we all need what Montaigne called, ‘a little backroom untouched by others in which we establish our true freedom and chief place of seclusion and solitude.’ This may mean rising a little earlier in the morning, or even before we get out of bed. The adventure upon which we have embarked can be continued anywhere because everywhere is the One who loves us. And anyplace can be the place to receive and return what can alone satisfy and fulfill us beyond anything that we have ever conceived or imagined, even in our wildest dreams. One thing is for sure, anyone whoever they are can have their lives radically and permanently changed for the better by finding the time to come to know and experience God’s love in prayer.
I reflected on Peter’s final words to me, anticipating our next meeting. It is an ill wind that blows no good, so the hours of extra time we suddenly find available to us in these frightening times can change our lives and the lives of all those who are dear to us. If we only use them to open us up to the only Love that can transform us beyond all our hopes and dreams, then as Julian of Norwich put it, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”.