It only took a few months for Christ to become a massive celebrity who everyone wanted to see. The many miracles that he performed added to the hope that he could indeed be the Messiah they were waiting for, who would free them from domination by the Romans. But like any celebrity, they could not be with him all the time. Meeting him, speaking to him, and listening to him could, at best, only be for short periods of time. This was even true of his disciples who loved him dearly. However, all this was to change after the Resurrection. The same love that bonded them to him before his death, could be with them always when at the first Pentecost his love poured onto them and penetrated them through and through. This is why Christ could promise to be with them wherever they went, no matter what happened to them, and to the end of time, as their inner security and strength (Matthew 28:20).
Mystical Simply Means Invisible or Hidden
At the end of his Gospel St John quotes Christ as saying, “You believe because you can see me, but blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe” (John 20:29). It was to enable those who came later who, unlike his first disciples, did not know Jesus personally, that a totally new form of prayer was created. It was later called meditation. It enabled newcomers to meet Christ as he once was whilst on earth, by listening to the recollections of those who had known him personally. Reading what was written about him and using their imaginations and the memories of others and using their own hearts and minds, they too came to love Jesus as the first disciples loved him. Then, when that love was strong enough, the Holy Spirit was able to redirect it from the loving concentration on Jesus as he once was on earth, to the loving concentration on Jesus as he is now in heaven.
This new form of loving inspired by the Holy Spirit does not, as before, simply enable a person to gaze upon Jesus from the outside as he once was in our world, but enables them to be drawn up and into him as he is now in his world. It was this that enabled the first Christians to do at the very beginning of Christian spirituality, something totally sublime that we can also do now two thousand years later. The once distant God, whom no one could hope to have encountered ‘face to face’ could now be encountered like never before. Why? Because the Holy Spirit had drawn them up into his Son Jesus Christ in whom, with whom and through whom they could first glimpse God’s glory, beginning even in this life, before entering into it in the next. In short, they could pray in, with, and through him to the Father who they can now gaze upon in another new type of prayer that came to be called mystical contemplation. The word mystical simply means invisible or hidden because it remains unseen to all but those who experience it.
In meditation then, it is Jesus Christ who is the object of prayer, but at the beginning of the mystic way, it is always God. The believer begins to wonder where the Sacred Humanity has gone. It has gone nowhere — it is we who have gone more deeply into the Sacred Humanity where, in Christ, with him and through him, we are praying and offering our sufferings with his, to the Father. Now our prayer is more powerful than ever before, even though we may not feel we are praying at all. The person who remains faithful in this prayer becomes ever more open to receive the inflow of God’s Holy Spirit, who begins a profound purification. This enables us to be more at one with Christ in his act of loving the Father than we have been in the past, and more open to receiving from the Father the love that draws us relentlessly onwards into the life of the Three in One.
Unlike things cannot be united; the selfish cannot be united to the selfless. That is why we have to be purified so that we can be united with God and come to experience the fullness of Love that we desire more than anything else. The beginning of the mystic way, then, is not full of sweetness and light, but of bitterness and darkness, because we are not yet purified enough to experience his presence, but only the presence of the sinfulness and selfishness that keeps him at bay. That is why so many people pack up prayer at this stage, wrongly believing that they are on the wrong path. Now at this particular point in the journey, we not only see our sinfulness as we never saw it in the past but also our utter helplessness to do anything about it. The experience is not meant to turn us away from God, but to turn us to him, as the only One who can help us by calling us to accept purification. However, this purification takes some time, years rather than months, depending on a commitment to this new form of prayer, ‘mystical contemplation’, before we can begin to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit who is preparing us for union with God.
Waiting on God
Saint Catherine of Siena said that if you do not have any patience at all, it is ten to one you do not have any other virtues either that are worth writing home about. She insists that true patience can only be found through prayer. She does not just mean praying for patience, although that is a good start, but practising patience inside of prayer itself. Most of us give up mystical prayer before we have really started because nothing happens, and we are too impatient to learn how to wait on God. No matter where you begin or how you progress, the time will come when you have done all that you can do, and then you have to learn how to wait on God. It is here that a person learns by practical experience that it is not they who are in control, but God. He comes when he chooses, not when we choose. Our job is to be ready at all times to receive him.
That is called cupboard love. But the real test of love is when we are prepared to go on loving, go on giving, go on waiting when he seems far away when he does not seem to be listening at all or granting what is asked of him. Saint John of the Cross makes it quite clear that anyone who perseveres in prayer will inevitably come to the place where one has to wait on God in darkness amidst dryness and aridity. Here there will be, not only many distractions, but temptations too, against faith, hope, and charity. Only the person who is prepared to persevere, waiting on God despite these temptations, will be purified and refined in such a way that they are ready and prepared to receive the One who comes when you least expect him. Then his love will gradually transform us into the One we have chosen to follow.
Experiencing being Loved
In order to grow to full stature, we not only need to see and accept our weaknesses but to experience the love that will enable us to become the person we aspire to be. That is why, when we have persevered long enough in the Night to show we are more interested in God than in what we can get out of him, we are at last open to receive the love we need. The experience of this love is so delicate to begin with that we are only aware that we would be spiritually diminished without the prayer that seems so full of dryness and aridity. Then, in what Saint Teresa of Avila calls the Prayer of Recollection, a gentle absorption in God brings a sense of inner peace despite the distractions. This same experience increases as the awareness of God’s action rises in intensity to what she calls the Prayer of Quiet. Then, when the intensity increases to the point where there are no longer any distractions to hinder absorption in God, she calls it the Prayer of Full Union. This is ultimately surpassed when the intensity of God’s love cannot be sustained, and moments of oblivion or ecstasy occur.
These experiences of divine love have a profound effect on the receiver, who is never quite the same again. It not only effects the person personally but others too, who see something of the One whose love is being received at work within. Despite these brief but awesome experiences, they are but the prelude to a far more permanent experience that does not just take place in the head, but envelops the whole person, body, and soul. This is sometimes called divinization or theosis in the Eastern Church. In the West, it has been called the Transforming Union or the Mystical Marriage.
Into the Vortex of Eternal Loving
Now marriage is not the end of love but a new beginning that should deepen and deepen, in this case to eternity. In this, the ultimate experience of God’s love on earth, the whole person, heart and mind, body and soul, tangibly feels something of the love that draws them into the vortex of life and love that endlessly revolves between the Father and the Son. This experience gradually becomes permanent. At last the prayer without ceasing becomes attainable, as the believer continually experiences the joy of being caught up in the mutual love that endlessly flows between the Father and the Son. It almost feels as if the life of the Three in One opens to admit a fourth.
Sharing Fruits of Contemplation
We might be brimming over with ideas and ideals 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 neglected, stamping out racial prejudice, welcoming the refugee and bringing peace and harmony to all, while rescuing the world from all that man has done to diminish and destroy it. It is not enough! The truth is that it is all ‘pie in the sky’ unless our hearts are changed from within. God’s love is the only power that can permanently change, not just our minds and our hearts, but the way we act, for the world that Christ wants to continue serving through us. That is why our vocation is so perfectly summed up in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, ‘to contemplate and then to share the fruits of our contemplation with others’. The fruits of contemplation are the same fruits that we see embodied in the life of Jesus, his inexhaustible love and goodness, and all the virtues and gifts they generate so that he can now continue to do what he began to do at the beginning of his life, but now through us through whom he has planned to change our world.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way, and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love. See www.davidtorkington.com