Many years ago when I used to run courses for school leavers, I used to begin by asking the boys and girls to tell me when they were last really happy. I remember one boy said that it was when he was fishing with his father, another when watching one of his favourite films, and yet another when he was playing football with his friends. One of the girls loved a day of retail therapy with her mother, another loved playing the piano, not for her exams, but for the sheer pleasure of it. Finally one girls said her happiest moments were spent on holiday with her boyfriend. Strangely enough it always used to take them a long time to see the common denominator – the reason why doing all these different things had given them all so much pleasure. For a greater or less period of time they had been so absorbed in something, or someone else, that they simply forgot about themselves. In the discussions that followed they usually came to the same conclusion, namely that, this happiness could be found and perpetuated more in loving someone else than in anything else.

In the first Christian centuries no one sought to live for themselves, but for God and for his honour and glory alone. All authentic prayer of whatever sort ends up here, as did the prayer of Jesus. That’s why the first Christians learnt to seek God not for what they could get out of him, but for himself alone. Seeking God for what you can get out of him was an unfortunate development that came later, thanks to the influence of Neo-Platonism. However on occasions, but rarely, you do find expressions like ‘sober inebriation’ or ‘spiritual intoxication’ to express interior spiritual feelings that sometimes occurred while taking part in the liturgy or in prayer. You can find words like Apatheia or Ataraxia too, words borrowed from Stoicism. They are used to refer to the inner peace and tranquility experienced at the outset of contemplation. You find words like spiritual transportation too, as these inner states of repose become ever more intense and raise believers up and into experiences similar to those that St Teresa of Avila would later call the Spiritual Betrothals or the Mystical Marriage. However I have only mentioned them to make the point that they were only very rarely used – Why? Because the whole emphasis of early Christian spirituality was not on oneself, but on God, and on his good pleasure, not one’s own. The faithful did not seek out mystical experiences to give themselves pleasure, they sought out God to give him pleasure. Their whole aim and the whole object and direction of their spiritual life was not to seek their own honour and glory, but the honour and glory of God. It was in doing this that they, like any lover who lives for another, forgets themselves. Then, freed from self-absorption and the misery that this brings, they experienced the joy of living for another.

Whenever a person seeks pleasure for its own sake or rather for their own sake, then the happiness that they hoped it would bring usually eludes them. This is what eventually began to happen when, after several centuries of seeking God for himself, the influence of Neo-Platonism began to encourage believers to seek mystical experiences for themselves, for their own personal pleasure, and gratification. When this insidious trend began to infiltrate Christian prayer in subsequent centuries, otherwise good and well-meaning believers were encouraged to adopt simplistic verbal techniques with the promise of instant mystical contemplation.

This did not happen for the first Christians, because they simply followed the example of Jesus that they put into practice every day of their lives. That is why they said the Shema, as he had done, three times a day. In this ancient Jewish prayer they continually committed themselves to love and serve God throughout every moment of every day, without any thought of what was in it for themselves. God and God alone was the object of their prayer, not what they could get out of him by way of exhilarating and esoteric experiences. This was true of the other prayers that they learnt from Jesus too.

The Jewish religion is a domestic religion, it finds is deepest realization in the home, in the love that is generated there and the prayer that is shared there. This is still true today as it was in the time of Jesus. It was here that he learnt another form of prayer that perfectly complimented the Shema. This prayer was called the Berakah. Like all primitive languages a single word contains within it many different meanings that only become apparent as the language develops. This is true of the word Berakah. When Jesus made this prayer to his Father it was made to give him thanks, blessing, praise, worship, adoration, and all honour and glory. It meant all these things together. It was learnt in the home and used during meals, especially on the Sabbath, and on the great feast days like the Passover. It was used in the synagogue too and on whatsoever occasion a person felt moved to thank, praise or give glory to God for what he had done in the past, and is doing in the present, and what he had promised to do in the future. Jesus said this prayer with his disciples when they had formal meals together most especially at the Last Supper.

When the bread and wine was first consecrated it was consecrated in the middle of this prayer. That’s why, when his disciples continued to do what Jesus had done and told them to do in memory of him, they actually called this new act of Worship the Berakah, at least for a time. When the common language of the Roman Empire became the common language of the early Christians, they called it the Eucharist after the Greek word for thanksgiving, because no single Greek word contained within it the fullness of meaning contained in the original Jewish word that it was used to translate. This is a shame, because the new word failed and still fails to convey, what is involved in what we now call the Mass. It is the same act of worship that Jesus shared with his disciples that involved giving thanks, praise, blessing, and worship, adoration, and giving honour and glory to God, and receiving his blessing in return, as it still does today. The most perfect and the most profound meaning of the new Christian Berakah, that embodies its ultimate purpose, is contained in the last words of this prayer, as it was used by the early Christians, and as it is still used today. The words are these:-‘Through him, with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever’.

Writing about the early liturgy, at the beginning of the second century, St Justin said that the great Amen which was the response of the faithful to these words nearly raised the roof. For these words did not just represent the whole meaning of the Mass for them, but the whole meaning of their existence. The ex-prime minister Gordon Brown was once asked what love meant for him, and he answered by saying that it is when another person’s happiness is more important than one’s own. It was exactly the same for the early Christians. Their love of God meant that he came before themselves. He came before their own pleasure, their own gratification, before their own happiness, before their own honour and glory. It was for this that they lived and for this that so many of them died, enduring some of most appalling deaths imaginable. The Berakah that they had first said with Jesus before teaching it to others, became for them a daily prayer that complimented and completed the Shema.

One of the first new prayers or hymns composed by the first Christians, that beautifully includes all the spiritual themes contained in the Berakah, was said or sung at dawn every morning. It was used to remind them of the purpose for which they were offering the forthcoming day to God – for his honour and glory not their own. This prayer has remained with us to the present day. We call it the Gloria which is still recited at the beginning of the Mass. However it was originally recited or sung after communion, as the perfect response after receiving the glory of God within them through Jesus.

The by-product of such selfless giving of themselves to God, was rewarded by God giving himself to them as he had done to Jesus. Like Jesus then, they began to experience the love of God that St Paul said surpasses our understanding. We are so used to seeing Jesus depicted on the cross that we forget that he described himself as a man of joy, the joy that he promised for those who would follow him. It was this that would enable them to become infused with the inner peace that at all times possessed him. No wonder people flocked to the early Christians, begging to be a part of the brotherhood and sisterhood that they could see for themselves was so alive and vibrant, so full of joy and peace. This joy and peace was the fruit of the deep mystical experience of God’s presence that was generated within them. This experience was not sought, it was the natural by-product of living and loving each day for the honour and glory of God. Nor was it ever emphasized, it was an intimate and private matter, as is the love that bonds a husband and wife together. They do not talk let alone or brag about it.

The experience of true love is only ever given, not to the person seeking pleasurable experiences for themselves, but to the person seeking to give pleasure, fulfilment, and happiness to the one they love. The great mystery of God’s love for us is that, although he demands that we love him by giving him praise, thanksgiving, blessing, and all honour and glory, it is not for his benefit but for ours. It does nothing, nor can it ever do anything, to further his own happiness, his own fulfilment, or his own honour and glory. And herein lies the secret of God’s selfless plan for us all. For it is in encouraging us to love him, though he gains nothing for himself in doing this, that we receive everything that we could possible hope or dream for. This is the real measure of the height and depth and the length and breadth of God’s love – the love that surpasses the understanding.  Deo Gratias ad infinitum!

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