The final stage in the mystic way is usually called the Transforming Union or the Mystical Marriage. Now it doesn’t suddenly begin because God does something other than what he’s been doing all along – it begins because what he’s been doing all along finally destroys everything in us that’s been keeping him out. Many years ago I met a very holy Cistercian monk in his eighties. He told me that for over twenty years he had undergone a profound purification in the Dark Night. It was while he was ill in the Monastic Infirmary that suddenly all the darkness disappeared and he felt himself completely enveloped by the love of God and this experience never left him. Then, the next day, when he was about to receive Holy Communion, he told me that he heard a voice, as clear as a bell, and the voice said three times “Only you have been keeping me out.” Once selfishness has been sufficiently destroyed in a person then there is nothing to stop the love of God pouring in.
What was called Purifying love during the Night is called Transforming love at the end of it, not because it changes in itself, but because it changes what is in us. This Love that has been at work throughout the Night helps a person to practise the most important virtue of all, selfless loving. It is in the repeated practice of selfless loving that a person is able to offer the only sacrifice that God really wants, the sacrifice of a pure and open heart.
When you try to practise this virtue, you are in fact practising the three most important virtues of all, at one and the same time, known traditionally as the theological virtues – Faith, Hope and Love. When you selflessly try to believe in Someone whom you cannot see or feel or touch in the Dark Night, you are exercising the spiritual muscles of your mind that will generate a faith strong enough to move more than mere mountains. And when you try to love that Someone to the exclusion of all else, even though you seem to receive nothing in return, you are in fact exercising the muscles of your heart as never before. Then that heart can learn how to love beyond all human loving, and hope beyond hope, until it receives much more than it ever hoped for.
All the other virtues, like temperance and fortitude, which you can read about in the textbooks, are practiced repeatedly whenever you practice pure, selfless loving. In other words, you are practising fortitude when you have to go on giving and seem to be receiving nothing in return. You are practising temperance too, that doesn’t come easily to a self-indulgent human being, who’d far rather be sitting in front of the television, or drinking in the pub, or dining at the club. These and all the virtues are practiced automatically as the supreme sacrifice of selfless loving is continually offered to God through the prayer of the heart. It’s rather like an athlete who brings his whole body to peak perfection by working with weights in the gym. Each time he raises the weights he is exercising not just the muscles in his arms but the muscles in every part of his body simultaneously.
If vices are bad habits then virtues are good habits that have to be learnt and then brought to peak perfection by being exercised in the Night, as the spiritual athlete raises his heart time and time again through the prayer of the heart. As the heart is repeatedly raised and opened to the action of the Holy Spirit then He is able to penetrate and percolate through into the whole person, to facilitate the process of forming the ‘New Man’ out of the ‘Old Man’, in St Paul’s words.
Although the Holy Spirit is at work throughout the whole process, this work is done most perfectly when, at the end, with all obstacles removed, what was imperfect is transformed into what is now perfect. Just as the seven colours of the spectrum are sheathed within a single ray of light, so the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are sheathed within a single ray of His love that penetrates the ‘New Man’. In the Night, the ray of divine light brought darkness; in the Transforming Union it brings brightness. Whereas in the Night, the action of the Holy Spirit could only be experienced at brief moments in the mind or in the higher part of the head, it is experienced in the whole body in the Transforming Union as the divine life seeps ever more deeply into the human.
The feelings and the emotions that seemed to have frozen over in the Night, as if in some strange spiritual ice age return, as the fire of the Holy Spirit thaws them out to move and act as they did before the outset of the mystic way. As this transformation takes place and deepens, it gives back such security to those who had become so insecure in the Night that they feel like new creatures, like butterflies who have emerged from a chrysalis, as St Teresa of Avila put it. Only love gives a person the security that they need, only love makes them free, free of all the insecurities that have stifled their human growth from the earliest years. When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked what gave her such deep inner peace and security, she answered simply, “The certain knowledge that nobody can separate me from the love of God.” It is this certain knowledge that is the continual companion of the believer who has entered fully into the Mystical Marriage. The lives of the saints give one example after another of how a man or a woman, who has been transformed by the indwelling Spirit can do more for others in a matter of hours than an unpurified person can do in a lifetime. In them you can see the impossible made possible for the sake of God and his Kingdom, which is all that they want to live for in the future.
It does not mean an end to suffering, but it gives a new meaning to suffering that is quite unintelligible for those of us who are still dragging our heels in the foothills of the spiritual life. The suffering that they once reluctantly endured is now embraced and welcomed – it actually becomes their joy, because it becomes a means of expressing the love that they experience for God and for others, with whom they now wish to share it. It enables them to do for others, even those whom they may never meet or never see, something of what has been done for themselves. If their own hearts became like a prisms that enabled God’s love to be channelled into their whole beings, now their whole beings can become the prisms that enable that same love to be channelled to the world.