Salvator Mundi – Antonello da Messina

Let us imagine that a person is able to attain their wildest dreams and become a multibillionaire, an adored pop performer, a Nobel Prize winner, an Olympic gold medallist, a musical or artistic genius of world stature, or a literary giant who humanity has placed in the pantheon of all-time greats. Could anyone wish for more? The truth of the matter is, anyone, no matter how ordinary or insignificant they may see themselves, is capable of attaining incalculably more than their wildest dreams can ever promise, if they only knew it. The question is how? When you say through prayer, people usually turn off, as you are tempted to do now. The trouble is that they are fed up with being told to pray, most especially by people who have not taken their own advice. If they had, it seems to have done nothing for them, so why listen to them?

The first heart-felt prayer that most of us make is usually the prayer of bargaining with God, offering our good behaviour for his goodwill or for whatever we happen to need, or for whatever we think we need. I was always in trouble at school, particularly with the homework that I never seemed to do, with fighting in the playground, and when the school report was due, so I never stopped praying. I couldn’t really manage without it, even though my prayers rarely seemed to be answered.

A Natural Mystical Experience

 However, there was another sort of prayer that I did not even realise was prayer at all, until much later. We used to spend our summer holidays in our little cottage on the Yorkshire moors just below the mighty Ingleborough, which was the nearest thing I had ever seen to a mountain. I loved to watch and listen to the moorland birds. My favourite of all was the kestrel.  Kestrels were comparatively rare in those days, at least to a townie like me, so I watched it for hours hunting in the heather. I loved the peat moorland and the majestic Ingleborough towering over our little cottage. No other landscape has affected me more deeply, perhaps because it was my first love, and there is always something special about your first love. I loved that land where my forebears had lived for generations before me, but on that day I had a strange experience, as I gazed at the ‘Windhover’ balancing on high. It was as if something from that landscape was reaching out to envelop me in a way that I could not put into words, so I never tried. The further the kestrel floated away on the wind, the smaller it became, and the more it drew me in within myself and made me ever more open and sensitive to receive the sense of presence that raised me up above myself.

From the beginning, mystics have always found that some sort of fixed point, real or imagined, can help concentrate the mind and heart on what they desire more than anything else. I suppose this was the first natural mystical experience that I had ever had, although I did not quite know what it was at the time – I just knew I wanted more of it.  To my great disappointment I discovered that it was even rarer than the bird that drew me out of myself. So I don’t want to give the impression that my youth was strewn with mystical experiences, because it was not, but they did come to me frequently enough to make me wonder and pause to reflect on their meaning

 The raising of the heart and mind to God

 When I went to senior school we were taught that prayer was ‘the raising of the heart and mind to God’, so I thought that perhaps that is what I had been doing on the moors. I did not have the courage to ask the priest who taught us, because what I had experienced seemed so personal and private, and anyway, I did not want the other boys to think that I was soft, so I said nothing. I was later to discover that these experiences, far from being unique to me, were common to most people especially in their youth.

As far as I can remember my early spiritual life was composed of two parallel worlds – the world of religious experience and the world of mystical experience that had developed side by side without ever meeting in any way that enabled one to make sense of the other. The world of religious experience was specifically Catholic. It was the world of Sunday Mass and weekly confession, of days of fasting and abstinence, of special feasts and holidays. It was the world of Catholic schools, of catechism to teach me my faith and show me how to live it, of apologetics to show me how to reason round it and explain it to others, of annual retreats to set me alight in the Church with what bored me to death in the classroom.

Natural Mystical experience and Religious Experience

 The world of what I called my mystical experiences was not specifically Catholic at all. It was an experience that I had in common with others, other Christians of different traditions to my own, with Muslims and Jews, with Buddhists and Hindus, with Gnostics and Agnostics and for that matter with Atheists too.  They all seemed to have access to the same experience that I had at first thought was personal to me alone, though they all interpreted it according to their own religious or non-religious convictions. When I reflected on it, I thought it strange that I had never experienced through the practice of my Catholic faith, what I had experienced on my beloved moors, through my favourite music, or on those nights when I would gazed for hours at the star-studded sky, experiencing what had made me mourn for days, without knowing for what or for whom I mourned. There had been occasional ‘feelings’ that had filled me with a certain peace of mind after a ‘good confession’, or a sense of goodness as I walked home after early morning Mass, or was it only smugness? My emotions had been moved from time to time during parish missions, or at the singing of the Credo at Lourdes, or at the Easter Blessing in St Peter’s Square, but never anything to compare with those profound and personal experiences that did not depend on the rites and rituals of the Church into which I had been brought up.

The romantic poets and the ‘Numinous’

 These two streams of experience seemed to have trickled through my early life side by side without ever converging, at least not in any way that I could understand. The priests who taught us our religion never gave the slightest hint that what I had experienced had anything to do with the faith that seemed so important to them. Nor did the priest who introduced us to the romantic poets ever suggest that the sense of the ‘Numinous’ that inspired them had anything to do with our spiritual lives. Nevertheless, we were all profoundly moved, and felt we could identify, when  the priest who taught us English read the following passage from Wordsworth’s poem composed above Tintern Abbey: –

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round oceans and the living air,

And the blue sky, and the mind of man.

When one of the students asked whether the poet’s experience through creation, was one and the same as the One whom we encountered through the sacraments of the Church, the priest became defensive. He went on to warn us that such ideas could lead to a form of Pantheism that had been condemned by the Church. It might have been the first time, but it wasn’t the last time that a member of the Church’s hierarchy gave the impression that there was something, if not wrong, then at least suspect about such forms of religious experience, not least because they were open to believers and non-believers alike. For my own part I had no doubt that there was something not only good, but also something sacred about them. I knew instinctively that what I experienced was the presence of God reaching out to me through his creation.

Philosophy, Theology and the Mystic Way

 When I studied philosophy, I discovered that Plato had said that what I had experienced came from the shadows of God’s presence in his creation.

When I studied theology, I discovered that the greatest of all his shadows in his creation is the love that people can find in each other.

When I studied mystical theology, I discovered how to experience this love, not just in others but in God himself, through Jesus Christ, who, as St John insists, is love – infinite love. This was the beginning of a journey, a lifelong journey that I have spent nearly fifty years writing about so that those who want to follow me can have a guide to help them along the way.

If you want to read what I have written begin with ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles’ then read ‘Wisdom from Franciscan Italy’ to see how all that had been said is perfectly embodied in St Francis of Assisi. ‘Wisdom from the Christian Mystics’ is the final major work just published. You can order them through Amazon. There is also a small work produced by the Catholic Truth Society that you should be able to pick up at the back of church called ‘Prayer made Simple’.

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