When Christ came, it was to announce something that no other religion had ever taught, nor any other religion taught since. Namely that the ultimate power, the ultimate energy the infinite source of all creation, is not some impersonal super-power, but infinite love, no, infinite loving. Love cannot exist without a lover. Before time began, Christ was the recipient of his Father’s love. He was inextricably caught up in a mystical maelstrom of loving that flowed to and fro between him and his Father from all eternity. When human beings love their love is both physical and spiritual, but God has no body, so he loves with his spirit alone. As a mark of respect therefore, tradition has taught us to call his loving, The Holy Spirit. Jesus not only came to tell us this, but to enable us to receive this loving for ourselves. So when, after the Ascension he returned to where he had enjoyed his Father’s love before, he returned not just as a divine being, but as a human being too. Now his human being could, and did, become a transformer capable of converting the powerful voltage of infinite loving into human loving, in such a way that it could be transmitted to other human beings. When this love became embodied in human loving it manifested itself in a remarkable quality of loving that the world had never seen before. The loving was there for all to see in the way that they lived out what they believed and in the way that they were prepared to die for it. Pure unadulterated goodness attracts human beings as honey attracts bee’s .In no time at all a pagan Roman Empire was transformed into a Christian Empire.
The Way the Truth and the Life
These first Christians knew that the love that poured out of the Risen Christ drew them all back into him, into a mystical family, to embark on a journey, back to the loving God, whom they had been taught to call Father, to whom all their prayer was ultimately directed. Their prayer was, like the prayer of Jesus himself perfectly embodied in the first of the New Commandments that Jesus had taught. In short every moment of every day of their lives was centred upon learning how to love God their Father, with their whole heart and mind, with their whole soul and with their whole being. When at the Last Supper Philip said to Jesus, “But Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus answered, “Do you not know that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” The starting point for their journey back home then, was to come to know and then to love Jesus, the Way the Truth and the Life.
From Meditation to Mystical Contemplation
In order to do this, they had learned the scriptures, or at least the new testament off by heart. Before the printing press people had prodigious memories. Greek bards, poets and professional story tellers knew the Iliad and the Odyssey off by heart, just as their Jewish counterparts knew the Old Testament off by heart too, for hundreds of years before they were written down. Their continual meditations on the life of Jesus were indelibly imprinted on their minds and imaginations, and in technicolor too, thanks to the vivid stories of those who had known Jesus personally both before and after the Resurrection. You could hear a pin drop as speakers would set the community alight with their reminiscence of the man born to be king. These readings and these stories would have filled them with a living and vibrant love of Jesus, and of all that he had said and done. Now love always wants to go further than mere knowledge, it wants to have communion, union, with the one who is loved. But as you cannot have union with a person who is dead and has been buried – the love for Jesus that was generated lifted them up and into Jesus, as he is now, after the Resurrection. Now it was in with and through him that they came to gaze up at the Father in a simple uncluttered prayer that was later called contemplation. Because this simple gaze upon God is unseen by onlookers it came to be called hidden, secret, or mystical contemplation.
The Making of a Mystic
The spiritual journey that leads a believer onward through meditating on Jesus, as he once was, to contemplating the God in with and through him, passed far more smoothly for the early Christians than for many of their descendents. The reason why, is because there was an abundance of wise fellow travellers, who had gone before them, who were able to guide them through the inevitable purification that all must undergo. For, sullied and selfish human beings can not be united with a perfect selfless human being. However, with the demise of mystical contemplation that followed in the wake of the ant-mystical witch- hunts after the condemnation of Quietism (1687), the supply of wise directors dried up. Suddenly there were very few who could guide beginners through the purification that must take place before obscure contemplation blossoms into pure contemplation and so the vast majority tended to give up, unable to go back to how they prayed before, and unable to go further. It was for this reason that I wrote the Peter Calvay Trilogy in three separate books before publishing them together in one volume called – ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles – The making of a Mystic’.
Now Here’s the Good News
Although the journey into God in prayer passes through many different phases it is essentially the same action. It involves trying to observe the first commandment, as Jesus himself did throughout his life on earth and after his Resurrection. I say trying because what ever means are employed to this end, we continually fail, as distractions repeatedly thwart the traveller. However, the good news is that St Teresa of Avila said you can’t actually pray without distractions! If you have no distractions, then you have either fallen asleep or are in an ecstasy! If you have fallen asleep you are doing nothing, and if you are in an ecstasy, God is doing everything. Prayer is in the middle, between the two where we daily try to keep turning back to God despite the distractions that would prevent us. Learning to pray then, learning to open ourselves to God, is like anything else, it needs practice and it takes time. There is no accomplishment of any worth that I know of, that you can attain merely by desiring to have it. We think nothing of spending hours a day, and working for years to get a degree, pass an examination or attain certain qualifications. And we quite rightly accept as a matter of course that the time we give and the energy we expend is necessary. Somehow we seem to think that prayer is an exception, but believe me, it is not. Like any form of learning, responding to God’s love is initially difficult and burdensome until, with continual practice, it becomes easier and easier until ‘practice makes perfect’. Practice eventually ‘makes perfect’ because as we turn to God we enable his love to enter into us, permeating our being with his beingand fusing our acting with his.
Try, Try and Try again, but Try Gently!
However the way a person tries must demonstrate the deeply held conviction that success ultimately depends, not on their action, but on the action of God. If we find that we are getting angry, because we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, it’s because we think everything depends on us but it doesn’t, it depends on God. When we have learnt this, and the patience that humbly awaits his action, then God’s love will eventually begin to act within us like never before. That’s why I like to qualify the word ‘trying’ with the word ‘gently. The word ‘gently’ describes the way we ought to try, in other words, in such a way that we know that without God’s action entering into ours, failure will be inevitable. Harness these two words together and you have what I think is an ideal definition of prayer as – ‘gently trying to love God with our whole hearts and minds and with our whole strength and with our whole being’.
Pray as You Can, not As You Can’t
Now in order help a person to keep turning away from distractions and back to God, Christian tradition has devised many different forms of prayer. Now there are no perfect means of prayer. There are just different means to help a person to keep turning and gently opening their hearts to God. The important point to remember is that there is no magic formula, no infallible method or technique. There are just many of different ways of prayer to do one and the same thing. A means of prayer is good for you, if it helps you, here and now to keep turning your heart back to God. What might help you at the beginning of your spiritual journey may be of no use later on. What helps you in the morning might not help you in the evening. What helps you one minute might not help you the next. So please move from one method to another with complete freedom. Beware of the here today and gone tomorrow gurus, who have a fixation about a particular means of prayer, which they enjoin upon everybody without question as a ‘panacea’. They know nothing about the spiritual life. If they did they’d know that methods of prayer change as people change and as prayer develops with the years. Remember the words of Dom John Chapman, ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’. However the first Christians found that meditating on the sacred scriptures was the preferred means of launching them into prayer as I have tried to show, and this should always hold pride of place. But through the years when reading the scriptures was impossible or frowned upon, devotional exercises or set meditations often took their place. People like my parents were able to reach the heights of mystical contemplation, without ever realizing it, through using the rosary.
Nevertheless, whatever forms of prayer a person chooses there will still always be distractions, so don’t be discouraged. The journey into God can be described as a journey from selfishness to selflessness. When we become selfless then there’s nothing to prevent God’s love from totally possessing us. Because there was no selfishness in Jesus, he experienced mystical contemplation at every moment of his life on earth. In him there was never any barrier to the love that continually poured into him and which gave him such joy(Jn 15 :11-12). If we turn away from fifty distractions in fifteen minutes we are in fact performing fifty acts of selflessness. This is how a person can learn to become a more selfless human being and therefore more open to the love of God that found no barrier in Mary or Jesus. That is why St Angela of Foligno said that ‘prayer is the school where we learn to love God’, and that’s why St Teresa of Avila said :-“There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray, if anyone points in another direction then they are deceiving you!” And they are aren’t they?