Introduction to Lenten Lectures

An Introduction to the Lenten Lectures

The Second Vatican Council was preceded by what was called the ‘New Theology’ that inspired it. This was in fact the very ancient theology that prevailed at the dawn of Christianity, but reinterpreted and re-presented, thanks to the ‘modern’ biblical, liturgical and historical research, that enabled this Council to take place. The sadness was that one vital branch of early Christian theology had been over looked by the scholars, who promoted the ‘New Theology’– that was mystical theology. The main reason for this was that, over the centuries the very word mystical has been debased, by the early influence of the Greek philosophy of Neoplatonism. As a result the word mystical is now primarily used to refer to psychological states of awareness and various dubious ‘mystical’ phenomena’.

This was not how it was used by the Fathers of the Church. St Paul called the central mystery of our faith The Mysterion. By this he means the fullness of God’s plan for humanity, revealed by Jesus Christ, to draw all who would receive it into his hidden or mystical life that he continually receives and returns in kind to his Father. Christians, who, by ‘carrying their daily cross’ and practising ‘the prayer without ceasing’ came to experience this mystical life in such a way that they could eventually say with St Paul, ‘I live, no it is not I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ These Christians came to be called mystics by the early Fathers of the Church, because of their single-minded commitment to entering into the mystery of Christ (The Mysterion), not because they had ecstasies or strange esoteric experiences. It was after being empowered by the experience of living in Christ that many of them gave their lives for him in what came to be called ‘red martyrdom’ and in what later came to be called ‘white martyrdom’, when the days of systematic persecution came to an end. Both of these ‘martyrs’ have been the supreme witnesses to the faith, inspiring their brothers and sisters to remain steadfast in times of persecution, and to reform in times of spiritual decline.

It was only in the aftermath of the Council of Trent (1545 -63) that the indispensable role of the mystic in the church was gradually undermined. This was, in the main, due to its counterfeit, Quietism. It carried the ‘via negativa’ of Neoplatonism to the ultimate extreme. The believer was not only encouraged to do absolutely nothing in prayer, but to do nothing about temptations either! It was thanks to the Church’s success in crushing Quietism, which was comdemned in 1687, and in promoting the Gospel of ‘good works,’ for fear that Catholics would fall into the enemy camp, that mystical prayer simply fell into abeyance. In his monumental ‘History of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way: ‘The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. …. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.’

In the years that followed nothing was done to repair the damage, and by the time the twentieth century had fully dawned, a resurgence of Neoplatonism had changed the original Christian meaning of the word mystical. It now came to be used, almost exclusively, to refer to inner psychological states of transcendental awareness. It was not surprising that both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ theologians looked on mystical prayer, with deep suspicion. Sadly this meant that there has been a failure to emphasise the profound mystical spirituality that abounded in the early Church. Before the Vatican Council, the faithful were often caricatured as groups of hermits, as they made their way to Mass, in contrast to their early Christian forbears. In the early church the liturgy was the supreme communal expression of brothers and sisters offering themselves together through Christ to their common father. The emphasis on the liturgy as a communal act of worship was such that a new breed of liturgist, like their mentors, failed to realize that it depended for its efficacy on the quality of the personal spiritual life of every single participant.

Let me make my point by quoting from one scholar, who did not make the mistake of many of his peers, perhaps the greatest liturgist of them all, Josef Jungmann,S.J whose words have apparently fallen on deaf ears:- “In the present day liturgical movement , primitive Christianity is often held up before our eyes as a model, an exemplar of liturgical observance. We are to believe that Christians of old, contrary to the tendency of modern individualism, knew no other, or scarcely any other form of prayer than liturgical prayer….Unfortunately this ideal is not correct. The idea that the life of the primitive Christians revolved exclusively around the liturgy is not correct either. And it cannot be correct, simply because it would be unnatural and in contradiction to the Gospels. How could the Christian life exclude private and personal prayer? It is a gross exaggeration to restrict the prayer of Christian antiquity to liturgical prayer alone.”

The early Christian liturgy was deeply inspiring, vibrant, and spiritually re-energising, not because it was rubrically correct in every detail, or verbally faultless, but because it depended on the daily personal prayer of the faithful. The early Christian sources make it quite clear that it was the practice of all Christians to pray, not only in the morning and evening in their own homes, but throughout the day, at the set times, just as Jesus prayed with his disciples. In the Lenten Lectures that will follow I want to explore in some detail, how the early Christians prayed, what inspired them, and how their daily prayer invigorated the liturgy that was at the heart and soul of their spiritual lives.

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