Early Christian Mystical Spirituality: Part 23 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s note: Today David Torkington continues his Mini-Course on Prayer.  To read part 22, click here.  To begin at the beginning, start here.

In the early Church, once a person heard the good news and expressed belief in Christ, baptism followed almost immediately, as you can read in the Acts of the Apostles. However, in time it was soon realized that this was not necessarily the best thing to do for the Church, or for the individual whose first emotional response could so easily wither and die without proper instruction about the meaning of their commitment. It was therefore decided that a period of two years should precede the Easter night when they would be baptized into the mysteries of Christ. In this period of preparation, the ‘novices’ would live the same intensely prayerful lives as the baptized, fasting and practicing charitable works. They would then offer these to the Lord at Mass on Sundays but would have to leave before what we now call the offertory. 

Being Fitted into Christ’s Death and Resurrection

When the time came for them to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, they would first all turn to the West, where it was believed that Satan reigned in Hell, to denounce him three times. After this they would turn to the East from where it was believed that Christ would come again; opening their arms they solemnly committed themselves to him. Then, casting off their old clothes that signified leaving behind their old lives they were ready to enter into the pool that came to be called the womb of the Church. It was here they were plunged into the baptismal waters three times whilst the words of consecration to the Three in One were said by the priest. This was the meaning of the threefold immersion; they were beginning a journey in Christ which would be completed when they were sufficiently purified to participate with him in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. When they emerged from the pool they were clothed in shining white garments, similar to that worn by Christ as he rose from the dead, to make it clear that the journey they were about to undertake could only be made because now they were in the Risen Lord. It would in future only be in him, with him and through him that their journey be made possible, carrying their daily Cross as Christ did before them. That is why St. Paul insisted that their baptism fitted them ever more closely into Christ’s death and Resurrection. This daily dying was symbolized by being plunged beneath the waters in these rites of initiation.

The Prayer without Ceasing

During the two years of preparation, the ‘novices’ were taught how to carry their daily cross by endlessly acting selflessly in the way they put God first. This would be demonstrated by praying each day at the prescribed times for prayer. Here they would express their love for Christ and continually reconsecrate their lives to him, endeavoring to love him in the neighbor in need. “Insofar as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). This is how they were taught to observe the two new commandments that Christ gave them. However, what Jesus came to call ‘the new worship in spirit and truth’ extended to encompass simply everything they said and did, everything they suffered or enjoyed, even the simplest of things. St. Paul said, “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). In doing this they would be practising the prayer without ceasing. “Pray constantly; and for all things give thanks to God” (1Thessalonians 5:17). 

Acts of Selfless Giving

It is important to understand the spiritual dynamics that underpin ‘the prayer without ceasing’. Whatever form of prayer is made, deep down beneath what is said or done  is the vital action upon which everything depends. This action is the act of selflessness. When we pray we are continually practising selflessness, the act of selfless giving. The more we pray and the longer we pray, the more this selflessness becomes a habit of selflessness and self-sacrifice. The very distractions and even the temptations with which we battle enable us to keep saying ‘Yes’ to God and ‘No’ to self, opening us to the love of God that Christ unleashed on the first Pentecost Day. They were taught that once baptised and fitted into the life and action of the Risen One, all their offerings would become priestly offerings, because they were offered in the new Temple which was Christ, and in, with and through him, the new high priest, to the Father. 

That is why, when dressed in a white garment, they were led into the whole Christian community who were waiting to welcome them. This time they would not have to leave at the offertory, because now for the first time they would be able to offer themselves in, with and through Christ, to receive the love of the Father as never before. 

Spiritual Intoxication, Sober Inebriety, and Spiritual Transportation

In the early Church, little emphasis was given to the psychological experiences felt as the love of God began to fill their hearts and minds. The whole emphasis was on God, and not on the feelings experienced. They were there but rarely referred to except perhaps occasionally with expressions like spiritual intoxication, sober inebriety, or spiritual transportation. Even later mystics were reluctant to describe the intimate moments when they experienced the love of God. What is true of married love is also true of divine love. A mystic like St Francis would rush away into solitude when he felt the love of God overwhelming him. If he was traveling with others he would tell them to walk on and leave him alone or pull his hood over his head so that nobody could see the joy that possessed him when God’s love took hold of him. The same could be said for most of the mystics and understandably so.  St. Teresa of Avila did detail from her own life the psychological experiences that characterize a person’s journey to mystical union, but, as I will explain later, she did this for very good reasons.  To dismiss the idea of a mystical spirituality in the early Church because they do not talk about mystical states, esoteric experiences or strange mystical phenomena is utterly wrong-headed. 

How to Know the Quality of Your Prayer

The Gospel said that you judge someone by their fruits. That is the real test. The story is told of two novices who approached St Francis. The first asked him how he could tell if his prayer was authentic, to which Francis replied, “By your love of your neighbor”. The second asked how he could tell when he had achieved perfect prayer, to which Francis answered, “By the love that you have for your enemies.”  That puts us all in our place! But apply this test to the first Christians and you will be forced to conclude that a higher percentage of them than at any other time in the history of the Church, had attained the heights of mystical prayer, as that term is understood by any student of St. Teresa of Avila. 

The detailing of the subjective experiences that result when God’s love begins to make itself present within a person who is traveling on ‘the Mystic Way’ comes much later in the history of Christian spirituality. Mystical theology did not begin with St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, they merely detailed, better than anyone else, the journey that anyone experiences who totally abandon themselves to God in ‘the mystic way.’  Their analysis is as true for someone who sets out on the ‘mystic way’  in the first or the twenty-first century. Although what they describe cannot be found in any systematic way in the first Christian centuries, it is nevertheless by using this later psychological analysis, and by applying it to the journey of the first Christians that we can discover deep insights into their spirituality. It can, as we are about to see, explain a mystery that has long since baffled secular historians. Namely, how could a small ‘heretical Jewish sect’ of little consequence, convert the vast pagan empire of Rome, created and sustained by the greatest military power the world has ever known, and in such a short time?


Image of St. Francis mosaic, Pixabay.

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