St. Paul insists that once we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his death and Resurrection. But unlike pagan rites of initiation, Christian baptism was not seen as a magical rite that was instantly expected to change a person. Christ’s death and Resurrection that raised, transformed and transfigured him was the result of dying many times before his death on the cross as he sought to do his Father’s will despite the forces of evil that were leveled against him. So too did the new Christians once they symbolically ‘put on’ Christ at their baptism. It is only through dying many times over as we endeavor to carry our cross daily, that we are gradually taken up into Christ’s life and his Resurrection where we begin to take part with him, in him and through him, in his mystical contemplation of God.
The First Name for Christianity Was ‘The Way’
The first name for Christianity was ‘The Way’ because it was essentially a spiritual and a mystical journey which involved dying many times over. Practicing the selflessness that enables a person to be filled with sufficient grace to be united with Christ is a long and painful process. Just because we waited for over fifteen-hundred years for this exacting purification to be detailed and described as ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ by St John of the Cross, does not mean that it was not a reality for the first spiritual travelers. We know without a shadow of a doubt that it was part of their journey, for without such a purification they could not have been united with Christ. Only then could they receive and experience the gift of God’s love, enabling them to generate all the virtues and all the unique God-given qualities that simply amazed and dazzled the ancient pagan world.
They were not only overwhelmed to witness the sublime virtues and profound mystical teaching of the Gospels lived out in the daily lives of the Christians, but other virtues too, so prized but rarely practiced in the Greco-Roman world in which they lived. I am referring to the virtues that were extolled by the Stoics who set themselves up as the spiritual gurus of the ancient world into which Christianity was born. In such a world it is only to be expected that the virtues of the warrior, courage, bravery, steadfastness, endurance, perseverance and the ability to remain dignified and uncomplaining even while suffering pain, torture, and death, would be praised above all others. But despite the desire and the determination to embrace these virtues, their failure was so routine that Seneca, the greatest Stoic of them all said, “Show me the stoic”.
In contrast, when Christians were persecuted all these virtues were seen as they had never been seen before. Even when they were flogged within an inch of their lives, tortured in the most despicable ways imaginable and put to death by fire, sword or by being thrown to the wild beasts, their composure was breathtaking. Time and time again jailors, torturers, and executioners were so moved that they were converted to the faith that gave such staggering strength and superhuman courage and bravery, not just to strong men but to women and children, as you can read in The Acts of the Martyrs. But so many more were converted from the vast crowds of sadistic voyeurs who came for a day’s entertainment, watching Christians being burnt alive, torn apart and crucified, for they could not help but marvel at seeing a superhuman form of endurance quite beyond the power of mere mortals. Not all Christians were called to ‘red martyrdom’, but all were called to what came to be called ‘white martyrdom,’ the dying to self that involved carrying their daily cross for Christ, day after day. ‘White martyrdom’ may not seem as dramatic as ‘red martyrdom’ but over a lifetime it could be far more exacting, involving the purifications as described by St John of the Cross in his ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and leading to the same moments of light as described by St Teresa of Avila.
The Unblemished Lives that Christ Demanded of Them
The first Christians were called ‘the saints’ because they tried, and so many of them succeeded, in living such saintly lives. The Greco-Roman world in which they lived was rampant with outrageous immoral behavior. Such contemporary vices as sexual depravity that was so commonplace between men, was not only condemned but utterly prohibited for Christians. If such a sin or other major sins such as adultery, murder, and acts of apostasy was committed, they had to be confessed publicly and forgiven. Although there was always mercy and forgiveness on the first occasion, the offenders were permanently excommunicated from the Christian community if these major sins were committed again. This did not mean they were damned, for that was ultimately a matter for God, but it did mean they could not continue to be seen as members of a community whose very presence was meant to bear witness to the presence of the Risen Christ. All this is a measure of the uncompromising commitment of those first early Christians to live the unblemished lives that Christ demanded of them.
A Powerful and Transforming Spiritual Energy
That very many lived such lives and converted vast numbers of pagans in such a short time, is as historically undeniable, as it is inexplicable to secular historians. The explanation can only be found in the powerful spiritual energy or love that transformed those who persevered in their daily dying in Christ, through long and testing ‘Dark Nights’. In the words of St Teresa of Avila, as the length and intensity, of the prayer of Quiet and then Full Union become ever more regular and constant, then the traveler who had been changed slowly over the years, suddenly begins to change with ever greater rapidity. When their prayer becomes even stronger still and begins to overflow from the mind into the body, further experiences are made palpable causing the flesh to quiver with delight, and the whole body to tingle and even the eyes to dissolve into tears. This is the beginning of what St Teresa of Avila calls ‘The Spiritual Betrothals’ when a person experiences for a brief time what they will ultimately experience all the time, in the ‘Mystical Marriage’ with Christ, if not in this world then in the next.
The Chrysalis Opens to Allow the Butterfly to Emerge
The receiver whose prayer has so far been predominantly characterized by silence, or at least by few words that rise out of darkness, suddenly wants to cry out with joy and give thanks, as the light of God’s love begins to envelop them. Then all they want to do is to praise and glorify the God who has chosen to love them like never before, in such a way that they can actually feel and experience his love reaching out and into every part of their human being. As St Teresa of Avila puts it – the chrysalis opens to allow the butterfly to emerge. Very soon the receiver realizes that words alone are not enough to thank God, and they feel the urge to express their gratitude in a new and total abandonment of themselves to him. This new and radical commitment must express itself in the world which they now want to convert so that others might come to know and experience the height and the depth, the length and breadth of God’s love they have come to know and experience for themselves.
The Rewards of Courage, Tenacity, and Perseverance
Now for the first time, believers not only experience the love that will alone enable God’s Secret Plan – The Mysterion to be brought to fruition, but that love also enables them to see the truth. It enables them to see the truth about the terrible state of the world and to see what God wants them to do to transform it radically. And, lest they despair at their inadequacy, they are given all the virtues necessary and all the gifts that the Holy Spirit can give to this end through his love. Just as a single shaft of light contains all the colors of the spectrum, so also a single shaft of God’s love contains within it all the power and the strength, all the insights and the vision, all the gifts, and the virtues to participate now in bringing about God’s Mysterion.
In the light of reading this, re-read The Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Fathers of the Church, and you will see this hidden mystical life at work purifying and refining the lives of the first saints, mystics, and prophets. The profound wisdom found on almost every page could not possibly be the work of spiritual novices. It is the work of mystics, so far advanced on the ‘mystic way’, that they were sufficiently purified to enable the Holy Spirit to use them to communicate his wisdom, not just to their contemporaries, but to their fellow Christians down to the present day.
Sadly this golden age of Christian Spirituality fell into serious periods of decline, albeit with many glorious revivals. I will detail what we can do to help bring back that God-given spirituality given to the early Church by Jesus Christ himself. But first I will pause for a brief look at the mystical journey of the Desert Fathers and St. Augustine, in whom we find the mystical journey of the early Christians perfectly embodied.
Photo by Suzanne D Williams on Unsplash