A Handful of Heretics: Part 29 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s Note:  David Torkington continues his series with a segue into the history of Christian Mystical Tradition, looking now at some of the heresies which did much to undermine it.   To read part 28, see here.  To begin with part 1, see here.  

A Brief History of Christian Mystical Spirituality


Before explaining how meditation is transformed into contemplation and then describing how to pray in this new form of prayer, I want to write twelve chapters showing how Catholic contemplative spirituality declined due to several heresies which began in the fourth century. I will then detail the restoration under St. Bernard and St. Francis of Assisi before explaining how decline set in again in the eighteenth century owing to Quietism and Semi-Pelagianism, which are partially responsible for the moral morass in the contemporary Church that without contemplative loving, is starved of the Love that has and always will be its vital spiritual energy.

Lay readers of my last two chapters may have thought, ‘How interesting, but of course, that is not for us but for monks, and religious.’ On the contrary, the mystic way or the way of the cross or the way of white martyrdom was the only way known to and practiced by the first Christians long before monasticism and religious life were ever dreamed of. I wish to lead my readers back to this spirituality. It is the spirituality that  Jesus introduced into early Christianity, that draws all, not just into his mystical body, but into his mystical contemplation of our common Father. Contemplation then is for all, and is the only way for all, not an extraordinary way for a few. This was quite clearly understood and practiced by the first Christians but it was never emphasized precisely because it was assumed and therefore taken for granted as the ordinary way for everyone.

It is for this reason therefore that I will introduce the reader to the teachings of the great mystical doctors of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. It is they above all who teach explicitly what was practiced implicitly by their early Christian forebears. This will I hope, enable us to understand all the better the mystical spirituality that has always been the lifeblood of the Church from the very beginning.


In the fourth century, the God-given plan that Jesus introduced to lead people back to share in the glory of God to all eternity came tumbling down. This was because God’s Plan completely depended on Christ, not just to introduce it but to become the go-between with a human and a divine nature, bonded inseparably together in what came to be called the ‘hypostatic union’. His human love was absolutely crucial as it was that love, transformed and transfigured in the body that rose on the first Easter Day, that would draw all who would receive it onwards and upwards back into his Risen and glorified body. 

Take away the human nature of Jesus and the whole of God’s plan would crumble, making what God had conceived from eternity impossible. The way in which God’s plan was implemented in those first centuries was the wonder of the world.   It should still be the wonder of the world today –if it had not been destroyed in the fourth century by a heretic called Arius who denied that Christ was God. 

Introducing the Arian Heresy

Arius was a Berber priest from North Africa who simply said that Christ was not God, but just a man. If what he said was taken seriously then the whole of God’s plan could not possibly have been implemented. Mary would not have been the Immaculate Mother of God and Christ would have been no more than a pseudo-prophet making outrageous promises that could never be fulfilled.

The mystery is that in the fourth century vast numbers of Christians believed Arius. At the time people no longer believed as their ancestors did that their Emperor was divine, nor did they believe that their predecessors had been divine either. This is one of the main reasons why the heresy that proclaimed that Christ was not divine was able to take root. Once it did, the profound God-given spirituality that thrived after Jesus sent his own love to inspire and animate the early Church declined, when people were led to believe that neither he nor his love was divine after all.

Soon man and his well-being began to come first and God began to come second, at least in practice. Inevitably,  the material world began to take precedence over the spiritual and the faith that had once been so vibrant and alive soon became little more than nominal for the majority, as it is today. This was the sad state of affairs that began to set in after Constantine became Emperor. 

The Beginning of Serious Decline

When Constantine became the Roman Emperor after the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 AD)  his religious tolerance enabled Christians to come out in the open after many years of suffering. However, by the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 381, the ‘Church Suffering’ became transformed into the ‘Church Triumphant’.  Sadly, the newly established Church gradually began to take on all the trappings of an imperial power that would have horrified its founder.

Many now wanted to become Christians, not to die bravely through red or white martyrdom as their brothers and sisters before them, but to live the good life and that meant a richer and more prosperous life, with the best and most important jobs in town. Nine times out of ten these jobs seemed to no longer be given to the pagans, but to the ‘old faithful’ and the new converts.

The clergy themselves were tempted and even corrupted with positions of honor and high office that were closed to them before. Bishops who had once been hunted down were now raised to senatorial rank and were to be seen draped around the court of Constantine,  one of the richest men on earth. The Pope was offered and often took on a rank equivalent to that of a consul with all the attendant flummery.

In the hope of supernatural rewards hereafter, wealthy Christians were encouraged to donate land and property to the Church both during their lifetimes and after their deaths by way of legacies. The new properties donated to the Church by wealthy Christians was the origin of what later came to be known as the Papal States making the Church a temporal power in her own right within the Empire, presided over by the Pope who now became a temporal as well as a spiritual leader. 

Whenever Riches Increase, Religion Decreases 

In no time the blood of the martyrs that had been the seed of the Church flowered and went back to seed again, but this time the seed was barren or bore ambivalent fruit. Like any other institutions with power and property, it attracted the ambitious to further their own preferment and armies of bureaucrats to maintain it and at times real armies to defend it. Inevitably, as John Wesley once put it:

 “Whenever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.”  

These new Christians became more and more consumed with the lust for money, power, and ambition and began to worship the God who would not deter them or put too many demands on them. In this climate, it would be far more acceptable to acknowledge that the founder of their religion was no more than a man, albeit a very great man, but not God.

A new breed of Christians had steadily been growing up who were not brought up in the Judaeo-Christian ethos that prevailed initially.  Many came from the culture that prevailed in the Hellenistic world and many more came from a far more basic paganism that prevailed amongst the countless hordes of Barbarians who now poured into the Empire in droves. They did not find concepts like the hypostatic union easy to grasp. It was far easier to simply abandon their old gods who were at the best of times quarrelsome, interfering despots who demanded expensive gifts and sacrifices to placate them. How much better to have just one God, the Christian God who it seemed was far more reasonable, far more understanding and far more merciful too, who did not demand expensive gifts and sacrifices. In the new Christian world order in which they now wanted to rise it became imperative to accept the Christian religion without all the religious complications that were beyond them. 

Orthodoxy Won the Day, but at a Price

For these people, the teaching of Arius was good news. It maintained that Jesus was not divine, but purely human and a later creation of God. To use the technical language of the day, Arius argued that Jesus was not consubstantial or coeternal with God the Father and that there was a time when he did not exist in any form. The heresy was so successful that at one time over eighty percent of Christendom became Arians, with disastrous effect. In the days before mass media, the only thing the Church could do to stop the heresy was to coin a slogan and then beat it incessantly like a drum to impress the truth into people’s minds. The slogan was quite simply ‘Christ is God’, ‘Christ is God’, ‘Christ is God’. Orthodoxy finally won the day, but at a price. The divinity was emphasized so much that Christ and God were hardly distinguishable in people’s minds. Jesus Christ, the mediator, who had been at the heart and soul of the Christian community suddenly vanished from view. It was as if Jesus had ascended into heaven again, but this time it was a psychological ascension that raised him up and out of peoples’ minds and hearts. Jesus, who was once the vital and dynamic source of Christian spirituality was all but lost to view. In the future, even the foremost Christian writers used the word Christ for God and the word God for Christ without feeling it necessary to distinguish one from the other.

Macedonianism the consequence of Arianism

Then another heresy called ‘Macedonianism’ began to spread alongside Arianism in the mid-fourth century. Like Arianism, it was called after its founder the Greek Bishop of Constantinople, Macedonius 1. Macedonianism was the logical consequence of Arianism. It did for the Holy Spirit what Arianism did for Jesus. If Jesus was not divine, then neither was his love, the Holy Spirit. 

How could a person participate in God’s Plan without Christ and the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit was sent to draw us up into Christ’s Risen and glorified body where we would share in his loving contemplation of the Father, and receive the fruits of contemplation to share with others.

When Macedonianism had taken away the Holy Spirit and Arianism had taken away Christ, God might still be in his heaven, but we had no means of reaching him. The only possible way we could reach him without God’s power, the Holy Spirit, was by man’s power, human endeavor alone. 

Pelagianism. a sort of Catholic Stoicism

This led to another heresy in the fifth century called Pelagianism. It was a sort of Catholic stoicism which relied totally on a DIY spirituality that was always destined to fail, because as Christ insisted, “Without me, you can do nothing.” 

And if all this was not enough, anyone who did try to rise Godward was further hampered by the teachings of two more heresies that infiltrated the Church. Whereas Manicheism taught that the body was evil, Neoplatonism originally taught by Plotinus in the third century believed that the body was the prison of the soul. Before even beginning the ascent to God the Christian stoic would have to engage in some of the most extreme forms of ascetism, to put to death all their bodily desires and free themselves from the evil material world that held them earth-bound. As the Holy Spirit seemed to have disappeared, they had to do this alone. 

Seneca Said ‘Show Me the Stoic’

No wonder Seneca said ‘show me the stoic’ and no wonder no one would ever rise to reach God without the Holy Spirit and a spirituality that taught that God created all things and said they were good. This was pre-eminently true of the masterwork of his creation, his Son made flesh and blood to become for us The Way, The Truth, and The Life. 


Detail of icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, Wikimedia Commons.




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