The Modern Malaise: Part 37 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s Note:  David Torkington continues his series with a segue into the history of Christian Mystical Tradition, reflecting on the necessity for the inclusion of prayer in any authentic reform of the Church. To read part 36, see here.  To begin with part 1, see here.  


A Brief History of Christian Mystical Spirituality, Continued


When the constitution on the liturgy was promulgated at the end of the Second  Vatican Council, many were overjoyed because it did seem to embody a genuine modern representation of the liturgy that was so important to our early Christian forebears. I too was particularly delighted with this excellent document. But, sadly, it was not followed by a further constitution detailing a modern representation of the early God-given mystical spirituality that I have tried to develop in this course. 

The power and efficacy of the liturgy is the outward expression of the deep and daily prayerful spirituality of those who participate in it. Take this away and we are back in the world that Jesus came to transform, because the love on which it was originally founded is lost to sight. There was, however, one liturgist, perhaps the greatest of them all, who had even deeper influence on liturgical reform than Dom Odo Casel OSB (1886–1948), and my mentor, Pere Louis Bouyer (1913 – 2004). Let me quote then from perhaps the greatest liturgist of them all, the great Jesuit, Josef Jungmann SJ, whose detailed scholarship dwarfed all others and 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. 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 Inspiring Early Christian Liturgy

The early Christian liturgy was deeply inspiring, vibrant and spiritually re-energizing, 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 set times, just as Jesus prayed with his disciples. And they would pray for more prolonged periods of time, just as Jesus did, rising in the middle of the night for that purpose.

The omission of the Second Vatican Council to provide us all with a detailed modern presentation of the early spirituality of the first Christians, comparable to what they did for the liturgy, is quite simply the greatest ecclesiastical tragedy of modern times. A tragedy is when a good person or a great person, or even a good and great achievement is ruined by what might seem to be a small human failure or event. Such an event took place when an otherwise laudable Second Vatican Council that promised and in fact gave so much was sadly undermined by this serious omission. It was hardly noticeable at the time, for a whole Catholic population had come to believe that mystical prayer if they had in fact heard about it, was an odd, exceptional and eccentric way for a minority of ‘holy souls’. The very essence of it was that God’s great plan, called by St. Paul The Mysterion, included that all were called to contemplation, as to their final destiny, conceived by God as their ultimate happiness, from all eternity. 

God Has Called All to Contemplate

It is not an eccentric idea to believe that God has called all to contemplate and then to enter into his glory to all eternity. That we should believe it is to show just how far we have come from knowing and trying to live out in our daily lives the God-given spirituality that was the meat and drink of our first Christian forebears. 

The fact that the Council did not produce a document reinstating the profound mystical spirituality that prevailed at the dawn of the Christian era left a gap that has in the intervening years been filled by a secular form of ‘spirituality’—if it can be called a spirituality. It has been drawn from the latest liberal pop-psychological and sociological fashions and malign sexual perversions that seem to get more and more feral with each passing day. 

If it is by their fruits that you will know them, then the frightening agendas from infanticide to sexual depravity that have been taken up, not just among some of the laity, but among and between Priests, Bishops, and Cardinals from top to bottom in the Church must alert us to the catastrophe that has already begun to afflict the Barque of Peter.  

We must follow the teaching and the example of the great saints, mystics, and reformers to whom I have referred, who have kept the Barque of Peter on course. If we want to be guided by the Wisdom of God, then we will find it in Jesus Christ to whom we must turn in prayer, else we will be lost. Reform in the Church must begin here and now with the clergy, most particularly in the seminaries and houses of religious education. If young men and women are asked to make a vow of chastity, without at the same time being taught how to come to know and experience the love of God, then disasters will follow because no one can live fully without love. If a person has had to forgo the experience of God’s love reaching out to them through another human being in the sacrament of love, then it is an obligation on those who insist on this sacrifice, to teach them how to come to know and experience God’s love in prayer; the prayer that leads to contemplation.  

By prayer, I do not just mean saying prayers or performing prayers of obligation, but practicing the deep prayer that leads onward beyond first beginnings into the mystic way. It is only here that we will come to know and experience the love that surpasses the understanding. This is the love that was the making of the great saints, mystics, and prophets who we need today like never before. 

Mystical theology, as the foundation and completion of spiritual theology, must be taught by practitioners to all young men and women in seminaries and houses of further education. This is their right that must be granted to them by those who have placed on them the obligation to forfeit their natural desire to seek God’s love in and through the sacrament of marriage. If it is their right, then it is also the obligation of their superiors to teach them how to come to know and experience the love of God through profound mystical prayer. Failure to do this means that they, their superiors, are guilty of leaving them in a state in which they are perpetually in danger of serious sin, and traditional moral theology would call this a serious sin in itself. Moral theology also teaches that those who place someone in that position are morally culpable, a culpability for which they will one day have to answer. Nor are they just culpable of failing the young priests and religious themselves, but for the terrible and almost unthinkable physical, psychological, and spiritual sufferings that they may go on to inflict on others.

What I have written and most particularly what comes next, is the traditional Catholic teaching on how we who are drawn into the mystical body of Christ can prepare to be united with him, to experience with him his contemplation of the Father, and how the fruits of this contemplation will first change us and then the world we are committed to serve.


Image of statue of St. Peter in Rome, Pixabay.

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