The Mystic Way Part IV
From Meditation to Contemplation
I once attended a conference entitled ‘The Moral Malaise’ during which the speakers examined the virtues necessary to regain the new paradise from paradise lost. It was then that a naive novice spoke for the first time, asking, ‘But how do we get the wherewithal to generate all these wonderful virtues?’ Mayhem ensued as everyone tried to explain what none of them knew.
Eventually, an elderly priest who entertained us the previous evening with his mellifluous tenor voice began to sing, ‘All you need is love, love – love is all you need.’ He received a standing ovation and everyone left with a beautiful idea, a platitude gift-wrapped by the tenor’s sonorous voice. But, like most platitudes, it was not sufficiently unwrapped to be seen for what it is, the principle that could change our lives, the principle of the ‘primacy of love’.
Love Must Be Learned
Love may begin like lightning, or with a spark that gradually flickers into a flame. But if it is to burn ever brighter and bond people together it must be learned over very many years, if not decades. If you wish to become a pianist, an athlete, a lawyer, a teacher, you must learn over many years of study and practice, the profession the science or the art that you wish to perfect. But learning to love is more important than anything else because it guarantees the happiness that nothing else can. That is why the whole of the spiritual life and the mystic way is dedicated to teaching how love can be learned, sustained, and perfected. Everything else should be directed to this end and everything that is worth having flows out of it.
St. John said that ‘God is love’, and if we are created in his image and likeness then what is deepest within us is the love of God. It is from this Presence that the love arises that St Augustine said is always restless until it rests in God. It rises from our own human desire for the fullness of love, and when suffused with the divine love that is deepest in us, the journey upon which love is about to embark is made possible. Wherever this journey begins, a person is led, like St Augustine, to God’s love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
We Only Truly Know Who We Love
William of Saint-Thierry, a friend of St. Bernard who was his mentor, said, ‘You will never love someone unless you know them, but you will never know them unless you love them’. In the prayer journey, we first come to love God in Jesus Christ. In order to do this, I have tried to show how we must begin by using our mind, our intellect, our powers of reasoning as well as our imaginations and our memory, to come to know and love the Christ of history.
However, when that love is fully ignited, like all love it wishes to be united with the One who is loved. It is at this point that the direction of our love changes to focus not so much on the Christ of history, but on the Christ who in his mystical body now encompasses the whole of God’s created glory on earth while simultaneously embracing his uncreated glory in heaven.
We can love someone who died many years ago, but we cannot be united with them. Whereas we can be united with the Jesus whom we have come to know and love through meditating on all he said and did; because meditating on him as he once was, leads us on to the contemplation that unites us with him now, as he has risen and is alive and loving us now.
For obvious reasons the mind and all its faculties with the imagination and the memory that enabled us to learn to love Christ in his physical body, can be of no help when God calls us to enter into Christ in his mystical contemplation. Love, love and only love, can do this; only love can lead us to the union that we have yearned for from the very beginning. That is what is meant by the primacy of love, and the meaning of the revelation that St Francis received moments before he received the stigmata.
Meditation is the way Christians have come to know and love Christ from earliest times, just as from earliest times contemplation has been the way Christians have come to enter into him to experience the union that will alone satisfy their primeval craving for love without measure.
Union Without Purification is Impossible
When contemplation begins, it is because God has led us into contemplation where love and only love can lead us on to the union that we desire. It should go without saying that our love has to be purified, refined and brought to perfection for this purpose. Self-centered, self-seeking and sinful human beings will have all and everything that prevents their love from entering into the divine stripped away. This is what happens in the dark contemplation that everyone experiences to begin with.
The fact that this is unpleasant, to say the least, is the reason why in the words of St. John of the Cross the vast majority who have come so far give up seriously giving regular quality space and time for prayer as before. Forms of meditation that helped them come to love the Christ of history before, must be cast away. They can no longer be of any use.
It is not in months or even years, but more usually in decades for most of us that our hearts are purified sufficiently to be united with Christ. This union with Christ is ultimately brought about not only in our hearts or our wills but in our whole person, our minds and hearts, our bodies and our souls, united with his heart and mind and body and soul.
Love is like a Spiritual Lightning Conductor
In their comic opera Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan’s hero Strephon, half mortal and half fairy, is always complaining that he is unable to escape back to fairyland because of his earthly body. If he tries to pass through a keyhole or a crack in the door, or even through the eye of a needle, his spiritual self has no problem, but his human body holds him back. In a sense, it is the same with us. However, when our love remains open to God and for long enough, then his Holy Spirit uses our love as a “spiritual lightning conductor”, not just to purify our hearts, but our bodies too, so we can return to our true home. This home is in the Risen and glorified body of Christ. What happened to him and to his body after the Resurrection will eventually happen to our bodies too.
That is why genuine Christian mystics call the high point of the mystic way the Mystical or the Spiritual Marriage. One day our bodies will be ‘spiritualised’ as Peter, James, and John saw Christ’s body ‘spiritualised’ at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor. This does not mean that he no longer had a true body. The Apostles were to see after his Resurrection that although he was ‘spiritualised’ by the same Holy Spirit who penetrated every part of him on Mount Tabor, he could not only eat and drink to show that he was still a complete human being, but pass through bolted doors, be in two places at the same time, levitate, and be present at any time, at any place, and at any point in history simultaneously.
Eventually, we will be ‘spiritualised’ too. Our heart’s desire, our will becomes the medium, the go-between or the lightning conductor that directs the love of God, his Holy Spirit down and into us to prepare us in every way, body and soul, for union with him, in, with and through the glorified body of his Son. Notice once again how everything depends on love, our love suffused with the divine to bring about God’s Plan which St Paul called his Mysterion. Everything depends then on the primacy of love, above and beyond everything else.
The purification through both light and darkness must take place before union with God, either in this world or in the next. But if you choose to become a radical Christian and not just another nominal Christian by taking up your daily Cross, you will find it not only easier, happier and far more joyful to pass through your purgatory on earth. It is the way to help others and the Church that is in such need of the saints, the mystics and the prophets who are formed in the Dark Night. The fruits of Contemplation that await you are far more spiritually nourishing and delightful than any other fruits known to man.
Because the contemplative way is the way of love it is uniquely Catholic. By that, I mean open to all, not just to academics, or intellectuals or those gifted with great human talents and abilities. Everyone can love precisely because God has put his love within us, and that is the only qualification needed to enter into what St Angela of Foligno called the ‘School of Divine love’. If meditation is the primary school then contemplation is the secondary school that teaches only one subject and that is how to love and how to love perfectly. This, Jesus told Martha, is the one thing necessary.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Christian Mystics which complements this series.
Image of lightning, Unsplash