Editor’s note: David Torkington continues his series on prayer with the fourth and final section, “From Meditation to Contemplation”. Read part 41 here, and begin with part one here.
The Mystic Way Part IV
The whole atmosphere at the student house was refreshingly pleasant after the claustrophobic intensity of the novitiate. There were over forty other students all full of life and genuinely delighted to welcome the new intake. However, in time I noticed that no one stayed on after Compline for personal prayer. The liturgy was paramount and they ‘performed’ it well, but no one seemed too interested in private prayer. Perhaps like me, they had also experienced first fervor and when it all disappeared they took the advice on offer and simply moved on with their lives.
Drawn, as if by Some Undefinable Magnetic Force
There was no change at all in the misery that I had to endure inside of prayer. However, it has to be said that outside of prayer I was continually drawn, as if by some undefinable magnetic force to solitude and to the prayer that was rather my hell than my heaven on earth as it had once been. I remembered my brother and what my mother said about him. ‘He has fallen in love with love.’ But you would be as likely to meet a girl in the friary as a Martian, so it was not human romance for which I was yearning. The church that remained empty for hours after Compline made me feel I would receive no more help here than I did at the novitiate, either from other students or our teachers. The effects of Quietism had done its work in the Franciscan order and, as I was later to discover, in all the other orders and congregations, but I did not know it at the time. How sad that the nicest community of men who I had, or would ever live with, were blissfully unaware that the effects of a hideous heresy had been visited on them without them even realizing it.
One thing, however, was in my favor. There was an excellent library that had not been denuded of the classical mystical writers, but they were all either covered with dust or the older ones still had ‘uncut pages’ making it plain that although they had not been weeded out, neither had they been read.
Introducing St. John of the Cross
I had no idea what books I should read, but the very title of The Dark Night of the Soul seemed to describe what I experienced each time I went to pray, although the name “St. John of the Cross” meant little to me at the time. No other book before or since has had such a dramatic effect on me. This Spanish Carmelite who I had never heard of, who died four hundred years before I was born, understood exactly what I was experiencing and detailed it with such precision that I could be in no doubt that I was on the right path. It encouraged me to press on come what may, although his words did nothing to alleviate the darkness that he insisted was God-given and even deserved the name contemplation, even though it was a dark form of contemplation that could not see through the gloom that enveloped me. I did not even have a ‘kindly light amidst the encircling gloom’ to lead me on, except the faith of the saint whom I believed would in time lead me on ‘to see the distant scene’.
The Sinner Beneath the Sweetness and Light
Far from cheering me up, the beginning of his book made for depressing reading although I did not doubt a word of it. His explanation of why the dark night had fallen on me did make sense, but it did nothing for the ego that was riding high before my well ran dry. I was too busy enjoying the delights of first fervor and preparing for sainthood that I failed to notice the sinner beneath the sweetness and light that blinded my understanding. But now I understood. I did not like facing the truth: the self-centered young man who so recently believed he was about to scale the heights of Mount Carmel was in fact hardly in the foothills and would never make much headway on his ascent until he was relieved of all the bags and baggage that were weighing him down.
With relentless accuracy St. John of the Cross detailed all my faults and failings, all the sins and the selfishness that first fervor had done nothing to purify away. In fact, it actually encouraged the biggest sin of all: the pride that led me to believe that I was about to reach the mystic heights and that levitation, bilocation and other esoteric gifts were only a matter of months away. What he said made sense, even if I did not like it at the time. How could a seriously flawed human being like me be united with the most perfect human being who ever lived, in his transformed, transfigured and glorified body, and then share with him in his pure and perfect loving of his Father in mystical contemplation?
Purgatory on Earth
That the deep purification in what St. John of the Cross called The Dark Night of the Senses and The Dark Night of the Spirit was necessary could not be doubted. Whether or not I could make it – that could be doubted. Another book that I was reading made it clear that this purification was simply the purgatory that we all must go through before union with Christ would enable us to be united with his Father to enjoy the delights of eternal life and love to eternity. The question is not whether or not we have to go through it, but whether we go through it in this life or in the next, for perfect union is impossible for imperfect human beings. Those who go through it in this life, even if they are only half or a quarter way through it, will be able to see, understand and express their faith so much better than anyone else, even if they are no good with words. A saying attributed to St. Francis maintains that we must preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words. I had seen the truth of what I must do and so I committed myself to give quality space and time to God in this rather uninviting form of prayer although I had no idea what might come next if anything.
A Waste of Time
It must have been over six months including my time in the novitiate before I began to notice a change. It was not anything dramatic, far from it. Despite the fact that there was no change in the daily, dreary monotony of prayer, I still felt drawn to it, but I became aware that I was receiving something from it that I could not put into words. Without this darkness, where I battled against distractions and temptations, I somehow felt diminished and morally weakened. It was as if through this dark contemplation I was nevertheless receiving strength, although I felt nothing to confirm that I was receiving anything at all.
Then three or four months later I began to be aware of a presence. I knew the experience because I first experienced it for myself as a boy whilst gazing for hours at the kestrel searching for his supper on the Yorkshire Moors where we had a summer cottage. Sometimes this presence was there in prayer, sometimes it was not, but what was always there were the temptations and the distractions, the strongest of which was to think that I was wasting my time doing nothing and that I would be better employed attending to my studies.
A New Beginning
It was after about eighteen months of perseverance that something quite dramatic happened. So far there had been an occasional sense of presence similar to the natural mystical experiences I had on the moors and later in other places of unusual scenic splendor. These had not only enthralled my outer senses but my inner spiritual senses too, in such a way that even when I closed my eyes the experience of ‘the numinous’ remained with me. However, this new and dramatic sense of presence was far more striking and arresting. It was not actually of a different order to the rather gentle and capricious sense of the ‘numinous’ that I hitherto experienced. It was that experience, but it was far more vibrant and far more powerful. Not only that but it was quite evident to me that it was not the ‘numinous’ that I was experiencing, but it was God, at least the experience of his love that was enveloping me. Nor did it depend on any external event or scenic beauty to induce it. It was quite clearly a gift that was in my power to receive but quite out of my power to produce, because quite apart from anything else it came and went when least expected, and I had no power to generate it nor any power to sustain it.
After continually experiencing the presence of God’s love in this way, something even more dramatic took place. It was essentially the same experience, but after experiencing a lifting sensation in the higher part of the head the lifting sensation suddenly spiraled upwards with such force that I knew if it continued I would experience oblivion, which mercifully I did not. If I never had such an experience again for the rest of my life, which I did, then nothing would shake my conviction, not just that God existed but that he was Love and that I had experienced that love in my life in such a way that I could never be the same again.
However, I needed help. I needed confirmation and I needed to be assured that all was well and I was not being deceived. I found that help in the library. The book was called The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics which complement this series.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash