True Imitation of Christ: Part 47 Mini-Course on Prayer

Editor’s note:  David Torkington continues his series on prayer with the fourth and final section, “From Meditation to Contemplation”.  Read part 46 here, and begin with part one here.

The Mystic Way Part IV

A brief appearance on stage at the end of my school days enabled me to understand the spiritual life as I never understood it before. I was playing Henry V in Shakespeare’s play about England’s greatest warrior king. The dress rehearsal was a disaster, or should I say, I was a disaster.    But moments before I stepped back on stage for the scene in which Henry makes his famous speech; ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends once more,’ the English master took me by the arm and said, “Now listen here Torkington, forget about that pathetic little performance last night; this is the real thing. This is not a stage, it’s a battlefield. These are your men who are tired and exhausted. They have been storming the breach in the city wall all day.  They have seen their friends falling at their side. They have heard the cries of the wounded, the screeching of the horses and they are all but defeated. Get out there, rouse them up, and rally them for one more attack before it’s too late.”

Then, with those words he pushed me onto the stage with one hand and pulled back the curtains with the other. Everyone seemed to think it was a great performance, but it was not a performance at all. I was not acting, it was for real. Somehow the English master had managed to inspire me with the spirit of the man who trounced the French at Agincourt. I was famous for fifteen minutes, not because I was a good actor, but because for fifteen minutes I became a living reincarnation of the greatest warrior king in English history.

There is Only One Way to Copy Christ

That performance was a key moment in my life as it gave me my most important spiritual insight. Thanks to the English master, I was able to see that you can only really become like someone else, act and behave as they do by being inspired by the same spirit that inspired them. There is only one way to copy Christ and that is not by trying to copy his outward behaviour, but by trying to allow the same love that continually animated him to flow into us to animate and inspire us in all we say and do.

Throughout his life on earth Christ continually opened himself to be inspired by his Father’s Love, the Holy Spirit, who conceived him in the first place, inspiring everything he said and did while he was on earth and  filling him to overflowing when he returned to heaven. The love that continually flows out of the Risen Lord to fill us now,  is the same love that flowed into him throughout his life on earth. It is the same love that was brought to perfection after his death, and the same love that reunited him with his Father, enabling his Father to send that love out through him onto and into us to transform us into Christlike people.

The Meaning of the Spiritual Life 

The spiritual life is the expression used to describe a new way of life, in which we start turning towards God regularly to receive his love that comes to us through Jesus, to make us like him in every possible way. I began to study the spirituality of the first Christians to learn from them how to change my daily life by practicing the God-given spirituality that Jesus bestowed upon them. I wanted to learn from them  how I could at all times be open to receive the love unleashed by Christ on the first Pentecost Day taking us up into his mystical body. I knew that it was here alone, praying in, with and through him that I would receive and be animated and inspired by the same love from God that had inspired and animated him throughout his life on earth.  I learned from my memorable theatrical ‘performance’ that this was the only way to imitate him, so that the  same Holy Spirit who inspired all that he said and did would inspire me too, to make me into the Christ-like person I desired to become.

The Union We Have Always Desired

Although at our baptism we are taken up into Christ’s Mystical Body, we are not instantly united with him fully, body and blood, mind, heart and soul, because of the sin and selfishness that separates us from the total union that is our deepest desire. Nevertheless, we are in him, and so when we pray, we pray in, with and through him. It is his love that suffuses and surcharges our love in such a way that it can  pass through the ‘cloud of evil’ that has arisen from our sinfulness,  preventing  our love from freely rising to God as we would wish. It is now, so long as our love remains fixed upon God, that his love uses our love as a lightning conductor to be directed to the place where it can burn away the evil that separates us from him at source, deep down within us.

As this purification progresses in the Dark Night we are gradually filled with the love of God, the Holy Spirit, who animated and inspired everything that Christ said and did on earth, and continues to do now that he is in heaven. It is only when the Holy Spirit has sufficiently purified us that the real and total union with Christ that we have always desired can take place.

To believe that a union can take place and can be achieved in mere minutes by learning to recite mantras before  our love has been purified, is to believe in magic. Christianity introduces a new age in which salvation comes not through magic as of old, but love. 

A Lesson From My Father’s Camera 

My Father owned a special portrait camera designed to take perfect pictures. When focussing on the subject, two images came into view. The first was an exact image and the second was transparent, see-through, wraith-like. On turning a dial the two pictures would draw closer together and the pale reflection of the true picture would become more and more real, full-bodied, like the true image to which it would soon become as one. The two images would then be in perfect focus with one another and in perfect union,  so the picture would be perfect.

This is what happens when we keep turning to God to receive his love that purifies us, sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light. Gradually we are made sufficiently like Christ to be united with him more effectively, more completely, more perfectly than ever before. When this happens we not only enter into the mystical marriage with Christ, but simultaneously with God the Father.  Remember the words that Christ used in answer to Philip at the Last Supper. ‘I am in my Father and you in me and I in you’ (John 14:11). In this sublime union we are not just united with the Father and the Son but with the Love who unites them together as One, in the mystery of the Three- in- One. My short theatrical performance enabled me to see that only the same Spirit who animated and inspired Jesus could make me into a Christ-like person.  I was right, but also so  ignorant of what this would involve in the years ahead!

Wisdom from the Last Supper

After telling Philip that he and the Father are one, Jesus went on to state with absolute clarity what would be necessary for union with them to take place: “Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me;  and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and show myself to him…. and we shall come to him and make our home with him” (John 14: 21-24). There are two ‘new commandments’ and together  they sum up and incorporate all the others. The first is to love God with your whole mind and heart, with your whole body and soul, and with your whole strength. The second, most usually quoted as stated in the Old Testament, is to love our neighbour as ourselves. However, in the New Testament and at the Last Supper it is now far more exacting, for we must now learn  to love our neighbour as Christ himself loves us. This is impossible  unless we have allowed the same Spirit who animated Christ to animate us too so that his love can do for others through us, what we can never do alone.

Wisdom from St. Ignatius

But this takes many years trudging on in the Dark Night where true selfless loving is learnt in many years for those who have the courage to persevere. In the words of St Ignatius we have to learn “to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for reward, except to know that I am doing your will.” These words perhaps better than any others sum up the whole attitude of mind and heart that must  determine how we travel on in the Night despite all that would try to draw our heart’s desire from reaching out to God.

I have often wondered what would have happened if that callow young thespian had known from the start where his inspiration would lead him? But the best advice is taken from the hymn of Blessed John Henry Newman: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” The distant scene cannot be seen because we are enveloped by the Dark Night, and we travel on in faith. But moments of light do penetrate the darkness, sometimes like moonlight, sometimes like dawn light, sometimes like sunlight,  sometimes like lightning–to give us hope that the One who dwells in light inaccessible is guiding us to the place where God our Father is waiting to enfold us.  


This course will now be discontinued for a summer break and it will begin again on the first Saturday in September when I will be detailing how to pray in the Night. If you want to use the intervening weeks to deepen your knowledge of ‘the mystic way’ read Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics which complement all that I have said so far.

Image used with permission of Unsplash.

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