The Mystic Way Part IV
My parish priest was an expert on the Holy Shroud of Turin. He was always talking, writing and speaking about it in his sermons, as well as his favorite subject, the Mystical Body of Christ. I became confused as a child and came to think that the mystical body was the image of Christ’s crucified body on the Holy Shroud.
It took me years before I came to understand that although the image on the shroud is the holiest relic of Christ that we possess, his Mystical Body is so much more. The Holy Shroud can inspire us deeply and help to strengthen our faith, as it is the risen body of Christ’s image on the shroud. But those who love him do not only see this image, they can now enter into his glorified body in heaven and participate in his action – his loving contemplation of God his Father. Although it took me years to understand this, it was the very first thing that St. Paul understood at his conversion on the Damascus road. The very moment that Christ said to him, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ St. Paul understood firstly that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, and that all his followers were somehow in him, within his new glorified body, later called his Mystical Body. This would have been made even clearer at St Paul’s baptism in Damascus a short time later. The very moment after he was baptized, he would have been clothed in a shining white garment, just like Christ when he rose from the tomb on the first Easter Day. By this sacred liturgical symbolism, the first Christians would be taught that henceforth all they said and did would take place in their risen Lord, within his Mystical Body, in whom and through whom they would offer their love to God the Father. Although it is not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, we know that as soon as possible after he was baptized he would join the members of his new family to celebrate what was then called ‘the breaking of the bread.’ As Christ was made present in the Eucharist, their communion with him enabled them to offer themselves, in, with, and through him to God. They would then receive the outpouring of his love to the measure of the love they had been offering him in their daily prayer, and love of each other.
All was Centered Around the Weekly Mass
This offering would be made whilst Christ was sacramentally present, not just to all of them, but within all of them. Every day would begin with a Morning Offering in which they would commit to put into practice the offering of themselves made that Sunday, and every subsequent day. In this way they would gradually transform their whole lives into the Mass, so that it would become the place where everything they said and did would be offered up through Christ to God the Father. This would lead them on and into true imitation of Christ, because when he ‘said’ the first Mass at the Last Supper, the offering that he made was in fact the offering of his whole life from the moment he was born to the moment he died. In addition to this they would give further quality space and time each day to private personal prayer. In this prayer, from first beginnings to the heights of mystical prayer, they would in essence be trying to do one and the same thing: trying at all times to turn away from temptations and distractions to act selflessly. In this way they continually endeavored to attain White Martyrdom as they died daily to self, endlessly trying to raise their hearts and minds to God, in, with, and through the love of Christ.
The True Meaning of Temptations and Distractions
Perhaps it can now be seen that the temptations and the distractions that we thought prevented us from praying actually help us to pray. The very essence of prayer consists in acting selflessly by turning away from what we would love to think about, or what our imaginations would love to revel in, in order to turn to love God. That is why St. Teresa of Avila said that you cannot pray without them, but neither, of course, can you pray if you continually give way to them. Personal prayer is the place where the selfless loving is learned that opens us to receive the perfect loving of God. That is why St. Angelo of Foligno called prayer time, ‘school time’, because it is the place where loving is learned by endlessly practicing it in what she called the School of Divine Love. It is because all our prayer takes place in Christ’s Mystical Body that in one sense all Christian prayer is mystical and we are all therefore on the mystic way. However, in the course of time, only that form of prayer in which we begin to experience God’s love tangibly working in us, sometimes through darkness, sometimes through light, as it begins to purify us, came to be called mystical. The word mystical is taken from the Greek and merely means hidden, unseen or secret. In time this word has been incorrectly used, predominantly by ‘bounty hunters,’ to mean seeking and benefiting from exotic or esoteric experiences. Sadly, they fail to see that their endeavor is not for God’s pleasure, but for their own. Inevitably, self-seeking prevails and prevents them having from what they desire more than anything else.
The Meaning of True Love
True love that we all desire is always experienced as the result or the byproduct of selfless loving. Those who set out to seek physical pleasure for their own self-gratification from other human beings are called Lothario, philanderer or seducer, never coming to know true love, only lust, destroying lives in their pursuit of it. It is the same for those who only seek God for their own self-satisfaction. Receiving nothing in return they soon give up their search or turn to counterfeit forms of man-made mysticism instead. These at best offer little more than the psychological palliatives that have sadly deceived so many, even good people, into believing they have achieved what only relentless selfless giving can obtain. The biblical word for relentless selfless giving to God is ‘repenting’ and that is what St. Peter told the crowds to do who wanted to receive the love that was poured out on the first Pentecost Day. And it is this that we try to do as we endeavor to put our Morning Offering into practice every day, and what we try to do inside the time we give to personal prayer. These endless acts of selfless loving that are practiced in prayer gradually develop into a habit, creating an inner disposition of selflessness that makes us at all times porous to the love of God, both inside and outside of prayer. This means that we are not only taken up into the love that prevails within Christ’s Mystical Body but that his love penetrates us to the very marrow of our being.
St. Augustine uses a striking analogy to describe the new world in which we find ourselves. He likens the life that abides in Christ’s Mystical body to an all-encompassing ocean of love, likening us to living sponges, at all times surrounded by that love that simultaneously penetrates every part of those who through selfless loving are open to receive it.
However, if we choose to resist the spiritual energy of Christ’s love then our human love will remain self-centered and self-absorbed so the love of Christ cannot penetrate it. This sadly means that the divine and human energy of love cannot mix and merge together to become as one, to rise to contemplate the Father. Although we are taken up into Christ’s Mystical Body at Baptism, the dying to self symbolized in this rite of Christian initiation must be practiced day after day. This will teach us to carry our daily cross most especially when we are led into the Dark Night. Here we will be sufficiently purified to enable our inadequate human love to receive, share, and then be surcharged by the divine.
No Butterfly without a Chrysalis
St. Teresa of Avila likens those who go into the night to a caterpillar who, if they persevere, enter into the state of a chrysalis. The caterpillar that was at all times earthbound is gradually transformed into a beautiful butterfly that can rise into the heavens to be united with the One who created it. For those who have been, or are in the state of a spiritual chrysalis, will know only too well how apt this analogy is. How often before coming into this state have we sung or prayed ‘that God would melt us, remold us and make us new’. However, when he takes us at our word, we find that the melting and remolding that goes on under the direction of the Holy Spirit is all too much for us, especially as the way we prayed before is no longer of any help. This is especially testing when, due to the current antipathy to mystical theology in the Church, there seems no one at hand to help us. At best the Mystic Way is seen as an eccentric way for a few, not a way to be encouraged for the ‘ordinary faithful.’ There are few, therefore, to lead and guide us onwards and through the painful, penetrating, and purifying transformation that can alone enable us to be united as fully as possible to our risen and glorified Lord.
For myself, I have never found anyone in the whole of my life to turn to. Nor have I ever found any modern books that deal with this subject as fully as I would wish. That is why I have spent my long life trying to write the books that I could never find to help me, in the hope that I might help others who are in my predicament. I would be delighted to find that my hope has not been in vain!
Image credit:Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons