The Mystic Way Part IV
Two months after my brother died, my sister-in-law said what she missed most was simply walking with him, hand in hand in the countryside without speaking a word. There were times when they expressed their feelings for one another in short expressions of love, but the time comes when all you need is to be together in silence to savor the love that binds you together. ‘Speech travels between the separate parts, but in the perfect One there is a perfect silence of bliss’ (D H Lawrence).
A similar development takes place in divine love. When we meditate and reflect on what Christ has and is doing for us now, it leads to heartfelt expressions of love, often filled with feeling and emotion and sometimes even tears. However, the time comes when words fade away leading to silence which some spiritual writers have called the prayer of simplicity or the prayer of simple regard. At this point in our spiritual development, our desire to love God has been so clearly manifested that God leads us on into a deeper and more testing spiritual environment where our love can be more perfectly refined. We are therefore led into the Dark Night when all the feeling and fervor that sometimes accompanied our previous prayer is taken away and we are asked to go on loving without seeming to receive anything in return.
Perseverance in years rather than months
If we can persevere, our love can be sufficiently purified to enable us, in years rather than months, to come to experience something of God’s glory that is our final destiny. When we pray in the Night, however, we are not praying to Christ who felt so close to us before, but now we are actually praying in him, with him, and through him to the Father in mystical contemplation. It takes some time to realize that far from having left us we are actually in him, praying to God himself for whom we now yearn like never before. However, because it will take time practicing selfless giving before we can be sufficiently purified to experience something of his love, we feel all alone in a spiritual desert and the first form of prayer that begins to rise to God is not full of feeling as before. It is, in fact, full of expressions of our need for God’s help in the sorry plight which we now feel envelops us. That is why, when I found myself in this predicament I began to pray, pleading for help, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’? My mother’s favorite short prayer was ‘Jesus mercy, Mary help’.
What I found, and what you will find, is that in time the full sentence used to express your inner desire for God or for his help will be too long. You will feel the need to reduce it to say, simply, ‘My God, my God’, or ‘Out of the depths’, or ‘Lead, kindly light’, or ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’. Then the time will come when a single word will be all you need, like ‘God’, or ‘God help me’, or ‘mercy’. The great Abbot Macarius is thought to have been the author of the Jesus Prayer before it was written down by St. John Climacus in the form that we have come to know it today. Abbot Macarius used to teach his disciples simply to call out ‘Jesus’ or ‘Lord to the rescue’, or simply ‘to the rescue’, or to use St. Peter’s prayer, ‘Lord, save me’ (Matthew 14:30). An anonymous mystic put it this way: ‘If you are drowning and you come up for breath, you do not waste time on many words, you just cry out, ‘help’ or, ‘Jesus help me.’ I cannot give you rules when to change down from many words to few. You will know for yourself.
It is like changing gears in a car
It is like changing gears in a car; once you become familiar with them, you know automatically when to change down. Some people like to count the words or the phrases on their rosary beads. My mother found this helpful, as do I. It is not essential, but if it helps to keep gently fixing your gaze on God in the darkness, that is all that matters. These suggestions will help you to practice the prayer of the heart, or what many prefer to call ‘the prayer of faith’ because there is little feeling in it. It is here that repentance is learned better than anywhere else. This repentance of heart that is practiced in the darkness is worth ten times that practiced in the light. It is easy to pray when the well is full and brimming over, but far more difficult to pray when the well runs dry. This is why it is of paramount importance to give exactly the same time to prayer that you gave when prayer was full of feeling and fervor. And it is in this way that you show by the very consistency of the daily time you give to prayer that you are there for God alone and not for what you receive. Then, as you pray, day in day out, year in year out, you will so demonstrate your unconditional love for God alone, that your love will be purified enabling you to come to know and experience something of the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love that St. Paul said surpasses the understanding.
The subtle magnetic force of God’s love becomes stronger and stronger
If you continue persevering in prayer, come what may, the subtle magnetic force of God’s love becomes stronger. Then, as this process continues and you feel you are going nowhere, a welcome change takes place. When your purification has been sufficiently advanced you are able to experience the love of the Holy Spirit enveloping you ever more deeply as St Teresa of Avila explains in her masterwork, Interior Castle. As this experience deepens and heightens you are left with no doubt that you are experiencing the love of God. Then, suddenly, your prayer changes. It is no longer inspired by anguish, but joy. Short acts of love, thanksgiving, praise, and adoration fan the sparks of love into a flame that wishes only to give glory to God for being God, before pausing in moments of pregnant awe-filled silence to relish the love you are receiving. All you wish now is to remain still and gaze in awe upon the One whom you feel drawing you onward into the peace that surpasses the understanding.
It is like rowing towards the Sea
All these short acts of love are like the oars on a boat that you use to guide it downriver towards the sea. At first, you have to keep rowing to get the boat moving forward towards its destination, but when the momentum has been built up you can sit back and rest for a while as it moves silently forward. The moment the boat starts to slow down, drifts towards the bank or is caught in tidal currents, you have to start rowing again to keep it moving in the right direction. And so you keep journeying on, at one moment rowing to keep the boat on course, at another resting, enjoying the beauty of the surrounding countryside. As you approach the sea you need to row less and less as you experience the pull of the tide drawing you onwards. Once you have left the river you can put aside the oars and set up the sails. Now you can travel with ease and with speed, with the tide on your side and the wind in your sails. Another power takes over to do for you what you could never do for yourself.
All this takes place in that part of the Dark Night of the Soul that St. John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Senses, where it is predominantly our senses that are purified. However, another Night is on the way in which the traveler will find far more testing. It is important to note that when this second Night, called the Dark Night of the Spirit, commences, the Dark Night of the Senses continues. They operate simultaneously. In the Dark Night of the Spirit which involves the purification deepening to the foundations of our inner spirit, our deep pride and prejudices have all to be purified away before the new person can emerge and the butterfly can rise from the chrysalis.
A spiritual weather warning
Towards the end of the Dark Night of the Senses, our purification so far enables us to experience moments of joy as we encounter brief moments when something of God’s glory seems to reach out to touch us. But we can be deceived into believing that we are on the threshold of the Mystical Marriage when the union that we desire more than anything else takes place. However, before this can happen a far deeper mystical purification must finish its course so that mystical union can be consummated. The analogy of the little boat that has hoisted its sail and seems to be sailing with so much ease towards its destination can be deceptive–as any seasoned sailor would warn you. At any moment the wind can drop and the sails can be useless as the boat finds itself adrift in the doldrums. Then dangerous cross-currents can threaten to set the boat off course permanently. Sadly that is not all; at any moment terrible gales, storms, and hurricanes can suddenly erupt, threatening disaster. However, for those who persevere, they will eventually pass through them all and it will be a well-seasoned and wise sailor who will steer the boat into harbor.
In the spiritual life, the traveler will arrive safely because it is the Holy Spirit himself who is at all times at the helm. These terrible storms symbolize the powerful and painful purification that will finally destroy all the evil impulses, inclinations, prejudices and perverted pride that separate us from union with the perfect man who will lead us into the mystical marriage.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.