“Every great reforming council has looked back to the scriptures, the early Christian community and the Fathers of the Church for their inspiration. This was particularly true of the Fourth Lateran Council, whose reforms were successfully put into practice thanks to the inspirational genius of St Francis more than to anyone else… What I would like to do now is to show how, by following the example of St Francis, we can help make the teaching of the Second Vatican Council ever more successful in our own lives and in the lives of the wider Church.
The Second Vatican Council was preceded by what was called the ‘New Theology’ that inspired it. This was in fact the very ancient theology that prevailed at the dawn of Christianity, but reinterpreted and re-presented, thanks to the ‘modern’ biblical, liturgical and historical research that enabled this Council to take place. The sadness was that one vital branch of early Christian theology had been forgotten by the scholars who promoted the ‘New Theology’; this vital branch was central to the vision of St Francis and St Bonaventure, and was what is called ‘mystical theology’. The main reason for this was that over the centuries the very word ‘mystical’ has been debased by the early influence of the Greek philosophy of Neoplatonism. As a result the word mystical is now primarily used to refer to psychological states of awareness and various dubious ‘mystical’ phenomena. This was not how it was used by the Fathers of the Church.
THE HIDDEN LIFE
St Paul called the central mystery of our faith ‘The Mysterion’. By this he means the fullness of God’s Plan for humanity, revealed by Jesus Christ, to draw all who would receive it into His HIDDEN or MYSTICAL life that He continually receives and returns in kind to His Father. Christians who, by ‘carrying their daily cross’ and practising ‘the prayer without ceasing’ came to experience this mystical life in such a way that they could eventually say with St Paul: ‘I live, no it is not I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ These Christians came to be called ‘mystics’ by the early Fathers of the Church because of their single-minded commitment to entering into the mystery of Christ (The Mysterion), and not because they had ecstasies or strange esoteric experiences. It was after being empowered by the experience of living in Christ that many of them gave their lives for Him in what came to be called ‘red martyrdom’ and in what later came to be called ‘white martyrdom’, when the days of systematic persecution came to an end. Both of these ‘mystical martyrs’ have been the supreme witnesses to the faith, inspiring their brothers and sisters to remain steadfast in times of persecution, and to reform in times of spiritual decline.
It was only in the aftermath of the Council of Trent (1545-63) that the indispensable role of the ‘mystic’ in the church was gradually undermined. This was, in the main, due to its counterfeit, Quietism. It carried the ‘via negativa’ of Neoplatonism to the ultimate extreme. The believer was not only encouraged to do absolutely nothing in prayer, but to do nothing about temptations either! It was thanks to the Church’s success in crushing Quietism, which was condemned in 1687, and in promoting the Gospel of ‘good works’, for fear that Catholics would fall into the enemy camp, that mystical prayer simply fell into abeyance. In his monumental history of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way: ‘The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole… At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.’
In the years that followed nothing was done to repair the damage, and by the time the 20th century had fully dawned, a resurgence of Neoplatism had changed the original Christian meaning of the word mystical. It now came to be used, almost exclusively, to refer to inner psychological states of transcendental awareness. It was not surprising that both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ theologians looked on mystical prayer, that was so important to St Francis and St Bonaventure, with deep suspicion. Sadly this meant that there has been a failure to emphasise the profound mystic spirituality that abounded in the early Church and which later inspired the Franciscan Spring in the 13th century.
SCHOLA DIVINI AMORIS
The inner spiritual love that inspires those whose spirituality is centred on and grounded in the Risen Christ and the love that animates Him are always the best possible ambassadors to bring the sort of true and lasting renewal that followed in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council. The early history of the Franciscan order bears witness to this. Every council depends for its success on two things – the action of the Holy Spirit and hearts ready and open to receive Him. God is continually loving us through His Holy Spirit, but if we do not freely choose to receive this loving, then we prevent God from acting through us as He wants to do.
Love can only be received by loving, and in the most ancient and hallowed teaching of the great spiritual writers prayer is the place where loving is learnt, in prolonged and protracted periods set aside for that purpose. As the Franciscan Mystic, Angela of Foligno put it, ‘Prayer is the ‘Schola Divini Amoris’ (the school) where loving is learnt.’ This is the school where the great saints and mystics learn the selflessness that opened them to receive the love that St Paul said ‘surpasses the understanding’.
PRAYER OF THE HEART
It is this love, learnt in prayer, that has for centuries inspired great saints to renew the Church and to do so repeatedly. I am not just talking about vocal prayer that we share with others when we take part in the liturgy, but of the deep personal prayer that was the heart and soul of all and everything that St Francis said and did. I am talking about what St Bonaventure called ‘the prayer and the spirit of devotion’ on which he insisted all renewal depends. I am talking about what St Bernadine of Siena called ‘the prayer of the heart,’ which vocal prayer depends on. In the Franciscan hermitage of Fonte Colombo, St Bernadine had these words written and set in gold around the choir stalls where his friars chanted the divine office: Si cor non orat in vanum lingua laborat (If the heart does not pray, then the tongue labours in vain). In other words, the power of vocal prayer depends on the profound personal prayer that determines the quality of a person’s relationship with God before they even open their mouths.
On 11 October last year our former pope, Benedict XVI, announced that the Church would celebrate a Year of Faith which will end on 24 November this year. What better way to do this than by beginning again to deepen our own personal prayer life…”
– This article by David Torkington was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue April 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy