|I would imagine that only a small percentage of
the people who are seriously interested in the life of prayer receive graces of infused
contemplation. What follows is the story of mystical prayer. Accounts like this have been
given a prominent place in past issues of the Forum not so that the majority of us
who dont receive such graces will feel inadequate God calls each of us in our
own way but because any renewal of the Christian life of prayer and contemplation
needs to keep in close contact with its roots, and infused contemplation is an important
Wayfarers Spiritual Journey as
A Contemplative in the World It is not without great trepidation that I have the temerity to write on this journey of mine since it has been effected in secrecy by virtue of its very nature. For this reason, it is written in anonymity so as not to draw attention to, nor to credit me, with anything other than that I am nothing but a miserable sinner. I consider myself to have been blessed beyond anything for which I could ever have hoped. I believe it is fitting to share the Lords glorious and loving ways rather than leave this world (I am 70) without revealing it. It may serve the purpose of encouraging others to contemplation in that it serves to prove that contemplation in a world full of activity is possible, provided one disposes oneself for it and allows the Lord to accomplish it in them, since we are all called to this state.
At age six, having great reverence for the priesthood and feeling drawn to it, I remember asking my mother if all priests go to heaven. Of course, she assured me that they do. I spent part of my childhood in Ireland, and I remember a poignant experience while walking through Ardfert demesne that encompassed the ruins of a Franciscan Abbey. I became absorbed in what I now know as natural contemplation which was accompanied by an awareness of Gods presence that caught me up to gaze on Him in His beauty and magnificence. I subsequently became attracted to the devout life and the awareness of Gods presence.
My spirituality at this time continued to be predominantly sacramental and devotional. I prayed vocally. Expressing a strong desire to eventually attend a seminary, my father attempted to enroll me in order to confront my apparent vocation. While going through the registration process with the priest in charge, I retreated from it, not because I did not desire it, but because I did not want to pay the price of giving up all the worldly things which the vocation demands. I still had strong worldly attachments. To my great shame and sadness, like the rich man in the Gospel, wretched person that I am, I did not have the generosity and fortitude to give up these attachments.
Later, during high school I was given a book by my brother entitled The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton which ushered me into a moral conversion, later understood to be to the Purgative Way. As a consequence, I also read The Ascent to Truth by the same author. I began to read and meditate upon The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis and to experience affective prayer or prayer from the heart.
While living in Richmond Hill, New York, I studied engineering in the evenings while working. During that time, I began to experience pronounced aridity in prayer. The harder and more intensely I tried to pray, the more aridity I experienced. I reached the point that I had to desist from continuing in formal prayer. Then my brother brought home two books from a curates library which were being disposed of. It seems that these books came to me fortuitously at a time when I was in need of them. They were the works of St. John of the Cross (Dark Night, Ascent, etc.) and St. Teresa of Jesus of Avila (The Mansions or The Interior Castle). I learned from these books, to my great relief, that my aridity had been experienced by these authors and many others who dedicate themselves to a prayer life and to attaining spiritual perfection. I found myself praying in a simple way without words, just lifting up my heart and mind to God, as if gazing upon Him and becoming more consciously aware of His presence in all that I was about throughout the day. I became aware that I was entering a personal relationship with God, something that I had not known was possible.
I took these books with me into the U.S. Army which turned out to be what is traditionally known as my desert experience on my spiritual journey. I used them mainly for spiritual guidance, and for lectio divina. I practiced asceticism and all night prayer vigils (guard duty was a good opportunity). I tried to remain aware of the presence of God while going about my duties and even when in recreation.
In the Illuminative Stage or Way, I found myself especially submerged in an indescribably pervading radiance (a normal phenomenon in mystical prayer) visible only to the eye of the soul it seemed, an almost habitual ecstatic mystical experience. It was a directly infused (not through the natural senses) experience of God in an intimate union with Him arising from Gods love.
Because God is everywhere, in this pervading light, my soul found Him in everything in His creation. This became more pronounced and profound the deeper I entered the dark night, from that of the senses to the more excruciating night of the spirit. In times of consolations, however, I felt as though I was living with one foot in heaven and one foot here. It was a bit of paradise on earth alternating with sufferings, sufferings that felt like purifying silver or gold in a crucible to eliminate the dross.
None of the contemplative experiences conflicted, then or thereafter, with my ordinary life in the world. They were in some way miraculously integrated with it, even in activity, with no one knowing of them or suspecting anything unusual or occurring in me out of the ordinary. It is interesting to note that my basic natural personality did not change throughout my spiritual journey. On my part, I could only dispose myself through ascetic efforts (mortifications, kenosis, persistence and patience) with Gods grace. I sought to strengthen the acquired theological and moral virtues (later gratuitously received as infused virtues); most particularly, humility, obedience to my calling and station in life with all its duties and obligations, and filial fear (reverence) of the Lord. In this regard, I feel that when invitingly confronted by the urgings of the Holy Spirit, I was only capable of giving a fiat born of a weak will, strengthened only by the grace of God. I feel that all I had to do was to say yes to Him who accomplished everything in me. All was grace as St. Paul says.
After my discharge from the U.S. Army I completed the final engineering curricular requirements and earned the Bachelor of Civil Engineering Degree. I married. While working in my profession for the next 45 years, my wife and I had six children. All the while I felt drawn to the ordained and religious life which was no longer open to me. However, I became a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.
After the diaconate was opened to married men I applied as a candidate and was ordained six years later. All the while, I was working at my profession, developing ministries and ministering in them regularly.
While still continuing my various pastoral ministries (hospital, nursing homes, college campus, parish, and diocese), I retired. Due to ill health I have had to curtail my pastoral ministry, including my spirituality presentations which were close to my heart. My ministry in individual spiritual guidance, however, now continues with a few persons.
Since our marriage, and after resuming my employment as an engineer, I remained in the prayer of simplicity. Then followed a long period while living the ordinary life (bringing up the children and supporting the family) during which I was caught up in the prayer of recollection; a suspension of the faculty of the intellect in regard to knowledge of the supernatural. In this mode of prayer, I became rapt into ecstatically joyful experiences and the consciousness of Gods beauty and goodness. These were delightfully unique mystical experiences alternating with significant sufferings. Towards the end of the Illuminative Stage or Way, for short periods, my whole being experienced the Prayer of Quiet; a suspension of the faculty of the will. These experiences in the Prayer of Quiet were exquisitely sublime and enthralling while being taken up in a rapture of an indescribably immense love.
As the years progressed, I felt the absence of God, as it were (He is never absent) in which I experienced the wounds of love deeply in my soul. These evoked loving utterances from a heart lifted to God. St. Teresa explains these experiences better than my attempt to do so here.
The suffering in this loss was very keen, particularly since I thought it was the result of my temerity in attempting to become a candidate for the diaconate. Much later, I saw that this period was a natural sequence on the spiritual journey, not a deprivation occasioned by any act of mine. Many of my mystical experiences preceded my retrospective understanding of them. St. John of the Cross characterizes Simple Union as mystical deification, which I see to be an awesome gift. Here, the intellect and the will are both suspended while the memory and the imagination are free, yet troublesome.
Following this period, the Dark Night moved from Dawn towards Noon, the purification of the senses, faculties and spirit having been more or less completed. This complete purification is necessary to effect the integration required of the Spiritual Marriage that mutual love be on an equal basis (one object of deification or theosis). After this period, a pronounced love of all mankind seemed to overwhelm me, experienced on one occasion while simply walking past my office, and on another occasion while in a parking garage.
While walking to my car one evening at dusk to return home from work, I felt confronted with a sudden invitation of the Lord to give my life totally. I somehow innately understood my response to be an act of the will in giving my fiat to becoming espoused to Him. Having given my assent, I felt it was given at the greatest cost to me imaginable like throwing or tossing my life away in a consummate white martyrdom. I am so grateful to the Lord for preparing me, and for the grace, to give that fiat; given that my will is capable of giving only a weak yes. This is reminiscent of my failure to give up all when I had been confronted at the minor seminary in my youth. I experienced ecstatic transports (normal to contemplation, although not necessary thereto), one of which was a mystical view of the beauty of a rose on someones desk in a strikingly real way. It seemed to reflect the beauty of God in His creation.
On another occasion during a Christmas party held in a restaurant, I felt that I was taken out of my body and that my soul was taken up in rapture. My whole being became so ravished in Gods love, that it was all I could do not to cry out and declare my love of God and of all humankind. The ravishing was so overwhelming, and of such delectation, that it defies expression or anything one can say of it. In this experience, I received an intellectual vision of all creation as being incarnate in God through Jesus Christ, of how precious it is to Him; and, a revelation of a stark realism of our incarnation as humans.
On other occasions, I twice experienced the pains of Hell, one lasting about two days, the other lasting about four days. These experiences were exquisitely keenly painful sensations of the utter loss of God, without any diversions (such as we have here on earth) to attenuate them. It was a state of torment where, as I remember noting, ones only consolation is despair. Indeed, I would have given myself over to despair if the Lord had not delivered me from it. At another time, I had the excruciating experience of a complete loss of faith for a few moments when I was about to sit down to a holiday dinner with my family. I have since reflected how terrible it must have been for St. Therese of the Child Jesus to have had to suffer this for so long a period. Again, I had a strange infusion of knowledge while praying in the pew of my church one day. In the course of my personal prayers, I was making an act of love, as usual, when suddenly it came to me that I did not of myself have any love for God. It was a disappointing thought, but it taught me that any love I have of God is from Him. This reminded me of the saying in 1John 4:10: "Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us."
Somewhere along the spiritual journey, I, at times, became a fool for Christ, and was favored with the gift of tears, specifically for the Passion of Jesus; I was gratuitously given the specialness of feeling that I was a darling of God (a beautiful intimacy) notwithstanding my sinful nature and secretly experienced the internal stigmata in my body for a short interim. I remember expressing joy that our Blessed Mother Mary has uniquely received all her magnificent gifts, graces and honors from the Lord, and I experienced, then and now, delightful feelings of lightness in my extremities which St. John of the Cross says redound from the soul sometimes after having received infused spiritual favors.
I experienced partial levitation while walking toward our local high school to attend a play. I heard my brother, who was walking some distance behind, remark to a companion that he thought that I was lightly tripping across the field. For my part, I felt that I could almost fly off the ground. It might be noted that most all the mystical experiences received were not pronounced enough to be visible to others, or to call attention to them. Fortunately, I have been spared the attention and importance others might likely place upon them, thereby, sparing me the embarrassment and the need to respond to natural inquisitiveness.
The next and last degree of prayer entered into, along the Unitive Way, was that of Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage. Here a person becomes one with God by participation through transforming love, known as deification.
My experience of the Spiritual Marriage or Transforming Union was initially pronounced, clear, and wrought in an intellectual vision. I was viewing television one evening, not totally absorbed in it, when I became aware, deeply in my soul, of a state of spiritual inebriation approaching spiritual drunkenness. I was overcome. Immediately, I moved to another room where I reclined to reflect upon this rapturously entrancing experience I was in. Only later did I come to really understand it. I was reminded about the passage that this resembled in the Spiritual Canticle, verse 26, by St. John of the Cross:
In the inner wine cellar
Slowly dying to the world and self, I felt in the recesses of my soul Jesus white martyrdom, as expressed in the Gospel, I have no place whereon to lay My head; His heartfelt compassion for the widow of Naim; as if I had become a corpse (dead to the world); that I was walking along the via crucis on Christs dripped blood; a purification in the Blood of the Lamb by being bathed in it for long periods, especially during my ongoing pastoral ministry at a nursing home; the scourging, rebukes, spitting, buffeting, ecce Homo, the utter humiliation of Christ, the nailing of the Crucifixion, the dying on the Cross, the experience of Jesus feeling abandonment by the Father - all parts of the Passion of Christ; the death of Christ in my dying to my own self; the anointing of Jesus with the seeming sense experience of scenting the fragrances of aloes and myrrh; the entombment and a mouldering of the corpse; and finally, resurrection experiences (dawn to noon of the Dark Night) with its concomitant liberality of spirit. These latter mystical experiences were not accompanied by sufferings that were retributive.
At times, I would feel the sufferings and groanings of humankind in my soul; and also, the groanings of the Holy Spirit, reminiscent of St. Paul. I also felt unidentifiable internal sufferings in my soul, seeming with no apparent cause, so keen that I could do naught but sit and just endure them.
My passions became so attenuated that I no longer feel them. Moses, according to Josephus, had arrived at this toward the end of his life (he died at age 120). He wrote that Moses no longer knew his passions except by their names. As I live life, I no longer live my own life; but that Christ lives in me as my real self, since I died to my old self.