Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[77] VIII

Carmel: Love Contemplative

"When He had sent them away, He departed into a mountain to pray." S. MARK vi. 46.

LOVE is not merely active. It is also contemplative. It spends thought in realizing the Beloved: delights in mutual presence. Otherwise, Love's action would spring from self Thus our Lord's activities were made possible by prayer. He found it needful to get away to be alone with His Father. Even He could not nourish His spiritual life as man without special times of quiet.

The dangers of the mystical experience, pursued for its own sake, are obvious. But we must not, because of its dangers, neglect its rare treasures. The best way to escape the pitfalls while racing for the prize is to fix our thoughts on the perfect example. Jesus was the perfect mystic. Evelyn Underhill, in The Mystic Way, has traced for us the life of Christ from this point of view. Some of the analogies between Jesus and mystics may [77/78] be overpressed. Some of them, such as that of the Calvary cry with the dark night of the soul, seem unmistakable.

Jesus, in His humanity, was one of God's Lovers. He knew that intimacy with God is deeper than words or any intellectual expression. All personal intimacies bear this quality. That which one can put into words is their least important part. Religion has been defined as "living from the deepest depths of being." More than others the mystic is conscious of this. All know that the mystic, like the poet, is removed from the common man only in degree. Every Christian with personal religion has some share in what is called the mystical experience, although in some it is slight and not always recognized. Let us try to see something of what this involves.

Love contemplative is occupied with God. The vision of God in some sort is its business. First of all comes the intellectual. That is in the outer court. But it must not be despised. Those of us who are not intellectualists are misunderstood. We do not desire to prevent the use of the intellect. We merely want to prevent its tyranny. We would not pander to stupidity or indolence, or intellectual cowardice. Intellect is needful to correct certain characteristic evils. Modern piety is too subjective. That we often [78/79] hear. Also it is too sentimental. We are forever troubling ourselves about our own experience, our need of God, our plans for His service, our love of Him, our religion. These things are right in their place. But remember that religion is above all things a response.

God's Love to us, God's plans for us, God's hopes for the world, God's own experience to which all our piety is answer. It would be well, therefore, if we were to take trouble to think about God. It is curious how little we do this, we who believe in Him. The nature and attributes of God seems nowadays a dull topic. Theology in its true sense is out of fashion. In its place we have on the one hand the philosophy of religion, which is an analysis of human experience, and on the other, criticism or history. Could we follow Jesus on Mount Carmel, it would be better. We will not. We prefer to talk about mystics instead of treading the winepress alone. This is one danger of this so-called mystical trend. Many take pleasure as they toy in dainty editions with the austere wonder of S. John of the Cross. They keep with them the "little book of the Love of God," and hope thereby to reawaken faint echoes. Mysticism will do only harm, if it means a delicate interest in our own methods. But before anything mystical comes hard thinking. What does it [79/80] mean to say that we believe in God. The secret of all reality is Love. Is that true? It is terrific in its implications and its difficulty. Many of our difficulties come because people have not taken the trouble to see what this means. This is true even of some so-called theologians: a modern specialist in criticism on history may be lacking in knowledge of theology. Half the trouble about miracles is due to this. People do not believe in a live God, or at least they have never been at the pains to see what such a faith involves. Partly owing to the statement that God is impassible, people think of Him as a thing. We need a more dynamic notion of God. This is not a matter only for the learned. We all know what we mean by a person, however little we may be able to define personality. No single man or woman in the Church but could, if he would take a little trouble, arrive at a much clearer comprehension of the Christian religion. Let him ask himself, and spend time in thinking out, what it means to say that God is Love.

Thought, however, is only a means of arriving at conclusions about God. For intimacy we must enter into His life. That is why our Lord departed into the mountain to pray. That is what all of us need at this time. The interpenetration of spirits is the essence of friendship. "If a man love Me, he will keep My words; and [80/81] My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make our abode with him."

First of all we need this in the shape of intercessions. Expensive dignitaries may deprecate too much prayer. Imagine our England suffering from a surfeit of prayer! Yet intercession is increasing, and will increase. Puritans sometimes attack Catholics as though they paid no regard to prayer. This is not fair. The error is due to the fact that set forms of prayer seem to some a bar to its reality. Also, they do not, cannot understand the meaning of the Mass to us, the supreme prayer-meeting. Catholics value the Mass for many reasons. One aspect of it is that it is the most potent form yet known in history of corporate prayer. We too may learn, are learning, from the other side. Extempore prayer will play more part in the religion of the future. Only let it be extempore. If it be a necessary part of the service, at some fixed point, as in the average Nonconformist service, then it tends to become rigid in its outlines. It has the principle of set prayers, and differs only in that the English is not so good. This dislike of intercession springs from the pride and self-sufficiency of individualist religion, which is the direct opposite of Christian feeling. The Catholic Church is a fellowship. What is the use of talking of the bond of Christian charity if we may not pray for those whom we [81/82] love? Moreover, this is so whether they are here or beyond the veil? Why, indeed, are we not to ask for the prayers of all others whose life is in God? Vain and stupid are the efforts to hinder this. They are as little like to succeed as the efforts of Canute's courtiers to stay the tide. Do not forget. In this and other things the tide is with us. True, petition and intercession are after all but the outside of prayer. That is what gives the leverage to those who attack them. Prayer is above all things communion with God; being in His society.

This getting alone with the Father was Jesus' aim in departing out into the mountain. This it is which frightens us. Most people are afraid to be alone with God. Yet religion is the development of a friendship, and that means delight in mutual society. Yet so afraid are we of this that even in church we like as much as possible to distract us. The Puritan ideal of naked worship had this end. It was designed to remove all adventitious attractions, and to bring man into God's immediate presence.

The method was a mistake; it ignored the sacramental principle, and sprang from a false notion of spirit as the negation of matter. But it did partly effect its object. These people, men like John Owen and many others, had a sense of the communion of the soul with Divine Majesty. [82/83] That sense is rare now. Nowadays when men shut out the outer world, they seem often only to exchange it for a. yet greater chatter. Let us have our service of praise and music and incense and outward ceremonial. Also let us have times of quiet. Some of us "don't give God a chance," as a poor woman in my parish said. How can we expect to hear God's voice, if we never listen for it. People treat God as though you could ring up on the telephone and need not put your ear to the receiver. That is why people dislike meditation. They think they cannot picture things or work them out. The rules in the book are too elaborate. Other people's meditations, as published, seem unreal. They give it up. But meditation is the means of passing time in God's exclusive society. All these helps are suggestions. Use them by all means, if you will. But be not tied down to any. The hardest thing of all to stop is the machinery of our inner life. That silence in heaven of the Apocalypse is a symbol of what we need. But it is hard to attain. Real silence, silence of the mind no less than rest from action, silence of the heart no less than of the mind, and even silence of the spirit, this is hard. We make it hard. We don't want it. We are afraid. "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; mine eyes have seen." That [83/84] nearness of God it is which we at once see and fear.

Much is said now of a corporate silence, and a movement thereto. How much good this will do I know not. That implies organization and a good deal of talk. But I am persuaded that we need more and more of the reality of silence before God. The same need in the Middle Ages drove men by thousands into the cloisters. In the seventeenth century, it made that brilliant worldling the Abbé de Rancé into the founder of La Trappe. What is it going to do now? A good deal, I suspect. We need it more.

Louder daily grows the clamour of the world. This war is but one aspect of it. All our ears and eyes are now linked up by the telephone and the telegraph. How few are the quiet spaces, unless we make them, in our lives compared with a hundred years ago. Some now in the trenches may come home, asking for places of quiet. Even in England perhaps we shall see once more contemplative orders. We are sure to see an increase of the "religious life."

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