''Secretuum meum mihi'' [my secret is my own], so wrote Cardinal John Henry Newman in the introduction to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Although my secret too is my own, and is almost inexpressible, such a secret, the secret life of the Blessed Trinity as lived in the life of the human soul, is so fundamental to man's existence, for it constitutes our Christian inheritance, that I would like to share with you a little of how this secret has gradually revealed Itself in my life over the last 24 years.
I begin my story in 1977, it was a memorable year, it was the year I married. I married a cradle Catholic and, being raised a Protestant, I was required to undergo a period of instruction in Catholic belief and practice. I already understood a little about Catholicism from an Irish friend who was at college with me. Often I would go with her to evening mass to keep her company. From the outset I was intrigued with the mass. I sensed in its drama and symbolism the presence of a secret to which I was not yet initiated. With instruction came the opportunity to read Scripture for the first time, and to discuss it with the parish priest. I found myself even more intrigued. I pondered why it was that Jesus had freely submitted Himself to the most cruel death when, it seemed obvious to me, He could have fled. What was the conviction He possessed which kept Him there, and submissive, even to the point of renouncing His own will?
On reflection, I think, perhaps, that my journey into God had begun some considerable time before this, but I was not consciously aware of it at that time. As a child, I had been taught by my father to wonder, to ''keep my eyes and my ears open''. Being raised in the country, as we were also, he loved nature. He could name animals, birds, trees and flowers, and was very much at home with the rhythm of the seasons. As a young man he had taught himself to play the fiddle, and could sing, and taught us to sing, the ballads, and to recite the poetry which spoke so intimately of country life and culture. He was not overtly religious, but I believe that I learned from him an attitude of mind, which I now believe to be crucial to the development of faith, an attitude which holds itself ever open to a myriad of possibilities. From him and from my mother also, I learned the value of doing one's duty even in the most unpromising circumstances.
I was disappointed then, when the parish priest whom I was attending for instruction, cautioned me to wait until after my marriage to become a Catholic. He knew my parents-in-law well and wanted me to be sure that my becoming a Catholic was not motivated solely by my desire to please my new husband or his parents, but because it was what I believed God wanted of me. And so it was, that I did not become a Catholic at that time. As such, I was considered to be an ''impediment'' to the marriage, and a special dispensation had to be sought so that we could marry in the church - there was no mass.
I still attended mass from time to time, but could not, of course, receive the sacraments. My attention was drawn in a completely different direction with the birth of our first child in the latter part of 1978. Our second child was born in 1981, and a third in 1983. During these years I neither believed nor disbelieved in God, I simply never thought of Him. My life was difficult. My parents and sisters lived hundreds of miles away, and my young husband was unable to give me the emotional support which I craved. He was a general practitioner, and in those days wives were expected to answer the telephone from patients outside surgery hours. As well as answering the phone overnight and all day Saturday and Sunday, it was expected that we would be able to dispense general advice to them also. As well as trying to raise three young children, I had my newly widowed father-in-law to care for also who was deeply depressed. By the end of 1983, I was mentally and physically exhausted. It seemed that I existed in state of deep psychological isolation in which I gave myself to everyone but received nothing in return. This to me was a source of profound suffering. I felt myself to be perpetually humiliated as I struggled each day to do what duty seemed to demand of me. It was during this maelstrom that I made a choice which would change my life forever.
Towards the beginning of 1984 it seemed plain to me that there were two possibilities open to me - to stay where I was, doing what was expected of me, or to leave altogether. It seemed to me that I could not leave my children, and since I had nowhere else to take them to, I would have to stay. But if I stayed, something would need to change. Since I could not change those that I lived with, I had tried that unsuccessfully, I reasoned that it was my perception that needed to change. Since it was the receiving nothing in return for my efforts - nothing emotionally, financially, physically or intellectually that caused me humiliation and therefore suffering, I thought that if I could continue to serve, but without constantly looking for reciprocated affection, I could free myself from the cycle of humiliation/suffering. And so it was that I gave my consent to what seemed at the time like the ultimate act of ''psychological suicide,'' the dispossession of myself with no hope of reward. There was nothing overtly religious about this decision, I simply wanted to free myself. For those readers familiar with the works of Jacques Maritain, they will find in his essay, ''The Immanent Dialect of the First Act of Freedom'', an exposition of the nature of such a radical act. From this act, this giving freely of my Fiat, I found that humiliation became ever sweeter to me. The more humiliation I suffered, the greater was my consolation. It seemed to me that I possessed within me an unending source of Love from which I could give unreservedly of myself and receive one hundred fold. Again, there was nothing overtly religious in this giving and receiving, [I had not yet learned of faith or the possibility of an interior life], I felt only a joyful sense of relief that at last I was free from suffering the bitter resentment that I had found in humiliation. There was a sense of having been liberated from a fearful oppression. I felt in this liberation that I had gained a reward somehow for my past suffering. I do not say that I no longer suffered, only that detachment from it had become a source of joy.
It was not until the beginning of 1986 that my thoughts turned once more to the possibility of becoming a Catholic. During that year our eldest daughter was being prepared for first communion and I felt it was time for me to decide one way or another. Consequently, at the beginning of 1987, I began again a course of instruction. Once again the sense of intrigue returned, but this time with even more vigour. Not only was I attracted to Catholic belief and practice, the person of Jesus, and Scripture, but this time I felt that the secret which lay hidden in them was revealing Itself to me. For some inexplicable reason I was able to understand intuitively, and without recourse to study, all that I was being taught. The mysteries of faith which lay hidden in Church dogma and doctrine, in the liturgy, in Scripture, were suffused with such a clear light that their inner content was made absolutely transparent to me. At this time my father-in-law gave me a copy of Thomas Merton's autobiography, and I found that this intuitive knowing and understanding extended to his text also. The effect of this intuitive knowing was irresistible. I was being moved by some interior principle which was urging me to knock, to search, to ask.
In June 1987 I made my first communion and confirmation on the same day. During the months leading up to this I had lived constantly with an ever deepening awareness of being enveloped by a delectable secret life which was hidden from human eye, but which my heart ''saw'' very clearly. On the day of my confirmation, when I turned from being anointed with the oil of chrism to face the congregation, I ''saw'', though my eyes saw nothing, the Kingdom of Heaven stretched out before me. The Church seemed to be filled with a single Golden Thread of grace which passed through each person and connected us all intimately together into one indivisible whole. As Merton says of his intellectual vision on the corner of 4th and Walnut, in The Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and is a comparable awareness to my own, ''I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all of these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. ... They were all shining like the sun. Then it was as if I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes.'' The gaze of my heart was held captive in that vision, transfixed by Love, as Love revealed Himself as He existed in each of us. I was inebriated with joy. In my naivety I believed that this was what happened to people when they became Catholic!!
Although my home life remained as difficult as ever, I found that by reading Scripture and spiritual books, most often Merton, and attending the sacraments, that I was being drawn evermore irresistibly inwards into a source of Love which upheld me. I lived in a state of introverted extroversion. By surrendering to this secret attraction which held me prisoner in its Charm, I found that I became more and more available to others. I could be with them in very practical ways, for it seemed that we were all so intimately connected to each other and Christ , that whatever I did for them, I did to myself and also to Christ. I began to actively seek solitude, physically and emotionally, the more introverted I was, the more extroverted I could be.
In the middle of 1988 I had our fourth child. Sometime around then, I don't remember exactly when, I began the practice of recollecting myself interiorly. This practice, at the time, was given to me intuitively, I knew nothing of the various stages of prayer. Spiritual reading and solitude were always the ''stepping stones'' to entering this state of recollection. Thereafter I would put myself in the place of the woman with the hemorrhage. I too struggled through the crowd, coming from behind Him, wanting to touch the hem of His garment, believing that I, too, could be healed. I do not now remember how long I persevered in this practice, very gradually I grew closer and closer to Him until the possibility of ''touching'' Him was a reality. Like the bride in the song of songs our interior conversations and declarations of love for each other became more and more intimate until, quite unexpectedly, the One I had been reaching out to touch from behind, turned and, as lovers do, embraced me, and kissed me with the kisses of His mouth. This state of recollection gradually became habitual in me. I no longer needed the aid of my own efforts to be recollected, a ''glance'' inwards, a sound such as a bell ringing, the sound of the breeze in the trees, a song, all brought me into that secret place where He waited for me. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw or heard was filled with presence of Christ. He was my dearest Love, my intimate companion, my ever present friend, my guide. All things were suffused with meaning, and their meaning and purpose was revealed to me by His habitual presence in me. In this delectable state of knowing I could ''see'' the unity of all things.
It is impossible to give a clear description of this state of contemplation. As St. John of the Cross says, no matter what is said of it, all the more is left unsaid. I was inebriated with Love and spiritual joy. I was in love with Love, and I knew with certitude that Love was in love with me. My psyche bristled with the most delectable intuitions of Divine Life. There were more intellectual visions and locutions, each of them bringing a deeper penetration into the mysteries of faith. Eventually through the years of 1993, '94 and '95, there were ecstasies and raptures in which I was rapt from my senses into God. I knew that I stood on holy ground, that I AM had revealed Himself in the centre of my soul, that I was being consumed by His Living Flame of Love. In rapture, one is taught principally about the virtue of Charity. Being consumed by the Flame of Charity, one is transformed into that same Charity.
This then, was the secret life which continued to unfold in me. At the beginning of 1994, I thought perhaps it was time to pluck up courage to speak to someone about it. I wanted guidance, I knew that I was the recipient of a very precious gift, I wanted to be reassured that I was using the gift wisely, and indeed that I would continue to use it wisely. I wrote to the Abbot of a nearby Benedictine Monastery asking if I could meet with him. There, I thought, I would find someone who not only understood my experience but lived the same experience. I met with him fairly regularly over the course of the next four years. I thought that he understood, he always gave me the impression that he did. Gradually I began to suspect that although we were using the same language to speak of prayer, what was understood by each of us in relation to that language was not the same thing. In 1995, I purchased the collected works of St. John of the Cross and found in them the most perfect exposition of what had been wrought so secretly and delectably in me. I tried to speak to the Abbot with reference to St. John of the Cross , fearing that the language I used to describe to him my prayer was inadequate, and that it was this which caused the misunderstanding between us. For a time this seemed to work, and I was reassured that I had found a reliable guide.
In January 1996 I returned to my profession as a nurse, working part-time in my husband's medical practice. I had had a break for 18 years. I found myself overwhelmed with the love I felt for my patients. Each of them was literally Christ to me and I received intense delight in serving them. I found it difficult not to embrace each of them as they stepped into my room. I felt overjoyed and privileged to share in the most intimate details of their lives. Then, suddenly, in April of that year, I was unexpectedly and inexplicably plunged into darkness. All the intuitions, visions, locutions and raptures ceased. I could no longer be recollected in the same manner as before no matter how hard I tried to bring this about. He had withdrawn Himself from my conscious awareness. He who had been my constant companion, lover, friend and guide was gone. I felt, as St. John of the Cross says so succinctly, that I was being undone by a cruel spiritual death. I was grief stricken. I was overcome with a profound sense of meaninglessness. I faced a huge black hole which at times would descend on me with such voracity that I imagined myself to have descended into Hell. I was abandoned, alone in the whole of the universe. What had I done wrong? Had I displeased Him in some way? Was it because I had stepped out a little from the solitude in which I had lived for 18 years to return to my profession? More than ever I needed someone to speak to, to reassure me that this stage of growth was usual and to encourage me to work through it.
The pressure of suffering such a grief and keeping up a normal exterior life was crushing. I turned to the Abbot for reassurance. When I tried to discuss my predicament with him he told me that, ''He was saddened and concerned at my state of mind.'' That I ''relied too much on experience'', I was ''insane and unsaintly'', that I ' read too many books,'' and that I should ''read nothing but the Bible and go regularly to him for confession.'' His lack of understanding and his rejection increased my suffering immeasurably. I was set apart in the deepest solitude imaginable. Whereas other people could speak openly of the grief they felt at the loss of a loved one, I could speak to no-one. What could I say of that loss that would not seem to others to be verging on insanity? I had nursed patients with religious delusions, I knew only too well the treatment that was available to them. I didn't want anyone to know that I was insane, if in fact that's what I was, I kept quiet and bore it. There were times however when I longed to share the burden with someone, and often I would promise myself that I would consult a psychiatrist. But when I ran over in my mind what I would say about my predicament, I knew that there was no way in which I could express such an experience without it sounding insane. My husband had never been aware, and is not even now aware, of my interior state. I felt that I could not discuss it with him without causing him grave concern. On previous occasions, when I had alluded to the possibility of my state, he had been so abashed in the face of it that I resolved not to mention it to him again. I found some consolation in St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2. But nothing, in reality, could console me. I had been placed in a state which I was helpless to do anything about. I felt often that I was hanging over the abyss of atheism. I no longer felt that I was capable of loving God. The vision of Eternal Life which I had enjoyed for nearly 10 years was gone, and in it's place was a very clear vision of eternal damnation.
My grief continued unabated for the next four years. During that time I made a number of retreats, hoping always that I would find someone who understood my experience and could offer me guidance. I consulted, at various times, a Benedictine Abbess, the directors of two separate Jesuit retreat houses, and finally two Carmelite Sisters, one of whom was Ruth Burrows. I recounted to each of them the same story which I am recounting now. All were very pleasant, but it was evident from their reactions to me that not one of them had any idea what I was talking about. None of them, unlike the Abbot, suggested to me outright that I was insane, but their benign smiles and their pats on the head revealed more than words could say of what they believed in their hearts.
In June 1999, out of sheer desperation, I decided to consult our Bishop. I had known him for a number of years, he had often in the past invited me to take part in Pro-Life talks with him. Surely, I thought, he would not dismiss me. He knew me to be sane, had indeed complimented me on a number of these occasions for my, as he put it, ''savvy.'' He embraced me when we met and kissed me on the cheek. We enjoyed together a tray of tea and biscuits. I recounted my story as simply as I could, he listened intently. When I had finished he told me that he knew someone who could help me, he believed that she and I shared the same experience. He wrote me a letter of introduction, and advised me to take it to a consecrated hermit whom knew. I was relieved, I felt that he had understood. I cannot adequately describe the sense of futility that I felt when I visited this woman. It was apparent to me from the outset that she had suffered, and was still suffering, from a pathological mental disorder. I felt angry for her sake that her darkness had been named ''contemplative'' and that she had therefore been deprived of the professional psychiatric help which she desperately needed. There are, it seems to me, many dark nights, but not all of them are contemplative.
I felt then, that I lived in a desert. My experience was obviously incomprehensible to others, I felt that I had been set apart from them somehow. Added to this was an acute awareness that I had lost from my psyche that faculty which deals with affect. I was no longer able to feel joy or sorrow. Everything was colored a deep shade of grey. My memory was indeed empty, not in the sense that I could remember nothing, but in the sense that, whilst I could recall past events, I had lost the ability to recall the feelings which these events had engendered in me. My will too, was empty. Social occasions left me limp with the feeling that I could no longer ''be'' with people, in the sense that I could no longer feel anything about the things which they amused themselves with. My intellect too, was empty, not in the sense that I was unable to understand everyday events, but in the sense that they were all shrouded in meaninglessness to me. For me there was no past, no future, only the ever present now which was filled with the annihilating Gaze of God. Trying to encapsulate in words this profound sense of solitude in which I found myself, I wrote in my journal, in an entry marked October '99, '' I live in a vast unbounded desert in which no-one and nothing appear. By day my eyes are blinded by the brightness of the sun, and my mouth parched with its heat. At night when I lie down to sleep, my body and soul are frozen to death in a wide-eyed awareness of my own absurdity''. Like dear old Job, I too had lost everything that had given life meaning, everything that had offered consolation and an idea of my own worth in God's eyes. I too sat upon the proverbial dung heap covered in suppurating sores. I too had heard from my comforters the explanation of my state. But those explanations I could not accept, to do so would have been to deny Reality Himself. Only a thought of Merton's reassured me. He describes this state of solitude thus, ''The essence of a solitary vocation is that it is a vocation to fear, helplessness, to isolation in the invisible God.'' It seems to me that the fear he mentions is filial fear, a fear which is experienced as a deep sense of dread. Self-knowledge is acute in the Night of the Spirit. In this Night a person sees clearly that he no longer possess anything of himself , nor can he derive anything from others with which he might uphold himself. There is nothing left to depend upon except God, and Him seemingly not there.
It was not until June 2000 that I began, gradually, to be aware that in this nakedness of faith, this desert in which I lived, I had entered unknowingly into the very ''place'' where God waited for me. The desert is a trysting place. I was reminded of a tract from Hosea, 2:14,16-17,19, '''Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her. And it shall be, in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me My Husband, and no longer call Me My Master, for I will take from her mouth the name of Baals, and they shall be remembered by their names no more. I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving kindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.'' It was during that month that I wrote the following little poem in my journal in an attempt to catch this new awareness.
THE ADOPTION OF A CHILD
How strange it should be
It is knowing in unknowing, in which, by the poverty of one's own spirit, one is moved by God's Holy Spirit. One experiences that Reality in the depths of one's being, of which St Paul spoke, '' I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.'' Gal 2:20. It is the same awareness as that of Job who says, '' I KNOW that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last upon the earth; after my skin is destroyed, this I KNOW , that in my flesh I SHALL see God. Job 19: 25-26. This living faith, stripped naked of all that is still too human, as indeed Our Lord was at the moment of His crucifixion, is the beginning of the Resurrection of the flesh even as we live this mortal life. This living faith confers upon us the very being of God Himself, who has become the very principle of our new supernatural existence. In this existence, Christ is made present upon the earth in an incomparable way in us. It is the ''little'' resurrection of which Evagrius speaks which shall be completed in Heaven. Then, there shall be no more Hope, no more Faith, but only Charity in which we shall know, no longer darkly, but even as we are known.
More Reflections on the Contemplative Life
What concerns me first and foremost about the interest that
is shown in contemplative prayer is that people seem to have forgotten what contemplation
is, as defined by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and which was taught, albeit
implicitly, by Christ to His disciples. Without wishing to go too deeply into the controversy which surrounds the topic of
acquired versus infused contemplation, it seems to me that the first thing a person must
do, before they set out to find anything, is to have a true understanding of what it is
they are searching for.
When I began instruction to become a Catholic my greatest concern was that I would be
sufficiently well informed about Catholic belief and practice to become a 'good
Catholic'. In that respect infused mystical prayer found me, not I it. Consequently, I
don't actually know the kinds of questions people ask themselves and others when they set
out to 'become contemplatives,' nor can I guess.
Firstly, I suspect that your statement about most contemplatives being converts is a
bit of a sweeping generalization! I can think, straight of the top of my head, of a great
number, including Catholic Saints, who were not converts, and the 20th Century mystic,
Evelyn Underhill, who remained an Anglican all her life. Nevertheless, in my own case,
which is the one I know most intimately, there is undoubtedly a truth there.
The Church's message, which I listen wearily to every Sunday, is that we will know Christ
only at the moment of death and that we cannot know Him as truly alive in us until then.
This wishy-washy doctrine, predictably, is capable only of inspiring a wishy-washy
response in its recipients, a kind of Christianity which is not fully alive.