By David Torkington
When I first decided to spend my life searching for God I visited the great Carthusian monastery of St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Sussex with the intention of living the enclosed eremitical life.
I was deeply impressed by what I found and I immediately came to the conclusion that it was here that I would like to spend the rest of my life. That is until I had a long talk with the monk who had shown me around. It was obvious that he was deeply happy in his chosen vocation despite long periods of spiritual darkness when the light of God’s love highlighted the sinfulness that kept him out.
However, this did not deter me, for I had long since understood that before union with God could begin, it would have to be preceded by an inner purification, and I was eager for this purification to take place so that my deepest heart’s desire could be fulfilled.
What did eventually put me off was the monk’s frank admission of what happened in, or rather after, experiencing moments of ecstatic bliss, when he experienced the presence of God penetrating him from within. His all but uncontrollable joy was only the half of it, for after moments of mystical ‘at-one-ment’ he would be filled with wisdom too, with a spiritual understanding and insight into his faith that he had never experienced before.
However, what had initially given him so much pleasure was counterbalanced by feelings of deep sadness. The problem was that he had no-one with whom to share the joy and the mystical knowledge that he had not understood before.
What he wanted to do was to shout it from the roof tops, but all had to be contained within him for nothing could be shared with others, at least in the way that he would have wished.
Despite everything else that attracted me to the Carthusian way of life, it was this admission that deterred me. I was a communicator by both inclination and profession and it was my greatest pleasure to communicate what I had learned to others.
Some years ago I had dinner with friends in London. When I was leaving their home I was introduced to the husband’s father, who was busy digging in the garden. Taken by surprise and not knowing what to say I asked a rather stupid question: “And what are you doing”? “I do be digging the garden”, he replied, glancing at his son as if to say, ‘Who’s your fatuous friend?’
Intrigued by his answer I asked a nun who taught Irish in Dublin what was meant by the expression, ‘I do be digging the garden’. She said that it is the English rendering of what is called in Irish, the present continuing tense. It means, ‘I have been digging the garden, I am digging the garden and when you stop asking the obvious, I will continue to dig the garden’!
There is no such tense in English, but it perfectly expresses the meaning of the Aramaic idiom, as spoken by Jesus, and in this case by St John, when he said, ‘God is Love’. (John 4:7). He wasn’t trying to give a definition of what love is in itself, as a Greek philosopher would do, but he was describing that God is ‘loving’. That’s what he is, and that’s what he does, continually.
This is what St John was taught in the synagogue. It was here that he learned how God had loved his people in the past and how he was still loving his people in the present. When he became a young man he tangibly experienced this love in a deeply personal way, through the love of Jesus. After the Resurrection he continued to experience the love of God reaching out to him from Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.
The message of St John then, that you find on every page of his Gospel, is that God has been loving us, he is loving us now, and that he will continue to love us from here to eternity. This is the God in whom we believe when we make our profession of faith, but that is not all. That is who God is from our point of view, looking up, as it were, into what he does. But looking inward from God’s point of view, he not only is what he does, but he experiences what he is. His existence is one lifelong, uninterrupted and eternal experience of loving and being loved.
In order to try and appreciate what this means, use your memory for a moment to remember the most treasured moments of loving and being loved that you have ever experienced in your life. When you have done this then multiply them by infinity, imagine that these moments never began and never end, but simply went on for ever. Imagine further that these experiences of loving and being loved are tangibly felt by someone infinitely more sensitive than yourself. Only then, in some minute way, you might be able to glimpse from afar what it must mean to be God.
There are two fundamental truths: one, that God exists; two, that we exist. How can we come from anywhere other than him? Further, how can we come from him, except through his loving? That’s what God is and that’s what he does, no more, no less.
Now, loving isn’t a reason for creation, not because it is irrational for such a superior being to want to create lesser beings, as the Greek philosophers believed, but for something further. Love is suprarational, if I may paraphrase Pascal: ‘Love has reasons that the reason knows nothing about’. St Augustine said that the pure goodness generated by the mutual loving that is ‘spiritually embodied’ in the ‘Three in One’ must overflow, it cannot be permanently contained within itself.
God’s pure ‘Loving Goodness’ overflowed to express itself into another dimension, in a world of matter and form, of flesh and blood, all created by, and in, his ‘Loving Goodness’. This ‘Loving Goodness’ was called ‘The Word’, because it was the perfect expression of God.
All things were created in The Word and then The Word itself was made flesh in Jesus. Although he was born a helpless baby he grew up to become Christ the King, the masterpiece and crown of God’s creation, overflowing with God’s own inner life and love to transform and transfigure all who would receive it, in this life and in all eternity.
It was when I was speaking to another monk, this time a Cistercian, that these things became clearer to me. Fr Gregory was brought up in Mount St Bernard’s Monastery in England but spent his final days in their daughter house at Mbengwe in Cameroon, where I met him many years ago. There was an old hour glass on the table in front of him, once used to determine time given to personal prayer. He turned it upside-down to make his point. The sand in the top of the hour glass, he said, represented the divine life of Jesus that he had experienced from eternity and which remained with him as an essential part of his personality when, as St Paul said, ‘he emptied himself of all things to enter into our world as a human being like us in every way except sin’. (Philippians 2:7)
Now, because there was no sin in him to interrupt the steady inflow of his divine life into his human life, what finally happened to him is what God wishes for us all. After the uninterrupted inflow of his divine life into his human life, Jesus was filled and filled to overflowing with the love of God, which could now be communicated to other human beings, in a way that could not have happened before.
David Torkington is a spiritual theologian, author and speaker, who specialises in prayer, Christian spirituality and mystical theology. He is also the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles, which teaches the reader how to pray, from the very beginning to St Teresa’s Mystical Marriage.