Starting to read Fire Within caused some friends to wonder why (out loud). Hungry for more of God, I was gently (and genuinely) puzzled by their words. Contrary to common assumptions about mystics, the description of the supernatural journeys of both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in Fire Within simply helped me realise how ordinary (yet extraordinary) and how grounded in reality they both were. I longed to be on a similar supernatural journey and go deeper into the Father’s heart in prayer and intimacy. Teresa talked of seven mansions and John of dark nights. In my ignorance, I aspired to both, their words encapsulating part of a journey into what’s been described in modern parlance as the ‘dark cloud of the Presence’ and by Celtic Christians as a feature of the peregrinati.
My yearning for knowing Father’s ways was increased through enjoying the antiphonal worship at IHOP in Kansas City in 2000 and for years I’ve continued to worship in that way whenever I can (thank you, JoAnn McFatter!) with a deliberate mirroring of heavenly worship… Those of us engaging then had little inkling that this worship and supernatural understanding would explode across the world. Discovering this came on the heels of a call for me into intercession through the words of Jeremiah 1.11. And, I kept finding myself in situations where both intercession and prophetic declarations were called for where things seemed to happen as a result. From the beginning, intercession, worship and mystical Christianity overlapped for me.
In drawing on Teresa’s writings, Dubay is clear how, in spite of visions, public and private trances and levitations, she sought, in her day, to submit to her superiors in all things mystical. He seeks to explain what her mystic prayer life was like with particular reference to infused contemplation. Submitting reluctant words to the Inquisition and her superiors, Teresa asserted she had little to share. How wrong she was! In an example, Dubay says:
“St Teresa was given to absorptions in God so deep that she would be almost beside herself with amazement and delight not knowing what really she was saying to him…. Another time she would be struck by a “mighty impulse” which would come without her understanding the reason for it: ‘It seems my soul wanted to leave my body because it didn’t fit there nor could it wait for so great a good…. The glory of this rapture was extraordinary. I remained for the rest of Pentecost so stupefied and stunned I didn’t know what to do with myself or how I had the capacity for so great a favour or gift. I neither heard nor saw, so to speak, but experienced wonderful interior joy. I noted from that day the greatest improvement in myself brought about by a more sublime love of God and much stronger virtues.’ “
One of her most telling descriptions (on which Bernini based his famous statue, pictured) helps us have courage to pursue God today:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…”
Today, in support of seeking intimacy with God through meditation, R Loren Sandford says
“The single most important key to hearing from God is intimacy with him and the most important key to intimacy is meditation. Meditation is our own Christian gift of spirituality. Prophetic people must master it or increase the risk of hearing from sources other than God. It is a gift however that has been stolen and twisted by others. Most Christians hold very little interest in meditation – in part because of a misdirected reaction to Hindu and New Agers who have stolen what rightly belongs to us. The church seems to have a bad habit of abandoning good things to the enemy just because the enemy has adopted and twisted them, assuming falsely that if the enemy does something we cannot. But the enemy of our souls is not a creator and can seldom be credited with originating anything. Another influence that has made meditation a forgotten practice is our secular culture – we do not know how to be still. Meditation surrenders the rhythm of constant stimulation and entertainment to silence. More is said about meditation in the Old Testament than in the New which is another reason Christians tend to neglect the practice. Meditation is not prayer in the purest sense – we place ourselves in passive receiving mode and as we enter a state of peace the flow moves from God to us. He speaks and we receive his words.” (Understanding Prophetic People, pp121-125, my paraphrasing)
Sandford goes on to describe the two Hebrew words for meditation – hagah and siach/suach – the first meaning ‘inarticulate sounds that resonate in the soul and the throat’ and the second meaning ‘the practice of repeating a word, verse or concept, until it takes on a life of its own, taking root in the heart and bringing understanding through revelation at a deep level.’
Personally, I have come to understand that Christian meditation need not be always passive as we choose to engage with his presence and his glory. The state of peace (and more) that Sandford describes as flowing from God to us suggests a fundamental change in approach. As the Shalom, Love and Glory of God flows into us, a heavenly DNA of prayer or prophecy is released and our earthly insights are subsumed by his perspective. We no longer need to cry or sing out for heaven to ‘come down’ but, having confidence to approach the throne of God, we can step into that realm engaging with God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit in whatever way they may choose. This is close to what Teresa described as ‘infused prayer’, where she was directly engaged with His Majesty, although the intensity, clarity and frequency of her visions and experiences were awarded supernaturally after many years of practice. Some today are rediscovering how God loves to supernaturally release an infusion of his Glory!
Uncomfortable as it may be, I’ll conclude here with another quote from Sandford that we, in our particular culture, may want to remember. In the context of Teresa’s life, we have to remember that, at times, she was so sick she couldn’t get out of bed. Yet, suffering, she travelled 16th century Spain in a closed wagon planting new convents to help the poor. Suffering is an essential part of the mystical road – not to be sought but not to be resisted if it comes because it refines character. Sandford says:
“Pathema is a particular kind of suffering, the sine qua non of high calling. One who has not passed through the valley of pathema cannot assume the high calling of God. Paul wrote that he had lost everything in order to gain Christ “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings (pathema) being conformed to his death.” (Phil 3.10)