People like to use all these nice glowing words like “enlightenment” and “inner peace,” and talk about consolations and “spiritual experiences.” Now, most of the time, when people use these terms they’re really talking about physiological experiences and psychological phenomena (i.e., the oxytocin surge one gets from meditation). One of the many dangers of failing to discern true spiritual or mystical experience and focusing too much on feelings is to confuse anything that brings on those kinds of feelings with a spiritual experience.
Even when people have genuine spiritual experiences, it’s usually of a kind that, when you delve into the saints’ writings on the subject, is really what the saints would consider the first stage of getting anywhere in prayer.
True mysticism is about union with Christ, and union with Christ means union with His sufferings. St. Teresa of Avila says that the most definitive sign that one is on the right track with mental prayer–and the best “consolation” one can receive–is the gift of tears. The saints agree that the Passion is the most important subject one can meditate upon, and that’s why it’s the basis of so many devotions. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius begin by meditating on the sufferings we deserve in Hell, and on the sufferings of Christ. That is why the first sign we’re on the right path is the ability to weep for our sins, for Christ’s sufferings, etc., and, better yet, to meditate by imagining what Christ’s sufferings felt like for Him. People make a big deal about the Stigmata, but they *hurt*. Padre Pio bled profusely and was in horrible pain. Many mystics have experienced spiritual stigmata that were not visible but gave them all the pain of the actual wounds.
The further we get in the spiritual life, the more Christ asks us to join in His sufferings. The spiritual life is not all sunshine and roses. The main reason most people fail to advance in the spiritual life is that they don’t want to. First, we have to be able to give up our sins, and our concupiscence makes us desire them. We cling to our pet sins because we figure there will be time. We think in a minimalist manner about mere forgiveness. If getting to Heaven were merely about forgiveness of sin, we’d have it easy, but it’s not. To get to Heaven, one must be perfect, one must be totally conformed to Jesus Christ, and very few people achieve that in this life–that’s what Purgatory is for.
In _The Great Divorce_, his modernization of _The Divine Comedy_, C. S. Lewis depicts purgatory as a bus ride from Hell to Heaven. Heaven is so “real” that the souls cannot bear it. There are various trials they undergo-waiting in line, being inconvenienced, suffering the pain that comes from the “reality” of Heaven, and then finally encountering people they have not forgiven who are in Heaven (such as the father of a murder victim who encounters the murderer and cannot forgive the murderer whom God has forgiven).
That is pretty much a good analogy of what Purgatory is. Purgatory is about purging *all* our attachments: first, our attachments to sin, then our attachments to *anything* that isn’t God. Finally, when all those attachments are purged, we can begin the process of union with Christ, which starts with embracing the Cross fully and literally.
Any of us can achieve that in this life *if* we are willing to rid ourselves of the attachments that all of us, myself included, cling to in our fear and weakness.
For those who embrace mental prayer, and manage to overcome most of their sins, and manage to practice some level of detachment and asceticism, the stage of fully embracing the Passion is the great challenge. Even those who have achieved those other difficult tasks will, when given just a taste of it, say, “Oh, no, not this. This is too hard.”
I had but a taste of it today. I was visiting my daughters’ Catholic school and waiting for them to come down for lunch. The cafeteria has a big crucifix with broken feet. Now, as a devotee of the Infant of Prague, I believe that one method of prayer and devotion is not so much the use of statues and images for prayer as the reverence we show them as reverence for Christ in absentia. Devotion to the Infant Jesus is about giving Him the worldly glory He was denied in His life on earth, and we give honor to Jesus when we honor His image.
OK, so I was right at the foot of this crucifix in my wheelchair. I looked intently at its broken feet and imagined how Our Lord might have felt had His feet been so broken in actuality. I thought about the damage that His tortures and carrying the cross might have done to His precious toes. Then I looked at some other parts of the statue that appeared to also have peeled paint. Then I realized that those were *not* peeled paint. The artist who did that Crucifix depicted Our Lord’s knees being stripped down to the muscle from carrying the cross and enduring the scourging. I was horrified at the thought. Then I began to pray an aspiration over and over–I think it was the Miraculous Medal prayer, but I don’t remember. Then I felt contemplation coming on and stopped and just sat there silently in my wheelchair, at the foot of the Cross. My last bit of active meditation was to imagine myself at the foot of the cross with John and Our Lady and the holy women.
Then it hit me.
It was brief, and barely even what I would call a conscious experience. I can’t in any way describe it. It just welled up within me from that place where God touches our souls in prayer.
But after all my years of mental prayer, after all my various approaches to reflecting on the Passion and trying to use my imagination to conjure up what it might have been like, I was given by Our Lord a taste of what it actually was. In some spiritual manner I *was* at Calvary. In that moment, the whole burden of the torment of Calvary came upon me. It flooded my soul.
I backed away.
I couldn’t take it. It was too much. I think I’d rather have experienced the pains of Hell. Both C. S. Lewis and Fulton Sheen compared Jesus to a dentist. When you’re in the dentist’s chair, the pain of getting your tooth worked on seems worse than the pain of the toothache–and sometimes it *is* worse.
That is a very rough analogy for what I experienced today. For it was not just about the pain. It was the overwhelming sorrow. The sorrow and fear that those standing by Jesus’ side felt for Him; the sorrow He felt for them and for all of us. I guess that’s it: usually, when I reflect on the Passion, I focus on the pain, but this was all about the sorrow: Sorrow incarnate, sorrow in some tangible sense that welled up inside me and filled and consumed my soul. The deepest despair or depression I’ve ever felt was a picnic compared to this sorrow, yet at the same time it had a wholeness to it, a fullness that was the direct opposite of the emptiness of despair.
Indeed, if on the one hand the experience was more painful to endure than the worst despair or the worst physical pain I’ve ever felt, at the same time, I recognized that its literal fullness was more truly fulfilling and uplifting than the most positive aesthetic experience or “inspirational” experience in the commonly used sense.
I could spend my life just trying to describe that one experience of a few seconds, and I could spend my life considering its import, for it was, ultimately an invitation. It was an invitation to take my journey to a higher level, to a next step that is extremely frightening because of the demands it will entail.