By David Torkington
Many years ago when I used to run courses for school leavers, I used to begin by asking the boys and girls to tell me when they were last really happy. I remember one boy said that it was when he was fishing with his father, another when watching one of his favorite films, and yet another when he was playing football with his friends. One of the girls loved a day of retail therapy with her mother, another loved playing the piano, not for her exams, but for the sheer pleasure of it. Finally one girls said her happiest moments were spent on holiday with her boyfriend. Strangely enough it always used to take them a long time to see the common denominator – the reason why doing all these different things had given them all so much pleasure. For a greater or less period of time they had been so absorbed in something, or someone else, that they simply forgot about themselves. In the discussions that followed they usually came to the same conclusion, namely that, this happiness could be found and perpetuated more in loving someone else than in anything else.
In the first Christian centuries no one sought to live for themselves, but for God and for his honour and glory alone. All authentic prayer of whatever sort ends up here, as did the prayer of Jesus. That’s why the first Christians learnt to seek God not for what they could get out of him, but for himself alone. Seeking God for what you can get out of him was an unfortunate development that came later, thanks to the influence of Neoplatonism. However on occasions, but rarely, you do find expressions like ‘sober inebriation’ or ‘spiritual intoxication’ to express interior spiritual feelings that sometimes occurred while taking part in the liturgy or in prayer. You can find words like Apatheia or Ataraxia too, words borrowed from Stoicism. They are used to refer to the inner peace and tranquility experienced at the outset of contemplation. You find words like spiritual transportation too, as these inner states of repose become ever more intense and raise believers up and into experiences similar to those that St Teresa of Avila would later call the Spiritual Betrothals or the Mystical Marriage. However I have only mentioned them to make the point that they were only very rarely used – Why? Because the whole emphasis of early Christian spirituality was not on oneself, but on God, and on his good pleasure, not one’s own. The faithful did not seek out mystical experiences to give themselves pleasure, they sought out God to give him pleasure. Their whole aim and the whole object and direction of their spiritual life was not to seek their own honour and glory, but the honour and glory of God. It was in doing this that they, like any lover who lives for another, forgets themselves. Then, freed from self-absorption and the misery that this brings, they experienced the joy of living for another.
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