In an earlier post, I said that I conceived of this blog as a DIY course in classic works on Christian prayer, particularly the contemplative tradition. As I begin to read and study these great works of the past, however, I am constantly reminded of the spiritual teacher of our own day whose work has been largely responsible for encouraging my recently renewed interest in the spiritual tradition, David Torkington.
Discovering David Torkington
Although I’ve gotten to know David Torkington’s work in the past year or so, he has been my Facebook friend for a few years. How he got to be on my FB friends list is a mystery — I probably responded to one of Facebook’s “friend of a friend” suggestions. I would see notices that he had posted a link to a new article or blog post somewhere online, but I don’t think I had actually read any of them, until one day a year or so ago when I saw an article he had written for The Universe, a Catholic newspaper in Britain (Torkington’s home).
I immediately was impressed by the apparent ease with which he communicated essential lessons on spiritual life and the contemplative tradition, writing with great penetration yet in a thoroughly accessible manner. After that, I paid much more attention to his work, reading his books as well as his articles. The books in particular have done a lot to encourage me in my life of prayer as well as to fill in some crucial gaps in my understanding of the role of contemplative prayer in ordinary Christian life as well as in the tradition of Western spirituality.
About the time I start reading his books, I also became aware of a blog series on Dan Burke’s Catholic Spiritual Direction website, and I began following that. The series, recently concluded, covers sixty blog posts in all. Although it is labeled as a “mini-course on prayer,” in fact the series adds up to a book-length exposition of Torkington’s key teachings, which he revisits in each of his books. (This blog series itself, apparently, is destined to be published as a book in the next several months.) I highly recommend this as an excellent way not only to be introduced to Torkington’s work, but to get an excellent overview of the role of prayer in Christian life.
A first-rate spiritual teacher
Torkington is clearly more of a teacher than a scholar — and by this I mean simply that he is more interested in helping others learn what he can teach than he is in arguing abstruse points with other experts. He has a genuine gift for making the spiritual life understandable and accessible, which is key to what he is trying to do: encourage every Christian to follow the way of prayer that leads straight into the heart of God, Who is Love. Anyone who has ever been confused by St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and its many mansions or who has gotten lost in the Cloud of Unknowing will be relieved to find a knowledgeable, able, and patient guide in David Torkington.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about Torkington’s approach is that he clearly wants us all to “get it.” That’s because he believes not only that the contemplative life is open to ordinary Christians, but that it is our God-given calling, which must not be neglected. This is one of several points that he makes time and again in all his books and articles. He’s not afraid to repeat himself, because he want us to hear and take to heart several key ideas:
- The contemplative life is not something reserved for cloistered specialists; rather it is the vocation of every Christian, whether we realize it or not. It is the normal way in which God gradually transforms us into His own likeness, which is necessary if we are to spend eternity with Him.
- The contemplative way of prayer helps us learn how to love as God loves, which is the whole of our Christian calling.
- From the beginning of the Church, Christians recognized this contemplative vocation and lived it — this was the normal way to remain in communion with Christ on a daily basis. But over time, as the Church became socially acceptable and woven into the life of the world, this deep life of prayer became less “normal” for ordinary, worldly Christians and was often reserved for those who lived outside the mainstream of life (hermits, monks).
- At the height of the Counter-Reformation, when the Church was anxious to stamp out heresies that were creeping in, Church authorities became suspicious of the contemplative life, which in its advanced stage might be mistaken for the radical passivity advocated by Quietism. Consequently (and ironically), ever since then, this ancient and authentic practice of Christian prayer has remained untaught and almost known to most Christians — one of the unrecognized tragedies caused (indirectly) by the Protestant revolution.
- Given all the problems of the Church and the world today, now more than ever, Christians need to return to our God-given vocation to be transformed into the likeness of Christ through a deep, daily communion with God, fostered by an ever-deepening bond with Him through prayer. Only by entering deeply into a sustained loving union with Christ can we truly know the love of God and, consequently, share that love with our neighbor.
A timely call
I believe David Torkington is the kind of teacher the Church needs today. His call for all serious Christians to persevere in the life of prayer is an urgent one, and one that I think we all should heed. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog is to encourage this return to the life of prayer by introducing readers to some of the literary classics of the English spiritual tradition.
Some of the works I’ll be discussing, such as The Cloud of Unknowing (recently begun), address the advanced stages of the contemplative way, although others will be more accessible to beginners. Since, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing points out, spiritual works need to be absorbed at the appropriate point in one’s spiritual journey, I encourage any reader interested in “learning God” to read David Torkington’s excellent, highly readable and easily understandable “mini course on prayer” blog series which he recently concluded on the Spiritual Direction web site. To make it easy for you to do this, I’ve assembled links to each of the sixty posts, in order, on this page. No matter at what point you find yourself along the contemplative path, or even if you have not yet set your feet on that path, I think you will find much in this “mini-course” to edify and encourage you.
Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest!