The Mystical Canticle by O’Neill D’Cruz

Our Father, Who art in heaven 

Matt 6:9

“Our Father, Who art in heaven.” The poetry of these first six words signal that this familiar prayer is also a mystical canticle. They invite us to “come and see” (John 1:39) how it can be prayed to form and inform our spiritual journey. No wonder Jesus taught his disciples to “pray in this way” (Matt 6:9). In seven short verses, Jesus reminds us that “no one can come to the Father” except through “the Truth [and] the Way [that leads to] the Life” (John 14:6). Following Jesus’s lead, we explore these mystical universals—Truth, Way, Life—using the prayer he taught us as our guide.

Christian tradition divides the spiritual journey into three stages—purgative, illuminative, unitive—that guide our reflections. Since this familiar framework provides us with both cues and clues, we can use it to meditate on the three universals. Mystical literature is replete with paradoxical phrases, and the mystical canticle is no exception. Our reflections begin with a literal application of the biblical phrase “the last shall be first” (Matt 20:16), so we begin with the last verse of the mystical canticle and work our way to the first. Let us pray…

Purgative Stage

Deliver us from evil; Do not let us fall into temptation

“He remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:13). So begins Jesus’s journey, as it does with every human being who sets out on the spiritual path. The evil beasts include insatiable craving, wild passions, and unbridled desires. It is inevitable that “in the desert” novices are ensnared and drained of meager spiritual resources. Thus, the first verse is a call to the better angels of our nature to minister to us in our hour of need, which may last for “forty days,” weeks, months, or years. The second verse also conveys the trust that the Divine has not abandoned us—otherwise, why would we be asking for deliverance and fortitude? In our very asking lies the hope that help is near at hand, and in the promise that the Divine will not abandon “a bruised reed . . . a smoldering wick” (Isa 42:3).

In the purgative stage, it takes commitment and sustained effort to move beyond our inordinate attachments or addictions. While this stage is full of pitfalls and temptations that can snare us early in the spiritual journey, it is also a rite of passage to the next stage. The purgative stage teaches us to recognize our common frailty and vulnerability, fosters humility, and leads us to trust Divine grace and gifts. It also trains us to shift focus from an individual to an interdependent perspective—from me to we—as we transition to the illuminative stage of the journey.

Illuminative Stage 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; Give us this day our daily bread

Jesus taught us to see the healing and nourishing work of the Divine in our lives and to share it with each other. He urges us to take the initiative to repair human relationships before we proceed further: “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). In typical rabbinical fashion, Jesus emphasizes key messages by repetition. Forgiveness is so essential to any progress on the spiritual journey that the exhortation to forgive is repeated three times in a single chapter of Matthew’s gospel (Matt 6:12, 14-15). Later, Jesus reminds his disciples to spare no effort in mending frayed relationships (Matt 18:15-18). In typical human fashion, Peter wants to count and keep score of “paradise points” for forgiving. Jesus points out (in a parable) that Divine forgiveness arises from compassion, which dis-counts trespasses scores and scores of times, and that true forgiveness is a matter of the heart, not the head (Matt 18:21-35).

One sign of transition to the illuminative stage is a readiness to forgive both self and neighbor. The purgative stage prepares us to recognize our hurt and pain. The illuminative stage helps us to see that as we develop our capacity for compassion, we can respond with forgiveness to hurt and pain, both in ourselves and others. Since we can only receive from the Divine Source according to our capacity, forgiveness becomes a lifelong spiritual capacity-building exercise, and atonement for the hurt we have inflicted on each other aids our journey toward at-one-ment with God and neighbor.

Similar to forgiveness, giving and receiving “daily bread” is a matter of awareness of the Divine Source of Life. In the desert, Jesus asserts “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4, Deut 8:3). When Jesus’s disciples ask whether he had eaten, he responds, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Thus, Jesus links Divine Work, Will, and Word as “bread of God . . . which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

The daily gift of life-giving Spirit kindles compassion toward all who are in the care of the Divine, including “the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field” (Matt 6:26-29). We are blessed with an awareness of divine providence and cosmic interdependence. This awareness enjoins us to build human relationships, become “repairers of the breach” (Isa 58:12) and foster reciprocity by “freely giving what we have received for free” (Matt 10:8). In the illuminative stage, the me is fully included in the we. Note that none of those invited to enter the kingdom of heaven kept score of “paradise points” as they did the Father’s work and will on earth (Matt 25:37-39)!

The move to we in the illuminative stage is a necessary precursor before moving from an interdependent to an integrated perspective, where we is united with Thee. This is the unitive stage of the spiritual journey.

Unitive Stage

Thy Will be done on earth as in Heaven; Thy Kingdom come; Hallowed be Thy Name

Jesus repeatedly uses death-and-rebirth motifs to introduce his disciples to the indwelling Divine: the “grain of wheat” analogy (John 12:24); being “born anew” (John 3:3); “who loses one’s life will find it” (Matt 10:39); and “The Father who dwells in me is doing the work” (John 14:10). In the quest of an everlasting human life, the disciples overlook what Jesus offers: an eternal “now-ever” life-in-the-Divine, which, being eternal, has no duration, yet is both now and evermore (John 10:10).

The mystical canticle encodes spiritual features of the unitive stage in three verses. At previous stages of the spiritual journey, finite aspects of one’s individual identity have been either eliminated (purgative stage) or sublimated (illuminative stage). The spiritual journey now becomes so perilous that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few in number” (Matt 7:14). This is because all of one’s remaining finite aspects must be integrated into the Infinite as part of the unitive stage. When one wonders, After all the spiritual work to be free, am I free of the concern of whether I am free or not?, there is still more work ahead.

The mystical canticle changes pronouns in the three verses that refer to the unitive stage. Unlike the us in the four previous petitions, the pronoun in these verses is Thee: Thy Will, Thy Kingdom, Thy Name. In this stage, one’s will, aspirations, and even one’s name must go silent and incognito. There is no longer any personal motivating force to direct the journey, only the yielding and yearning for the Divine to work through, with, and in us.

During this portion of the spiritual journey, countless spiritual “dark nights,” desolations, and deprivations are the “valleys of the shadow of death,” while glimpses of Divine truth, power, and glory are the “mountaintop” peak experiences of the unitive stage. When one relinquishes all of these desolations (agony) and consolations (ecstasy) along with one’s life and identity to Divine guidance and providence—“Into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, Ps 31:6)—only then, say the mystics, may we awaken, like Jacob from a dream, and exclaim: “Truly, the Divine is in this place, and I was not aware of it!”(Gen 28:16).

We now realize what Jesus wanted us to “come and see”: that “this place” where the Divine resides is everywhere, nowhere, and now-here; or, in the words of Blaise Pascal, “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.” We realize too that this abode of Divine Presence (Beth-el) is also the resplendent Divine Light (Luz) (Gen 28:19) that guided our spiritual journey all along, and we were not even aware of it!

Glorifying the Divine, we burst forth into song along with this Sacred Universe as we pray the mystical canticle once again (adapted into a rhyme royal form of poetry used by the Andalusian mystic and Doctor of the Church, John of the Cross):

Heavenly Father, glory to Thy name

May we in Thy Reign and Will ever live

And as in heaven, do on earth the same

Daily bread today, we ask you to give

As we forgive all, so do us forgive

Into temptation, do not let us fall

From evil, deliver and save us all

O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.

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