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Catholic Spiritual Direction

The Prayer that Blazes from the Deepest Center

Christian prayer is meant to blaze forth from the Deepest Center of the soul.   In his powerful Living Flame of Love, St. John of the Cross 4 John of the Cross explains this Deepest Center.  Many spiritual writers recognize the need for interiority that a term like the Deepest Center suggests.  Sometimes, however, what certain authors describe as the center of the soul is difficult to distinguish from one’s own big fat ego. Contrary to some self-absorbed esoteric exercise, Christian prayer properly expresses itself in self-donation, a gift of self burning with love in humble response to an even greater love that has been lavished upon it.

Because of a proclivity to turn in on ourselves, misunderstanding the reality John of the Cross calls the Deepest Center can contribute to a perilous pitfall in prayer.  Our lack of love for God inclines us to self-pre-occupation.  It is quite possible to squander the precious little time we have for prayer wallowing in self-pity or delighting in some form of psychic relief or amusing ourselves with the achievement of various mental gymnastics.   Such counterfeit prayer, however gratifying it might be for a time, never allows us to escape the gravity of sin.  Instead of realizing its true purpose, the soul becomes an atomized monad of self-concern.  Locked into our own fantasy, resentment, or worry, the wrong kind of introspection becomes a foretaste of hell.

The Deepest Center of the soul is not a psychological power even if this Hidden Mystery constantly influences all these faculties.   The Deepest Center is nothing modern psychology can even properly identify.   Though it pertains to the very substance of the soul, this unfathomable reality is not reducible to conscious or subconscious mental activity.  On the other hand, without being aware of it, the soul can be moved in incomprehensible ways by this hidden Depth.  No unaided psychological power can access this Deep Secret, and yet everything that “is” is rooted in it.  This profound Mystery is not directly observable by any science although all true theology seeks its wonder.  Life overflows with all kinds of the sanctifying effects that constantly indicate this ineffable Cause.

To understand this Deepest Center, St. John of the Cross points out that the soul is a simple, spiritual reality characterized by being, power, force of operation and movement.  The animating principle of human life  is not some spatial complex containing a fixed point or any other geometry within it.  As it is a spiritual reality, it is too simple to be thought of as a thing with interior and exterior parts.  It is simply one whole reality: a life principle in motion. This movement is not material or even from the material to the spiritual. This spiritual motion is not principally through space and time – even if each moment of our brief lives is given for this purpose. Instead, this movement is into a deeper unity with the One whom summons the soul and holds it in existence.  Grace moves the soul to an ever deeper communion with God.  It is meant for perfect unity with the Trinity.

The Deepest Center indicates the spiritual resting place to which the soul is drawn by love.  This abyss does not absorb or destroy the soul, but the closer the soul draws to it, the more it becomes like it — and in this likeness the more this particular divine image realizes the purpose for which it exists.   We exist for God’s love and to share this love with one another.  This is what it means to be fully alive and to live to the full is to become the glory of God.  It is in this bosom of the Trinity, the resting place of eternal love, that the soul is meant to dwell.  The Trinity is the principle source of the spiritual life: the ultimate source and end of the soul’s being, life, purpose and prayer.

The soul drawn by God’s love gives itself, offers itself, abandons itself to God.  It lives no longer alienated but in relation to God and to all that God loves.  St. John of the Cross sees the soul as a reality only completely true to itself when imbued with grace, whose grace filled existence is cherished by God like a bride by her bridegroom.

To maintain the soul as the unique and unrepeatable object of God’s love, the Carmelite Doctor carefully distinguishes between God and the soul.  Although he is sometimes misunderstood on this point, his thought avoids any sort of nihilism in which the substance of the soul is so absorbed in Divine Being that it ceases to exist altogether.  He stresses the likeness between friends as that which draws them together but he never suggests that either the human “I” or Divine “Thou” ever cease to exist: distinction is what makes likeness so exquisite.  His is a mysticism of divine friendship and, if he celebrates the transforming union of the soul in God, he is carefully attentive to the orders of nature and grace.

St. John of the Cross describes the soul as taking on a greater and greater likeness to God in the life of grace so that, though it is only a creature, it might enjoy an ever more tender friendship with its Creator. It is true that for this likeness and union to be realized, the soul must live no longer for itself.  It must die to those natural impulses that drive it so that it might be free to live supernaturally for God. Such is the touch of the Holy Trinity: through the Gift of the Holy Spirit men and women super-abundantly receive the inexhaustible riches of Christ, the unfathomable love shared by the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world, a love given through the Cross.

The most powerful kind of prayer is sparked when the soul is touched by this wondrous glory which draws it deeper and deeper into love.  What such prayer attains is of immeasurable good, not just for the soul itself, but for the whole world.   This is where the dimensions of Christ’s love extend and this prayer wants to stretch to the same extent.  The fire of this prayer blazes forth to coincide more and more with the ineffable desire of God who is the Furnace of all true Love.  How can the Lord do anything other than answer the cries of a friend who shares so much with Him? Although the great saints know this in secret ways too beautiful to ever adequately describe, even a little love of God is enough for this tender dynamic to begin to be realized.  If the smallest amount of such devotion can render the whole world so vulnerable to Divine Mercy, St. John of the Cross helps us see that it is only because the Trinity is even more vulnerable as the soul’s Deepest Center.  

Note from Dan: Anthony’s fantastic book on prayer, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, can be found HERE in print, and HERE in Kindle format.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean of St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese for over twenty years directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was eventually appointed Academic Dean for nine years. He is an associate professor of theology and a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students and contemplatives about the spiritual life. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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  • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

    WOW! That’s amazing! Humbling…so very humbling..leaves me speechless… 

  • LizEst

    So true!  To look on the Lord is to be drawn to the Lord.  Let us look on Him that we may be radiant with joy…and extend it to all.

    Thank you Dr. Lilles.  God bless you.

  • http://contemplativehomeschool.com Connie Rossini

    Anthony, I think I’ll have to get your book! There’s so much confusion about this. A few years ago at Mass at another parish, I was so happy to hear the priest urge people to pray daily. Then he went on to talk about dwelling on one’s own thoughts or feelings. He didn’t talk about loving God as a part of prayer at all–or even conversing with Him! As St. Teresa would say, “I do not call that prayer.” Keep spreading the truth.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Connie, Thank you for this important affirmation.  Your insight into prayer is so consistent with what we believe about the Holy Trinity.  The Divine Persons live in an intimate communion of love and knowledge with one another – at the same time, because this love and knowledge is in accord with their divine relations, the communication is not a “self” occupation but ineffable self-donation.  The Trinity wants us to share in this eternal conversation  – which means we must life up our hearts above the labyrinth of feelings and calculations that lead to nowhere and offer ourselves with Christ as a living sacrifice.  This true spiritual worship is guided by love of God and for love of God because, by dying for us, He has loved us so much more.  

  • Theresa George

    I agree with Connie…your book is very tempting now : )

    Sometimes it is difficult in prayer to know if you are really entering within to meet God Who is our Deepest Center or are we just focusing on ourselves with introspection, with distraction?  In our silence, are we truly resting in God’s Presence or are we just working on being devoid of any thoughts at all to experience self induced state of calm?  

    This can be difficult to discern.  There needs to be more discussion on this especially for those deepening their prayer life.

  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    Oh, well, this Post is totally beyond my simple elementary mind.  However, I leave myself in the hands of the Holy Spirit who is fully aware that I do not know how to pray.  So He surely comes in to pray for me so that my Prayer can be acceptable to my Heavenly Father through the Divine Mercy of His Divine Son and the intercession of my Personal Patron to whom I have consecrated my heart and soul.

  • Guest

    What a great post.

    I’ve been here “Locked into our own fantasy, resentment, or worry, the wrong kind of introspection becomes a foretaste of hell.”

    And yet I also am seeing how God

    It must die to those natural impulses that drive it so that it might be free to live supernaturally for God.

    The most powerful kind of prayer is sparked when the soul is touched by this wondrous glory which draws it deeper and deeper into love.

  • Camila Malta

    This is a stunning post, Dr. Lilles.

    “It must die to those natural impulses that drive it so that it might be free to live supernaturally for God.”

    “The most powerful kind of prayer is sparked when the soul is touched by this wondrous glory which draws it deeper and deeper into love.”

    These two statements are pieces to the puzzle that help me grow further. We don’t die to our natural impulses because they are bad or because we don’t like them, but because what we begin to taste is far better than anything the world can offer. The sweetness of God, the light of God, the friendship with God is more rewarding than any possible created sweetness, created light, or human friend. The soul detached from the created world is absolutely free to fly right into God’s blazing love. It’s heart is not divided between love of this world and love God.

    The interesting distinction you make about “his thought avoid(ing) any sort of nihilism in which the substance of the soul is so absorbed in Divine Being that it ceases to exist altogether” is very helpful. Again, we don’t desire to leave this world or destroy it or cease to exist ourselves, because of its “badness” or that it ought to cease to exist completely because of any “evil’ in it. What we begin seeing is that God’s goodness is found in everything He created, yet this is not to distract us from seeking Him Who is the ultimate Good. The source of all being. Of course His creation will be filled with His goodness; but what you are saying is that He has given us a center so deep so like Him that we can commune with Himself – none other than God.

    • Camila Malta

      Dear Dr.Lellis,
      I don’t want to keep dragging, but as I continued to ponder and reflect on your post I suddenly realized (while folding laundry!) that is how the saints can joyfully say and ask God to transform everything into suffering for them. I have always been dumbfounded by their desire to embrace every suffering and actually prefer it over consolations. I like my consolations, but I’m starting to realize they are not yet the surest safest most secure route to God.

      The saints want to risk nothing. They desire absolutely NO distraction away from God and their Bridegroom. They aren’t running AWAY from the world necessarily, they are running TOWARDS God. The safest route then is a route where the world becomes suffering. Where is ceases completely to be a distraction.

      This is the place where Christ can tell St.Catherine “daughter, for My sake regard sweet things as bitter and bitter things as sweet” or St. Catherine can confidently say that “nothing in this life brought her as much comfort as tribulation and suffering.”

      Ai, ai, ai….

  • http://www.beginningtopray.com Anthony Lilles

    Thanks Connie for this — St. Teresa of Avila is wonderful on the point you are making. She speaks of mental prayer as a conversation between friends. I hope we will all enter more deeply into this exchange of hearts.

  • http://www.beginningtopray.com Anthony Lilles

    You are welcome — and thank you for you comment. I like what you are saying. A holy Carmelite Sister told me today that He is the One who draws us to heaven, His beauty captivates our soul.

  • http://www.beginningtopray.com Anthony Lilles

    God bless you and your Lenten Observance!