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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Theology and Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative Prayer and Theology

Contemplation needs scientific theology and theologians need contemplation.  Historically, contemplatives who have presumed otherwise unwittingly submitted themselves and those they influenced to all kinds of demeaning irrationality.   At the same time, whenever theologians believe they can conduct their investigations without prayer, their body of scholarship becomes less capable of building up the holiness of the Church.  We need holy theologians who pray and we need dedicated contemplatives who are rooted in the truth of the faith.  Both help us ponder the reason for the hope we have in Christ.   In a future post we will explore the particular call to holiness and contemplation incumbent on those who teach theology in the Church.   For today, we will consider why the contemplative vocation requires the support of theological investigations into sacred doctrine.

In 16th Century Spain, there were religious figures, Beatas, who sometimes fell into disturbing doctrinal positions and immorality.  Although Spain had fought to become a Catholic kingdom and had even begun to spread the faith to the new world, the understanding of the faith among the common people was not yet very developed.   Devotion nevertheless was strong and pious women began to take up ascetic and contemplative practices with sincere zeal for the Lord.   Their love for the Lord was so deep that others began to seek their counsel.  These devout and well meaning women attempted to share their own experience.   At the same time, they lacked a grounding in sacred doctrine that would allow them to adequately explain what Christ was doing in prayer.  The Beatas did not know that trying to teach and practice mental prayer without seeking and suffering with our intellects the reason for our hope renders spiritual exercises vulnerable to abuse and misinterpretation.

False teaching dangerously constricts the mystery of God and prayer into a system of thought that appeals to the imagination but does not ring true with reality.   To protect the truth of the Gospel against such enchanting fantasies,  battles over doctrine were fierce in the Bible and in the Early Church.  If it is not grounded on the truth about God’s unfathomable mystery, prayer cannot provide the ground on which alone human dignity stands.  Without the saving truth found sacred doctrine (that is, without the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition of the Church), how do we know whether our prayer actually raises up to a true dialogue with the living God?  Only a faith rooted in sacred doctrine protects prayer from falling into a lifeless monologue with one’s own ego.

When seen in terms of the holy friendship between God and humanity established by the Blood of Lamb, sacred doctrine opens up to unfathomable horizons, and even after two thousand years of trying to understand the teaching entrusted to the Church, we have only scratched the surface of what she has to say.  The scope of God’s love is limitless.  While the Church communicates this doctrine through the Bible and Tradition, those who are invested with the office of teaching in the Church as well as those who are gifted with competencies in scholarship and scientific understanding work together on this great task.  The task takes on the proportion of a holy conversation in which all attend to what the Father has revealed through his Word.  In this exchange, God’s love allows each to enrich the other with that part of the inexhaustible mystery of Christ they are given for the building up of the Church and the witness of the Gospel of Christ to the world.

Our prayer lives in this reality and becomes lifeless without it.  Prayer, when rooted in the truth of Gospel of Christ, leads us out of alienation into a real communion, the communion of the People of God united by bonds of friendship around the Throne of the Lamb.  But without the common ground of the truth, there is nothing for prayer to stand on and our friendship together in the mystery of Christ is diminished.

Theology seeks to understand the sacred doctrine by which our religion, our piety is so great it allows us to have this real communion with one another in prayer.   Theology raises our understanding of sacred doctrine to the highest level of human consciousness, the level at which the faithful can enter into a life-giving and purifying conversation with one another about the reason for our hope.   Theology, then, is an act of communion and, at the same time, it is at the service of the communion of the Church.  This is why spiritual doctrine is a necessary support for mental prayer – it orders contemplation toward the communion of the Church with Christ which it seeks.

Neither Saint John of Avila nor Saint Teresa of Avila nor Saint John of the Cross followed the way of the Beatas.  Instead, these 16th Century Doctors of the Church, who were also great mystics, constantly engaged theologians and Church authorities: sometimes challenging them, sometimes learning from them and sometimes even suffering being misunderstood by them.  These saints were able to engage this powerful conversation with daring and humility not only because of the mystical wisdom they acquired, but also because they themselves worked hard to understand the Sacred Scriptures and the tradition of the Church.

If at first skeptical of mental prayer, as the Spanish theologians of the 16th Century learned to attend to what God was doing in these contemplatives, they soon discovered the remarkable fruitfulness of mystical wisdom for the theological enterprise.   At the same time, they learned to articulate the truth of the faith in ways that helped these great saints more fully welcome the treasures of Christ’s love for the building up of the life of the Church.   A renewal in theology and mysticism was born in Spain by this holy conversation.  It is a conversation that needs to be taken up again in our time.


Art:  The Virgin of the Carmen with Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross, Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675 – 1728), PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

PS from Dan: What Dr. Lilles describes here is at the center of our efforts with the Avila Institute. If the great adventure of contemplative scholarship stirs your soul, don’t hesitate to join us for our first class this fall on spiritual theology. Click here for more information.

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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

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  • Mari Kate

    “A renewal in theology and mysticism was born in Spain by this holy conversation. It is a conversation that needs to be taken up again in our time.” Thank you Dr. Lilles, for starting this conversation. Your timely writing is a necessary reminder of the great need for balance between theology and mysticism. Mystics are infused with knowledge of God that can only be revealed by Him. Theologians are like a barometer against which one can weigh the veracity of such mystical revelations when compared to what is known to be Truth, through the study of God given Sacred Scripture and Tradition. John of the Cross, my favorite teacher for spiritual direction and formation employs in his approach to spiritual direction a near perfect balance between contemplation and theology by calling upon his own life experience as well as knowledge based on the natural sciences. However, the primary component of sanjuanistic spirituality, is decidedly sacred scripture. The need for such a balance for spiritual directors is also demonstrated by St. Teresa who warns of the need for confessors to be learned and experienced. More holy conversation please!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this encouragement. I also love the balance we find in Saint John of the Cross and I want to write about this in the future. Your insight into the Sacred Scriptures is key. The theologians who were also mystics spoke the language of the Scriptures and it would appear to be a way forward for us too.

  • Camila

    Dear Dr. Lilles,

    Your raise a question I have had for a very long time “how do we know whether our prayer actually raises up to a true dialogue with the living God?” Would it be correct that any real dialogue with God would lead us to an ever increasing love of the Catholic church? And this is where a right understanding (in theology) of what and why the church teaches what she does is so important? We see this in the lives of the saints – where they give their lives for holy mother church. Any sign of disobedience or rejection of her is a red flag, would you agree? So in the end mysticism would lead one to the very heart of the Catholic church.

    Further, in a course I’m taking in theology I was able to “place” spiritual theology within its correct place. The teacher explained how the catechism is really divided into four parts, the creed, the sacraments, the commandments, and prayer. He then explained how spiritual theology would be the ultimate study to undertake, a study in prayer – as that would be the study of a “deepening in the life of prayer….deeper into contemplative prayer.”

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Your questions call to mind for me the remarkable community in Taize, France. Although Brother Roger, a friend of Blessed John Paul II, died without entering the Catholic Church, the bonds of solidarity and friendship his community fostered through their life of prayer and asceticism are signs of hope as Christians confront many difficult divisions. Not only Protestants and Catholics, but also Orthodox Christians join together in acts of devotion to the Lord and they share together that beautiful silence in which the Lord speaks to the heart. It is interesting that the Rule they observe together is a kind of adaptation of St. Benedict’s master work – a work composed well before current divisions cut into the heart of the Church. Who would have known that there could be such a spiritual refuge for young people after the horrors of World War II? But God does wonderful and unexpected things all the time.

      You are right. Real conversation with God, a conversation in truth, leads us into greater communion with the Bride of Christ. The Catholic Church subsists in this reality but elements of it are found in every gathering of Christians — for what divides us is as nothing compared to the unity we have in the Blood of Jesus by faith and baptism. Like Brother Roger not every Christian who enters deep into prayer will become Catholic, but like him, they can come to a deeper appreciation and respect for the Church’s holy tradition and Catholic embodiment.

      It should be of great concern for us however when someone in his acts of devotion in prayer, rather than leading him more deeply into the communion of the Church, comes to see our faith as something that ought to be surmounted in pursuits of “experience” and a state of “consciousness.” We live in a time when there is too much concern with subjective experience in prayer and not enough faith in the Risen Lord who is at work in our lives. Only living faith, faith alive with devotion to Christ crucified, leads to unity in the Mystical Body — and this living faith requires that we adhere in truth to the sacred doctrine of the Church – the holy teaching that lives in the Bible and in our Tradition together.

      Whenever it is grounded in such living faith, prayer deepens the bonds of the whole Catholic Church — East and West. This includes bonds of friendship and various kinds of ecclesial solidarity – and yes, the hope for full communion with one another in the Lord. Those who pray in this truth, the true contemplatives, feel the pain of division in the Body of Christ, their hearts are pierced by those whose relationship to the Church was shaken by scandal and sin, they weep over those who have made a shipwreck of their faith and they look with hope on the Lord whose love is deeper than the misunderstandings and wounds that separate us. And their tears and their sufferings for the Body of Christ rise like incense, a fragrant offering to the Lord. In an age when the unity of the Body of Christ needs to be healed, a commitment to prayer, fasting and the merciful love of God is an obligation of love we must have for one another.

      • Camila

        You know what Dr. Lilles, I read your response a million times (ok, not that many, but many many times). Trying to understand it. I know you can’t possible be suggesting we compromise our truth when you mention the Taize community and Brother Roger; but why then bring them up. I kept thinking and I went to prayer. “Dear Lord, what is Dr. Lilles saying?! Explain to me.” I finally gave up and said, ok, I”m not responding. Silence sometimes is the best. As I was getting ready a light came to my mind.

        Earlier today I was looking at the cover of my catechism book and there is a picture of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. I had thought to myself, why did they choose this picture? There are so many more beautiful pictures that could have been used for the cover of such important document as it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I left it at that sort saying to myself “oh well, it is what it is”.

        VOILA! The answer is the same! Oh, I’m so overwhelmed. Here’s the light. Possessing the truth ought not to make one proud and arrogant as though superior. We see and acknowledge that God can and does act outside of the Church (otherwise there wouldn’t be any converts). So the pursuit of understanding in theology of revelation MUST be carried in reverence and humility …. just like Jesus did. Thus the picture in front of the Catechism is the BEST and most perfect that could have been chosen. Why? Because it is the Christ, Truth Himself at the service of humanity, if we are to imitate Him we become the slaves par excellence of Truth. So the Catechism, this sublime document of the truths revealed by God to all humanity is then at the service to guide and illuminate the human race. We as beacons of light must take the lowest places, just like Jesus did. Not as a sign of weakness that we surrender our truth; just the opposite, as an act of humility, willing and ready to serve in full truth. It is in weakness that I am strong.

  • LizEst

    Yes, as Mari said, “theologians are like a barometer against which one can weigh the veracity of such mystical revelations…”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply across the board since there are a certain number of theologians today, who do not follow Scripture, Tradition and/or the Magisterium. These theologians do not speak for the Church but for their own selfish and misinformed agendas. It is a great danger to those who do not know the Faith well; and, we must be careful to guard against this. To that end, we must have a good and faithful knowledge of Scripture and of what our Catholic faith believes and teaches, that which is faithful and true. As Thomas Dubay says in “Authenticity – A Biblical Theology of Discernment”, “dissenting theologians are not the Church’s theologians.” (in Chapter 13 “Discernment and Theological Pluralism). He goes on to say that “Prophetic theology does not court popularity” and that “theological scepticism is intimately linked to dissent from magisterial teaching.” So, “according to the mind of Jesus, the Church is to signify in her very life the union of men among themselves and with God (Jn 17:23; 1 Jn 1:3). To do this authentically, she cannot be rent with doctrinal divisions or serious disciplinary dissensions…Luke summarized the health of the ideal early ‘ekklesia’ by saying that the faithful were committed to the one proclamation of the apostles, to the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Such is the home of the Spirit” whose descent we remember, celebrate and ask renewal of in the Solemnity of Pentecost this coming Sunday.

    • Mari Kate

      Yes Liz, your are right, it is true that not all who call themselves theologians are in the Truth as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. My comment was not meant to include these “theologians” who continue to do such harm to souls but written in agreement with Dr. Lilles usage of the term in a positive manner. To that end, it requires good discernment and having a good and gifted spiritual director who is deeply rooted in sound theology, sacred scripture and the true teachings of the Church is so necessary because even the wise can be fooled at times. We also have been given a call to speak truth and not to remain silent when we feel we are being misled. Theologians who would lead us astray too often go unchallenged and whenever possible we share a responsibility in defense of the Church to do so in a prudent manner.