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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Saint Hildegard of Bingen on Receiving Holy Communion

At the center of the spiritual life is the real presence of Christ Jesus given to us in the Eucharistic worship Hildegard Wikimedia CommonsHe instituted for our sake.  Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, reminds us of the proper disposition we must maintain throughout our worship.  It is a disposition of quaerere Deum, a reverent and intense seeking of God in love that takes us beyond the limit of what we can grasp by ourselves.  It is not enough to focus ourselves and our mental energy as if we were solving a problem within our power to solve.  To attain what is beyond our nature, we need help that comes from above our nature.  To fully seek God, we must come to rely on the Holy Spirit who alone imparts the right disposition for this effort:

Let each of the faithful collect the powers of his soul with sincere and righteous heart, as his capacity for faith permits, and beware of searching into Divinity more exaltedly or profoundly than he senses or thought can grasp, but do it soberly as the Holy Spirit teaches; let him be subject to the fear of the Lord, since Man is only poor ashes.  (Scivias, II, 6, 42)

The attitude by which we worship is a matter of accepting the “being-in-truth” of our existence – the profoundly human and personal truth that takes up both the noble greatness and frailty of our lives.  We are ashes meant to be raised to glory and Saint Hildegard is inviting us to be what we are.   The truth of our being or our “being-in-truth” is that each one of us is made with an ultimate purpose for the whole of our existence: union to God in love.  Only when we begin to think, will and act in accord with this truth are we true to ourselves.  The rub is that we are weak and always inclined to act against the deepest truth for which we have been summoned into existence.  In other words, we constantly experience our need for salvation.  Saint Hildegard wants us to have the attitude commensurate with truth of our being: our existence involves accepting the fact that we are but “ashes,” but “ashes” filled with the Holy Spirit.  The right disposition for our worship of God is born in this truth, a disposition of humble reverence and holy fear.

If the humanity by which we seek the Lord in profound exultation is only ashes, this passionate search must engage the whole human person.   We must approach God in truth, in the sober harmony with our nature, a nature with real but frail powers of intellect, will and defining action.  Just as God is in communion with Himself, as we approach the Trinity, all of our hidden judgments, secret desires and actions must be in harmony with our humanity.   This is a communion Christ alone makes possible and without which our lives remain empty of true meaning and purpose.

This interior communion is characterized by an upright conscience: a conscience that stands erect on the solid ground of the truth, the truth that ought to exist between judgments and decisions, words and actions.  Such inner integrity with ourselves can only be achieved through our repentance, the forgiveness of sins,  and the power to become holy.  This is a communion Christ alone makes possible and without which our lives remain empty of true meaning and purpose.  Christ achieved this on the Cross and gives it to us through the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is the saving and awesome reality we approach when we approach Holy Communion.  It is the salvific mystery we declare as we worship together at Mass.  In other words, if we seek the Lord with loving faith in our worship, the Holy Spirit brings into unity our thinking, willing and acting.  It is a matter of integrity, the integrity only known by grace.  If we approach the unity of the Holy Trinity in the Sacrament of Holy Communion with living faith, the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit restores the beauty of what is most sacred about us.  This illumination and heavenly fire renews in God’s holiness all that is good, beautiful and true about our lives.  On the other hand, without the reverent faith by which one is surrendered to the Spirit of Truth, the “being-in-truth” of the individual is lost and at eternal risk.   Saint Hildegard hears God explaining:

Let no division take place in this sacrament, as I, remaining undivided in Three Persons, am One Indivisible God; in the same way that thought, will and deed are in one human being, and without them that person is not. (Scivias, II, 6, 44)

Our worship is a profoundly human moment, a solemn moment of truth in which we either move towards greater integrity with ourselves and communion with God, or we betray ourselves in destructive self-deception.  Because she wants her spiritual sons and daughters to avoid all forms of dangerous self-betrayal, Saint Hildegard is a proponent of frequent confession, fasting and penance.  This is not a matter of cultivating self-pity or navel gazing.   It is a matter of maintain a sobriety of life in which one keeps vigilance for the the truth.  Only in the truth can we find the Lord who is the source and summit of our very existence.  By living in the truth that faith knows, Saint Hildegard describres the possibility of becoming “Bright of body and fiery of soul”:

These are clear in faith about the sacrament and do not doubt that it is the true body and the true blood of My Son.  And so, perceiving this by faith, they are strengthened and made holy in body, and because they are sanctified by this mystery they will appear in this same body in Heaven after the resurrection of the dead; and their souls are transfigured and enkindled by the fiery gift of the Holy Spirit, so that, flooded with enlightenment, they reject earthly things and long for heavenly ones.  How? As a fire is stirred to blaze by the wind, they are inspired by this sacrament to burn with celestial love.  (Scivias, II, 6, 52)

Citations as translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop in Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, in Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 237-287.

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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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  • LizEst

    “To attain what is beyond our nature, we need help that comes from above our nature.” This is the crux of the matter. Of our own, we cannot attain to God. It is simply beyond us. We cannot be united to the Holy Trinity by our grasping. This was the lesson of the garden of Eden. Christ makes possible that which we lost then. When we acknowledge who and what we are before God, when our thinking, willing and acting are wholly united in this way, He rushes to meet us. He enters and vivifies our entire being by the power of the Holy Spirit. Humility draws God…for in such a way does the Father recognize in us the image of His beloved Son Jesus, the coin of His realm and the wedding garment of the heavenly banquet. What an incomparable gift our Eucharistic Lord is! Blessed be God, the most Holy Trinity!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Yes, it is not by our grasping – but by welcoming the Holy Spirit with faith and the longing of our hearts. Loved filled humility delights the Father because He recognizing the mystery of His Son at work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Father’s delight, we are plunged deeper into the mystery of His merciful love and showered with all kind of undeserved riches through Christ. We are so bold to believe that God loves us like this and even more only because He has already revealed that it is so. Happy Trinity Sunday!

      • Camila

        Why do you guys keep hammering that “it is not by our grasping?” Predestinarianism is heresy! And so is pelagianism! Isaiah says it best “for you (God) have accomplished all we have done” (Isaiah 26:12). God accomplishes, yes – and we freely choose to work.

        • Celeste Lovett

          I just wanted to share one thing. In this article, the words “Quaerere Deum” were used. When I clicked on the words, I wa brought to another article which explained these words. I thought the definition was so profound that I had to write it down to put into my prayer journal to remind me to work toward obtaining that attitude. The definition was, “…the effort to seek God with the whole will, intelligence, desire, and strength of one’s soul..The Holy Spirit is the one who imparts the correct disposition for this effort.” That is so beautiful and struck me very deeply.

          • LizEst

            Thank you for sharing this beautiful definition. God bless you Celeste…and Happy Trinity Sunday!

          • $1650412

            Celeste- per Philippians 2:13.

          • LizEst

            Beautiful, Jo! God bless you! Happy Trinity Sunday!

        • Anthony_Lilles

          Very good. We live at a time when the wisdom of Isaiah 26:12 cannot be repeated enough. Thank you for your careful reading!

        • LizEst

          Of course! “What do [we] possess that [we] have not received?” (1 Corinthians 4:7b). So, it is, in fact, up to us to freely choose to cooperate with God and His amazing grace. And, God never violates our free will. It is one of the ways in which we most image Him.

        • Becky Ward

          I’m joining the conversation late, so forgive me if I’m way off track here. Your question Wretched about grasping is important.

          It is SO easy for us to read books and articles about the saints and want to go out and imitate them. The problems come (in part) when we expect or want the same signs of love, the same favors and graces that God has given to others.

          In the most simple terms it is grasping to want things we are not ready for. We need to learn to wait patiently and work with what God gives us! He knows what we need…….flow with the givens.

          This is not necessarily a negative thing, we read something and are inspired……perhaps a little misguided and want the same thing. It is a matter of growing in our relationship with the Lord and trusting in Him that matters…….it is a mystery!! We learn from others, yes. But then we apply the principles to what God is doing in our individual lives……following His lead. :)

          • Camila

            Thanks Becky. I was clear that any growth in fast or penance ought to be gradual and with the right disposition. On matters of enjoying my penance I’ll give an example. I have given up all flesh meat. With approval of my spiritual director. It was easy at first, then it became incredibly difficult. I went to confession and was counselled against scrupulosity. Then our Lord blessed me. Every time I sit at the table to eat and there is meat I am filled with thoughts and images of our Lord crucified. Images and thoughts that bring me great comfort. It has become a joy to abstain, and I don’t if there are people around. There is a freedom and joy in this penance. If I’m alone then this is a source of prayer and my abstinence goes unnoticed.

          • Becky Ward

            I’m confused. What was this comment about?:

            “Why do you guys keep hammering that “it is not by our grasping?” (From above.)

  • Camila

    This is so counter-cultural! “Because she wants her spiritual sons and daughters to avoid all forms of dangerous self-betrayal, Saint Hildegard is a proponent of frequent confession, fasting and penance.” If there is something that keeps me up at night is the idea of self-betrayal. How easy it would be to fall into a self-satisfying trap, and imagine myself “safe”. This scares me.

    Dr. Lilles, would you agree then that as long as we are close to confession (attending it diligently – say 1 x month or more frequent if possible – a better sign yet would be a heart desiring to attend confession and longing for the sacrament – instead of doing it out of habit, right?) and we are fasting (even if in little things at first) and we embrace penance (even if small ones) with an honest intent to curb our concupiscence; with honest contrition for our sins; and with hope of pleasing our Lord we can rest (at least a little) more assured we are following the way of Our Lord and the path to holiness?

    What happens if we come to enjoy these penances and fasting? What does this signify? Ought we to increase them a little and bring ourselves to an increasingly small level of discomfort? Little by little – this makes it easier to keep pride at bay as well.

    • LizEst

      If you have an issue with the last paragraph, do not increase the penances and fasting yourself. Run every penance and every fast through your spiritual director. That way, he can help keep a curb on them. If one begins to enjoy the penances and fasting, it can be a sign of a problem with one’s ego. If you let your spiritual director choose them (kind, quantity and frequency), then they truly become a penance rather than a way to congratulate yourself and increase your pride. If you believe you can’t address this with your spiritual director, then it confirms that pride and ego are establishing a pretty good foothold in you.

      Years ago, when it was more common for people in religious life to take “the discipline,” some folks got very good at it and would whip themselves to a pulp. It became an ego thing for them, at first not too bad, but later very excessive. This is a sin against the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. It also means we are not to abuse the body. Why? Because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. One other thing, besides problems with pride and ego, there can also be a psychological root to problems of liking penances and fasting.

      And, a final note – there is such a thing as developing a tolerance for these practices. Again, this would also be a time to run it by one’s spiritual director as well. It can be a penance to be told not to increase the penance…when you really want to.

      God bless you, WS…and Happy Trinity Sunday!

      • Anthony_Lilles

        Thank you for this good and thoughtful counsel. Happy Trinity Sunday!

        • LizEst

          You’re welcome. The glory to the Lord! And, Happy Trinity Sunday to you and yours, Dr. Lilles! God bless you.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      What you are describing are important elements to the pathway of holiness. Holiness is a pure gift from God – it consists in sanctifying grace. The practices you suggest are proven ways to open our hearts to this great gift. Holiness is also a matter of charity on the operational level. It is a matter of keeping ourselves vulnerable to God’s love. But His love is in perfect freedom — and how He loves one soul that faces one set of circumstances may be very different from the love He shows another.

      So it is important to be humble and grateful before this great mystery and to realize that in the end it is not our pious practices — even our penances and fasting, but His own work that He accomplishes in our hearts in the way He wills. Going to confession, doing penance and fasting are things that we do in loving response for all He has done for us — should even these very important works be taken up without love, they are for nothing. But even with the slightest degree of love, they bring great delight to the heart of the Father who yearns for us even now to come home- indeed, He is ever watching for us, ever eager to run to us, for to Him there is nothing more beautiful in all the cosmos than the love we share together.

      If we enjoy fasting and penance, so did all the saints. We like them need to order this joy to the glory of God. As LizEst indicates, our ability to discern what practices we should increase or disregard by ourselves is very limited. Thomas Dubay use to hammer this point. This becomes even more true the more we make progress in our love for God. This is why spiritual direction from a wise soul becomes increasingly important.

      Saint John of the Cross indicates how there can be a lot of spiritual pride and gluttony at work in us — spiritual imperfections that we are not able to see on our own, but that someone else is able to help us see. Often the way forward is not more penance but a different kind of prayer, a deeper humility and simplicity and trust in the way we approach God. A good spiritual director helps us discern with firm and right purpose all the ways we devote ourselves to the Lord. The purpose is not to get good at penance or confession or fasting, even if this does happen. The purpose is to be free to welcome the love of God and free to respond to it with all our hearts.

  • Jeanette

    I am struck by the humility of our God who allows Himself to be drawn down from Heaven by the words of the priest during the consecration; a God who comes to us as spiritual food under the humble appearance of the small, white host. This is how much He loves us!