In our last post, we introduced Saint John of Avila’s teaching in his lifetime project Audi, Filia. To help us understand how important it is for us to order our lives to the silence of prayer, Saint John of Avila tells us about the dark languages of this world that can lead us astray. He starts with an especially deceptive language which enchants today every bit as much as it did in 16th century Spain: vain honor. Over and against humility and graciousness in our relationships with one another, powerful voices of our culture and politics insist on a certain kind of righteous indignation. These voices suggest that social causes and agendas are more important than the love we owe God and one another.
Any political movement or noble cause that ends with “ism” can turn into deadly poison under the enchantment of vain honor: socialism and capitalism, feminism and environmentalism, conservatism and liberalism. It is vain honor which makes any and all of these so many arrows we shoot at God and one another. Whatever the cause, the temptation is to make it our tower of Babel, with which we use everyone else to build it, until we surmount the heavens.
We have our rights after all and our cause is just, this voice tells us. If anyone should dare to trample our cause, we must fight back, it urges. If someone should embarrass us or diminish our cause, this is a matter of social war, it declares. All holy mirth is drowned out in this cacophony of mean-spiritedness. This voice of Babylon even quotes scripture, “An eye for an eye” until we and everyone around us are all completely blind even as we castigate each other for not being tolerant.
Vain honor diminishes our ability to receive criticism or to be gracious. Under the enchantment of this worldly language, even a kind word of advice is responded to with scorn. Good intention is never seen because those driven by this spell interpret every relationship in terms of a power struggle. A voice of injured pride escapes our lips as we find the language to put all offenders in their place.
When we let it into our hearts, this brutal language of contentious indignity and petty grievance tears down those whom we ought to love the most: our spouses, our children, our parents, those entrusted to our care, our neighbors and even the strangers in our midst. In the wake of those who live by this voice, there is a painful pathway of broken marriages and families, friendships and communities, hearts and lives that scars our culture. It is a Siren which condemns those who heed it to the worst loneliness.
As long as we attend to these kinds of shrill enchantments, we not only fail to hear God but we can not build anyone up, or forgive them, or seek forgiveness, or allow the plight of another to pierce our hearts, or help build a culture of life or contribute to a civilization of love. The wisdom of John of Avila helps us see that if we want to pray to the One who condemned vain honor at the price of his dishonor, we must no longer be seduced by the broken record of competing social agendas and other power games playing so loudly in our culture. We must tune-out such irrational noise if we want to tune into what God is saying, not only about our culture, but also our lives.
PS from the Editor: If you want to read more of Anthony’s insights on the topic of prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. This book is an experience like no other. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.