How God Called to Me to Start the Avila Institute


I wanted to share something I’ve been praying with lately:

What if someone entrusted you with the equivalent of 20 years of income?

For anyone, that would be an enormous amount of money. And a huge responsibility.

In Matthew’s telling of the parable of the talents, Jesus speaks of a man preparing for a long journey who gives his servants talents before he leaves. Talents were monetary units, each one worth no less than 20 years of a servant’s income.

We know the story: the servants with five and two talents were able to trade and double their master’s money, and were given even more in the end. The servant with just one talent buried it in fear and because he would not invest it, ended up losing everything, even his freedom.

That’s a sobering thought.

About a decade ago I was faced with a similar dilemma. I had felt called by God to write Navigating the Interior Life. It was the book I wished I’d had as I entered the Church and entered more deeply into her mystical tradition in my life and prayer.

And it must have struck a nerve and met a need. Because before the book was even published, I found myself with $25,000 in pre-sales.

Stephanie and I could have used that money in many ways back then. We could have made what others would have called wise and prudent decisions. But deep down, I knew that God was asking us to trust him with that sum—not exactly 20 years’ income, but a lot of money for us at that time.

I’ve never wanted to be one to say no.

So with Stephanie’s support, I started a nonprofit, unsure of what, exactly, God had planned, but knowing that I wanted to serve the materially and spiritually poor and give them access to the best formation in the interior life. I wanted anyone who had the desire to drink of the life-giving spiritual patrimony of the Church to do so without cost if cost was a barrier. While I was unclear regarding what was next, we just obeyed the prompting and set the money aside. (That’s often how the Lord works, by the way—He shows us just enough to make the next step in faith.)

In short order, I met with Dr. Anthony Lilles about starting the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and literally within a few months we were offering courses to several dozen students, facilitating life-changing encounters with Jesus Christ through the Church’s rich mystical tradition.

Every year since, we’ve added classes and programs and expanded our staff and our offerings to accommodate the swelling numbers of students, all seeking solid spiritual formation.

I couldn’t have known that a decade later we’d be serving over 400 students each semester (this Fall we’ve broken a record with 600 students taking courses)—including future spiritual directors—and forming and fortifying almost 100 men from 37 dioceses around the country who are discerning the priesthood in our High Calling Program. I wouldn’t have believed you if you said we’d give away over a million dollars in scholarships. I wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be drawing up plans for a formation center for these students to come together for prayer, study, and fellowship—that irreplaceable in-person component so necessary in these times of isolation.

It amazes me, sometimes, when I step back and look at what God has done. I’m so grateful for the grace of that one ‘yes.’

Of course, there were many people who joined this mission along the way. People of extraordinary generosity who have been direct channels of God’s provision. People who make God’s purposes in the world possible. People who know that interior freedom comes from works of great mercy.

People like you whose faith inspires my own.

I want to encourage you, whatever you are facing now, whatever new anxiety that family, friends, work, or the evening news offers, that God has a plan far greater than you know.

And when we give him our ‘yes’ – which, in the end, is the only thing that is ever really ours – He will multiply the fruits in astonishing ways.

I’m grateful to be with you on the journey.

(By the way if you haven’t yet experienced a class at the Avila Institute, I encourage you to discover upcoming courses here.)


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