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What is Spiritual Theology?

What is Spiritual Theology? There is a lot of diverse opinions on this topic.  Probably the best explanation is provided by Jordan Aumann, O.P., in his well-known Spiritual Theology. To best understand the conversation that he introduces, it is important to note that all the branches of theology, as a disciplined study of sacred doctrine, constitute just one unified science.  This is true for post on what is spiritual theologyeven if this single scientific exploration has practical branches that take up moral questions (how we live) and speculative branches that take up dogmatic questions (what we believe). In fact, since they are all animated with the study of the Sacred Page, the various branches of theology have great bearing on one another and cannot be pursued in any atomized fashion. According to St. Thomas, theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God (see Summa Theologica I, q.1, art.3, ad.1). Spiritual theology is integral to this disciplined exploration into the saving truth revealed by God, preached by the Church and known by faith.

Before we go on to define the nature of spiritual theology, we need to address a doubt that many who are drawn to the spiritual life wrestle with concerning the study of sacred doctrine in general.  Because of a lack of good teaching, there is a popular notion that we can have Jesus without the Church and spirituality without religion. Those who are enchanted by these ideas see no value in studying sacred doctrine as such, let alone that one branch that is at the service of all the others — spiritual theology. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis illustrates this objection by recalling a conversation with an old army officer who “felt” God in the desert. In comparison to that awesome feeling he had, doctrinal explanations about God all fell short.  If such an overpowering experience seems possible without theology, why do we need any doctrine at all?

C.S. Lewis sees in the the officer's observation something like the difference between merely looking at a map of the ocean and actually going to the beach.  Compared with encountering God Himself, the study of theology is more like looking at a map than going to the beach.  Yet a map, like theology, has an important purpose. If all one wants to do is gets his toes wet, one certainly does not need a map. But if you are lost and want to get home and home is through the sea, then a map of the ocean is essential.  If you really love the Lord and want to know His eternal plan for you and those entrusted to you, then humbly coming together with others who love Him to reflect on what He has revealed about Himself is of the utmost importance. If the mystery of God surges around us like a wild ocean, theological wisdom helps us find the courage to step out in faith and take the plunge.

The point is, through the Church the Holy Trinity has given us a map — one that has been examined and commented on by the greatest spiritual geniuses, poets, mystics and lovers of Christ.  As we study this map, we see in it all kinds of sobering and festive opportunities for progress in the journey to our heavenly homeland.  While progress is made by means of the Cross, the way of our Crucified Master plunges us into an ocean of sorrow and joy, misery and mercy that only the wisdom of God revealed in the Church can guide us through.  More than merely inviting us to dip our toes at the edge of this ineffable Mystery, the teachings of the Church point to a splendor that shines beyond the horizons we can see from the shores of this life.

At the same time, studying theology is never meant to be as non-personal and individualistic as is looking at a map might be. The theological enterprise is something much more alive and solemn. Theology is in the form of a conversation.  In this dialogue, all the members of the Church strive to listen in a communion of faith to a great canticle, a sanctus, that resounds in the very heart of reality itself.

The whole body of Christ is taken up in a heavenly melody to which theology humbly attends. If  angels and saints in glory share most fully in this new song, the poorest and the least esteemed are the most implicated in its strain. To listen, in the broadest sense, means to open up one’s heart to the heart of another in whom I glimpse the Word made flesh.  The effort is to welcome together the excessive love of God that only the Crucified One makes known in the world.  We do this personally in holy friendship.  By extension, we are engaged in the same task in a more formal way when we take up theology.

Scientific theology strives to raise the mysterious music of sacred doctrine to that level of human consciousness by which we might share the saving truth for the building up of the Church.  This science is geared to the strengthening of one another’s faith through the disciplined exploration of the truth.  Theology has a special obligation to build up the faith of those who most need a word of hope. When informed with pastoral charity and disciplined by the rigor of reason, the result is to call attention to some as yet unheard movement of the remarkable canticle the Bridegroom sings to His Bride: here, heavenly harmony fills the heart and the whole world echoes with hidden praise.

Spiritual theology is especially concerned with attending to this sacred chorus with an eye to deepening contemplation in the life of the Church. Although our faith is performative, although it must needs be lived, there is a precedence of prayer, the need to behold the mystery before one can act on it.  Just as action follows being, only one who abides can be sent. This is why there has never been an authentic renewal of the life of the Church which did not involve a renewal of the practice of mental prayer.  Accordingly, the contemplation that lives at the heart of spiritual theology is not principally an individual effort to find God but rather the Risen Lord's loving gaze on His mystical Bride, the Church – a transformative, creative look that beholds with eyes that have conquered death all that is good, holy and true about humanity.

Is spiritual theology a separate branch of the theological enterprise? In the last couple hundred years, explorations into mystical theology and ascetical theology have been brought together in the discipline now called spiritual theology. A majority of theologians today see this field as a sub-branch of moral theology. As an applied branch of research, the conversation elucidates personal acts required or counseled for the attainment of the perfection of the Christian life. For others, this discipline is primarily dogmatic. They understand this field in terms of an exploration of dogmatic truths in relation to the ultimate end of the divine economy. Yet, whether it takes up practical or speculative questions, spiritual theology can only do so effectively in relation to mystical wisdom, the loving awareness of God’s presence that lives in the heart of the Church as she proposes her teachings to the world. Spiritual theology serves all the other disciplines of theology by keeping the awareness of this wisdom, a kind of foretaste of what awaits us in the world to come, alive in the Church’s dialogue of salvation.

In important ways, true spiritual theology connects with what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls a “kneeling theology.” Just as Jesus emptied and humbled Himself unto death so that we might know the Father, the integrity of the task of spiritual theology demands conversion from those who pursue it. The more it is known, the more set apart for God the student ought to become — because the challenging truths taken up in this exploration demand no less.

In this branch of theology, the queen of the theological disciplines, we find a convergence of word and silence, theology and sanctity, the holiness of the Church and the truth of her teaching, the wisdom of the saints and one's own need for conversion. For this reason, spiritual theology demands not only a reverent fidelity to the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, but especially a radical receptivity to all kinds of heart-piercing wonders that live in the life of the Church. Indeed, in the inexhaustible riches of Christ, if explored with bold faith and humble reason, there always remains to be found something beautiful and unexpected for our tired old world just when a reason to hope is most needed.  The best spiritual theology knows, even after two thousand years of exploration, this treasury of saving truth gushes forth anew, evoking the astonished surrender of one’s whole being again and again in adoration and providing delightful relief to those who hunger and thirst for more.


Art: Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Pietro Novelli, 1641, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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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, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese 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 Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is 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 Saint 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. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • rjk123

    I appreciate you teaching us this which we would probably not be able to learn except by being enrolled in a theology program. It is helpful to know these distinctions about theology. It also is encouraging to understand the importance of spiritual theology and of mental prayer in the whole picture of theology and of salvation. I love that it is the gateway to holiness and to the experience of new wonders in this old world. I love that it affirms the brilliant but hidden power of prayer of hidden, little people who may never know the good God accomplishes through their hidden life. I use the word ‘”hidden” purposely because in our world, even the world dedicated to doing God’s work, the visible is most esteemed. Yet, the hidden, unknown pray-er may be the instrument of God’s power for those who are active and known and certainly for the conversion of sinners. It is good to be humble and remember, whether active or hidden, that it is God’s work and His way. Please continue to teach us. I am grateful to learn. Rachel

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you Rachel — I like the way you look at “hidden.” It speaks to the anawim, the ones who rely on the Lord alone. I agree that the Lord loves to reveal the power of His arm through them — they are the great gift of the Church.

      • rjk123

        I looked up “anawim” and was led to read Pope Benedict’s mention of the anawim in talking about Psalm 146–the lowly ones. It is difficult to identify oneself as one of the “anawim,” when only the Lord knows if you are lowly and humble or simply unaware or too self-focused to see what you should be “doing” or being active at. I only know to ask God’s will and to trust Him even in my misery, or especially in my misery, as you have pointed out in the past. Rachel

        • Anthony_Lilles

          Rachel, You sound like a humble and sincere person. And your words lift up my soul. Our God is awesome and holy – He constantly casts down the proud and the mighty and lifts up the lowly! I hope that you discover the gaze of the Lord who looks upon his lowly handmaid – because His look of love establishes us in invincible peace and makes our hearts fruitful in ways this world cannot contain.
          In Christ,

          • rjk123

            Your reply brings tears to my eyes. Thank you. “His look of love” — priceless and worth all. That’s all I want is to be his lowly handmaid – – hidden and invisible. I’m grateful, too, for your reassurance that He “makes our hearts fruitful in ways this world cannot contain.” Being hidden doesn’t feel fruitful. And yet, you reassure, HE makes it fruitful “in ways this world cannot contain.” Wow! I’m just going to trust Him! Praise God! Thank you. Rachel

      • rjk123

        This morning I was drawn to your reflection on “The Prayer that Blazes from the Deepest Center.” It–and some wonderful comments from other readers–answered my own concern from yesterday. It is the Lord drawing me to Him. I keep wanting to be an “active” person in the world, and have done and do “active” things, but what He draws me to, and has always drawn me to from my childhood, is to be hidden in the world but seeking and dwelling with Him within. Why I keep wanting to be “active” when He draws me instead to prayer, is my own ego, I suppose. I love the interiority and I love seeking Him and experiencing Him, so I can be content to do so. He has called me to this. I’m not just being lazy! My spiritual director told me I’m trying too hard to do too much too fast. The Lord has told me several times in the last few years “to rest” in Him, to be content and patient. There are ways I contribute actively and I need to just keep doing those little things and trust the Lord and love being with Him.

        • Anthony_Lilles

          Dear Rachael,
          I am so glad you have a good spiritual director who is giving you reliable counsel. As we begin to be more dedicated to the Lord, we want to serve him in all kinds of ways and we never feel like we are doing enough. We act like Martha when the Lord invites us to be like Mary. I hope that the Lord draws you to sit at his feet and listen, to gaze into the gaze of love He casts on you. When our hearts glimpse His in prayer, it is a foretaste of what is to come — and one thought filled with God is worth more to the Lord than the whole visible cosmos.
          In Christ,

          • rjk123

            Me, too. He’s the best. Definitely sent by God! As are you! Thank you. Rachel

  • LizEst

    Yes, It is amazing that almost 2000 years since the death and resurrection of Christ, the Holy Spirit is still leading us into all Truth, that, although God has spoken His Word once for all, there are still wonders and truths and beauty ever fresh to uncover, to rejoice in and to prepare us for our heavenly communion with Christ when God will be all in all. God bless you, Dr. Lilles…and thank you for this.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I love the beautiful paradox you see — truth disclosed once and for all by the Word made flesh, and yet an inexhaustible mystery we are still welcoming into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

  • $1650412

    Prof Lilles, all you have to do is start to type and I am thinking, “Where do I sign?!” ,
    Above in para 6, “The whole body of Christ….”: I am not EXACTLY sure what you are referring to here, but just a brush with the illustration is compelling.

    “Theology has a special obligation to build up the faith of those who most need a word of hope.” This is a powerful truth that should be repeated often.

    “Just as Jesus emptied and humbled Himself unto death so that we might know the Father, the integrity of the task of spiritual theology demands conversion from those who pursue it.” This is the ‘warning’ label right here, right? Conversion akin to Christ emptying HImself in obedience which He learned through suffering, unto death on a cross…. wow, again, I am thinking, “Where do I sign,…. but I have no confidence I can do this, Lord!?”

    I love your posts- they really inspire pursuit of Christ!

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