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St John of Avila: Learning the Language of God (Part I of II)

August 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, John of Avila

St John of Avila's master work in the spiritual life is Audi, Filia or Listen, O Daughter.  This treatise for Sancha Carrillo, one of his penitents, was started while he was imprisoned by the St John of AvilaInquisition. He continued to develop and revise the original text for more than thirty years. In fact, the final revisions were published five years after his death by his secretary.

His spiritually rich content discloses itself through the lens of 16th century Spain. Under the shadows of the Inquisition, Reformation, and pop-spirituality, he wrote to carefully clarify Catholic teaching to protect the integrity of the faith. In particular, the Alumbrados – the Enlightened Ones – promoted an esoteric and syncretistic elitism that undermined the unity of the Church. At the same time, the light of the Council of Trent as well as that of the mysticism of 16th century Spain, purified and deepened his convictions around the primacy of contemplation in the life of the Church. The lights and shadows of his time suggest a pathway through the darkness of our own culture that makes use of the humble flame of hope entrusted to our care.

His goal is to guide us into a fruitful life of prayer so that Christ can restore His beauty in us and use our lives to reveal his mercy to the world. He is a master spiritual director who discerns the beautiful work God is about in each human soul who is open to Him. He also knows from his own life that mental prayer, a form of prayer that attends to the Lord in holy silence, requires a whole life of ongoing conversion – turning away from what is not merciful to what is so. Only as we renounce enchanting possibilities that crowd out God's presence in our lives is there room in the heart for the vast horizons of God's mercy.

Before Saint John of Avila elucidates the practice of contemplation, he distinguishes the deadly noise that distracts us from prayer. With a reference to the Odyssey, he describes Sirens whose shrill cacophony enchant and overwhelm the soul from within and without.

To his mind, prayer is listening in the heart to the whisper of God to the soul. To understand God we need to learn God's language. The Master teaches that the purpose of language, of communication is communion not only with God but also in society and most importantly with oneself. God's language establishes integrity of the heart and integrity in our relationships with each other. Contemplation is about welcoming God's Word into the heart and responding to it – entering into an ongoing and life-changing conversation with God that leads to deeper and deeper communion with Him, each other, and with our own self.

Learning God's language of communion is difficult because there are alienating languages that drown out His still small voice. There are languages that destroy our solidarity with others as at Babel and also break down our harmony with ourselves, our integrity, as happened in Eden. The Master wants us to appreciate the full danger of that irrational banality which incessantly speaks to us from the brokenness of human society and one's own alienated misery. He sees a whole demonic contagion enveloping the world in deadly cacophony. It is a battle to tune these contentious languages of disunity out, but only when we do so are we able to tune into the delicate power of God's Word in our soul.

To make these reflections practical, in our next post, we will explore his descriptions of the dark languages of the world, the flesh and the demonic.  These languages speak into wounds in our hearts and cause wounds until it is impossible to see anything good – and under this enchantment, we live poisoned with the thought that it is evil and not God's love that most defines our lives. Welcoming the Word of the Father requires silence of heart, a loving silence that learns the language of God.


PS from the Editor:  If you want to read more of Anthony’s insights on the topic of prayer, don’t miss his 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 is a professor of theology at the Avila Institute.


Art for this post on St John of Avila: Learning the Language of God (Part I of II): Saint John of  Avila, Pierre Subleyras, 1746, 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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  • LizEst

    Beautiful post! We must become like little children, putting our hands in front of our ears to block out the world and hear God’s language of love in the silence of our hearts. Only then, when we have truly listened to God’s still, small voice and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, are we able to be a conduit for his love so as to draw others to that Love which wants to share itself with us.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thanks Liz – Saint John of Avila is a much needed light for our time, and you are right – he constantly directs us to the childlike simplicity Christ has asked of his followers.

  • jrbarrytx

    I have to share Liz, the language of a child’s love of God with you. Our 4 year old granddaughter was running around the house saying “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you!”. My daugher-in-law replied, “well, I love you too!”. My granddaughter then said “I wasn’t talking to you Mommie. I was talking to God.” She has obviously connected with him in ways we will never understand.
    Would that we could have that simple childlike love of God.
    Great post by the way!

    • LizEst

      How wonderful and delightful! Let’s all imitate your granddaughter!

    • Thanks jrbarrytx. And there was I moaning that being an Intellectual Midget I can no longer follow the teachings or make any sense in the RCSD Posts….yet all I need to do is remain my “infantile” optimist and let God be God in my life and guide me where He wants me to be.

  • 1x2y3z


    By Saint Alponsus De
    Liguori, Doctor of the Church

    Page 1: “But I do not
    think that I have written a more useful work than the present, in which I speak
    of prayer as a necessary and certain means of obtaining salvation, and all the
    graces that we require for that object. If it were in my power, I would
    distribute a copy of it to every Catholic in the world in order to show him the
    absolute necessity of prayer for salvation.”

    Page 24: “In several
    places above quoted, and especially in his book of Sentences, he (Saint Thomas
    Aquinas) expressly lays it down as certain that everyone is bound to pray
    because–as he asserts–in no other way can the graces necessary for salvation be
    obtained from God except by prayer.”

    Page 30: “He who
    prays is certainly saved. He who prays not is certainly damned.”

    Page 45: “And let us understand that if we do not pray, we
    have no excuse because the grace of prayer is given to everyone.”

  • Geralyn I. Edwards


  • Robert Kraus

    I’m so glad you started posting on John of Avila. I’ve been curious about one of our newest Doctors for some time. 🙂

  • Pingback: | Catholic Spiritual Direction | St John of Avila: Tune Out the Noise to Tune-In God (Part II of II) / Catholic Spiritual Direction()

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