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A Contemplation that Hears Heaven

September 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Contemplation, Prayer

A Contemplation that Hears Heaven

Beyond every psychological experience in prayer, however enlightened it might be, there is a contemplation of the Gospel of Christ rooted in a whole new outpouring of truth. This ceaseless DetailOfMulherDoChaleVerdeCyprienEugeneBouletPrayerContemplationoutpouring of love on broken humanity is always new because the Word of the Father, though unchanging, is never old. His voice echoes with unique and unrepeatable harmony – the harmony that causes all things to be, that saves them from every danger and that orders them all to their great purpose. Though hidden in weakness and vulnerable to every kind of evil, the Word constantly puts the eternal plan of the Father into motion.

This is a river of primordial, salvific and heavenly truth flowing in darkness: a true unfolding miracle saving, restoring, rebuilding, raising up, providing, protecting, perfecting all manner of new life. The miracle of hope is born in these waters even as this tired old world is doomed under the weight of lifeless systems and frantic ideologies. Christian contemplation stands in this river and in the flow of its currents, it hears heaven.

The most radical of all forms of contemplation of any religious tradition, prayer that welcomes the Word claims the total transformation, not only of created intelligence, but of human nature itself. This is a transformation by glory and for glory into pure and ceaseless praise. Predestined in Christ, in the world but not of it, this humble prayer is unto the praise of God’s glory.

The new and saving truth such prayer contemplates renews every aspect of one’s life. It does so without harming our nature in any way but instead restores it to integrity and raises it to unimaginable perfection. It is thus a real transformation in which one’s unique individuality is not absorbed by some abstract absolute. Instead of surmounting sacred humanity, by the grace of this kind of prayer, one finally begins to live. Here, in all of one own glorious unrepeatability and frail contingency, he discovers the joy of a divine friendship the limits of our present existence cannot contain.

SwynnertonSenseOfSightDetailPrayerMeditationContemplationAlthough one’s natural capacity for love and knowledge cannot even begin to exhaust the limitlessness of the saving truth revealed by Christ, one’s intellect, one’s will and one’s self-awareness are all raised up into a whole new work by grace. Christian contemplation avails the mind to supernatural operations and makes the very substance of the soul vulnerable to the sanctifying presence of the Eternal Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Within the limits of time and moments subject to duration, this mental prayer brings to birth eternal thoughts until one’s whole memory burns with hope.  It feels the movement of holy desires caused by an Uncreated Love mysteriously at work in depths of heart, depths so deep that one does not know of their existence.  Indeed, one’s ultimate end is far beyond the power of natural consciousness to grasp.

Sharing in the jubilation of God to which ears closed by the disobedience of sin are deaf, this truth-based contemplation is cruciform: stretching out on the misery and mercy that collide in one’s own heart, drowning all that is false, rash and callous in the abyss of love’s agony while raising up all that is tender, beautiful and noble in pure divine fire. It is a baptism. It is a burning bush. Man’s own psychic energy falls silent before this hidden mountain. It is holy ground on which one may stand only with bare feet.

SpringFlowersBeetMittTulpenUndStiefmutterchenHow do we find this secret mountain and how do we enter this hidden garden? The substance of such hope cannot be clung to as long as the mind lusts for religious experience and seeks its rest in its own spiritual achievement. At war with heaven, hubris is a noise that does not avail the heart to suffer the subtle movements of divine power in human nature. The deaf ears of the heart must be rendered vulnerable to the breath of God. Unless it is healed and opened by a truth beyond itself, the mind is unable to catch those triumphant canticles forever singing, thundering, showering, delicately exploring anew all the human mirth and sacred sorrow the Risen Lord pours out on the world and offers to the Father.

Contemplation requires sacred doctrine. It is nourished by this real food. It is rooted in this heavenly secret. It drinks from this wisdom of the saints. It stands on what the Spirit and the Bride propose to the world. The teaching of the Church, especially as proposed inerrant and inspired in the Holy Bible, makes possible and safeguards such prayer. Familiarity with the treasure entrusted to us by faith protects prayer from the threat of self-deception and the manipulation of charlatans. Rooted in saving truth, Spirit-imbued modes of cognition are free to reach beyond limited horizons of cleverness and enchantment, opening the heart to a divine inflow, a fullness no falsehood can bear.

It is the humbled and contrite alone who are both refreshed and made homesick by the kindly warmth of those eternal hymns resounding in the sacred silence of God’s own heart. Raised by grace beyond the futility that clouds intellects still subject to death, such prayer accesses a saving mystery to taste heaven itself and drink from life giving waters. Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity speaks of a Divine Object that evokes adoration, an ecstasy of love. Pope Francis describes this as seeing through the resurrected eyes of Christ. Saint Paul explains that this living sacrifice, this spiritual worship, results in knowing God’s will, and all that is good, pleasing and perfect in His eyes (Romans 12:2).


For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

Art: Detail of Mulher do chale verde (Woman with green shawl), Cyprien Eugène Boulet, before 1927, PD-US term of life of author plus 80 years; Sense of Sight detail, Annie Swynnerton, 1898, PD-US copyright expired; Beet mit Tulpen und Stiefmütterchen (fotografiert aus der Vogelperspektive), 3268Zauber, own work undated, CCA-SA; all 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 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. 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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  • Albert Fiedeldey

    Lovely. One is nearly afraid to discuss the topic,precisely because it is holy ground and we all still have our shoes on

  • Utelene Nugent

    It was only hours ago, at a meeting, that our committee was discussing the absolute necessity of CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER as an integral part of the curriculum in the School of Evangelization.
    I will be contacting the
    Avila Institute for more information in this regard.

    Bless you Anthony Lilles for such a soul-stirring reflection.

  • Jo Flemings

    I have had Dr. Lilles as a professor at Avila Institute and I can’t say enough good about him as an instructor- I loved every minute of the classes I took under him and I received countless blessings from his lectures, many of which I listened to more than once.

    This post is so beautifully composed and so compelling in all it conveys that even if a soul has little to no idea what he is discussing here I can only imagine its response as “Where do I sign? How do I get what this guy is talking about?” And “Who would not want this?”

    Yes, profoundly soul-stirring!

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