“Prayer is the life-breath of the soul’s relationship with God,” Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez writes in his foreword to Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom. And, he writes, “If we are to recover our true humanity in this secular age — the true meaning of our lives as children of God made in His image – then we must return to prayer.” Anthony Lilles, academic dean of Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., is the author of Fire from Above, and he talks about going deeper in matters of the soul.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Contemplation? Mystical wisdom? How is that practical or relevant? Who has time?
Lilles: Contemplation is nothing more than a conversation between friends — the soul and God. Mystical wisdom is the living awareness by faith of the Lord’s personal presence in one’s own life and in the world. It is relevant because this creating and healing presence holds everything together, and to live life to the full, we need to draw close to this source of life. Sadly, not everyone makes time for this kind of wisdom in their lives, and that is why so few people know how much they are loved by God. Unless we make the effort to be vulnerable to God in prayer, we will never know this love that heals and restores the deepest truth about who we are. With this truth, the untapped potential and greatness of who we are finds the firm ground it needs to grow into full maturity.
Lopez: Is learning about mystics really a the best way to start going deeper in prayer?
Lilles: Yes. If we want to be healthy, we listen to a doctor. If we want to be good at sports, we listen to a coach. If we want to deepen our life of prayer, we need to listen to the mystics that God has given to the Church. Mystics are those who have allowed themselves to be drawn into the mystery of Christ, and they are the most qualified to reveal this saving mystery to us.
Lopez: What does it mean to be a contemplative, and can you be one while living in the world?
Lilles: To contemplate means “to behold,” and to be a contemplative means to be someone who lives by what the light of faith reveals about our lives and the world around us. It is a way of life that is lived at the pace of prayer, and it allows itself to be established and enveloped by God’s peace that is constantly being poured out — even in very difficult and painful circumstance. No one starts out seeing the world or themselves in this way. Yet, as a disciple of Christ strives to keep himself mindful of God’s presence with complete confidence, he soon discovers that the Lord has implicated Himself in everything that concerns humanity and constantly works in hidden and exquisite ways to make all things new. A contemplative recognizes this great mystery and responds to it with his whole being. While some actually consecrate their whole manner of life to this pursuit in monastic or hermetical vocations, it is also true that very active priests and bishops, and even members of the lay faithful can live contemplatively. The grace of baptism makes such a life possible.
Lopez: You write that “the world needs the wisdom that the tradition of Christian prayer offers.” What does prayer have to do with wisdom?
Lilles: Mystical wisdom is the living awareness of God’s presence in the world. Such wisdom is not an accomplishment that one arrives at by intellectual rigor. Instead, it is the result of prayer, a kind of prayer in which we allow the Lord to question our whole way of life. Such prayer evokes a sense of wonder and inclines the heart to want to participate in the Lord’s salvific work.
This is why St. Thomas Aquinas understands the gifts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as gifts of the Holy Spirit that become operative in contemplative prayer. Through each gift, the Holy Spirit establishes the soul in a beatitude that anticipates the fullness of life that awaits us in heaven. In the case of wisdom, St. Thomas affirms that the blessedness of the peacemakers is realized through this gift: Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God. This means that when we invest ourselves in contemplative prayer, our existence is caught up into the identity we have as sons and daughters of God. Just as the Father is working to bring peace into the world and into each heart, His sons and daughters, touched by the wonder of His love in prayer, find themselves participating in His work.
Lopez: Can mysticism be an entryway to established religion for our modern age, when many people consider themselves spiritual but not religious?
Lilles: This is a fascinating question. For some, I think it has.
Lopez: You talk about “the supernatural life” and virtue as ways God invites us to have access to His light here on earth. That could sound like the realm of superheroes to people today. Do you read the news?
Lilles: Yes, I read the news. At the same time, I also know that we live at a time of too much information. Thus, we need to be careful consumers of the news products available to us. We must not allow ourselves to be caught up in news cycles that various broadcast companies use to market products — because, at the end of the day, as good as the people are who work for them, they are commercial enterprises servile to their own bottom line. Sensationalism, especially the bombastic kind, can be a tool to keep us hooked.
There is something in us, after all, which enjoys those feelings of indignation or triumphalism. If we are not careful, carried away by one sensational story right after another, we can forget to pray. Then believers are just as driven as everyone around them and just as blind as is everyone else to the splendor of the Lord shining in their midst. If we do not keep our eyes on the Lord, it is difficult to recognize the hope that He offers us moment to moment. Yet, if we keep our eyes on Him, sun and moon may pass away and the whole world fall down around us, but we will stand firm in His love. This is the witness of the martyrs of our time.
Lopez: You write, “The Holy Trinity dwells in our hearts to be loved and adored by grace.” What would you say to someone who believes in God, is a Christian, goes to Church, and yet to whom that statement simply sounds over-pious?
Lilles: It does sound too good to be true, and it is always possible to assent to this as no more than pious twaddle. To do so, however, would be a mistake. It is real — so real — that Christ delivered Himself over to suffering and death that we might receive this gift, the gift of the Almighty God dwelling within us.
Lopez: What’s so special about Elizabeth of the Trinity, who was canonized by Pope Francis?
Lilles: Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity has turned the attention of the Church back to the mystery of the Divine Indwelling. Theologians as diverse as Louis Bouyer, Garrigou-Lagrange, and Hans Urs von Balthasar recognized the importance of this spiritual mission today. She is the only 20th-century mystic quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and her words are used to illustrate that the ultimate end of the Divine Economy is not something remote or in the future, but a mystery of communion that we truly anticipate now by faith.
Lopez: Why should anyone who does not know of St. Elizabeth pick up A Life of Praise to God, a book recently published in English with a foreword by you?
Lilles: This is a wonderful book. The author, Sr. Giovanna della Croce gives you a delightful glimpse into St. Elizabeth’s charming personality and profound teachings. Julie Enzler has captured this with a very accessible translation.
Lopez: You note the Second Vatican Council insisting that there is a universal call to holiness: “While there are many forms and expressions of the Christian life, we are all called to the same holiness.” Isn’t there a danger of defining holiness down? Surely we’re not all capable of being Mother Teresa.
Lilles: The mystery of Christian holiness is a mystery of our image and likeness to God. Christ died for us to send the Holy Spirit upon us that we might become fiery icons of love to provide this dark world a little warmth and light — that others might find their way home. God has a plan for each of us — and for each of us, the most unique and un-repeatable adventure awaits. Holiness is a great adventure of love. What it will entail for each one is impossible to say — but we know we progress in this journey with the One who has gone before us and that whatever else happens in life, He is awaiting us and always ready to help us.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.
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