September 5, 2011

St. John of Avila - Master of Contemplation and Renewal of the Church

During World Youth Day, Pope Benedict announced his intention to declare St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church.  This means that the Pope believes his teaching contributes to our universal patrimony in an important way.  I must admit, up to now, I mainly know him as a theological consultant for St. Teresa of Avila, also a Doctor of the Church.
A statue of St. Teresa of Avila - just outside the walls of Avila

When she wrote her autobiography, she submitted the work to him to find out whether her experiences were authentic and whether her doctrine was true.  Although he found her experiences to be authentic, he was concerned that not everything she described applies to all Christians.  He also affirmed that her teaching on prayer was true, especially what she had to say about the prayer of rapture.  Like St. John of the Cross, he was wary of extraordinary mystical phenomena - like visions and locutions.  As great a mystic as he was, he insisted that the ordinary and surest way to intimacy with the Lord is by love imbued faith.
The Walls of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila had picked a reliable source to review her life experience and understanding of prayer.  He had already guided many of the early Spanish Jesuits as they attempted to bring the practice of mental prayer to bear on the mission of the Church. St. Ignatius invited him to join the society, but his health was frail.   Instead, he supported the mission in Spain confident that the Jesuits would lead souls to Christ.  His own preaching had moved more than one saint to embrace of life of conversion and deep prayer - including St. John of God whose conversion was so dramatic, everyone thought he was crazy.   Like St. Teresa, St. John of Avila too had faced an Inquisition which was not favorable to the practice of contemplation, which would have preferred the practice of the faith to be limited to liturgy and good morals.  He was able to affirm for her and for those Church authorities questioning her the primacy of contemplation and grace in the discipline of life Christ calls us to embrace.

What is wonderful about these Spanish mystics of the 16th Century - whether St. Ignatius and his St. Francis Borgia or St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of Avila and so many others - we find the integration of deep prayer, ascetical vigor, solid doctrine and a love for the whole Church.  Devotion to liturgical prayer, an inspiring moral life, a hunger for deep silence, great spiritual friendships, concern for the poor and love of the poverty of Christ -- one finds in teach of these saints an integration of these elements.  They realized the importance and primacy of contemplation but did not neglect the mission of the Church.  Nor did they ever fail to love those the Lord entrusted to them.  They realized the primacy of grace in the spiritual life but did not fail to make every effort to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by their strict discipline of life.
Avila - fortifications over one of the gates

In the case of St. John of Avila- we have a parish priest dedicated to the art of spiritual direction deeply concerned about the failures of his brother priests and bishops at a critical moment in Spanish and European history.   He met this concern by following Christ into all kinds of apostolates with every fiber of his existence deeply convinced that the only path to renew the Church was through promoting the practice of mental prayer and the discipline of the Christian life as widely as possible, starting with his brothers in the clergy and going out to every level of society.   His efforts bore great fruit not only in Spain but throughout Europe.  He had an important hand to play in the institution of the modern seminary as a place of strong community life, mental prayer and intense study of the faith.  In other words, he helped the fathers of the Council of Trent realize that building seminaries that were genuine centers of Christian spiritual formation was the key to the reforms most needed in the life of the Church.  It is fitting that in the midst of the challenges the Church faces today, Pope Benedict should direct our attention to this particular reformer, a reformer who calls us to depths of prayer.