September 8, 2011

St. John of Avila's Life of Prayer

      St. John of Avila (1500-1569AD) knew many of the 16th Century mystics and in fact had a hand in the conversion of some of them including St. Francis Borgia, S.J. and St. John of God. Yet spiritual writers like E. Allison Peers note that this parish priest does not present a doctrine of contemplation as such. Rather, one finds in his writings concern mainly with ascetical practices, penance and meditation. This raises a question about whether John of Avila was a contemplative and whether he himself had mystical experiences.

      Whereas some might be inclined to the position that he was not a great contemplative himself because he did not write about this kind of prayer, it must be observed that his pastoral responsibilities rather than his experiences in prayer inspired most of the direct content of his writings. In other words, simply because he wrote about beginning to pray for the sake of those entrusted to him does not mean he did not have an intense life of mental prayer or contemplation. In fact, his friendships with other great contemplatives suggests otherwise, and sprinkled in his writings are insights which suggest a very intense prayer life supported his apostolic work.


      In fact, the more intense one's own prayer, the more difficult it is to write about. St. John of Avila was an important voice for the renewal of the Church in Spain precisely because he was a man of prayer. One indication of this is that after Law School but before beginning his studies for the priesthood, he spent two years in solitude. Some of his contemporaries believed his doctrine of the spiritual life too mystical, and he was subjected to the Inquisition as were many others who advocated the importance of mental prayer in the Christian life. Indeed, in reading his writings, if he is discreet about contemplative prayer, we must remember the irrational fear gripping many leaders of the Church of his day. At the same time, when addressing the renewal of the Church, he does not fail to advocate a return to deep personal prayer among the clergy. Why would he advocate something if he did not experience it himself?

     In the Catholic tradition of spirituality, although it acknowledges many kinds and degrees of supernatural encounters with God, an effort is made not to identify experiences in prayer with the quality of one's friendship with God. Although the stirring of warm affections in prayer are considered a good thing, emphasis is put on the loving resolve to pray come what come may. This is because the perfection of holiness in the Christian life consists operationally in supernatural love - a love produced by the Holy Spirit through whom the human person participates in the eternal love of God. Thus, periods of dryness can actually be experiences of the most intense kind of mystical prayer - precisely because without the soul realizing it, God is producing a greater love in its depths.

     We find a tension in the writings of Teresa of Avila, especially in her autobiography, where she acknowledges, humbly, that was she was being favored with in prayer was not commensurate with her actual devotion to the Lord. This fact not only disturbed her but also disturbed those closest to her. In the case of John of Avila, rather than describing mystical experiences (he is aware of what these are and can even affirm that Teresa of Avila's experience of the prayer of rapture is authentic), he describes to a student the quality of love one must persevere with in taking up a life of prayer:
   (as cited by E. Allison Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics, vol. 2, London: SPCK (1960) 105-106.)
The profit of the soul consists rather in a man's denying his own will, and courageously doing that which he feels to be pleasing to the Lord than in tenderness of heart and sweetness of devotion. For in the former is revealed the true love which a man has toward God, wherein consists the perfection of Christianity, whereas in the latter may be concealed love of self, which befouls all things. Wherefore do not be dismayed by the dryness which you say is in your heart, but press on through the desert, though there be no green trees, nor shade to give refreshment, nor water to gladden you.