Practically no new educational ventures get off to the kind of skyrocket start the Avila Institute did with its first class in September 2013, an introduction to spiritual theology. Nearly 60 students took the course. Simultaneously, hundreds of potential enrollees—seeking either a graduate-level certificate in spiritual theology or simply wanting personal enrichment—began contacting the Avila Institute. To date Avila Institute has served more than 400 students from 25 countries.
The start had a touch of the miraculous about it: the Avila Institute launched less than one month after co-founders Dan Burke and Dr. Anthony Lilles had a conversation about starting an institute specializing in spiritual theololgy.
Neither was new to spirituality and theology. Burke is executive director of the National Catholic Register, author of the award-winning book Navigating the Interior Life, and founder of the award-winning website, SpiritualDirection.com.
Dr. Lilles is the academic dean of St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and also an author and speaker on the topic of spiritual theology.
The co-founders came up with an online institute fully faithful to the Magisterium to help people advance in the knowledge of their Catholic faith, but more especially in their relationship with Jesus Christ, and in their ability to help others do likewise. In some ways the institute is like no other.
It is a two-to-four year master’s-level program in spiritual theology geared toward those seeking a graduate certificate. At the same time it is perfectly suited for others, with or without an undergraduate degree, looking for continuing education or personal enrichment.
Lilles explained what spiritual theology is. He defined it as “that branch of the theological science that studies holiness in the Church. Its task is to define the perfection of the Christian life and to analyze it, to study the growth and development of holiness in the Church.”
The course of study serves a global span of people, from priests and religious to laity, from catechists to pre-Cana instructors, from home-schooling parents to Catholic counselors, from professionals to ordinary Catholics looking to deepen their relationship with Christ through the spiritual riches of the Church.
“While some students are taking the courses for their own personal enrichment, the mission of the institute is to form teachers and leaders in the Church, empowering them with a spiritual theology and helping them establish a discipline of life and prayer that will enrich the Church where they are or in what are called to do,” Lilles explained. “With the mystagogical discipline of prayer their learning is going to bear the most fruit.”
Lilles affirmed the Avila Institute’s purpose is to help spur a renewal of contemplative prayer in the Church. No renewal in the Church has happened without it, he pointed out.
“Anytime the Church is renewed, there is always a renewal of mental prayer that precedes the other parts of renewal,” he said.
Consequently, the Avila Institute uses a mystagogical approach to studies. In other words, “It’s not just imparting information or mastery of a body of material,” Lilles emphasized. “We teach the truth and wisdom of the saints to lead people into a deeper and more life-giving encounter with Jesus.”
To further explain this rock-solid approach, he said: “Theology and prayer go together. This is a kneeling theology… That’s the goal of Avila Institute, and it will contribute to a renewal of contemplative prayer in the Church.”
The approach drew Sister Dorcee Clarey to join the inaugural class. She is the current superior of the Servants of God’s Love, a religious order in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan.
“What attracted me to Avila Institute was the idea proposed by Lilles and Dan Burke to approach the study of theology in a much more spiritual way—theology studied on the knees, so to speak,” explained Sister Dorcee. “A head and heart approach to spirituality has always appealed to me.”
Once she heard the first online talk by Dr. Lilles, she knew immediately she wanted to study at Avila. Then Burke mentioned it would be possible for her and her sisters to attend without cost.
She took him up on his offer; otherwise, it would have been impossible for her to attend.
That points to another unique feature of Avila Institute, one that Burke puts at the head of this work’s notable aspects—service to the poor.
“No one is turned away because of financial issues,” noted Burke. “If we have the room and the resources, we give as much away as we can. We provide our coursework at no cost (where necessary) to those who have taken a vow of poverty.”
For people in financial situations like Sister Dorcee, that has been difference between being able to take courses and being prevented from learning more about the faith. Avila funds these scholarships through donations.
Nor is the location restrictive. Although Avila is home-based in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, with a recent expansion to Colorado, enrollees can take the online and sometimes offline interactive courses from wherever they live. Avila is Internet-based.
Birmingham’s Bishop Robert Baker said: “When Dan brought the proposal to me and wanted to have it blessed and have the institute in the diocese of Birmingham, I was very comfortable with the idea.”
Bishop Baker knew both Burke and Lillis personally, describing them “as solid Catholic men of faith and men who are able to articulate the faith well.”
The bishop believes this effort will flourish. “Spiritual formation is critical in our time, and the Institute’s commitment to engage the clergy, religious, and laity through the great spiritual patrimony of the Church is essential if we are to see the continued renewal of the Church,” he said. In fact, he believes this effort “will bear much fruit for the Church around the world.”
Indeed, that potential is showing. Already Avila is serving students not only throughout the United States but also in Qatar, Dubai, Malaysia, Canada, the Philippines, Bali, and “many other places where sound and faithful formation is not available,” Burke noted. “We are providing a lifeline of spiritual sustenance where it is otherwise unavailable or scarce.”
Lilles pointed out that because of this opportunity to study spiritual theology at a graduate level in places where students otherwise would not have this chance, the Avila Institute is empowering missionaries and catechists and religious all over the world.
“It’s an extra joy to know we’re contributing to the formation of leaders throughout the world,” he said. “I’m very excited about that.”
Burke also pointed out the impact on individual lives of the laity and religious who study together and interact.
“Students regularly report that this is a life-changing experience for them,” he said.
Indeed, participants in the inaugural class poured out their thanks in writing. Snippets from several different responses report: “Your message is inspired by the Holy Spirit…I did not expect to find myself in the midst of a major conversion experience but that is exactly what is happening. I have never praised the Lord as I do now…never prayed like this before or felt so close to The Father…the last lecture Dr. Lilles offered was as if the gates of heaven opened and the beauty of the Lord just poured forth…his class has changed my life. I am so on fire with love and in awe of Our God!…A thousand thanks for refining the direction of my life. This class was everything I had been begging Our Lady to help me with…”
“Dr. Lilles holds to a high academic standard, but I would say that he also holds to a high heart standard,” said Sister Dorcee. “He has the ability to communicate spiritual truth with clear theological underpinnings while at the same time imparting the Heart of God to us.”