For the Bookshelf: The Spiritual Guide

For the Bookshelf: The Spiritual Guide

October 22, 2108—Miguel de Molinos was a prominent Catholic mystic. He was born in Saragossa, Spain in about 1627. He attended a Jesuit college, became a priest, and earned a doctorate in theology. When in his early forties, he went to the Vatican. He became a friend to many Cardinals and was a popular confessor for prominent Roman families. He was an influential, rising star in Catholicism. Then he learned and began practicing the mystical teachings of Francois Fenelon and Madame Guyon. His teachings were very popular. It was reported that in Naples alone, 20,000 people were following Molinos. He was encouraged to write The Spiritual Guide, which also became very popular. It was translated into every major European language. It was even approved by the Inquisition.

But his popularity caused other Catholic leaders great fear, especially when his teachings seemed to conflict with orthodox practices. He taught that life was a continual act of faith and love. This seemed to conflict with the emphasis of worship on Sundays. Some leaders saw in Molinos’ teachings the idea that confession was not necessary before Holy Communion. Ultimately, fear of his growing popularity drove leaders to act. The Inquisition was turned against him. In 1685 he was arrested and his book was condemned as heretical. After two years of imprisonment and a long trial, it was reported that he had confessed to heresy and had recanted. He was sentenced to life in prison. He had faced his trial with silence and resolution. All copies of his book were ordered burned. That seemed to be the end of an opportunity for Catholic revival. Twelve years later he died.

The practice of mysticism implies a deep spiritual commitment involving much prayer. This prayer tends to be internal and silent, which seems at odds with the vocal prayers required by the church. The opposition to mysticism, by the Orthodox church comes about because of the implication by mystics that the outward practices of worship, sacraments, and confession are obsolete, when one seeks the Lord within the heart. Molinos taught that “The deep things of the Lord do not come to the soul through your ear hearing nor your eye reading books, but by something the Holy Spirit puts in your abundantly.” He suggested to people, “Move away from your emotions, but also move away from your rationality and logic…” Because “Your God is in a deep inward place, and it is in that place that loving attention, silence, and oblivion from everything else – and a surrender of the human will to the Divine will – may eventually be found.”

In order to find this deep place, people must abandon all aspects of the physical world. God must be worshiped and encountered through the spirit. Molinos believed, “At the time of your conversion, your Lord came to dwell within you… in the spirit… the inmost part of your being.” He said, “There are two kinds of spiritual people, those who are internally spiritual and those who are externally spiritual.” In addition, one’s devotional life could be defined because “There are also two devotions. One devotion is real, and one is quite tied to the senses.” The physical senses are a distraction to the inward spiritual development. People are called to “Come to Him, silent, believing, suffering, and with patience. This is better than all the good in the world.” To find the internal love of God, one must focus internally.

Molinos issued a call to self-abnegation. He taught that “Your self is the greatest devil of all.” Once we realize this, we will understand when he says, “You will learn to know your self-nature and despise it.” As people progress in their spiritual journey he tells them, “In all your journey as a believer, you will have two categories of spiritual experiences. One is tender… the other can be quite obscure, dry, dark, and desolate… this first one to gain us… the second to purify us.” This darkness is the suffering which Christians are called to endure. One of Molinos’ most sobering thoughts is “A great deal of suffering awaits us if we follow the Lord as we should.” Indeed, our level of suffering increases our acceptance before God. Molinos says, “God loves not the believer who does the most… but He loves him who suffers the most.” God calls us and “He wishes to see the inward part of you humbled, quiet, and totally surrendered to Him and to His will…” The total following of the will of God and discounting of self-will, makes us more acceptable before God. And the benefit of the internally spiritual life is “If you submit your will to the Divine will, and to all His orderings, what tranquility you will know.”

From the tone of the history listed in my edition, it seems that the benefits of the leadership exhibited by Molinos were thwarted. His broad influence could have instigated a greater revival across the Roman Catholic Church. The truth of this possibility, we will never know. The writings of Molinos are very spiritual and clearly favor the focus on internal prayer with its emphasis on Christ within us. How can this be wrong? However, for many Protestants, the concepts seem foreign. In any case, his mystical leanings are not of great help in developing personal devotional practices.

Molinos, Miguel de. The Library of Spiritual Classics. Vol. 5, The Spiritual Guide. Auburn, Me.: SeedSowers, Christian Books Pub. House, 1982.

Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.

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