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Blessed John of Avila


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Preface - - - i

Letter I *

To St. Teresa, discussing her account of
her spiritual life - - - - 17

Letter II

To Don Diego de Gusman and Dr. Loarte
on their entering the Society of Jesus 24

Letter III

To a young lady about to consecrate
herself by vow to our Lord - - 34

Letter IV

To a priest, on due preparation for saying
Mass - - - 40

Letter V

To a widow, consoling her for the death
of her husband - - - - 49

* A mistake has been made in the date prefixed to this letter. The
Madrid edition of Fuente, published in 1881, gives it as September I2th|
1568, which is probably correct.


ft Contents

Letter VI

To an invalid lady _ _ _

- 56

Letter VII

To a gentleman who was ill

- 6a

Letter VIII

On preparation for death

- 65

Letter IX

To a dying Jesuit, who was one of Blessed
John of Avila's disciples - - 68

Letter X

To some friends who were undergoing
persecution - - - - - 72

Letter XI

To console a lady grieving for the absence
of her son - - - - -81

Letter XII

To a. friend, on the management
a household - - - -



Letter XIII

To a friend, on tepidity



Letter XIV

On scruples, addressed to a lady -



Contents iii

Letter XV
To a lady, on what constitutes true holiness 98

Letter XVI

To a lady of rank, encouraging her to
serve God - - - 100

Letter XVII
To a lady, on confidence in God - - 106

Letter XVIII
To console a young lady in great affliction 1 1 1

Letter XIX

To one of his disciples, teaching him how
to lead a good life - - - - 119

Letter XX
To a lady who had asked what charity was 125

Letter XXI

To a young lady, telling her how to make
ready to receive the new-born Jesus 135

Letter XXII
To a lady, on the feast of the Epiphany 141

Letter XXIII

To a devout person, treating of humility,

. pride, and the perfect love of God - 147

iti Contents

Letter XXIV
To a lady, on the feast of Pentecost - 159

Letter XXV

To a lady, on the feasts of Pentecost and
Corpus Christ! - - - - 164


This litde volume contains the translation from
the Spanish of a few spiritual letters of Blessed
John of Avila. The author is probably not
much known to English readers ; certainly he
is not as well known as he deserves to be both
for his own merits as a writer and because in
his own time, the sixteenth century, and even
beyond the limits of his own country, Spain, he
was a man of great renown. He was recognised
everywhere as a special servant of God, and as a
a true director of all souls desiring to walk the
higher paths of perfection, or of those who need-
ed help and encouragement to serve God in the
humbler walks of life. He was also a preacher
of exceptional power. St. Francis of Sales in his
Practice of the Love of God speaks of him as
" the learned and saintly preacher of Andalusia,"
St. Francis Borgia as "the Great Master,"
and he was popularly known as the " Apostle
of Andalusia" from the wonderful change which
his preaching wrought in that district of Spain.
His discourses were likened to " fishermen's
nets gathering in fishes of all sorts " whenever


.«. . Preface

and wheresoever he cast them, so plentiful
was the harvest of souls which followed his
expositions of the Christian teaching.

It may perhaps seem somewhat strange that
one endowed by God with such personal holiness
and who had been called to guide the souls of
St. John of God, St. Francis Borgia, St. Peter
of Alcantara and St. Teresa, should have had to
wait so long a time before being raised to the
ranks of the formally beatified servants of God.
It is fortunately not in any way necessary for us
to explain such apparent neglect ; but it was
only on the I2th or November 1893, some three
centuries and a half after his death, that Pope
Leo XIII., of happy memory, decreed his
Beatification, and the faithful were invited to
invoke his protection and aid under the title
of Blessed John of Avila. The writings of the
great servant of God have hitherto been little
known, at least in England, and it is with the
confident expectation that those, who will read
the letters here printed, will find in them
spiritual comfort and solid christian teaching,
that they have been translated from the Spanish.

For the sake of those into whose hands this
little volume may fall, who are unacquainted
with the life of Blessed John of Avila, it may be
useful to give a brief outline of his career. Letters
and other writings of anyone wholly unknown
to us do not as a rule interest us as much as
when we have at least a general knowledge of
their author and of the circumstances under

Preface 3

which they were written. From a contemporary
historian we learn that our author was born on
6 th January 1 500, at Almodovar del Campo,
a town in the diocese of Toledo and in the
kingdom of New Castile. Spain was then
under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella and
the Church was governed by Pope Alexander VI.

The parents of Blessed John of Avila were
people in a good social position and able to give
him an excellent education, but more important
than this, they were both truly and solidly
pious. In fact their son was given to them in
their old age when they had ceased to hope for
children, as the direct result of prayer during
a pilgimage made in honour of St. Bridget.

From his early boyhood Blessed John of
Avila manifested signs of extraordinary piety
and it required little discernment to see that
God had destined him for some special service
in the Church. At the age of fourteen he had
finished his literary studies and, as in the opinion
of his masters he gave promises of a distinguished
career, his father sent him to the University of
Salamanca to study law. After a twelvemonth
spent in the legal schools, however, he manifested
such a distaste for secular studies that his father
allowed him to return home. The next three
years were spent almost entirely in the seclusion
he made for himself, with the consent of his
parents, in his father's house, and in which he
devoted himself to the practice of penance and
to the study of the science of the saints with

4 Preface

our Lord and His Blessed Mother as his chief

At the end of this period of retirement, by
the advice of a friend, he determined to prepare
for the priesthood. With this intention he
went to Alcala to commence his Philosophy and
Theology, which he was fortunate enough to be
able to study under the celebrated Dominican
professor, de Soto, who formed the highest
opinion both of his abilities and of his exemplary
piety. Whilst here he formed a lasting friendship
with Don Pedro Gerrero, who afterwards became
Archbishop of Granada and to whom several
of his letters are addressed.

Before he had finished his philosophical course
both his parents died. He remained on at the
University until his studies were sufficiently
advanced for him to receive the sacred Order of
Priesthood, when he returned home to say his
first mass in the church wherein his two parents
were buried. After this he disposed of his
family property and gave the proceeds to the
poor. The desire of his heart inclined him to
the missions in Mexico and, having no family
ties and having dispossessed himself of all his
belongings, he seemed to see in his circumstances
an indication of the Divine Will in his regard.
He consequently made all preliminary arrange-
ments and repaired in 1527, to Seville to await
an opportunity of setting out for the scene of
his mission. Meantime his days and nights
were spent in prayer and penance and in filling

Preface g

his mind with that heavenly learning which
only constant communing with God Himself
can impart.

The design formed by Blessed John of Avila
of leaving Spain to work in the Mexican
missions was not, however, destined to be
carried out. At the beginning of 1528, he was
induced by ecclesiastical authority to renounce
the idea in order to assist in evangelizing the
province of Andalusia. His first sermon was
preached on 22 July, 1529. He had looked
forward with dread to the ordeal of facing an
audience and speaking to them of the high
mysteries of God and of their duties as
Christians. On mounting the pulpit his ner-
vousness for a few moments deprived him of
the power of speech, until he remembered that
it was God's work, undertaken only for His
sake, and raising his mind and soul to heaven
he said : " My God, if it be Thy will that I
should preach, remove from me this great
confusion I am feeling. Do this I beg Thee,
by the memory of thy bitter Passion for Thou
knowest whether I seek aught else but Thy
glory and the salvation of souls.'* At once his
nervous distress passed away and he became
one of the most eloquent and successful
preachers that Spain has ever seen. Whenever
it was known that he was to preach, the church
was thronged by crowds anxious to hear him,
and great harvests of souls were gathered
wheresoever he sowed the seed of the word of

6 Preface

God. Father Luis of Granada, who wrote Kis
life likened him to an arquebuse loaded to the
very muzzle which made great havoc at every

Many instances are given in his life of the
effect of Blessed John of Avila's sermons. The
two most celebrated examples were undoubtedly
the conversions of St. John of God and of Saint
Francis Borgia which were wrought by the power
of his preaching. The former, a Portuguese
travelling merchant, came by accident in 1537,
to a place where the holy servant of God was
preaching and by the effect of his burning
words was changed from a worldling with no
higher thoughts than those of his business into a
man given to heroic and life-long penance. The
change wrought in St. Francis Borgia was
equally astonishing. In 1539, Queen Isabella
died at Toledo after a few days' illness. Francis
Borgia, Marquis of Lombay, who had been
a member of the royal household was chosen to
escort the body to Granada for burial. On the
arrival of the body, the coffin had to be opened
in the presence of Borgia, for the formalities
of identification, when the terrible change that
had been wrought by the hand of death in the
features of the once beautiful Queen, was seen
by Borgia and made a great impression upon
him. Blessed John of Avila was appointed to
preach the funeral oration and, as if inspired to
enforce the lesson already taught the courtier
by the sight of the corrupted body of his former

Preface ^

mistress, he spoke in forcible terms of the
transitory character of worldly honour and
position, and of the corruption that overtook all
mankind alike and from which neither king nor
prince could escape. His words wrought the
instant conversion of Saint Francis Borgia and
by Blessed John of Avila's advice he joined the
Society of Jesus as one of the first disciples of
Saint Ignatius. For this great Saint and for his
new Society which was founded at this time, our
venerable servant of God, always entertained
the warmest affection and admiration. He
sent many of his disciples to the Jesuits and
encouraged them in the many difficulties and
troubles experienced by them in their first
beginnings in Spain. One of the letters printed
in this little volume is addressed to Dr. Loarte
and another, on their becoming Jesuits ; another
is a letter of consolation to a dying son of
St. Ignatius, and a third, to " friends undergoing
persecution*', is also perhaps sent to encourage
some members of the Society in their troubles.
In the then need for Christian education and
religious instruction in Spain, Blessed John of
Avila regarded the foundation of the Society of
Jesus as a marked instance of God's providence
in providing for the wants of the Church. His
opinion was communicated to St. Ignatius and
was a source of great satisfaction and consolation
to him. Moreover Blessed John of Avila gave
so many practical proofs of his desire to assist
the Society in its early days that he was

8 Preface

accounted its best friend in Spain and for all
the foundations made by the Institute in
Andalusia it was directly indebted to his

For some years before his death, Blessed
John of Avila suffered from constant sickness,
which however he did not allow to interfere
with his working for souls. He bore his
maladies in the spirit of gratitude to God who
allowed him to suffer something for his love —
the spirit which he so earnestly exhorted others
to cultivate, as in the two excellent letters
addressed to people ill, which are printed in this
volume. After sixteen years of suffering Blessed
John of Avila died on lo May 1569.

Some of the works of this venerable servant
of God have never been published, such as his
"Treatise on clerical life" and his "Remarks
upon the Council of Trent." Of his published
writings his " Spiritual letters," and his tract
"Audi Filia" are the best known. Both were
translated into English in the 17th century :
the "Audi Filia" in 1620 by L. T., and the
"Letters" in 1631, but these editions, especially
the English translation of the letters, have long
been very scarce books. Even had they been
easily obtainable their antiquated diction and
the involved nature of the translation would
make them antiquarian curiosities rather than
books practically useful for spiritual help at the
present time.

The letters with which we are more imme-

Preface 9

diately concerned are very numerous. In the
French translation of Robert Arnaud d'Andilli
they are divided into four sections or books ;
the first contains letters twenty-two in number
addressed to prelates and other religious
superiors ; the second those written to nuns
and superiors of convents, in number thirty-one ;
the third, letters to women of quality in the
world, in number sixty-three, and the fourth
those to lay-men of all kinds, thirty-three in

The present selection of five and twenty
letters has been made from the entire number,
and affords examples taken from all four
divisions. Though only a small number, they
will be sufficient to give the reader some
knowledge of the power and charm of Blessed
John of Avila's epistolary style. Moreover
they set forth, better than any life can, the
personality of this great servant of God. The
letters of all great and good men are a precious
inheritance to those who come after them, and
they afford information about their inner souls,
and an insight into the working of their minds
which can be obtained in no other way. The
Benedictine Editor of the letters of St. Augustine
explains exactly wherein consists the special
value of the documents he was engaged upon.
" As the eyes are to the other bodily senses,'*
he writes, " so are the letters of illustrious men
in numberless ways more wonderful than all
their other works. . . . Just as no one can better

to Preface

show himself to the life than in his letters, so
nowhere can he be better known" than in
them. . . Any careful reader may, in such letters,
look into the soul of the writer, as if he were
close at hand.

Luis de Munoz, who is the author of one
of the Spanish lives of the Blessed John of
Avila, devotes a considerable space to the letters
written by this servant of God and to the spirit
which dictated them. From early youth this ser-
vant of God, he says, set St. Paul before him
as a model and became the living image of the
great Doctor of the Gentiles, imitating him in
his actions, preaching and virtues, and indeed
fulfilling the Apostle's command : " Be ye
imitators of me as I am of Christ." Munoz then
goes on to point out how this imitation of Saint
Paul was manifested in the letters written by
Blessed John of Avila. Just as the burning
zeal of the Apostle was not quenched with
preaching to those who could hear his voice,
but endeavoured in his Epistles to draw
all the world to Christ, so Blessed John of
Avila, his disciple and humble imitator, wrote
an immense number of letters to all sorts and
conditions of people. He had no idea of
composing a volume of letters, nor could he
have dreamed that what he penned would
ever have been published, but providentially
some at least of them were preserved that
after generations might enjoy his earnest ex-
hortations, and profit by the spiritual food

Preface li

intended originally for the person or persons, to
whom the letters were actually addressed.

It is impossible not to admire the style and
vigour of the letters here printed. The doctrine
taught in them is solid and fruitful and their
persuasive quality speaks for itself The words,
says Munoz, have such power and force that they
fire the most frozen and the hardest of hearts,
and nobody can read them without wishing and
resolving to change his life for the better.
Many learned and pious theologians have looked
upon these letters of Blessed John of Avila as
amongst the most precious of the many writings
of God's saints, and have declared that for them
alone, in their opinion, he would deserve to be
called a " Doctor of the Church." And indeed
Blessed John of Avila's whole manner of writing
is that of some early Father of the Church whose
aim was to secure not the good of his own indi-
vidual soul but that of the whole Body. His
versatility is extraordinary and he seems to enter
fully into the difficulties that are proposed to him,
though the subjects upon which he is asked to
write are as numerous, and as different, as were
the needs of the people who applied to him for
advice. " With what convincing and powerful
reasons," writes Father Luis Munoz, " does he
not console the sad, encourage the weak, rouse
the tepid, strengthen the timid, help the
tempted, weep with the fallen and humble the
presumptuous } How admirable is his un-
masking of the arts and tricks of the enemy !

12 Preface

What wise counsels he gives for defending
ourselves against him ! What clear indications
and signs he sets forth by which a man may
know whether he is advancing or falling back
in his service of God ! How he shows the
weakness of the strength of nature and the
power of grace ! How clearly he exposes the
vanity of the world, the malice of sin and the
ever present dangers of this life ! With what
eloquence and insistence does he not exhort us
to put all our trust in the Fatherly care of God
and in the merits of the Precious Blood of
Christ ! How efficaciously he urges upon us
the virtue of patience in trials, cheers us in
sorrow and encourages us in afflictions and
troubles ! There is no state of life in the
Church of which he does not make known the
special duties and the means by which they may
be fulfilled. He tells great lords how to govern
their vassals and manage their estates : he
instructs priests how worthily to offer the Holy
Sacrifice, and preachers how to preach with fruit,
and he shows virgins espoused to Christ how
to guard zealously their purity."

If such is the character of these spiritual
letters we need not wonder at being told that
Blessed John of Avila never wrote to any one
without producing a wonderful effect in the
soul of the recipient, leading to a permanent
change and improvement of life. Father Munoz
tells us that he wrote his letters with extraordi-
nary ease and rapidity. As a rule he wrote

Preface 1 3

down just what occurred to him without any
previous thought or study. Generally the letter
was sent just as it was first written oiF, without
obliterating or correcting anything, and those
who knew him ascribed the facility, with which
he set forth his arguments, gave his advice and
enforced them by the words of Holy Scripture
and of the Saints, to the prayer to which he
gave himself each morning.

Sometimes, however, he would not reply to
a communication at once. On such occasions
he would say : " Let us recommend the matter
to our Lord and say Mass about it." Days
might pass without a reply being sent and if he
were pressed to send an answer he would say :
" Our Lord has not yet told me what to say to
you." Then after a time he would write with
as great a certainty and clearness, as if he had
heard the answer from our Lord himself.

We are told in the life of this holy servant of
God that the Society of Jesus always particularly
esteemed and appreciated his works and in
some Jesuit houses in Spain they were read in
the Refectory during a considerable portion of
the year. In Lent the Audi Filia was chosen
because it treated so sublimely of the Passion
of Christ. During the Octaves of Pentecost
and Corpus Christi Blessed John of Avila's
sermons on the Holy Ghost and Corpus Christi
were read, and during a good part of the rest
of the year his Letters " so full of spiritual

14 Preface

Sufficient and more than sufficient has been
said about the Letters of our holy author, for
after all they will speak their own praise best.
One word, however, may be permitted about
the translation itself. Those who are responsible
for it have, in my opinion rightly, endeavoured
to reproduce in English the force and charm
of the original thought, without necessarily
copying the words exactly or translating the
Spanish idioms and phrases in too servile a
manner. Their aim has been to give the idea
of the author to English readers rather than
the actual words, in which, according to the
genius of his own beautiful Spanish tongue, he
was constrained to express it. The following
passage from Cardinal Newman exactly states
the principles which have guided the translators
in their work : " As to the translations he
(Newman) is very sensible what constant and
unflagging attention is requisite in all translation
to catch the sense of the original, and what
discrimination in the choice of English to do
justice to it ; and what certainty there is of
short comings, after all. And further, over
and above actual faults, variety of tastes and
fluctuation of moods among readers, make it
impossible so to translate as to please every one ;
and if a translator be conscious to himself, as he
may well be, of viewing either his original or
his version diff^erently, according to the season
or the feeling in which he takes it up, and finds
that he never shall have done with correcting

Preface 15

and altering except by an act of self-control, the
more easy will it be for him to resign himself
to such differences of judgment about his work
as he experiences in others.

It should be considered, too, that translation
in itself is, after all, but a problem ; how two
languages being given, the nearest approximation
may be made in the second to the expression
of ideas already conveyed through the medium
of the first. The problem almost starts with
the assumption that something must be sacri-
ficed ; and the chief question is, what is the
least sacrifice ? In a balance of difficulties, one
translator will aim at being critically correct,
and he will become obscure, cumbrous and
foreign ; another will aim at being English and
will appear deficient in scholarship. While
grammatical particles are followed out, the spirit
evaporates ; and, while an easy flow of language
is secured, new ideas are intruded or the point
of the original is lost, or the drift of the context
impaired. Under these circumstancas, perhaps,
it is fair to lay down that while every care must
be taken against the introduction of new, or the
omission of existing ideas, in translating the
original text, yet, in a book intended for general
reading, faithfulness may be considered simply
to consist in expressing in English the sense of
the original ; the actual words of the latter
being viewed mainly as directions into its sense,
and scholarship being necessary in order to gain
the full insight into that sense which they

1 6 Preface

afford ; and next : that where something must
be sacrificed, precision or intelligibility, it is
better in a popular work to be understood by
those who are not critics than to be applauded
by those who are.*' ("Advertisement" to
Historical Sketches. Vol. II.).

F. Aidan Gasquet.
Stanbrook Abbey.
Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross.

3 May, 1904.

Letter I ij

letter i


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