In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks his readers to meditate on their own funeral. Think about what you would like people to say at your funeral — a family member, a friend, a co-worker and a member of your church.
Performing this meditation diligently should help a person, Covey maintains, to "begin with the end in mind." It should bring a person to a greater realization of what is and what is not most important in life.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales goes about 10 times better than Covey. That is, he provides 10 meditations to help a person follow through on the theme of last week's article - purging one's life of every trace of sin.
Francis' meditations cover the following topics:
It is beyond the capacity of this series of articles to present those meditations in anything approaching their fullness. My suggestion, rather, is that readers get their hands on Francis' book and give time and effort to meditating on those 10 themes in the way Francis suggests. It could be a life-changing experience.
Covey, one might observe, has a different end in mind than does St. Francis. Covey purports to be leading his readers to become "highly effective," while Francis wants to lead us to "the devout life."
But the two ends do have a common foundation. Either path requires that one become a highly integrated person, a person who has appropriated the meaning of his or her life in an eternal light. Either way, one will not get far unless one engages in what the spiritual masters call recollection.
To become recollected, it is not sufficient to work in the garden or spend a week holidaying in the mountains, as restorative as those tasks may be. Nor is it enough to write poetry, play music or read theology. The restorative effects of these undertakings do not endure.
What can endure is a fearless examination of one's own life in the context of things of ultimate significance. Francis says the fruit of this examination "is a strong living conviction of the great evils sin brings upon us. In this way, we arrive at a deep, intense contrition."
Meditating on what you would like people to say at your funeral can lead to a fuller, more focused life
Some today will be bothered by any focus on sin and sinfulness. It is a form of illness, they say, to be wracked with guilt. We should focus on the positive, not the negative.
While it is true that one can suffer from scrupulosity, it is folly to think one can get one's spiritual life in order by ignoring one's faults.
Certainly, any serious athlete realizes he or she must pinpoint and eradicate habitual shortcomings in order to achieve peak performance. No top athletes see this naming of one's faults as a form of psychological abuse. Why then do we believe we will be damaged by drawing attention to our spiritual and moral failings?
St. Francis' book on the devout life will soon enough move on to ways that we focus on the things of heaven. Before that can happen, however, we must become freed of the things that attach us to the earth.
Confronting our sins is, for Francis, a positive endeavour. We honour God by humbly admitting our sins. "Sin is shameful only when we commit it; when it has been converted by confession and repentance, it becomes honourable and salutary."
Francis' 10 meditations challenge us to go much further than identifying our sin. They call us to place ourselves before God in humility and to see our lives in their full eternal context before the Lord. The goal is not to load us down with guilt but to lift us up and rejuvenate us for the life to which God is calling us.