June 6, 2011
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
St. Francis de Sales is not the spiritual guide one would run to when burning with the fire of a recent conversion. At that point, one really believes that holiness and complete intimacy with God is possible. Now! Not only possible, but expected. And demanded.
Somewhere along the line, the penny drops. This business of being one with God is simple, but also demanding. It is not a matter of keeping an emotional fire stoked and raging. Try that and you become a problem, both to yourself and to others around you.
The fire can settle down and become a burning ember, an ember that will glow for a long, long time. Then, the question becomes, How do I make sure the ember does not die? How do I ensure that I am living a Christian life and not just some watered-down facsimile?
You can try to keep the raging inferno. But chances are you will either burn up or burn out. You may well become hard and demanding, impatient with others who don't have the same appearance of zeal that you display. You can stand on a soapbox on Main Street and fancy yourself an evangelizer for the Lord. But maybe, just maybe, you're driving more people away from Jesus and his Church than you are bringing to them.
On the first page of his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales writes about those who make an outward show of their piety:
"One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although all the while his heart is full of bitterness; and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour's blood, through slander and detraction.
"Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited and insulting speeches among his family and neighbours.
CLOSES HIS HEART
"This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings toward those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies but will never pay his rightful debts except under pressure.
"All these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout."
So, how does one mature from being "religious" to being devout?
St. Francis de Sales maintained that life of prayer and fasting cannot be called devout if one is frequently angry and insulting with one's family and neighbours.
"Mature" is the right verb to use here. Maturing, growing up, does not happen overnight. It is the work of a lifetime. You can get a driver's licence at 16, and enter liquor establishments and sign contracts at 18, but it may take until you are 70 to become an adult Christian. Or, it may never happen.
St. Francis de Sales' book, Introduction to the Devout Life, is the best guide I have found to becoming a mature Christian. It is not a book to be read at one or two sittings and put back on the shelf. The challenges it raises are ongoing.
In the central third part of Francis' book on the practice of virtue, he offers practical advice on how to be patient, obedient and fair, how to engage in proper conversation and how to handle wealth. He offers advice for the married, the widowed and the unmarried.
In the fourth part on the state of the soul, he speaks about courage, temptation, sadness, and consolations and desolation.
Introduction to the Devout Life was written more than 400 years ago. On one hand, it has stood the test of time. The counsels it gives are useful for all Christians in all eras. Francis does not, of course, advise us how to act towards the Internet and television. But his advice about "amusements" does carry a broader sweep than one might imagine.
On the other hand, Francis' images of honeybees and nectar might today strike us as quaint and dated. One advantage, however, of his writing in French is that every few decades anglophones get a new translation in contemporary English.
HOLINESS FOR LAITY
In his day, Francis was a revolutionary. Spirituality had previously been almost exclusively monastic. But in the face of the Reformation with its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, he saw the necessity of articulating a spirituality that could lead lay Catholics to holiness in the midst of their daily activities.
Today, that idea is commonplace. It was a cornerstone of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II underlined it by canonizing hundreds of men and women from all nations and all states of life.
We still have miles to go, however, before we can say that the vast bulk of lay people are consciously and deliberately on the road to holiness. Introduction to the Devout Life remains a most trustworthy guide on that road. My hope and prayer is that this series of articles will also be an aid to those readers who want to walk down that road with more confidence and sureness of foot.