Ever heard of the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales? I’m reading it now and it really is a fantastic book for anyone looking to make a serious start (or restart) of their spiritual life. Combining practical tips with solid theology and great analogies, this book is meant to be a guide for ordinary people to begin to grow in holiness. Really, the Universal Call to Holiness advocated by the Second Vatican Council and Pope St. John Paul II is indebted to St. Francis de Sales who strongly advocated for holiness in every state of life. This sentiment is summed up in one of his more famous quotes:
“God commands Christians, the living plants of his Church,
to bring forth the fruits of devotion,
each according to his or her position and vocation”
For many, the word “holy” summons up the image of a person who prays many hours a day, offers harsh sacrifices, and spends every dollar and every waking hour preaching the word of God or serving the poor. Of course those things are great signs of holiness and great ways to grow in devotion, but the fact is that it is not possible for everyone to live in such a way. Can a 28 year old single mother do those kinds of things? What about the founder and owner of a small tech-company, who also has a wife and kids? The college student with 18 credit hours and 30-40 hours of work each week? As a priest, I’ve had experiences similar to those of this monk, where people from these and other walks of life ask me for prayer and advice; they make some unfortunate comments that I must be holier and closer to God than they are. Yes, I have more time for prayer and my work is more obviously about godly things, but that doesn’t automatically make me holier. As we see in the above quote, God desires holiness for each person in their state of life. If God demands something of us, then it is possible to do it. Ergo, there must be a way to be holy even if I can’t spend all my time praying, preaching, or directly serving the poor. Everyone does have to pray and everyone should be willing to serve their neighbor when possible, but holiness was never a numbers game and it never will be.
As an example of growing in holiness according to your state in life, I offer you St. Francis’ teaching on aspirations and good thoughts. Though not everyone can spend long hours in meditation or dedicated prayer, they can learn to turn even ordinary active experiences into sanctifying and contemplative ones. Rather than focusing on a specific list of prayers or devotions, he centers in on the one thing that matters most: Love. The practice of “aspirations” is about loving God in such a way that “all things in this world speak… in a silent but intelligible language in behalf of… love.” For a person who fosters a genuine love of God “all things arouse them to good thoughts, and they in turn give birth to many flights and aspirations to God.”
De Sales then goes on to give a number of examples from the lives of the saints where men and women were moved by something they saw to spontaneously praise God, to pray, or to reflect on some aspect of the faith. St. Francis of Assisi once saw a sheep among goats and it moved him to remark on the Lord’s gentleness. St. Basil the great saw the thorns on a rosebush as a reminder that no pleasure or joy on this world is completely without sorrow and concern. St. Fulgentius of Ruspe even saw God’s glory in the vain pomp and circumstance of Roman nobility as a pale foreshadowing of the true and lasting glory of the Heavenly Jerusalem. After these and other examples, Francis de Sales writes “see how we may extract good thoughts and holy aspirations from everything found amid the changes of this mortal life… blessed are they who turn creatures to the glory of their Creature and use their own vanity to honor the truth.”
Now, those are some pious thoughts, but what are we supposed to do with them? What if we don’t just naturally see God’s goodness in the random things of our lives? How am I supposed to interpret rush hour traffic? Or that funny looking wig store on the corner? Do I have to try to make everything into a spiritual experience? Yes and no. This spiritual teacher does have this to say: “since the great work of devotion consists in such use of spiritual recollection and ejaculatory prayers, it can supply the lack of all other prayers, but its loss can hardly be repaired by other means. Without this exercise we cannot properly lead the contemplative life. Without it rest is mere idleness, and labor is drudgery. Hence I exhort you to take up this practice with all your heart and never give it up.”
Okay fine, but what does it mean for those of who aren’t like Francis, Fulgentius, or Basil? How do we “practice” this “exercise?”
- Time in Nature: the majority of Francis de Sales’ own examples are directly connected to something witnessed in nature: A sheep or a rosebush; there were also other examples of waves, a rabbit fleeing, a hawk used to hunt, the stars reflected in a gentle stream. It actually makes sense that the things of nature, those made by God, more easily remind us of God.
- Resolve (in a SMART way!) to spend more time in nature and make it a point to let your mind wander to thoughts of who created these things.
- God can be found everywhere: the point of this practice is not to constantly force artificial pious thoughts onto every situation, but to train your mind and heart to watch for the connections that can be made. It can work in a classroom, an office, with friends and family, while reading or watching television. It is a contemplative practice practicable in any active form of life.
- The first step to making these connections to to acknowledge that they are possible.
- It might be helpful to do this in an deliberate way on occasion. Take a moment to simply say “God, I love you, help me to see something of your goodness in what’s around me” and then try to make a connection.
- This includes the cross – sometimes the thought or aspiration is just that writing a 20 page term paper is like being crucified.
- Everywhere except sin, that is: You can’t really make pious connections between God’s goodness and some sinful occasion. Certain kinds of gatherings, certain groups of people, some books or TV shows, some kinds of music, and some activities won’t work with this practice at all.
- If something never allows you to think of God – or if it it’s really forced and unnatural – it might need to be cut out of your life.
- Follow-up: Some of the thoughts and prayers might spark questions about what we really believe. We don’t want to fall into immediately propagating every personal reflection we’ve come up with if we aren’t sure it’s the truth. Have an interesting insight? A quick search on reputable Catholic sites can go a long way in checking that insight and maybe improving it. If it fits, then please do share!