23 February 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 114

Every book club "meeting" makes me wish that we could all be in one room together, but none more so than this one. For although I truly like what I've read so far in St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life--and think that it likes me back (!)--it feels like "reticent retreat" reading rather than "chatty book club" material. Which shouldn't really be the case, since one of St. Francis's first important points is that true devotion can be practised even in the middle of a busy, bustling world.

In the creation God commanded the plants of the earth to bring forth fruit, each after its kind; and in a similar way He commands Christians, who are the living plants of His Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each according to his calling and vocation. There is a different practice of devotion for the gentleman and the mechanic; for the prince and the servant; for the wife, the maiden, and the widow; and still further, the practice of devotion must be adapted to the capabilities, the engagements, and the duties of each individual. It would not do were the Bishop to adopt a Carthusian solitude, or if the father of a family refused like the Capuchins to save money; if the artisan spent his whole time in church like the professed religious; or the latter were to expose himself to all manner of society in his neighbour's behalf, as the Bishop must do. Such devotion would be inconsistent and ridiculous. Yet this kind of mistake is not unfrequently made, and the world being either not able, or not willing, to distinguish between true devotion and the indiscretion of false devotees, condemns that devotion which nevertheless has no share in these inconsistencies.

His very first important point, of course, is precisely that we must distinguish between true devotion and false devotion. (As the online German edition asks: "Was ist wahre Froemmigkeit?") Indeed, it is precisely because of false devotion that true devotion found itself with an undeserved bad reputation. That was the case in St. Francis's day . . . and we can still see a lot of that in our own.

Chapters I to IV

Apparently, while our state of life can determine the form our devotion will take, our inclinations should not. And the people who try to tailor devotion so that it fits them, rather than the other way around, end up spreading one of the wrong ideas about it. 

Aurelius gave to all his works of art the countenance of the women he loved; and so everyone colours his devotion according to his tastes and inclinations. One is given to fasting, and whilst he fasts he holds himself to be devout, although his heart is full of bitterness; and whilst he will not touch his lips with wine, nor even with water for abstinence's sake, he scruples not to sully them with his neighbour's blood in slander and calumny. Another would fain be devout because he daily repeats many prayers, although, at the same time, he gives way to angry, proud, and injurious language amongst his servants or associates. Another willingly opens his purse to give alms to the poor, but he cannot open his heart to forgive his enemies. Another forgives his enemies, but force obliges him to do justice to his creditors. Such men may pass for devout, but they are not really so.

The other wrong idea is that devotion makes people "melancholy and unsocial" and turns their faces "gloomy, sad and irritable." But true devotion is "spiritual sugar" (I'm so disappointed that this particular phrase isn't translated in the German) that sweetens everything--so how can we be sour-faced when we have it? (There's an allusion to another saint in that question.)

So what is this wahre Froemmigkeit, anyway? St. Francis traces for us a simple chain: first, we receive God's love (die Gottesliebe), which enlightens our souls through Grace (die Gnade); then, this Grace gives us the power to do good, which is Charity (simply die Liebe--"love"--in my translation); and finally, if we reach a point of perfect Charity--that is, of doing good "earnestly, frequently, and readily"--then we are actually practicing Devotion. For good measure, he throws in one of the many metaphors he uses to get his points across, likening different kinds of souls to different kinds of birds, depending on the ease with which we can soar to God.

Well, okay, nothing to argue with here . . . But how do we know if what we're practicing is true devotion and not false devotion? I'm sure that the types who were lightly sketched in the above passage would say that they were truly devoted--as would many "sour-faced" believers. St. Francis seems to answer the question in Chapter IV, which is all about the necessity of a good spiritual guide.

The young Tobias being commanded to go to Rages, replied, "I know not the way," and his father answered, "Seek thee a man who may go with thee." And so I say to you, Philothea, if you desire heartily to follow a devout life, seek a holy guide and conductor. Seek where you will (so spoke the devout Avila), and you will never so safely find the will of God as in the path of humble obedience, so well trodden by all the Saints of old.

. . . And be sure, my daughter, that since it is so all-important for you to begin this holy course of devotion led by a safe guide, if you heartily pray that God would give you such, He will supply your need in His own way; doubt not that He who sent an angel to guide the young Tobias, will provide you with a good and faithful guide.

And when found, he should be to you as an angel; do not regard him as an ordinary man, nor trust in him as such, nor in his human knowledge, but in God, who will Himself guide you through His appointed channel, prompting him to do and say that which you most require . . .

It is true that St. Francis is describing a good and strong tradition in the Church. His famous example is St. Teresa d'Avila; mine would be St. Faustina Kowalska. And yet I have a very skeptical real-life friend whom I know would read the above excerpts and try to put off accepting them by asking how we can be certain about the guide. What if we think he was sent by God, but we're actually mistaken--in the same way a romantic might think that the next really attractive person he meets is "the one?" If we're not fit to judge ourselves, how can we judge the people we meet? Even St. Francis admits, "For such, you must choose among thousands." But he does give us three criteria to go by (charity, knowledge, and discretion) and promises that what we pray for will be given to us.

This sort of holy obedience aside, I think we can all agree that a trusted friend's insight and advice can be invaluable. (Note that though the modern world is wary of spiritual directors, it is totally okay with "accountability buddies." LOL!) We often need to see ourselves through another pair of eyes . . . and to accept that another person's humbling assessment of us is true.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapters I to IV:

1) What is a stereotype of devout people that you have had to struggle against?
2) Have you found the sort of spiritual guide whom St. Francis describes?

UPDATE: I've read a little further and arrived at the ten meditations, which St. Francis recommends we do one at a time daily. Since I want to follow his instruction, it looks as if the next readalong post will be up no earlier than ten days from now. It's not the coolest posting schedule I've had, but we'll survive, aye?

Image Source: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales


Brandon said...

I definitely haven't found a guide of the sort St. Francis describes. I'm not even sure how I would go about doing so.

I do like, though, his insistence that in your interaction with such a guide you should be trusting God rather than the guide himself. I think much of the (entirely justified) skepticism about such guides arises from the fact that we all know the danger of trusting a human being in matters in which a human being shouldn't be trusted.

Enbrethiliel said...


I imagined this sort of relationship developing organically and unconsciously--like running into the same priest whenever you go to confession.

I also wondered whether a spiritual guide could come to us through a book. St. Francis is the patron of Catholic publishing, after all! If only one among thousands is capable of giving good spiritual guidance, he can't speak with everyone who wants his help . . . but perhaps he could write a good book that would reach those who are beyond the circle that he can manage. He probably wouldn't have thought using a book ideal in his own age, but media has been both the last resort and the greatest help to many modern Catholics.

Thanks for underlining the distinction he draws between God and the guide. I had totally skimmed over it. And while it may seem like a split hair, even a hair of difference when measuring degrees can be dramatic in the long run. The main rule is not to make an idol out of a spiritual guide--whether we're dealing with a human being or a book.

Sheila said...

Oh, I am BEYOND terrified of spiritual guidance. Mostly because the understanding I had of it was so bad -- that the guide will necessarily know you better than you know yourself, so that if they tell you anything about your principal vices, your vocation, or your plans, you should disregard what *you* think about them and go with what *they* think.

In reality I think it would be important to have the humility to acknowledge the *possibility* that they might be right and you might be wrong, but at the same time recognizing that the final responsibility for your actions lies with you, and therefore you do have to make a final judgment yourself.

So, yes, no idolizing one's spiritual guide! Other than that I have nothing to add on this issue ... I could badly use some help, but am way too gunshy to get it.

Enbrethiliel said...


I guess that submitting to a confessor is the first step in that direction. And now I'm reminded of something I wrote a few years ago on my old blog:

In the confessional this evening, Father said something to me that I thought was hugely unfair. His tone bordered on the sarcastic.

The sting brought with it the wisdom that one isn't properly penitent unless one is willing to accept that, in the confessional, the priest is always right.

This is why priests who take advantage of this particular position of authority over souls commit the kind of sin that earns one a millstone around the neck and a dumping in the ocean.

I'm so thankful that I got one of the good priests tonight. After I said my penance, I prayed for him as a confessor and pastor of souls."

And my view of confessors is my view of spiritual guides: I may recognise that Father is wrong sometimes, and he does have the limitations of every human being, but that doesn't affect his authority to tell me what is what when it comes to sin.

And this is why there's a part of me that's always terrified of going to confession! Not because I expect the priest to be awful to me, but because I know that I will do what he says whether I like it or not--the way I take prescribed medicine whether I like it or not. And when the medicine is something like apologising to an unpleasant person, you can bet that it won't go down too well!

Terry Nelson said...


Don't forget St. Therese was influenced by St. Francis to some degree - or at least her little way corresponds nicely with St. Francis' doctrine. That said, Therese had difficulty finding a director who 'understood her soul'. She did encounter one but he went away - to Canada? Can't recall. This happens frequently I think. I know a Carmelite prioress whose director is several years her junior - perhaps a couple of decades younger. He became her director shortly after ordination and she once confided to me he is the only one to have understood her soul.

Just something to think about.

I might be wrong but when a director is lacking God does provide through good books, homilies, articles, and so on.

A 19th century Russian archbishop said good directors are few and far between in modern times.

Enbrethiliel said...


That sounds familiar. I do recall that St. Therese had a priest friend in Canada.

St. Faustina had a similar problem, though, granted, her case was a really special one.

I've also started thinking that good books can stand in for good guides. But then our challenge becomes choosing the right books!

Brandon said...

Teresa of Avila also had difficulty finding a good confessor and spiritual director. It seems to be a recurring pattern! But St. Teresa also says that one of the great harms in spiritual life is always to be following your own will in everything -- we really do need that outside perspective. The difficulty that arises is that we need our spiritual director also not to be the kind of person who follows his or her own will in everything!

I think a potential worry with books is the Phaedrus problem: books are indiscriminate and can't tailor their discussions to you in particular the way a living person can. Like a spiritual director, good books are outside reason, but books are dead reason, and sometimes one needs living, breathing reason.

Sheila said...

I've had some priests say some funky things to me in confession. Especially in the realm of telling me things weren't sins that I was SURE were. I don't really argue, but that doesn't change my mind about it. I know when I've sinned!

Enbrethiliel said...


Bradon -- The good news is that the three examples we've come up with, plus Terry's friend, were able to find good spiritual guides in the end! So the rest of us should keep praying and hoping!

On a personal note, I've always had a hard time connecting with people and finding friends with whom I could share my deepest values. (Perhaps this is true for everyone, though all those around me seem to be very content "loving the ones they're with.") So even as I will take St. Francis's advice to pray for a good spiritual guide, part of me isn't sure that I'll ever find one who will understand my soul. (Especially since I've been praying for a husband for years--a less ambitious request to make of Heaven!) In the meantime, I'll remain happy to take whatever general fare for souls is on the table, in the churches I happen to go to.

Sheila -- That dredges up an unpleasant memory of my own . . . There was a priest who occasionally assisted the pastors in my old parish, and I never wanted to confess to him because he would always say after you were finished: "Now think about the good stuff!" At least I always got absolution in the end. =P

I'm not sure if this counts as an abuse of authority. Father wasn't using his authority to achieve a bad end, but simply wasn't using it at all! Perhaps we can call it an abdication of authority.

A while ago, I was brushing up on my understanding of obedience, and learned the Church's teaching that all obedience is ultimately obedience to the Faith. So if someone with authority over us orders us to do something that will hurt the Faith, then doing what he says will be false obedience, which is just as bad as disobedience. And it would be false obedience to believe that a sin isn't a sin, even if your confessor tells you to. But that priests can be and often are wrong doesn't change anything. No matter how many souls they mislead, they don't lose the authority to lead. Indeed, in their case, saying that they shouldn't mislead souls is the same as saying they should lead them!