"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.
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