"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 115
Why was I so surprised that Introduction to the Devout Life turned out to be a practical manual? I chose it specifically because I hoped it would leak into the practice of my faith the way the previous two Lenten readalong picks--Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI and The Secret of the Rosary by St. Louis Marie de Montfort--definitely did. The main difference seems to be that while the first two books enhanced devotions that I was already doing, St. Francis's manual is taking me over some new terrain.
"The flowers have appeared in our land," says the Divine Spouse (Cant. 2:12), and the time for pruning is come. What, my daughter, are the flowers of our heart, but good desires? Therefore, as soon as they appear we need the sickle which shall prune away from our conscience all dead works and superfluities.
Before the captive maiden might be espoused to the Israelite, she was obliged to shave her head and pare her nails, and put the raiment of her captivity from off her (Deut. 21:12), and so the soul which aspires to be the bride of Christ must put off the old man, and forsaking sin be clothed with the new man; paring and shaving away all hindrances which come between it and the love of God; such a purging of our corruption is the foundation of future health . . .
Well, okay, it's not so new. I have been to confession before! And my current reading certainly brings back twelve years' worth of Catholic school retreats, though the majority of those were, as far as I can tell, fruitless and flowerless. Of course I hope that this non-retreat will prove to be something better.
How did you do with the meditations? They were quite a change for for me. Although I've meditated on ideas and passages from spiritual books before, I was never directed through them. If something resonated with me, I thought about it a lot--making a "nosegay" out of it to sniff throughout the day, as St. Francis de Sales advises--but I never planned to run into any of those things. This was the first time I let myself be guided down a path that I might not have taken on my own.
It wasn't entirely unfamiliar territory, of course: I've thought of my own death before, and been sobered by how I might be judged in the next life. During the first five meditations, I thought of myself as walking the labyrinth on the floor of a medieval church. There doesn't seem to be a point to either exercise beyond training the will, but there is a design in there somewhere. And as I walked through the rest of the meditations, I started to see what it was.
Imagine yourself in a wide plain alone with your Guardian Angel (as was young Tobias on his way to Rages), and that he displays to you Paradise above, and all its delights on which you have been meditating--beneath you Hell and all its torments: having realised this, bow down before your Guardian Angel and consider--
1. That you are truly placed between Heaven and Hell, and that both are waiting for you to choose whither you will go.
2. Consider that the choice you make of either in this life will last forever in the next.
3. Consider further, that, although the choice depends upon yourself, yet God . . . desires above all that you choose Heaven, and your good Angel urges you to that choice with all his might, offering to your aid a thousand graces from God, a thousand means of help.
4. Jesus Christ looks down from Heaven in love upon you, and calls you tenderly . . .
In the chapters leading up to the meditations, St. Francis explains that they are for our purification. And the part that hit home for me the most was his insistence that we purify ourselves not just from sin, but from affection for sin. For even when I had been willing to accept the Church's authority to tell me not to do certain acts or think certain thoughts, I couldn't really shake the idea that those acts and thoughts weren't so bad. Sometimes I even indulged in the reasoning that what they were, was merely dangerous--which meant that the people who could handle them deftly could do them without harm. No wonder I fell off the wagon a lot! =/
But having walked through the ten meditations, I find that affection to be a lot weaker than it was. And though I still incline to those actions and thoughts, I now also see myself on that wide plain with my Guardian Angel, halfway between the devil's throne on our left and God's throne on our right. And of course both thrones are surrounded by the millions and millions of souls who make up both kingdoms. This imagery is especially moving to me because of its connection to the Mass.
For I would bet that the idea of being alone with one's Guardian Angel and yet in the company of the Saints and Angels, while under attack by the devil and his legions, came to St. Francis while he was offering Mass alone. I recently made a habit of hearing the Tridentine Mass on Saturday mornings (when it is said in a church near my office), thanks in part to the audio series on the Mass by Bill Biersach and Charles Coulombe, which I discovered late last year. And my favourite takeaway from those talks is their explanation of why the "old" Confiteor names not just Mary, but also St. John the Baptist, St. Michael the Archangel, and Sts. Peter and Paul: like all the other times in the liturgy when the Saints are mentioned by name and the Angels are invoked, it is meant to be a prefiguring of Heaven. And it pains me that while the Ordinary Form is the same prefiguring of Heaven, you'd never know it from the prayers.
Speaking of prayers, it really helped me to be able to pin my meditations on something, like the prayers of the rosary. If there is anything that they don't make a good "soundtrack" for, I haven't found it yet.
The next step that St. Francis de Sales recommends that we take is making a General Confession. I haven't done this yet, for two reasons: a) I want to get this post up now instead of waiting much longer; and b) a good examination of conscience takes time! In my case, it seems to have taken two and a half years.
What I usually do to prepare for confession is to go through the Ten Commandments, which are a good basic guide. But recently I've come to see that something I did several years ago was a terrible sin; I just didn't realise it until now because it didn't seem to snap any of the commandments. It was a sin against charity: I failed to love a friend, and severed our relationship instead, causing great pain to her. I wish more than anything that I could go back and change things . . . but I can't. Perhaps in the future I will get a chance to right what I did wrong. In the present, only the first two steps forward are clear to me: the admission of this sin in a General Confession . . . and the addition of the three theological virtues to my regular "conscience checklist."
Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Chapters V to XIX:
1. So how did you do with the meditations?
2. How do you make your examination of conscience?
3. Do you like receiving spiritual direction during retreats?
Image Source: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales