13 March 2015

+JMJ+

"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 116

If I insisted on completing each "assignment" in Introduction to the Devout Life before moving on in my reading, I'd need much longer than the book club's (unofficial) two-month discussion period to finish it . . . and I'd be reading it wrongly anyway. Beyond the first ten meditations and general confession, this spiritual classic isn't a workbook that we can complete exercise by exercise and then put away with a feeling of accomplishment, but a guide that we can keep referring to every step of the way to purification. And as St. Francis de Sales explained a few chapters back, the discipline of purification lasts until death. One reason has to do with venial sins.

You will discover . . . my daughter, that besides mortal sins and their affections from which you are now purified, there yet linger in your heart various inclinations and dispositions to venial sin. I do not say that you will discover venial sins, but you will find a disposition and inclination to them, which is a very different thing, for we can never be wholly free of venial sins, at least not for any length of time, but we can be without affection for them . . .

All such inclinations, my daughter, are directly opposed to devotion, as inclinations to mortal sin are opposed to charity: they enfeeble the spirit, hinder divine consolations, and open the door to temptation; so that, though they do not slay the soul, they wound it grievously.

There's not much to argue with here, nor in the next short chapter, where St. Francis adds that we must purify our "evil inclinations" as well. We're not naturally disposed to the good in all things; we can't always say that what we're drawn to or what is most pleasurable for us is also what is best. Fortunately, the best means of purification are already available to us in Catholic prayer traditions and the sacraments. We just have to be diligent about them.

This post is a two-parter.


Chapters XX to XIV


I would have been content to agree with St. Francis about the evil of venial sins, on a purely abstract level (where, you know, nothing would be demanded of me =P); but Introduction to the Devout Life is the great guide it is because it is also so practical. And I suspect that it is the practical counsel that proves the greatest stumbling block to readers. Take the following passage . . .

Sports, balls, festivities, display, the drama, in themselves are not necessarily evil things, but rather indifferent, and capable of being used or abused. Nevertheless, there is always danger in these things, and to care for them is much more dangerous. Therefore I should say that although it is lawful to amuse yourself, to dance, dress, hear good plays, and join in society, yet to be attached to such things, is contrary to devotion and extremely hurtful and dangerous. The evil lies not in doing the thing, but in caring for it.

As much as I wish I could dismiss it as Jansenism . . . we all know that the good bishop has a point. We've all seen the way that sport, entertainment, parties, and all sorts of fun have been abused, to the detriment of not just devotion, but also other virtuous things. If St. Francis were blogging writing today, that paragraph would include the Internet.

All this reminds me of the October evening when a friend came to my home to work on a school project. At that time, my family still lived in our old village, where October meant nightly rosary processions, and I had just made a habit of tagging along with my grandmother. Now, my friend was not a practicing Catholic, and although I thought the two best options were: a) to drag her to the procession, and b) to ask her to entertain herself alone in my room for an hour . . . I decided that the best thing to do that night would be to miss the procession entirely, in order to be a good host. Well, my grandmother was not pleased. She thought that I was standing Mary up, and when we argued about it in front of my friend, I was uncomfortably aware that my attempts not "to blame" it on the latter's lapsed family made it seem like I was using her as an excuse because I didn't want to go. *facepalm* My grandmother finally gave up, because she didn't want to be late; but before leaving, she muttered to my mother that anybody who visits a Catholic family has to accept that the clocks in their house will run on Catholic time. (What do you think, dear readers? Which one of us was right?)

Now, as I had actually wanted to join the procession, this wasn't a case of an inclination to girlish gossip taking precedence over devotion. And since my own natural inclination is against meeting friends at home and sacrificing too much of my "alone" time, I was hardly in danger of missing any more of them. But if it was that easy for me to supplant a devotion with something that I didn't really want to do, imagine how quickly I'd throw it over for something that sang to my heart. (Of course, I don't have to imagine: I know. But those stories are far too embarrassing to share here, and are more for a General Confession than for a blog post, in any case.)


Book II:
Chapters I to IX


This is my favourite part of Introduction to the Devout Life so far, because it is training in things that I already do. As I mentioned in the previous discussion, the ten-day meditation felt a little strange because it was a new way of praying for me. And it didn't become easier until I blended it with something familiar. Well, that familiar devotion gets a special mention here!

But St. Francis's real push is for mental prayer.

Above all, I would recommend mental prayer, the prayer of the heart; and that drawn from the contemplation of our Saviour's life and Passion. If you habitually meditate upon Him, your whole soul will be filled with Him, you will learn His expression, and learn to frame your actions after His example . . . Do not children, as they hearken to their mother, and, lisping, imitate her, gradually learn to speak her langauge? And so if we remain close to the Saviour, meditating upon Him and giving heed to His words, His actions, and His affections, we shall gradually, by the help of His grace, learn to speak, to act and to will like Him.

His advice is very specific. Devote at least one hour a day to mental prayer, preferably in the morning and ideally in a church. Say an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and the Creed either before or after the meditation--and learn to say them in Latin, all the better to unite your prayer with that of the universal Church. If you like, you can include other vocal prayers, like the rosary, a litany, or any other prayer from an authorised book. If you miss doing your daily hour of mental prayer, make amends by multiplying your other prayers, reading devotional material, or doing a penitential act "in order to avert the consequences of your omission," and then firmly resolve to do better the next day.

Are you as startled as I am that that last bit uses the language and rationale of Confession? Is it really so bad to miss mental prayer for the day? Meditation is not on the level of the Mass or the Divine Office (as St. Francis himself admits); but it's more like something extra that we don't absolutely need to do. Are there really serious consequences to starting this habit and then not following through? St. Francis doesn't elaborate at this point, so I hope that he does later.

Something else that St. Francis doesn't go into detail about is what we're supposed to meditate on. Instead, he recommends books by other spiritual writers. This seems very modern to me, though that's just my ignorance of history talking. I know nothing about Catholic publishing during the Renaissance, but why did I assume that it wasn't enjoying a golden age along with other things backed by the Church? St. Francis takes for granted that "Philothea" will know which writers he means, but I had to do a bit of digging before I came up with this list of mental prayer guides:

1. The Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by St. Bonaventure
2. The Practice of Mental Prayer by Brother Mattia Bellintani de Salo
3. Meditations of the Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Vincenzo Bruno
4. Les méditations dévotes sur les évangiles de tous les dimanches et festes de l'année by Dom Andres Capiglia
5. Book of Prayer and Mediation by Fray Louis de Granada
6. De Contemplatione by Guigo de Ponte


The only writer I couldn't identify was "Bruno." =(

Thanks to Star Crunch for figuring out who "Bruno" was!

So . . . has anyone read one of these? I'm not asking ironically! =P But I am a little pensive at the thought that while Introduction to the Devout Life remains popular today, at least six other good books, more or less its contemporaries, are now all but forgotten. It's the way of the world, of course--and I'm sure that the other books had a great run. But how transitory everything is! Even things that deserve to be around for centuries!

As for what St. Francis does give us, it's a "Short Plan for Meditation", which totally appeals to my love of structure. But his description of the first part of preparation--putting ourselves in the presence of God--is dredging up another memory. This is something that happened to a friend rather than to me, but inasmuch as it's an experience of the universal Church, I can't shake it any easier than she can. What happened was that her classmates who had to lead the class in prayer that day started with the line, "Let us put ourselves in the presence of God" . . . after which the Jesuit professor spent over half of the class time explaining why that line was a theological mistake of ecumenical conciliar proportions. It has something to do with our having no actual ability to put ourselves in or take ourselves out of God's presence--not just because we're puny mortals, but also because God is already omnipresent. A better line would be something like, "Let us remember that we are in the presence of God."

What would that Jesuit professor have to say about our St. Francis de Sales's choice of words? I checked the two other translations that I have a hope of understanding, and they square up with the English: the German is "in Gottes Gegenwart versetzen" and the original (?) French is "se mettre en la Presence du Dieu." All versions imply some sort of movement and agency on the part of the devotee. This may not reflect the actual relationship between Creator and creature, but it does remind us that mental prayer requires us to make an effort. Perhaps the professor would let it slide, just this once. =P


Totally Optional Discussion Questions:

1) What totally lawful amusements are you inclined to care for more than your devotion to God and love of neighbour?
2) If you already practice mental prayer, what plan do you follow? How does St. Francis's plan strike you?
3) Can you recommend other books for meditation and mental prayer?
4) Have you ever experienced being in the middle when two spiritual authorities dispute the right way to pray?


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

25 comments:

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

If St. Francis were blogging writing today, that paragraph would include the Internet.

It would include certain pastimes on the internet.

Not necessarily the tool as such.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

You're just playing with me now, aren't you? LOL! My original fits into St. Francis's paragraph better than your suggestion does. But you knew that. ;-)

r said...

That story illustrates the dangers of too much theology - it's probably wrong for a theologian to say something like "by prayer we put ourselves in the presence of God", true, but I don't think that matters to the practice of praying. If you will a prayerful connection with God, I'm pretty sure that you get a prayerful connection with God, because you've just aligned your will with the divine will, and at that point it's basically academic that your will lacks the power to make metaphysical things happen. And one gets the sense from the entire body of traditional prayer and liturgy that God is quite interested in convincing us to align our will with the divine will.

Think of sacraments, too - Protestants like to accuse us of claiming power over God and invoking him like magicians. Even though they might be surrounded by supplicatory language, the core of the sacraments are simple pronouncements like "I baptize you", "I absolve you", "this is my Body", and so on. But the fact of the matter is, sacraments are things God does, because there's nothing else they could possibly be.

Another thing to consider is - suppose you had a young child, and they have some possessions. In a legal sense, they're probably too young to actually own things, and the possessions are yours - but if you constantly remind them that they own nothing, and avail yourself of their possessions without some kind of just reason, then you're a bad parent. (Controversial, I know...) You may have complete power in reality, but what you actually say is "these are yours", and if you need to take them back, you appeal to justice, which is higher than property.

Of course, my theological speculations are merely speculations.

Sheila said...

I can tell you -- as someone who did a daily meditation for over five years -- that there are definitely consequences if you skip a day! Mental prayer is hard. You slowly get better at it, but when you miss days, you get out of practice and lose whatever progress you've made. And then, when trying to restart, you don't have the advantage of novelty like you did starting the first time, so it's even harder.

(To "put yourself in the presence of God" is common meditation-speak .... obviously we know what it REALLY means is to become aware of the presence of God, but the phrasing is helpful because it lends itself to mental images like, perhaps, walking into a room where God is. Whatever helps.)

Think of it like working out. If every day you do push-ups, adding one extra push-up each day, only that last push-up is likely to be hard. But if you're up to 43 push-ups, and then skip a couple days, you won't be able to do 44 the next day ... or even 43. You'll be doing 25 and moaning the whole way through.

So I like the idea of doing something extra to make up for missing -- if nothing else, to make sure it's unpleasant to miss so that you remember next time.

Sheila said...

Oops, that parenthetical is in the wrong place. Wish I could edit ....

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

R -- There is something audacious about Catholic spiritual life. And striving to be as literally correct as possible seems to miss the point.

Sheila -- I hope you don't mind my saying so, but you've perfectly described the reason I don't like slacking off on the rosary! =P

Star Crunch said...

This post says Vincenzo Bruno, and from the title obviously deals with confession.

On that note, no, I haven't read any of them, but I have been meaning to read St. Bonaventure. I listened to all those Coulombe / Biersach talks you pointed out, so ultra-realism has been back on my mind, lately.

As far as St. Francis's comments on mediation go, he did mentioned in the preface: "Consequently you will find very little precision in the work"*. It seems reasonable to take him at his word.

* - Followed immediately by "But as to a polished style, I have not given that a thought". Yet I learned only a few days after reading that, by chance, that his work, in the original French, is still studied just for its good style, with the audience often being not at all of a devotional bent.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Thanks for the lead, Star Crunch! I'll update the post as soon as I finish this comment.

St. Francis's style is quite interesting--so it's impressive to note that here it is due more to natural talent and years of experience rather than to a real effort to polish things up!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

PS -- I've also become interested in St. Bonaventure because of the Biersach/Coulombe talks, but I confess that at this point, I'd rather read more by Biersach and by Coulombe than by the Seraphic Doctor!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

You're just playing with me now, aren't you?

I am not, but then I am interested.

You see, I use internet very much for blogging and for staying in touch with Catholics.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

it's probably wrong for a theologian to say something like "by prayer we put ourselves in the presence of God"

I think he defined that himself:

you are always in the presence of God, but putting yourself in His presence means accepting and actively recalling that.

Michael said...

My only comment - whatever path you choose - never stop. Not even for a day. A great article in another context gives the reason. He is without a doubt one of the best sources for mastering a language on the internet, but his comments apply equally to prayer, mental or otherwise.

Are You A Three Day Monk

And then a followup article just as great:

Don’t Have High Standards, Have Wide Standards

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Hans -- Well, thanks for staying in touch, although you and I never seem to be on the same page! =) But if you use the Internet a lot, then you are surely aware that even putting it only to good use can eat into a person's devotional time.

Michael -- Thanks for linking those. =) I totally agree with the idea that we should never stop, though in my case, the driving force isn't so intense! Someone once asked me what my #1 blogging goal was, and I answered honestly: to keep this blog going no matter what. But apart from that, things are pretty open to what may come. Having said that, I'm starting to see that when it comes to prayer, only a focussed intensity or a dogged commitment will do. We can always get back up after falling, of course, but a habit of that isn't ideal!

Brandon said...

I'm pretty sure I've read the Bonaventure book, or at least parts of it; but it has been quite a while. The only other name I recognized in the list as Granada; he comes up occasionally, I think, in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as well.

It's notable that St. Francis's first way of placing yourself in the presence of God is to be aware that God is omnipresent; which addresses the Jesuit professor's problem -- but at the same time, there are other ways of doing the same thing, and St. Francis's fourth way is not at all like awareness of divine omnipresence, so there needs to be a phrase to cover them all. (I think C. S. Lewis somewhere says that he suspected that "Put yourself in the presence of God" was probably something that had never been done the same way by two different people.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Apart from Granada's not having been canonised, why do you think someone who was recommended by three great spiritual writers isn't more or less familiar today?

I wonder if the four ways recommended by St. Francis correspond to the four temperaments? The fourth way doesn't come naturally to me at all, so I'd stick to one of the other three . . . but I suspect that WWJD types would be all over it if they were Catholic devotees.

Brandon said...

That's a good question. I'm not sure canonization would have much impact, anyway; St. Peter of Alcantara was also recommended by a lot of saints, and nobody reads him, either. Perhaps it's just that we really only spend so much time, effort, money (for new translations, etc.) on spiritual writings in the first place?

I'm not sure what underlying principle leads St. Francis to identify these four in particular.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

But if you use the Internet a lot, then you are surely aware that even putting it only to good use can eat into a person's devotional time.

I consider my time on internet as professional time, trying as I am to make a living from my blogging.

I consider that the humiliations I face and the fatigues these involve outside internet time (and this being due to people wanting to get me off the web!) are really eating into my devotional time.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Here is a link to conditions:

hglwrites : A little note on further use conditions

And here is one to a technique, unless you have your own professional press equipment:

New blog on the kid : Making Books at Home is Not Impossible

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

And if you think my writings are not worth the trouble of printing, think again:

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So printing that one and the connected ones like somewhere else : Thomas Sherlock made a few points or New blog on the kid : Did Kepler (or if it was Newton) think God's thoughts after him? or both along with the viral one might be an investment.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm not sure if you're just being coy, but I suppose it's worth spelling out my meaning in any case. Your use of the Internet is unusual, compared to the way the majority of Catholics use it. So while it's now clear why you think that only "certain pastimes" on the Internet and not the Internet itself would make a modern rewrite of St. Francis's paragraph, that's simply not sufficient.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I wrote the above reply to you while your last two (very puzzling) comments went into moderation, so I didn't see them in time. I've approved them because I assume you left them in good faith, but I also think that you intended them for a different combox. (No worries, mate! When I have several tabs open, I sometimes leave comments for the wrong people, too!)

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

1) It was the right combox, and thank you for letting it through.

2) Your use of the Internet is unusual, compared to the way the majority of Catholics use it.

They are using certain pastimes.

Btw, one of them, namely reading and reacting to blogs, may very well also not have been what St Francis of Sales thought of.

3) I am not unusual in reading and writing blogs. Only in doing it fulltime and in trying to get a living from it.

4) Internet as such includes but is not limited to how the majority of Catholics use it, and also includes but is not limited to certain pastimes.

There are other "pastimes" of which his judgement would be very much sterner. But staying on the internet is not necessarily staying with those.

There is a personal reason I included my project on the web.

a) it is opposed, somewhat muddleheadedly by people who suppose my being on internet means I am proning pornography;

b) it is also opposed by people who consider I should take St Francis de Sales word about "certain pastimes" as a clear discouragement for making internet (in their view one of the certain "pastimes") as important in my life as a livelihood would be.

Together, these Catholics have, if not up to now, at least up to recently, made sure I get none of my blog posts printed and none of the scanned compositions played.

This fact explains why I was eager to correct your understanding of St Francis of Sales, at least verbally.

If you had instead said If St. Francis were blogging writing today, that paragraph would include "the time many spend on Internet" you would probably have been spot on. It being understood that others spend their time on it, though they are fewer, in more useful ways.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I've thought it over, and your edit makes no sense. There's really nothing wrong with what I originally wrote. St. Francis himself lists "sport, balls, festivities, display, and the drama," which, like the Internet, are "not necessarily evil . . . but rather indifferent, and capable of being used or abused," and cautions that although they are lawful, "to be attached to them is contrary to devotion." The Internet fits those descriptions perfectly.

"The time many spend on the Internet" is implied, the way "the time many spend on sport, balls, festivities, display, and the drama" is implied--not to mention the money they lavish on it . . . or the emotion! That you have a problem with my writing "the Internet" when you don't have a problem with St. Francis writing "festivities" makes me think that you're taking this too personally. There are lots of Catholics who work in catering or party planning, and who would know that the paragraph I've quoted isn't a rebuke of them for taking those jobs.

I'm truly sorry that other people have tried to sabotage your livelihood. =( But I haven't been one of them, and I probably won't be an authority that they cite the next time they try to attack you. For one thing, I'm probably on the Internet more than you are. =P For another, they'd have trouble using this post for that purpose, inasmuch as the Internet use I'm referring to falls, by my own admission, under "sport, entertainment, parties, and all sorts of fun." I'm clearly talking about hobbies and not jobs.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I know you are not among the guys who have tried to sabotage my livelihood.

But the internet as a tool is still different from spending time on it.

For instance, when MSN Groups were all deleted in February 2009, my anger was not because of fewer opportunities to spend time on internet, but because the tool had been damaged so that past times spent on internet were no longer recorded and available for use.

Do you understand now?

Btw, much of what is done on internet is writing.

Now, writing was sth which existed back then and was not among the things he enumerated.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I understand now that you and I will always disagree about this and never be able to convince each other. =) And I'm afraid that that's the best I can do, Hans!