"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
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.)
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