"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 117
Did I really think I'd be done with Introduction to the Devout Life in a single Lent? This is a book for the long game! And I'm really not just making excuses because I already know I won't be able to get through this before Easter! =P
On this subject, Philothea, I would require your most earnest attention to my counsels, for it involves one of the most important means towards your spiritual advancement.
As often as you can throughout the day, recall your mind to the presence of God by some one of the four methods I have mentioned. Consider what He is doing and what you are doing. You will always find His eyes fixed upon you with unchangeable love. Then say, O my God, why cannot I be ever looking up to Thee, even as Thou art ever looking down upon me? Why dost Thou ever remember me, whilst I, alas, so often forget Thee? O my soul, Thy true rest is in God, art thou seeking it there only?
Just as the birds have their nests to which they can retreat, and the stag shelters himself in the thick forest, seeking shade and refreshment when the summer is hot, even so, Philothea, should our hearts daily seek a resting-place on Mount Calvary or in the wounds of our Blessed Lord, or in some other spot close to Him . . .
This section is my favourite one so far! St. Francis's practical, authoritative approach to the Catholic sacramental and devotional life has the same effect on me that DIY tutorials do. LOL! But of course, no Catholic devotional life is ever about doing things all on your own. We always make our prayers in the Church and with the Church. And by the this spiritual guide was being written, the Church had figured out that there are certain ways of structuring and shaping devotion that are enormously beneficial.
Chapters X to XXI
Domine, doce nos orare, said an unnamed disciple whom we might as well call Philotheus . . . and the Lord replied by teaching His followers the Our Father. And while that makes it the perfect vocal prayer, let's not make the sola Scriptura mistake of thinking that this is the end-all of devotion. It's more accurate to say that the Our Father is the start-all of devotion--the mustard seed that grows into a tree that all the birds of the air can rest in. And the trunk of that tree is the devout life, while the branches are all the prayers that can be called its "forerunners and servants." (Ah, metaphors!)
First, St. Francis discusses morning prayer and evening prayer. I'm sure that most of us have picked up these practices just by living with other Catholics. Night prayer, in particular, was a big thing in my house: my grandmother made sure that all her children and grandchildren learned the first prayer that she had ever said on her own (Jesusito de mi vida, yo soy nino como tu . . .) and that we recited it faithfully at bedtime. It was the only Spanish that some of us ever picked up. =P One of my aunts liked giving each member of the family his own "Please bless _____" when putting my cousins to bed, and I had to join in whenever I slept over. Today, night prayer is still the one daily task that I have to do.
Morning prayer, on the other hand, was more of a school thing. For thirteen years, I started every school day with the Morning Offering to the Sacred Heart (complete with the Pope's special intention for the month!), the Prayer to the Holy Spirit, and the day's Gospel reading. It caught, too, and I start my day with a similar sort of "office."
As for the aspirations and invocations to the saints, these were practically white noise. When I got my first full-time job, I picked up my colleagues' habit of calling to St. Pio of Pietrelcina during times when we had to draw lots for clerical tasks. (It was partly a joke, since St. Pio couldn't have spared all of us from the onerous jobs.)
I like the "tweaks" that St. Francis suggests to these familiar rituals. It makes sense that morning prayer would involve anticipating all the things we have to do later in the day--not as one big general offering, but as discrete activities and concerns--and asking God's help for each of them. And you may have already read the recommendation to add an examination of conscience--basically, a review of that day--to evening prayer from other spiritual writers, because it's that good. Among these counsels, St. Francis weaves the wonderful imagery of light and windows: "As by [morning prayer] you open the windows of your soul to the sun of righteousness, so by these evening devotions you close them against the darkness of Hell."
But the real game changer in prayer, which I'll bet most of us didn't pick up by osmosis, is the idea of spiritual retreat.
We make our retreat in God, because we aspire after Him, and we long for Him in order that we may so retire. Therefore a longing after God and spiritual retreat mutually advance one another, and both arise from holy thoughts: do not fail therefore to long frequently for God by short by ardent efforts of your heart. Admire His beauty, invoke His aid, cast yourself in spirit at the foot of His Cross, adore His goodness, often inquire of Him concerning your salvation . . .
St. Francis includes many lovely examples of saints who saw God everywhere: in nature, in the city, in solitude, in society, and even in humourous situations. (That poor rabbit, though.) His point that we may easily "extract holy thoughts and pious aspirations from all the varying circumstances of our mortal life" is clear . . . but I confess that I haven't actively done this in a while.
Apart from individual prayers, there are the spiritual gifts available to us through the Church, which we must do publicly or in a community--and St. Francis begins with the "Sun" of them all . . .
I have as yet said nothing concerning the Sun of all spiritual exercises, which is the most holy, sacred, and royal sacrifice and sacrament of the Eucharist, the centre of the Christian religion, the heart of devotion, the soul of piety, an ineffable mystery which embraces the untold depths of divine charity, and in which God, giving Himself to us, bestows upon us freely all His favours and graces . . .
Prayer, united to this Divine Sacrifice, has unutterable power, so that in it the soul overflows with celestial grace, as leaning upon her Beloved, He fills her with fragrance and spiritual sweetness . . .
St. Francis also gives us some "rules" for making the most of Mass . . . though I supposed we moderns would prefer to see them as "tips." =P Unsurprisingly, they match up to the Tridentine liturgy. We'd probably be discouraged from doing them today--as well as taking St. Francis's other suggestion to do our daily meditation during the Mass--the way we have famously been discouraged from saying the rosary during Mass. It's not proper "participation," you see. (But wasn't there a Cardinal who tried to argue, during the Second Vatican Council, that "participation is distraction"?)
And of course any discussion of the Mass leads to Holy Communion, and Communion eventually gets us to Confession. Again, St. Francis makes practical recommendations. There is so much here to talk about that if I tried to address each major point, this post would be even later than it is. So I'll just bring up another one that I really like and trust that the combox discussion will make up for anything I've missed.
On Sundays and festivals especially you should assist at the Divine Office as much as you are able, for these days above all are dedicated to God, and on them it is well to offer Him a more abundant service than on other days. Thus you will experience the blessings of public worship like St. Augustine, who records in his Confessions that when in the beginning of his conversion he heard the psalmody of the Church, his heart melted within him, and his eyes streamed with holy tears. Moreover, there is always greater benefit and comfort to be derived from the public service of the Church than from private devotions, God having promised a special blessing to this union of hearts and souls.
Incidentally, today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation: an especially good day to practice devotion in twos or threes (or more!). Did you make it to Mass? (Don't feel too bad if the answer is no. I didn't, either. =P) Although this isn't a holy day of obligation, Catholics often make a big deal out of it. My parish opens the day with a dawn rosary procession. And again, I don't always make it. But it's because I've been awakened at sunrise with Hail Marys outside my window that I know exactly what St. Augustine of Hippo felt upon hearing the psalmody. Remember that the rosary is also known as "Mary's psalter."
So did you do anything special today?
Totally Optional Discussion Questions:
1) What formation in prayer did you receive as a child or a new convert?
2) What everyday circumstance of your life has been conducive to holy thoughts?
3) What kind of public worship or devotion does your parish or a local religious community let you take part in?
4) Which of St. Francis's practical counsels do you like the most?
Image Source: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales