"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 118
It just figures that I'd forget my copy of Introduction to the Devout Life at the office right before my Holy Week and Easter vacation leave! =P But I'm actually kind of glad that I did. The opportunity to work on a blog post, however objectively good, would have been too much of a distraction during these important holy days--so it's a good thing that I actually got to do what St. Francis de Sales has been advising, instead of not doing it in the most ironic way possible! =P I also finally made my general confession on Maundy Thursday; and alongside the ex opere operato effect, the Achievement Unlocked psychological dimension was considerable. It turns out that my difficulty getting through this readalong pick (What? You didn't notice?) had a lot to do with my feeling that I shouldn't have moved on yet. But now I can move on . . . and to a very interesting section!
The queen bee never settles in a hive without being surrounded by her swarm, and charity never takes possession of a heart without bringing in her train all other virtues, exercising and bringing them into play as a general his troops. But she does not call them forth suddenly, all at once, nor in all times and places. The good man is like a tree planted by the water-side that will bring forth its fruit in due season, because when a soul is watered by charity, it brings forth good works seasonably and with discretion . . .
But there are some virtues of universal application, and which should infuse their own spirit into everything. We have but rarely opportunities for the practice of courage, magnanimity, and great sacrifices. But every action of our daily life should be influenced by gentleness, temperance, humility, and purity. Some qualities may be more eminent, but these are the most needful. Sugar is more agreeable than salt, but salt is in much more universal requisition. Therefore we should be rich in these everyday virtues of which we stand in such perpetual need.
Until now, this spiritual manual has been about prayer and the sacraments. We're starting to be more active and outward here--to see how the ripples of devotion can spread widely in our own lives and in the lives of others. (By the way . . . do you like that purple cover? It would have been perfect for Holy Week, had I been able to do what I originally planned to do. =P)
Chapters I to XVI
My Holy Week wasn't entirely without the influence of St. Francis, because I got to watch an EWTN Live video about him. And I'm glad that I did because it clarified something that had been lost in translation for me . . . and maybe even for you, fellow Book Club friends. That is, it explained that translating the French phrase "la vie devote" into English is tricky, because it's not best understood as "the devout life." That phrase is also an expression, and its extra layer of meaning is best captured by the single English word "holiness." Introduction a la Vie Devote is Introduction to Holiness. Which means it's not quite the book that I thought it was. LOL!
Now that we have a clearer idea of what we're dealing with, let's march on!
Remember that the first principle of holiness that St. Francis taught us was that our (objective) state of life rather than our (subjective) inclinations should determine the form that our
We ought always to give the preference to those virtues which are most incumbent upon us, and not to those which are most agreeable to our inclinations. St. Paula took delight in the practice of bodily mortification, thereby enhancing her spiritual consolations; but obedience to her superior was a higher duty, and therefore St. Jerome allows that she was wrong in fasting immoderately contrary to the direction of her bishop . . .
Amongst those virtues not especially involved by our position, we should cultivate the most excellent rather than the most showy . . . There are some virtues which approach our senses, and are, so to say, material, and are, therefore, highly esteemed and preferred by ordinary men, who thus will exalt temporal alsmgiving above spiritual, or fasting, discipline and bodily mortifications above gentleness, cheerfulness, modesty, and other acts of discipline of the heart, which are in truth greatly preferable . . .
St. Francis probably wasn't much of an athlete, because we don't have any metaphors relating the strengthening of virtue to the strengthening of the body, although everything he says about holiness parallels everything that fitness instructors seem to say about health. Even my favourite online trainer, who says that we can't focus on a single "problem area" while neglecting the rest of the body, structures her videos so that she focuses on a single "problem area" in the context of the whole body. And she'd likely agree with St. Francis that "It is a good practice to select some particular virtue at which to aim--not neglecting the others, but in order to give regularity and method to the mind . . ."
In the next few chapters, St. Francis recommends the following particular "virtues of universal application": patience, humility (both external and inward), meekness, gentleness, diligence, obedience, chastity, and poverty of spirit. And it seems that he has ordered them that way deliberately.
Were you surprised that patience was mentioned before humility? I was, until St. Francis reminded us that Jesus Himself promised that those who are patient in the face of persecution will "possess their souls"--which is, of course, the opposite of losing their souls and probably a better phrase than the more common "save their souls." And isn't possessing/saving/getting your soul to Heaven the whole point of holiness? Building on the source of that quotation (that is, Luke 21:19), St. Francis defines patience as the bearing of sufferings and all kinds of troubles, without complaint, for the love of God . . . then describes some practical applications that I'm sure we're all familiar with, even if we don't always put them into practice.
Humility may come second to patience, but it gets a longer treatment. I like St. Francis's point that "external humility" is actually more like wisdom, because it involves discerning between things that are truly important and things that are just for show. "Interior humility," on the other hand, deserves the name--and everything St. Francis writes about it deserves its own readalong post. But I'm limiting myself here to my favourite insight . . .
. . . a good reputation does not imply any marked superiority, but simply an ordinary good and respectable life, which humility in no way forbids us to be conscious of . . . Undoubtedly humility might despise even a good name, were it not that thereby charity would be injured, for a good reputation is one of the foundations of society, without which we are not only useless but actually hurtful to the public welfare, and a cause of scandal--therefore charity demands and humility consents that we should seek and studiously preserve a good name.
Apparently, the answer to the question, "Why should I care what other people think?" is "Because it's an act of charity." Who would have guessed? =P
Speaking of charity, St. Francis says that there are three means of attaining it--and I shouldn't have been surprised that they are the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity, and poverty. For what other end does religious life have than charity, defined back in Chapter I as divine love giving us the power to do good? But not all of us can be professed religious, with rules from our founders laying out the exact way that we are to put these virtues into practice--which is why St. Francis takes pains to explain how obedience, chastity, and poverty can be practiced by a Christian in any state of life.
Again, I've decided to limit myself to one insight; and as before, I've chosen the one with the paradox. Obedience is pretty straightforward and chastity is totally black-or-white; but in the same way that humility and a good reputation can and should co-exist, so it is for spiritual poverty and material wealth.
There is a difference between possessing poison and being poisoned. Apothecaries keep poisons for various uses, but they are not poisoned, because the poison is but in their shops, not in themselves; and so you may possess riches without being poisoned by them, that is, if you have them in your house or in your purse, but not in your heart, being rich in substance but poor in spirit. It is a great happiness for a Christian to be actually rich but poor in spirit, for thus he can use wealth and its advantages in this world and yet have the merit of poverty as regards the next.
The whole section on poverty is a beautiful balancing act. I'm most impressed by the perfect equilibrium between Chapters XV and XVI: the former explains how we can practice "real poverty" while being rich; the latter, how we can practice "spiritual riches" while being poor. In a community where everyone, regardless of income or inheritance, understands that the only true treasures are those that can be stored in Heaven, then all are truly one in Christ. Think of it as the Platonic ideal of "equality," whose shadow the silly Communists were straining toward.
I'll stop here, while the virtues are still somewhat "individual." The next readalong post will look at the rest of Book III and St. Francis's advice on "social" virtues.
Totally Optional Discussion Questions:
1) How do you normally figure out that you need to work on a particular virtue?
2) Of the eight particular virtues mentioned here, which one struck you the most during your reading?
Image Source: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales