29 April 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 119

During the previous meeting, we saw that virtue sometimes requires the balancing of two values that seem to be opposites--like humility and a good reputation. We get something similar today in the pairing of solitude and society.

To seek society and to shun it, are alike blamable extremes for those living in the world, and it is to such that I am speaking. By shunning it we indicate disdain and contempt for our neighbour, and by seeking it we imply idleness and inactivity.

We should love our neighbour as ourself, and it is not a proof of love to shun him; whilst as a sign that we love ourselves we should be content with our own society, that is to be alone.

"First think of thyself and then of others," said St. Bernard. If then you are not called upon to receive or enter society, remain by yourself and hold converse with your own heart. But if you are rightly called on to join in society, then go as in God's sight, and mix with a free and loving heart amongst your fellows.

For this discussion on "social" virtue (my term, of course)--or how to bring holiness into friendship, conversation, recreation, and other non-religious ways of interacting with the world--I thought I'd feature a cover design with more than one person on it. This also happens to be the cover of my own copy. (Don't you love Millet's Angelus?)

Book III
Chapters 17 to 41

This wasn't an easy section for me to read. My policy for being a Christian in the public square is to wear my faith like a subtle perfume and hope that no one asks what all those wonderful notes in the scent are. I have a secret fear that my explanation will put people off the Church . . . and a (not-so-)secret longing to find fellow perfume nerds whom I can be myself around . . . and a (heretofore) secret sense of guilt at having directly caused my own problems by failing to love the right people and the right things when I had the chance. 

Love is the chief among the passions of the soul. It is king of all the heart's impulses; it draws all things to itself, and makes us like to what we love. Therefore give good heed that you love nothing wicked, else you will become altogether wicked yourself; and friendship is the most dangerous of all love, because other affections may exist without mutual communication, but friendship being entirely founded upon this, it can scarcely exist without at the same time involving participation in the qualities of him towards whom it is exercised.

If we seriously aspire to holiness, we can follow the common-sense strategy of keeping only the company that nurtures rather than undermines that holiness. And having found that company, we should preserve that quality in it through propriety, modesty, and decent conversation and amusements. If we're lucky, we'll find among those worthwhile companions some really special friends. How I wish that I had always done this . . .

What reading this section has shown me is that my early insistence on choosing my closest friends only from among people I could relate to and easily banter with, whether or not they were also people I could go to Mass with, was a strategic mistake. =( Now, I did choose some lovely people to pal around with. And we've had both heaps of fun and many deep conversations together. The mistake was not in choosing them, but in rejecting others for the silliest of reasons. Like assuming that someone from daily Mass who didn't enjoy reading would have nothing meaningful to say to me.

I would bid you love everyone with the love of charity, but have no friendship save with those who can interchange virtuous love with you, since the more your friendship stands on the foundation of virtue, the more perfect it will be. If your bond of union be the pursuit of science, it is a commendable friendship; still more if it be prudence, discretion, decision, and justice. But if your bond of intercourse be charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, then indeed will your friendship be precious; precious because it has its origin in God, because it is maintained in God, and because it will endure forever in Him. What a good thing it is to love on earth as we shall love in Heaven, and to learn to cherish one another here as we shall do forever there. I am not now speaking of the mere love which charity excites towards all men, but of the spiritual friendship by which two or more souls participate in each other's devotion and spiritual affections, making them of one mind.

St. Francis seems to have a new metaphor for everything, but when it comes to friendship he keeps coming back to honey and warning Philothea that she must distinguish between clean, safe, naturally sweet honey and the "Heraclitan honey" that has been contaminated with toxic aconite. (He could have also brought up the aconite plant itself, which is lovely to look at but dangerous even to touch.)

He has no metaphor, however, for friends who aren't quite the sort to drag you down to hell with them, because they mean well and try to be "good people," but whose lack of faith, reverence and virtue chip away at your character anyway. He just mentions the "bond of union": if it turns out to be something benign (like "science"), then it's still "commendable," although secondary to true friendship based on charity and holiness. For the former will die with this world, while the latter will still exist in Heaven.

Over the past few years, one constant source of sadness for me is that I could never really call up my closest friends and say, "Hey, do you want to do Bisita Iglesia together this year?" or "Let's meet up earlier, so we can go to confession before the movie," or even "Do you want to write a guest post for the Introduction to the Devout Life readalong?" They're all Catholic, too, but even they find me a little strange. Then again, perhaps I am strange, and my idealised imaginings of what true spiritual friends would say to each other would make Catholics who actually have them shake their heads at me.

At least our shared amusements are both lawful and good . . .

We must needs sometime relax the mind, and give the body some recreation. Cassian relates that one day a sportsman found St. John the Evangelist amusing himself by stroking a partridge which sat upon his wrist. The man inquired how so great a person could spend his time in so humble an amusement, to which St. John replied by asking why he did not always keep his bow strung. "For fear," the hunter answered, "lest if it were always bent it should lose its power when it is wanted." "Then do not mind," rejoined the Apostle, "if I sometimes relax the strict application of my mind to seek some recreation, so that I may return with more energy to contemplation . . . Air and exercise, cheerful games, music, field-sports, and the like, are such innocent amusements that they only require to be used with ordinary discretion, which confines all things to their fitting time, place, and degree.

Just as there are good friends, bad friends, and "neutral" friends, there are good amusements, dangerous amusements, and lawful amusements that could go either way. And sometimes its the "neutral" friends who turn lawful amusements into dangerous ones. Take modern-day "balls" . . .

I used to be close to someone who liked staying out late on Saturday night, clubbing and drinking. Since she and I lived on opposite ends of the city, sometimes that was the only time we could see each other. We didn't do anything immoral during those "Girls' Nights Out"--and we often did obviously good things, like talking (loudly, over the music) about things that were meaningful to us and supporting each other. But I grew increasingly uneasy that our bonding ritual made me sleep in on Sunday morning and have to hear the "sinner's Mass" in the evening. And I started to resent her for being a lapsed Catholic whose indifference to Sunday Mass was starting to hurt others. That friendship didn't end well . . . and it took me a long time to realise that it wasn't her fault. =(

(Am I the only one who finds this leg of the Introduction to the Devout Life readalong unbelievably depressing? Let's just move on . . .)

Would that our Blessed Saviour were always invited to all marriage feasts, as to that of Cana. (John 2). Then the wine of consolation and benediction would never be lacking. For the reason this is so scarce is that Adonis is invited instead of Jesus Christ, and Venus instead of His Blessed Mother.

This section ends with some chapters about marriage, which makes sense. We can't talk about Christian society without arriving at the subject of marriage--a "society" of two that it needs to be kept even better and holier than all other relationships. "It greatly concerns the public welfare," St. Francis writes, "that the sanctity of marriage, which is the source of all its well-being, be preserved inviolate." What a timely thing to read from a sixteenth-century bishop, aye?

These days, preserving the sanctity of marriage is a much harder sell. Not merely because it has become the mean thing to do, but also because a lot of people genuinely don't see the value of keeping certain traditions. Nor do they think that you have to follow a lot of "rules" to be "a good person" (which is today's pale shadow of the Platonic ideal of holiness). While everything I've read in Introduction to the Devout Life keeps Jesus' promise that His yoke will be easy and His burden will be light, I wonder what non-Christians would make of what His representative St. Francis has to say about virtue.

Since this is such a long and complex section (and this post is embarrassingly late!) I haven't featured my two favourite parts from it: St. Francis's counsel on external mortification and faithfulness in both great and small things. But I can't publish this without saying that I love the way he builds them from beautiful glosses on Scripture.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions:

1) Have you ever had a true spiritual friendship?
2) What are your favourite lawful amusements? How do you keep them from becoming dangerous?
3) Do you think Christians have an obligation not just to be holy, but also to make the societies in which we live holy?

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


Jenny said...

These passages make my head hurt in a good way. It's a lot to take in. I've been a little obsessed with charity lately: what it really means. How do you get it. How would you really act if you possessed it etc. Deep words here.

Brandon said...

I particularly like St. Francis on solitude, and I was very much struck on this reading by how scathing he is about some of the flaws that tend to be associated with youth.

I do think that Christians have an obligation to make the societies in which we live holy, as well as to be holy ourselves; but I think we have a bad tendency to think that these are separable things. Making our societies holy -- or at least more congenial to holiness -- requires actually being holy in the roles in which we find ourselves. When St. Paul in Ephesians tells the Ephesians how to live, he basically tells them to start with the relationships in which they find themselves -- parent/child, husband/wife, master/slave -- and be better than the world. I'm also reminded of one of the passages from Isaac of Nineveh I read this Lent, in which he insists quite vehemently that all our efforts to save and better others are missing the point if we fail to save and better ourselves.

(Bizarrely, the CAPTCHA consists of identifying soups.)

Enbrethiliel said...


Jenny -- Now that you've caught a whiff of that pious "perfume" of mine, I'm panicking that I have to talk about it! ;-P

Charity is something that I should be thinking more about, too . . . not to mention practicing more consistently! St. Francis defines charity as the power to do good through God's grace, and he says that we can obtain charity through spiritual poverty, chastity, and obedience. He has some really practical advice about how we can practice each of those, so if you have the time to read those chapters online (Book III, Chapters 11 to 16) . . . and don't mind your head hurting some more ;-) . . . then I highly recommend them! I also remember you saying at the start of the year that your resolution is to love yourself more, so you might also like Book III, Chapter 9: "Gentleness Towards Ourselves". =)

Brandon -- I remember that quotation from St. Isaac! It struck me when I read it, although I didn't comment.

People who try to make society holy without starting with themselves remind me of St. Francis's gloss on Balaam's ass: "Balaam was at fault, but he punished the ass who was not. It is often so with us: a woman grieves over her sick husband and child, and straightway she begins to fast and mortify herself as David did on a similar occasion. Alas, my daughter, you are smiting the ass, you afflict your body, but it cannot remedy the evil on account of which the sword of God is unsheathed against you. Rather correct your heart which idolises your husband or indulges your child in sin . . ."

So the captchas are getting creative? I'd like to see one! =)

Brandon said...

Yes, it just had a whole bunch of pictures of food and the instructions were to identify which ones were soup.

I liked the Balaam's ass passage, too; it's one of my favorite Bible stories, and it was interesting to see it blended with St. Francis of Assisi's practice of calling his body, 'Brother Ass'.

Sheila said...

I have had spiritual friendships galore -- friends who propose the rosary as a fun party activity, or who get you to say the angelus when the clock strikes. But in every single one, there's always been a sense of embarrassment -- one of us is always more "advanced" than the other. So no one wants to suggest a spiritual activity (for fear they will be showing off how pious they are) and if someone does, there is no way to turn them down without saying, "no thanks, I prefer sinning."

Not that it doesn't work out great sometimes, but the potential for awkwardness is always there. Setting up a lunch date for before/after noon mass? Cool! Actually praying together in our own words? Kinda scary. I guess it's a level of intimacy a bit beyond most of our comfort level.

The nice thing about being Catholic is there are plenty of scripts to fall back on. Like ..... argh .... the rosary. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


Speaking of scripts (which I love!), those situations you've described are the best explanation of why every religious community has a rule! No one is going to be embarrassed about being the less pious one if everyone agrees about devotions and schedules beforehand. LOL! But yeah, this isn't something that people with a normal "in the world" friendship can do.

On a more abstract level, you've now got me pondering inequality in friendship. I think that when people first become good friends, they accept that they're on the same level about something. Even if one is much richer than the other, they might be on the same level of, say, fandom for a certain celebrity. It's when someone becomes more "advanced" (for lack of a better word) than the other that the dynamic changes.

So what I'm wondering now is whether it's possible for two people to remain friends even after the relationship has become unequal? (I know a woman who would say yes--but she has also made it very clear that friends who convert aren't allowed to talk about religion with her. There's an ultimatum in that which I don't think characterises true friendship . . . or is it just me?)

Sheila said...

I don't know, every relationship has *some* boundaries, right? I think we all crave a friendship where boundaries aren't required, because they just naturally don't do what upsets us and vice versa, but is that even possible in real life?

About your first point, though, I think that's the appeal of secular institutes / movements/ third orders. You have a gang of people who all have the same set of prayer commitments, so if you meet up with them, you can safely assume you'll be praying the same times and the same way. I certainly had a dear friend in Regnum Christi, and it was great in college to say "hey, have you done your rosary yet?" and it was no big deal because we both knew the other one would want to say one.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ah, boundaries . . . Did I ever tell you about the time my sister and I still shared a room with its own bathroom, and one of her closest friends went to the toilet with the door open while I was in the bedroom? I screamed and screamed (with profanity!) until the surprised friend closed the door, after which my offended sister snapped, "You and your own friends can't really be that close if you can't pee and poop in front of each other." She was serious, too! =P

I just think that there are certain things that friends should be able to share with each other. Like the things that transform our lives. When do we have a reasonable boundary and when has a major artery been severed?

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon! It happened! The captcha on someone else's blog asked me to identify ice cream! LOL!

One of the desserts pictured was a cake that looked as if it were made of ice cream. Although I didn't pick it, I can imagine this new method being more confusing for people than the original captcha of distorted letters and numbers.