27 May 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 121

Something I figured out early on was that St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life isn't really a book that you can read on a strict schedule. And as you can see, it took us two whole liturgical seasons to get through it! Thanks so much to everyone who joined this readalong: Bat, Brandon, Entropy, Hans-Georg, Michael, Mrs. Darwin, Sheila, Terry, and of course, Jenny, whose participation tipped the discussion into ecumenical territory!

We can be done with a book, but never with devotion. Accordingly, the last part is all about keeping the gains we have made.

Human nature easily loses ground in what is good, through the frailty and evil tendencies of the flesh,which weighs upon the soul and is ever dragging her down, unless she raise herself forcibly by fervent resolution, even as birds would soon fall to the ground if they did not continue in flight by continual effort and the movement of their wings.

To this end you likewise require frequently to repeat and renew your devout purpose of serving God, for fear that if you do not, you may relapse into your former condition, or rather into a worse one, for it is the peculiarity of spiritual falls that they always cast us down to a lower level than that whereto we had attained towards devotion. However good a clock may be, we must wind it daily; and, furthermore, at least once a year, it will need being taken to pieces, in order that its rust may be removed, those parts which are displaced be put back, and those which are worn, renewed.

The clock metaphor is a great one, but our digital age has stripped it of most of its impact. You'd be really lucky if you had a clock that needed that sort of annual maintenance--or from another perspective, really unlucky. What a lot of trouble for a timepiece, aye? But the fact is that we are, by nature, unlucky sorts who must take a lot of trouble with our souls if they are to keep ticking properly.

Book V

Another way in which St. Francis de Sales is like St. Louis de Montfort is that they both recommend renewing your commitment to holiness each year. (Note: I'm referring not to St. Louis's Secret of the Rosary, but to his Total Consecration to Mary.) And they both thought that the renewal should take several days of preparation--as many as you needed for the initial commitment. They probably weren't the only spiritual writers to say so, or even the first. And the idea remains part of Catholic tradition, although it seems greatly watered down these days.

Oh, speaking of water . . . if I had finished this book at the end of Lent, as I had originally planned, it would have coincided with our renewal of our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil Mass. (Timing, aye?)

As with the rest of Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis gives us a step-by-step guide to our renewal of our "pledge." My favourite is the examination of our souls, which is slightly different from the usual examination of our consciences. Instead of focussing on specific instances of missing the mark, we look at how committed we are to hitting the mark--first with respect to God, then with respect to ourselves, and finally, with respect to our neighbours. (I'm tickled that the chapter on neighbours is only two paragraphs long, while the previous two are long, leading questionnaires. We may be clueless about God and about ourselves, but we generally know, don't we, when we've been shortchanging our neighbours on charity?) The actions are secondary here; the spotlight is on the affections. What you love, what you hate, what you desire, what you fear, what you hope for, what causes you to feel sadness, what causes you to feel joy, and so on.

. . . one's condition may be tested by examining the passions one after another; just as one who plays the lute tries the several strings and tunes those that are false, either tightening or loosening them: so when we have tested the love and hatred, the desire, fear, hope, sadness and joy of our soul, if we find these ill-tuned to the song we would raise, which is the glory of God, we can by His grace and he help of our spiritual father tune them afresh.

Lutes may be the antique clocks of the musical world, but we still have guitars. And although I am a guitarist without an instrument these days, I still find this the most resonant metaphor in St. Francis's entire book--which is saying a lot! Truly, a single untuned string will kill all your chords. Or as Bob likes to say, unless you possess all four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, prudence, and self-control, you don't have any of them. (Hmmmm. I wonder if we can say the same of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love . . .)

There are also five daily reflections for this renewal of our commitment, just as there were ten for its beginning, because St. Francis is all about mental prayer. And again, the point is the training of the affections. If your meditations don't increase your longing for Heaven, your devotion to Mary, your indifference to worldly rewards, and your pleasure in the company of fellow souls who are working toward holiness, then you're doing them wrongly!

St. Francis closes his Introduction with two answers to objections and three rules. I'll limit myself to one of these here, but of course anyone who wants to discuss the others is welcome to in the combox.

Make open profession of your desire to be devout. I do not say to be devout but of desiring to be so; and never be ashamed of the ordinary and necessary actions which conduct us towards the love of God. Boldly acknowledge that you try to meditate, that you would rather die than commit a mortal sin, that you desire to frequent the Sacraments and to follow the guidance of your director . . . For God, Who will have no one be ashamed of Him or the Cross, is well pleased with this readiness to confess that we desire to serve Him, and have dedicated ourselves to His love with especial affection. Moreover, such an open profession does away with many of the hindrances with which the world would fain molest us, and for the sake of our reputation we are bound to persevere.

I love that last sentence, which turns the usual rationalisation about reputation on its head. We usually keep quiet about our spiritual exercises because we think we'll look full of ourselves and maybe even turn people off because we're hardly great representatives of God. Or am I just using the royal "we" for myself again? =P Yet St. Francis is right: who better than our worst critics to be our accountability buddies? LOL! And if you think about it, not talking about a desire to be holy sends a worse message, by turning it into a dirty little secret. Let's just admit that we're afraid of being judged when we come up short--because we know we will often come up short--and let's be a little more courageous. Remember that if your courage string is untuned, even the other three cardinal virtues can't save the song!

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Book V:

1. If you already renew your commitment to God every year, how do you do it?
2. What affection or passion is most likely to throw your devotion out of tune?
3. Do you speak with others about your desire to be holy?

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


Brandon said...

That examination is quite intense! Perhaps that's why he says we should use it gently. I very much like your point at the end of the post; I think it's common to confuse humility with timidity, and the latter does no one any favors.

I think exasperation often tends to get me; I'm very patient to a certain limit -- and then it's all over, and I'll burn bridges or beat dead horses until everyone runs fleeing.

The CAPTCHA this time was pictures of sushi.

Enbrethiliel said...


My worst passion is wanting to control other people when they're being wrong. ;-P

I think I've run into that captcha, too!

Brandon said...

I find that the temperamental quality that throws me out of devotion is closely tied up with one of my character strengths, namely, that I have a very affable personality. But people who are temperamentally inclined to be affable also, by the very same token, have to be people who are not intensely sympathetic to the feelings of others -- which is not to say that they can't be very sympathetic, but you don't manage to stay affable if you easily get worried, or stressed out, or upset when you're around worried, or stressed, or upset people. And because of that, affable people pushed to the limit have a sort of ruthlessness to them. And that's very much what happens with me: I'm pleasantly sympathetic up to the point someone drives me crazy, and then I just literally don't care what their feelings are, and will keep driving forward even if it makes everything massively worse.

And I think this is probably a pretty general thing: the reason our worst passions are our worst is because (1) they are deeply rooted; and (2) laced through the things that are on their own very good. And that seems to be food for thought.

Enbrethiliel said...


There's also the idea that your worst traits are just the flip sides of your best traits. For instance, if you're super honest and devoted to the truth, you're probably also super tactless and dismissive of others' feelings. I'm reminded of the related idea that whatever will drive you nuts about your spouse several years into the marriage is the flip side of what attracted you to him in the first place--which we will have to ask married people about! While this is a useful way to see the passions, it's a little too . . . what's the word . . . dualist(?) for me. I mean, if honesty is a good, then it's got to be more than just the other side of the coin to an evil.

That's my long-winded way of saying that I like your view of it better: our worst passions are laced through many goods. Perhaps a particular passion can take such fast hold because it is attracted to (but not akin to!) certain goods that are already there.

PS -- Captcha is all about pasta/noodles today!