Sometimes the most obvious advice can be that advice we need the most, but overlook ... it seems almost trite. When it comes to the spiritual life, we don't need to know about the interior castles and such until we have mastered the basics. Grace presupposes nature. As our dear Francis of Sales tells us, our spiritual lives unchecked tend to emphasize one area over the other. For instance, we can seemingly reach the heights of contemplation, fast regularly, yet speak uncharitably toward our neighbor -- and by consequence -- we are not the devout Catholics we think we are.
Let us therefore shed our preconceived notions of ourselves, leave them at the door, and enter into the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit under the tutelage of St. Francis de Sales. We ask Our Lady to guide us: as St. Simeon prophesied, through her the hearts of many would be revealed. Let us ask her for the wisdom to discern what lies in our own hearts. If you find (as has he who writes to you now) that you have wasted much time over the years wandering in the desert of this life while making little progress, take heart. God visits you with His mercy NOW. What it takes man a lifetime to build, God can grant in an instant. God brought you here because He has a great love for you, and wishes to bring you to His bosom now. However faltering our steps might be at first, a great crown of glory awaits us in Heaven for the smallest step toward God taken in humility.
This is a privilege that very few treasure as they should. Many never receive the great insight that St. Francis gives us here. We receive it now because of God's love and infinite mercy. There is no shame in humbly admitting we need a fresh start. However, to deny this need when it stares us in the face is the greatest calamity.
I find that now, surely in the second half of my life, I need to begin at the beginning. But this is no cause for discouragement: new beginnings are an occasion for rebirth! I find no better place to start than to revisit St. Francis de Sales, who wrote what might be entitled today: Holiness for Dummies, but in a more gentile, civilized age he entitled Introduction to the Devout Life. If this passage resonates with you, read slowly, and read it several times. Good spiritual reading must be savored in order to have its effect.
In my spiritual reading this morning, I realized that St. Francis is saying here what I have been clumsily trying to discern and express myself in this blog, so I will give my two faithful readers a break (God bless you, you know who you are) and include words from this great saint instead of ... me. So, I include here for your edification the introduction to the Introduction.
(Some formatting and spelling changes are made. For the original, and link to the entire work online, follow the link below.)
YOU aim at a devout life, dear child, because as a Christian you know that such devotion is most acceptable to God’s Divine Majesty. But seeing that the small errors people are wont to commit in the beginning of any undertaking are apt to wax greater as they advance, and to become irreparable at last, it is most important that you should thoroughly understand wherein lies the grace of true devotion;—and that because while there undoubtedly is such a true devotion, there are also many spurious and idle semblances thereof; and unless you know which is real, you may mistake, and waste your energy in pursuing an empty, profitless shadow.
Arelius was wont to paint all his pictures with the features and expression of the women he loved, and even so we all color devotion according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness;—and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbor's blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbors. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.
When Saul’s servants sought to take David, Michal induced them to suppose that the lifeless figure lying in his bed, and covered with his garments, was the man they sought; and in like manner many people dress up an exterior with the visible acts expressive of earnest devotion, and the world supposes them to be really devout and spiritual-minded, while all the time they are mere lay figures, mere phantasms of devotion.
But, in fact, all true and living devotion presupposes the love of God;—and indeed it is neither more nor less than a very real love of God, though not always of the same kind; for that Love one while shining on the soul we call grace, which makes us acceptable to His Divine Majesty;—when it strengthens us to do well, it is called Charity;—but when it attains its fullest perfection, in which it not only leads us to do well, but to act carefully, diligently, and promptly, then it is called Devotion. The ostrich never flies,—the hen rises with difficulty, and achieves but a brief and rare flight, but the eagle, the dove, and the swallow, are continually on the wing, and soar high;—even so sinners do not rise towards God, for all their movements are earthly and earthbound. Well-meaning people, who have not as yet attained a true devotion, attempt a manner of flight by means of their good actions, but rarely, slowly and heavily; while really devout men rise up to God frequently, and with a swift and soaring wing. In short, devotion is simply a spiritual activity and liveliness by means of which Divine Love works in us, and causes us to work briskly and lovingly; and just as charity leads us to a general practice of all God’s Commandments, so devotion leads us to practice them readily and diligently. And therefore we cannot call him who neglects to observe all God’s Commandments either good or devout, because in order to be good, a man must be filled with love, and to be devout, he must further be very ready and apt to perform the deeds of love. Since devotion consists in a high degree of real love, it not only makes us ready, active, and diligent in following all God’s Commands, but it also excites us to be ready and loving in performing as many good works as possible, even such as are not enjoined upon us, but are only matters of counsel or inspiration.
Even as a man just recovering from illness, walks only so far as he is obliged to go, with a slow and weary step, so the converted sinner journeys along as far as God commands him but slowly and wearily, until he attains a true spirit of devotion, and then, like a sound man, he not only gets along, but he runs and leaps in the way of God’s Commands, and hastens gladly along the paths of heavenly counsels and inspirations. The difference between love and devotion is just that which exists between fire and flame;—love being a spiritual fire which becomes devotion when it is fanned into a flame;—and what devotion adds to the fire of love is that flame which makes it eager, energetic and diligent, not merely in obeying God’s Commandments, but in fulfilling His Divine Counsels and inspirations.