Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Spiritual voice (10): from "Introduction To The Devout Life" by St. Francis de Sales

[St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was born to a noble family and attended a Jesuit school in Paris. His training included the study of law and the humanities. He was ordained priest at the age of 24 and became bishop of Geneva at age 35. How's that for a fast-track to the episcopacy. Francis' works had a great deal of influence on the Church. He combined spiritual depth with ethical concerns in a way that few writers (before or after) have been able to do. He was great at metaphors, describing the mysteries of spirituality using simple images such as animals, nature, and others. Because of his influence, he is considered to be one of the "Doctors of the Church." This excerpt is addressed to a Philothea, which means "one who loves God."]

Only One True Devotion
You wish to live a life of devotion, dearest Philothea, because you are a Christian and you know that it is a virtue most pleasing to God's majesty. Since little faults committed in the beginning of a project grow infinitely greater in its course and finally are almost irreparable, above all else you must know what the virtue of devotion is.

There is only one true devotion, but there are many that are false and empty. If you are unable to recognize which kind is true, you can easily be deceived and led astray by following one that is offensive and superstitious.

Phantoms of Devotion
In his pictures Aurelius painted all faces after the manner and appearance of the women he loved, and so too everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies. Someone given to fasting thinks himself very devout if he fasts although his heart may be filled with hatred. Much concerned with sobriety, he doesn't care to wet his tongue with wine or even water but won't hesitate to drink deep of his neighbor's blood by detraction and gossip.

Another person thinks himself devout because he daily recites a vast number of prayers, but after saying them he utters the most disagreeable, arrogant, and harmful words at home and among the neighbors. Another gladly takes a coin out of his purse and gives it to the poor, but he cannot extract kindness from his heart to forgive his enemies.

Another forgives his enemies but never pays his creditors unless compelled to do so by force of law. All these individuals are usually considered to be devout, but they are by no means such. Saul's servants searched for David in his house but David's wife, Michal, had put a statue on his bed, covering it with David's clothes, and thus led them to think that it was David himself who was lying there sick and sleeping. In the same manner, many persons clothe themselves with certain outward actions connected with holy devotion, and the world believes that they are truly devout and spiritual whereas they are in fact nothing but copies and phantoms of devotion.

Spiritual Agility
Genuine, living devotion, Philothea, presupposes love of God, and hence it is simply true love of God. Yet it is not always love as such. Inasmuch as divine love adorns the soul, it is called grace which makes us pleasing to his Divine Majesty. Inasmuch as it strengthens us to do good, it is called charity. When it has reached a degree of perfection at which it makes us not only do good, but also do this carefully, frequently, and promptly, it is called devotion.

Ostriches never fly; hens fly in a clumsy fashion, near the ground and only once in a while, but eagles, doves, and swallows fly aloft, swiftly and frequently. In like manner, sinners in no way fly up toward God but make their whole course here upon the earth and for the earth. Good people who have not as yet attained to devotion fly toward God by their good works but do so infrequently, slowly, and awkwardly.

Devout souls ascend to God more frequently, promptly, and with lofty heights. In short, devotion is simply that spiritual agility by which charity works in us or by aid of which we work quickly and lovingly. Just as it is the function of charity to enable us to observe all God's commandments in general and without exception, so it is the part of devotion to enable us to observe them more quickly and diligently.

Hence anyone who does not observe all God's commandments cannot be held to be either good or devout. To be good a person must have charity, he must have great zeal and readiness in performing charitable actions.

The Fire of Charity
Since devotion consists in a certain degree of eminent charity, it not only makes us prompt, active, and faithful in observance of God's commands, but in addition it arouses us to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible, both those commanded and those merely counseled or inspired. A person just recovered from illness walks only as far as he must and then slowly and with difficulty; so also a sinner just healed of an iniquity walks slowly and with difficulty until such time as he has attained to devotion. Then like someone in sound health he not only walks but runs and leaps forward "on the way of God's commandments." Furthermore, he moves and runs in the paths of his heavenly counsels and inspirations.

To conclude, charity and devotion differ no more from one another than does the flame from the fire. Charity is spiritual fire, and when it bursts into flames, it is called devotion. Hence devotion adds nothing to the fire of charity except the flame that makes charity prompt, active, and diligent not only to observe God's commandments but also to fulfill his heavenly counsels and inspirations.

The World distorts Holy Devotion
Those who discouraged the Israelites from going into the Promised Land told them that it was a country that "devoured its inhabitants." In other words, they said that the air was so malignant it was impossible to live there for long, and its natives such monsters that they ate humans like locusts. It is in this manner, my dear Philothea, that the world distorts holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen, faces and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods.

But as Joshua and Caleb held both that the Promised Land was good and beautiful and that its possession would be sweet and agreeable, so too the Holy Spirit by the mouths of all the saints and our Lord by his own mouth assure us that a devout life is sweet, happy, and lovable.

They change it into Honey
The world sees devout people as they pray, fast, endure injuries, take care of the sick, give alms to the poor, keep vigils, restrain anger, control their passions, give up sensual pleasures, and perform other actions that are rigorous in themselves and by their very nature.

But the world does not see the heartfelt inward devotion that renders all such actions pleasant, sweet, and easy. Look at the bees amid the banks of thyme. They find there a very bitter juice, but when they suck it out they change it into honey because they have the ability to do so.

O worldly people! It is true that devout souls encounter great bitterness in their works of mortification, but by performing them they change them into something more sweet and delicious. Because the martyrs were devout men and women, fire, flame, wheel, and sword seemed to be flowers and perfume to them. If devotion can sweeten the most cruel torments and even death itself, what must it do for virtuous actions?

Spiritual Sugar
Sugar sweetens green fruit and in ripe fruit corrects whatever is crude and unwholesome. Now devotion is true spiritual sugar for it removes bitterness from discipline and anything harmful from our consolations. From the poor it takes away discontent, care from the rich, grief from the oppressed, pride from the exalted, melancholy from the solitary, and facturedness from those who live in society.

It serves with equal benefit as fire in winter and dew in summer. It knows how to use prosperity and how to endure want. It makes both honor and contempt useful to us. It accepts pleasure and pain with a heart that is nearly always the same, and it fills us with a marvelous sweetness.

[Questions to think about:

*What does the nonbeliever see as he or she looks at the life of a devout person? What does the nonbeliever not see?

*St. Francis contrasts false devotion with true devotion. What's the difference between the two? What are some of your devotional practices?

*St. Francis characterizes what the world thinks of religious people and their devotional practices. Does his description still hold true today with those who are not religiously inclined?]

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