An Introduction to the Devout Life
By Saint Francis de Sales, translated and edited by John K. Ryan
Publisher: New York: Image Books, 1989.
ISBN: 0 3850 3009 6
John K. Ryan, the translator of this edition, writes that when An Introduction to the Devout Life was first printed in 1608, it was immediately recognized “as a masterpiece of mystical and devotional literature.” Throughout the four centuries since then it has remained one of the great classics of Christian spiritual literature - “one of those rare productions of human genius.”
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) lived in a time when it was assumed that the only way to live a life truly devoted to God was to withdraw into a monastery or hermitage. In a profound break from tradition, St. Francis believed that people in all walks of life could attain a life of devotion. As he states in the preface, his purpose was to give spiritual instructions “to those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances.” Using images familiar to those living at the time, he explains:
I shall show to such men that just as. … springs of fresh water may be found in the depths of the sea, just as the firefly passes through flames without burning its wings, so also a strong, resolute soul can live in the world without being infected by any of its moods, find sweet springs of piety amid its salty waters, and fly through the flames of earthly lusts without burning the wings of its holy desires for the devout life.
As the Bishop of Geneva, de Sales had responded over the years to many requests for spiritual advice from people ardently wishing to grow in devotion. In An Introduction to the Devout Life, he compiled and systematized the advice he had given in these letters, addressing his insightful words on spiritual development now to a fictional person named Philothea (literally, lover of God), “since I wish to direct what was first written for one person alone to the general benefit of many souls; hence I use the name that can refer to all who aspire to devotion.”
St. Francis begins by explaining what he means by true devotion. One person may fast often, another may recite many holy texts, another may give money to the poor, all of them thinking themselves devout, but their inward state may not be filled with devotion at all. “Genuine, living devotion, Philothea, presupposes love of God, and hence it is simply true love of God.”
The reader who is unfamiliar with Christian spiritual literature may occasionally struggle with the terminology used here. For example, ‘charity’ is used to mean divinely inspired love, a love that impels one to yearn for and worship God and that also arouses universal compassion toward all God’s creatures. Thus, in explaining true devotion, St. Francis says that divine love comes into the soul through grace and takes the form of charity.
Charity and devotion differ no more from one another than does 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 fulfil his heavenly counsels and inspirations.
Philothea’s first need on her spiritual path, St. Francis counsels, is a guide. “Look for a good man to guide and lead you. This is the most important of all words of advice.” This spiritual director is “a faithful friend” and a “strong defence.”
For you such a director ought always to be an angel. That is, when you have found him, do not look on him as a mere man; do not place confidence merely in him or in human learning but rather in God for he will befriend you and speak to you by means of this man. God will put into his heart and mouth whatever is requisite for your welfare. Hence you must listen to him as to an angel who comes down from heaven to lead you to it…. Confide in him with a daughter’s respect for her father; respect him with a son’s confidence in his mother. In short, such friendship must be strong and sweet, completely holy, completely sacred, completely divine, completely spiritual.
St. Francis leads Philothea through a series of meditations, prayers, and exercises. A ‘meditation’ in this context means certain ideas to ponder and reflect upon as a preparation, as setting the atmosphere, for prayer. For example, in one of the first meditations, he invites Philothea to pause and reflect deeply on the fact that God created her out of nothing. “God has drawn you out of that nothingness to make you what you now are and he has done so solely out of his own goodness and without need of you.” After these reflections, she is advised to humble herself profoundly before God. “Say with all your heart: ’Lord, before You I am truly nothing. How were you mindful of me so as to create me?” These reflections lead her then into the right frame of mind to give thanks and to pray.
St. Francis encourages Philothea to free herself of past mistakes. She should make a full confession with “a humble and confident mind,” trusting fully in God’s goodness, and afterwards let all burdens of shame be released from her mind.
I ask you, don’t let any fears of any sort disturb you. The scorpion that bites you is poisonous at the moment it bites, but when reduced to oil it is an effective remedy against its own sting. Sin is shameful only when we commit it; when it has been converted by confession and repentance it becomes honourable and salutary…. It is a kind of relief for us to inform our physician rightly as to the nature of a disease that torments us.
Philothea is advised to pray and to direct her attention to the presence of God. Vocal prayer can be a first step, but it should lead to deep, inward mental prayer. The first requisite for developing inward prayer is “a lively, attentive realization of God’s absolute presence, that is, that God is in all things and all places…. Just as wherever birds fly they always encounter the air, so also wherever we go or wherever we are we find God present.” Moreover, while God is everywhere, “he is present in a most particular manner in your heart…. He is there as the heart of your heart and the spirit of your spirit.” So long as a person cannot see and know this truth for himself, however, the work of devotion is to “bring it home to himself” through continual recollection. St. Francis explains with a parable:
Blind men do not see a prince who is present among them, and therefore do not show him the respect they do after being told of his presence. However, because they do not actually see him they easily forget his presence, and having forgotten it, they still more easily lose the respect and reverence owed to him. Unfortunately, Philothea, we do not see God who is present with us.
Therefore, he advises her to recall as often as possible during the course of the day “that you are in God’s presence. Consider what God does and what you are doing. You will see his eyes turned toward you and constantly fixed on you with incomparable love.” St. Francis assures Philothea that she can always withdraw into that place of God’s presence and feel his love, regardless of what else is happening in her life:
Birds have nests in trees and can retire to them when need arises and stags have bushes and thickets where they can take cover. … Always remember then, Philothea, to retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others. This mental solitude cannot be violated by the many people who surround you since they are not standing around your heart but only around your body. Your heart remains alone in the presence of God.
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