Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 1
Habits for Holiness or the One Thing Necessary
by Mary Ellen Bork
One of the hallmarks of good spiritual advice is practicality rooted in common sense and experience. A baker trying to produce a chocolate cake with chocolate icing will use ingredients, pans, and oven temperature with a proven track record that will result in this confection. A person seeking to live his faith in a secular culture also has available a proven record of spiritual advisors and practices that will nurture and, in some cases, protect the spiritual dimension of life from being overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday concerns. Most Catholics are oblivious to the rich tradition we have received of holy men and women who wrote down their insights about their search for God.
For the past twenty years I have been meeting with a small group of friends to read the spiritual classics and pray together. We have covered a wide range of authors including evangelists and prophets of Sacred Scripture from Saint Augustine to Saint Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, and some living authors. Some texts have proved difficult, some dry, some exhilarating, like coming upon a vein of pure gold in a dark mine.
Introduction to the Devout Life
One such book we rediscovered, upon reading it the second time, was Saint Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life. First published in 1609, this book was a European best-seller directed at helping Catholic laity live their faith in the world. We found this work very practical and centered on the one thing necessary: loving God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves. Francis understood the unique qualities of the lay life and encouraged holiness through a life of devotion in which the heart remained centered on God. Some of his suggestions seem well-suited to our lives in the twenty-first century.
The life of devotion for Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) means not so much exterior devotions as the interior life rooted in the heart, the core of the personality. When he and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal founded the Visitation order, they often wrote at the top of their letters the inscription, “The living Jesus is in the heart.” With this understanding of our spiritual life centered in the heart he never thought of prayer as an abstract exercise but as the grace of God calling the person to be more fully human because he or she is more loving. The heart of Christ is where Saint Francis wants us to be. He echoes Pope Benedict XVI, who said in Deus Caritas Est, “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.1 To conform our lives to the example of Christ we must think about our faith and act on that understanding. Prayer is not merely a mental exercise. Our daily choices should flow from a transformed heart.
Advice that our group found extremely helpful involved prayer and confession. Francis thought that after meditation, when we have reflected on the words of Christ or a truth of faith, we should notice the devout movements in our will and make a resolution not to lose the grace we have just received. For example, we may be moved by a desire for heaven or zeal for the Church. If we neglect to make a resolution, this gift, which is meant for our correction and improvement, will dissipate. I could, for example, resolve to pay more attention when the Gospel is read, sign up for an hour of adoration this week, or decide to treat my co-worker with more respect since we are both called to eternal life. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, there are no ordinary people. We are all graced beings choosing every day to be with the angels or the devils. Making a resolution after prayer will help us to take the grace of prayer and make it part of our life.
He suggested making a spiritual bouquet after meditation. Select one or two points that we liked best and think about them during the day. Without the step of reflecting on our prayer and choosing two points or truths, we will not remember the subject of our prayer by noontime. To the modern mind, which is used to dealing with quantities of information and instant communication, this small step is a discipline with the effect of reining in our attention to higher things. This is a habit that can help us to “put on the mind of Christ”. Keeping watch over the heart and maintaining a spirit of recollection will keep us from becoming completely distracted from the effects of prayer and we can turn to the duties at hand with the spirit of devotion alive in our hearts.
A Spiritual Retreat
One suggestion I have tried several times and found refreshing is what he calls spiritual retreat. This consists of choosing a spiritual place where our hearts can rest in God as we go about our tasks. It could be at the foot of the cross on Calvary, the moment of Christ’s transfiguration, or at the scene of the last supper. We can withdraw our hearts and be in union with God while we go about our exterior duties. While we are sitting at a meeting, shopping for groceries, or planning a menu “our heart can remain alone in the presence of God”.2 It seems to me that this exercise is extremely fruitful for dealing with the stress that comes from hi-tech distractions, cell phones, iPods, and the ever-present call of the web. To live the spirit of the psalms that say “I see the Lord always before me” (Ps 15:8) we have to develop the ability to retire into the solitude of our hearts. This is an interior movement of the will that has the effect of preserving our interior freedom and allowing God to strengthen and refresh us.
Confession -- the Counter-cultural Sacrament
Another suggestion we found speaks to our situation today is his discussion of confession. Confession is in many ways the counter-cultural sacrament, calling us to examine where we have failed in our pursuit of virtue and allowing us the space to acknowledge fault with our minds and take that all-important step of changing our will to conform better with God’s will.
When we go to confession Francis says we are practicing several virtues at once: humility, obedience, simplicity, and charity. When we confess we should be definite about what we have done and not speak in vague generalities. For example, if we have not loved our neighbor as we should, we need to state the fact (what precisely happened), the motive (why did we do this) and the duration of our sins (was it once or ten times). He explains that by giving specific facts we are disclosing the sin and the more deep-seated inclination, customs and habits that are the root of the sin. The sacrament is designed to heal our hearts and the more we cooperate with this grace the more we will grow in love of God and neighbor.
Saint Francis’s advice seems fresh, eminently practical, and focused on the one thing necessary five centuries after he first wrote it. He spells out in detail the importance of every habit related to our spiritual quest and how they help or hinder us. Would that we had more homilies with such wisdom. One of the greatest contributions of Saint Francis de Sales was to unify “all Christian morality and holiness under the bond of charity”,3 exactly the intent of Pope Benedict in his encyclical on love. He saw the perfection of charity as the vocation of all Christians in all states in life. This is the universal call to holiness so often talked about by Pope John Paul II. May this brief reflection ignite your interest in that great spiritual father, Saint Francis de Sales.
1 Deus Caritas Est, Introduction 1.
2 Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, p. 97.
3 Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, 217.
Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.
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