Over the last eight months, I've been blogging my way through St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life. The book charmed me almost immediately with its familiar, modern voice (at least in Father Michael Day's translation). Too, the advice was so much more practical than what you find in a lot of spiritual works: St. Francis explicitly writes for people, especially women, who live and work and carry out many duties in the world and yet long for greater devotion. Also appealing: the book promises to be a really basic manual of devotion, the kind of thing that gets a beginner started without overwhelming her, or that helps clear away the unhelpful, faith-choking accumulation of "doing too much" and lays it bare to the soil, making room for a fresher, vigorous prayer life to begin to thrive.
As I went along, I discovered that it's not a ready-made modern-style self-help book; that is, you can't expect to pick it up for the first time, open it to page one, and immediately begin following its instructions. Not until I had read most of the way through it, and grasped its overall structure, did I really understand how to use the book.
Once I figured these out, though, I found that I really could "use" it the way some people use a breviary or a copy of Magnificat or a well-worn book of prayers. I found that I was always carrying my (fortunately small-sized) copy around in my bag, not because I thought I should but because I felt I might want it!
So, even though I've already laboriously blogged that first trip through the book, I want to share some suggestions in two or three posts -- so that others might be able to pick the book up and immediately begin to use it. Maybe I can save some people some time.
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The first thing to understand about ITTDL is the five-part structure. Besides an Author's Preface, which is worth reading as it explains his purpose, these are the distinct sections:
(1) Part one is a sort of invitation to a conversion experience. It consists of step-by-step instructions, with encouragement from St. Francis, describing how the reader, "Philothea," can advance from a simple desire for devotion to a strong resolution that she will embrace the devout life.
The desire is the pre-requisite, but St. Francis assumes that it must be there or else "Philothea" would not have picked up the book.
In this section, St. Francis walks the reader through the steps of purging mortal sin out of her life and making confession. This, he explains, is a duty, and God gives us no impossible duties, so we can have confidence that it is attainable. Next, in the same section, St. Francis tells the reader how to rid herself of attachment to mortal sin: in order to do this, he explains, the reader must become aware of the attachments to sin and then become contrite.
To this end, St. Francis provides a set of daily meditations, culminating in the sought-for resolution. Over the course of the spiritual exercises, the reader stirs up in herself the fortitude to actively seek what she already weakly desires.
(2) Part two is an instruction manual on how to pray, worship, and receive the sacraments. A key thing to understand: Most people will have to use and refer to some of the advice in part two at the same time as they follow the instructions in part one. "If you are not yet accustomed to meditation read what is said about it in part two," writes Francis, looking ahead, when he outlines the spiritual exercises of part one.
In a subsequent post, I'll recommend bookmarking chapters in both parts and referring back and forth as necessary while working through the conversion to the embrace of the devout life.
Having made the resolution -- having finished reading Part 1 -- the reader can then study once again the chapters of part two, incorporating some more of its suggestions into daily prayer and worship. Once it has all been internalized, the reader can refer to its sections again and again for
guidance, perhaps opening the book at the start of morning and evening prayers or before going to confession to read St. Francis's words. Bookmarks are useful here! And if the reader finds she has to stop here for a while, working on part two while she builds the habits of devout daily prayer and of devout reception of sacraments, she can. Not until her habits are taking root need she move on to part three.
(3) Part three takes the how-to even farther: it explains how to practice individual virtues. Many virtues are described here, but at the same time Francis urges us to work on only one or a few virtues at a time, whatever needs strengthening in us the most. Probably each "Philothea" should begin by reading over all of the chapters, not yet following any of the instructions contained within, considering each virtue in turn.
Although of course a modern Philothea could read the chapters in the order that St. Francis presented them, I have suggested an alternative sequence in which to read the chapters of Part Three, one that organizes them according to three themes:
- discerning which virtues to work on,
- practicing individual virtues in everyday life, and
- remaining devout in dealings with society.
After she has considered each of the virtues, which at one chapter a day should take more than two weeks, she can choose one or two virtues for her own intensive spiritual work (following principles which are explained in this part of the book) and then go back to the relevant chapters in part three, following the recommendations closely for as long as is necessary.
(4) Part four is the "troubleshooting guide," or "snares of the enemy," which explains what Philothea can do when she encounters certain stumbling blocks. By the time Philothea gets to part four, of course, her practice of prayer and the sacraments will have matured, and she will have chosen a virtue or two to especially develop in herself. Each daily reading from part 4 is a description of some problem she might encounter -- such as friends trying to undermine her efforts, or overconfidence that she can resist temptations. After Philothea has read through each of these, she can consider whether she is having difficulty with any of these and, if so, follow the advice. If not, she can at least take note of the possible stumbling blocks she might encounter in the future, and remember to turn to this section in her time of need.
(5) Part five is an "annual review," which St. Francis recommends undergoing every year around the time of the Feast of the Lord's Baptism. In it, St. Francis walks Philothea through a set of spiritual exercises that makes a sort of mini-retreat, culminating in renewal of the resolution arrived at in Part 1. Francis encourages the reader to examine herself closely, to give thanks for all signs of progress however tiny, and frankly acknowledge where she has impeded her progress through willfulness or sloth. Then she is to re-commit herself to the resolution she made at the beginning of her journey with St. Francis's method.
This section should bring the reader back to the middle sections of book at least once a year for a few weeks, and be an occasion to refresh her memory of all the good advice in the book. She can check the "troubleshooting guide" (part 4) to see if it has any special help for her current difficulties; she can consider whether to continue developing the same virtue (as in part 3) or whether to turn her attention to another one that is lacking in her; and she can evaluate her practice of prayer and the sacraments (in the light of part 2).
So you see, understanding how the WHOLE book is put together suggests a way to use it -- a way that is much more than just starting at page one and continuing through to the end; neither following every direction in the book, nor reading it passively without getting past, "Yeah, I should try some of this."
See why I've been carrying it around with me for more than a year?
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UPDATE: Just a reminder that Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary has adopted St. Francis de Sales as her patron saint for 2011 and is also doing a series of posts on Introduction to the Devout Life. Here's a recent post.