...may I suggest you try Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales?
I blogged about it at great length a couple of years ago, and I still think it is wonderful -- astonishingly modern, given when it was written. I particularly recommend the "Everyman's Library" edition that is translated by Father Michael Day. You should look for a translation with a contemporary and conversational tone, because the advice is contemporary and conversational -- avoid a translation that sounds stilted and archaic. If you cannot wait, you can find it online, but believe me, it is worth it to get a contemporary and friendly-sounding translation. St. Francis really deserves it -- he needs to sound as contemporary to us as he would have sounded to the people he spoke with in person.
I recommend, too, either reading the whole thing swiftly (without following any of the advice) to get an overview of the "program" before turning back to digest it more slowly; or else, following the chapters somewhat out of order. There is a clear structure to the book, but a sort of rearrangement of the chapters rings better to the modern ear that is used to self-help books.
Here's my suggestion:
- First, see my post on the overall structure of the book.
- Then, if you like, bookmark my chapter by chapter blog series on it.
- Read part 1, chapters 1 through 3. (One short chapter a day is fine if you want to spread it out.)
- You can skip part 1, chapter 4, unless you are considering getting a spiritual director.
- Read part 1, chapters 5-7. These are more introductory remarks.
- Stop before going on to part 1, chapter 8. Beginning there, you will prepare for a novena of sorts -- nine days, ten meditations. Before reading and especially before trying to follow the advice, I recommend turning ahead to part 2 and going carefully through chapters 1 through 8 in that chapter, taking notes and marking pages. Part 2, chapters 1-8, is a primer on how to pray and meditate, and it will be extremely useful to have read it before beginning the program of prayer that is described in the rest of part 1.
- Now you're going to embark on what I call "St. Francis's Three-Step Program For Getting Rid of Mortal Sin And Attachment To It."
- Step one is to attain perfect contrition. Do this by reading part 1, chapter 8, and then use the ten meditations that follow as a nine-day novena: one meditation per day on the first eight days, and then on the ninth day do the ninth and tenth meditations. While you are doing this, refer to the chapters you have already from part 2 (that is, chapters 1-8 of part 2) if you need to be reminded of St. Francis's method of prayer and meditation.
- Step two is to prepare for, and make, a good confession: a general confession, if possible. (You might want to make an appointment if you think it will be a quite thorough general confession). Prepare for the confession a couple of days ahead with these readings: Part 1, chapter 19; then part 2, chapter 19; then part 1, chapters 20 and 21. (Again, if you are making a thorough general confession, it may be wise to write out the results of your examination of conscience so you can refer to it in the confessional.). Bookmark part 2, chapter 19 for reference in future confessions. Write out a solemn resolution as described in part 1, chapter 20, and bring the resolution with you into the confessional. Make a good confession, accusing yourself directly, simply, and specifically as directed in part 1, chapter 19, and part 2, chapter 19.
- Step three: While still in the confessional, making your Act of Contrition -- in the part where you resolve to amend your life -- refer specifically to that solemn resolution that you wrote out and brought with you. Then, as directed in part 1, chapter 21, receive absolution and then go immediately to an appropriate place of prayer in the church. There, sign and date the resolution, then carry out the penance prescribed for you by the priest in the confessional.
- Finish reading part 1.
- Read the rest of part 2, one bit at a time, and trying to apply his advice in one chapter before moving on to the next: baby steps. These chapters are about everyday prayer and reception of the sacraments. After reading his advice about morning prayer in chapter 10, for example, you might compose a short morning prayer after his method (or choose a traditional formula); write it out; keep it by your bedside; and attempt to pray it for at least a few days before moving on to try the advice about evening prayer in chapter 11. When you get to the chapters about Communion, you might bookmark them and return to them regularly prior to receiving Communion for a while.
- Now you are going to choose just one or two virtues to work on developing in yourself. To discern which virtue you need to work on, first carefully reread part 1, chapters 22-24; then Part 3, chapters 1 and 2.
- Then, quickly and without trying to follow any of the advice in the chapters, read the remaining chapters in part 3 to get an overview of possible virtues that you could choose. I recommend reading the chapters in this order:
- First, a quick reread of chapters 1 and 2, along with 37, 23, and 24. All these deal with how to discern which virtues to focus on, and how to practice the virtues prudently, not to excess.
- Then, the chapters on practicing virtue in everyday life, in this order, taking it in chunks. Again, you are trying to discern which virtue you need to focus on, so don't follow the advice yet, just take it in and consider it. While reading Chapter 3 consider whether you need patience most. While reading chapters 4-7, consider whether you need to strengthen virtue when others are finding fault with you. While reading chapters 8-9, consider whether you need to develop these virtues that help you when faced with faults and frailties in yourself and others. Read chapters 10, 11, and -- note this -- 35, then consider whether you need to develop these virtues concerned with the performance of your duties. Skip to chapters 14-16 and consider whether you need to develop virtues that help you in times of material riches or material poverty. Read chapters 17-22 and consider the role of virtue in your friendships. Return to chapters 12 and 13, then read chapters 38-41, and consider the role of virtues in sexual matters. Finally, read the following chapters that give advice in dealings with society: chapter 25 on dressing attractively, chapters 26-30 on speaking honestly and respectfully, chapters 31-34 on having fun and recreation, and chapter 36 on fairness and reasonableness.
- Choose a virtue, return to the relevant chapter or chapters from part 3, and follow the advice relevant to that virtue alone while continuing to practice the skills taught in part 2 about prayer, meditation, and the sacraments. Do this for as long as it seems to be helping you to develop the virtue and grow in devotion. Give it a little bit of time if you seem to hit a plateau. But when you hit a plateau that seems permanent move on to part 4.
- Part 4 is the "troubleshooting guide" to the devout life. Read it through once quickly, without following any advice, before deciding how to proceed. It might be that you will find one or two chapters somewhere in it that specifically address a problem that you are specifically having, and you can go straight to them and begin following the instructions therein. Or you might decide to go back to the beginning of part 4 and slowly advance through it chapter by chapter, applying the advice in each chapter before moving on to the next, and continuing to try to follow the advice in the chosen chapters of part 3 (not ALL of part 3! Just the ones focused on your specifically chosen virtue!) and the general advice about prayer, meditation, and the sacraments from the chapters of part 2.
I don't include Part 5 in my bulleted list above, because all of Part 5 is an "annual review." You won't need to read it until approximately one year after the date of your signed resolution, or any time you want a "refresher" in the devout life. Or, if you have already gone through the method of the Introduction to the Devout Life, part 5 would make a good study for a spiritual retreat -- or for your Lenten renewal.