January 24th is the feast day of one of the esteemed St. Francis de Sales (1567 – 1622). He was an amazing man who gave up a life of comfort and wealth among the noble class to become a common priest, and who ended up being driven by his quiet zeal to trudge barefoot, unsupported, and alone through the Swiss countryside in an attempt to convert the heretical Calvinists and their followers back to the Catholic Church after the tumultuous Protestant revolt.
After St. Francis de Sales was ordained bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, he began to get serious about developing an interior life of holiness. That is, he got serious about not just being more pious, but intentionally working on being a true saint. This noble goal was remarkable, because during his day such determined attempts at holiness were reserved primarily for monks and nuns—those men and women living as cloistered contemplatives dedicated exclusively to this pursuit.
As a bishop, St. Francis de Sales believed that his role was to provide spiritual direction to his flock, so that’s just what he did. He wrote a copious amount of letters to various individuals about the spiritual life that were eventually collected into one book called Introduction to the Devout Life.
In this book he gave simple lay people practical advice in plain language on how to develop deep interior lives that they could practice while fulfilling their daily duties.
St. Francis de Sales went a long way towards making sure that the way of holiness was no longer just for a select few individuals, but was now made accessible to ordinary people living ordinary lives. The book was a huge success, and it helped to have him named one of the 36 Doctors of the Catholic Church.
Here is a portion from his classic Catholic book, Introduction to the Devout Life, from a chapter entitled “Examination of the Soul’s Condition as regards God”. In this excerpt we can see how he truly did provide immensely useful and practical advice for the average person on how to develop a deeper spiritual union with God.
EXAMINATION OF THE SOUL’S CONDITION AS REGARDS GOD
1. What is the aspect of your heart with respect to mortal sin? Are you firmly resolved never to commit it, let come what may? And have you kept that resolution from the time you first made it? Therein lies the foundation of the spiritual life.
2. What is your position with respect to the Commandments of God? Are they acceptable, light and easy to you? He who has a good digestion and healthy appetite likes good food, and turns away from that which is bad.
3. How do you stand as regards venial sins? No one can help committing some such occasionally; but are there none to which you have any special tendency, or worse still, any actual liking and clinging?
4. With respect to spiritual exercises—do you like and value them? or do they weary and vex you? To which do you feel most or least disposed, hearing or reading God’s Word, meditating upon it, calling upon God, Confession, preparing for Communion and communicating, controlling your inclinations, etc.? What of all these is most repugnant to you? And if you find that your heart is not disposed to any of these things, examine into the cause, find out whence the disinclination comes.
5. With respect to God Himself—does your heart delight in thinking of God, does it crave after the sweetness thereof? “I remembered Thine everlasting judgments, O Lord, and received comfort,” says David. Do you feel a certain readiness to love Him, and a definite inclination to enjoy His Love? Do you take pleasure in dwelling upon the Immensity, the Goodness, the Tenderness of God? When you are immersed in the occupations and vanities of this world, does the thought of God come across you as a welcome thing? do you accept it gladly, and yield yourself up to it, and your heart turn with a sort of yearning to Him? There are souls that do so.
6. If a wife has been long separated from her husband, so soon as she sees him returning, and hears his voice, however cumbered she may be with business, or forcibly hindered by the pressure of circumstances, her heart knows no restraint, but turns at once from all else to think upon him she loves. So it is with souls which really love God, however engrossed they may be; when the thought of Him is brought before them, they forget all else for joy at feeling. His Dear Presence nigh, and this is a very good sign.
7. With respect to Jesus Christ as God and Man—how does your heart draw to Him? Honey bees seek their delight in their honey, but wasps hover over stinking carrion. Even so pious souls draw all their joy from Jesus Christ, and love Him with an exceeding sweet Love, but those who are careless find their pleasure in worldly vanities.
8. With respect to Our Lady, the Saints, and your Guardian Angel—do you love them well? Do you rejoice in the sense of their guardianship? Do you take pleasure in their lives, their pictures, their memories?
9. As to your tongue—how do you speak of God? Do you take pleasure in speaking His Praise, and singing His Glory in psalms and hymns?
10. As to actions—have you God’s visible glory at heart, and do you delight in doing whatever you can to honour Him? Those who love God will love to adorn and beautify His House. Are you conscious of having ever given up anything you liked, or of renouncing anything for God’s Sake? for it is a good sign when we deprive ourselves of something we care for on behalf of those we love. What have you ever given up for the Love of God?
Wow. What do you think of this list? Do you find this spiritual advice as helpful as did Catholics living in the 16th and 17th centuries? Please comment below!
This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2013. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.