A SPIRITUALITY OF THE HEART
The spirituality of St. Francis de Sales is one of the golden leaves in the spiritual tradition of the Church. Some call it a “Spirituality of the Heart”. It is a spirituality that is relevant today as it was in the time of Francis de Sales himself.
St. Francis de Sales was a man for all. His teachings appeal to all people of all times and cultures. It took shape amidst the strife and struggle of his time. During his tenure as Bishop of Geneva (1602-22) he built up Christian communities through his writings, preaching and other instructions.
Francis de Sales laid emphasis on the fact that God is the origin and end of humans. We turn to God instinctively. We belong to God and God belongs to us. God has no need of us. Yet, God created us simply because of His goodness and that we may attain everlasting life and thus be united with Him. God created us for Himself. The world is there for us. But our final end is God Himself.
What makes Salesian spirituality most relevant today is the fact that it is so much human. “All is for love, in love, to love and of love in the holy Church”, he declares in the first pages of his “Treatise on Divine Love.” His humanism and deep insights into human nature attract anyone who wants to tread the path of holiness.
His personal touch and his capacity for intimacy attracted many to seek his guidance. He kept in touch with them personally or through letters. He helped them to live the Gospel in the ordinary events of everyday life. He laid great emphasis on the need to be aware of the presence of God in us. All our activities, both spiritual and worldly, will become holy through the awareness of the presence of God in our lives. We need to put all our heart into whatever we are doing- how serious or silly it may seem to be. We should do everything for the love of God.
The starting point of all holiness for St. Francis de Sales is the love of God. Devotion that is true and loving presupposes love of God, rather it is nothing else that true love of God. It does not mean that the love of one’s neighbor is neglected because there are no two loves, but one single love which from God flows into every human person. Love of neighbor is the natural corollary of the love of God. Intense flames of divine love motivates, energizes daily human activity –leads to good works and good deeds.
SALESIAN SPIRITUALITY: A Spirituality for everyone
The Spiritual journey of St. Francis de Sales, hailed as the doctor of Love and the master of devotion, is centred on the God of Love who is the origin, sustenance, revival and destination of every human person.
SOME OF THE SALIENT FEATURES OF SALESIAN SPIRITUALITY
The Universal Call to Holiness
Holiness is not the prerogative of the monks and nuns but of all. Everyone irrespective of birth, color, caste, class etc is called to live a life of holiness. Holiness is never too lofty and unattainable for ordinary people. But everyone is not to live the life of holiness in the same way. A priest’s call to holiness differs from that of a married man and a nun’s obligation regarding prayer and other spiritual exercises differs from that of a spinster or a married woman.
Every human being is called to enter into living, loving and vibrant relationship with God, each according to his or her status in life. The intention of St. Francis de Sales in writing his spiritual masterpiece The Introduction to the Devout Life, was to introduce to everyone the path to holiness. Holiness is possible in all walks of life, under any circumstance and at all times. Whatever the tasks we have to perform in the world we are all called to be saints.
Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Rerum Omnium in 1923, on the occasion of the third centenary of the death of St. Francis de Sales and declared St. Francis de Sales the ‘Doctor of the Universal Call to Holiness’. Drawing inspiration from St. Francis de Sales the Second Vatican Council lay emphasis on the call to holiness of all Christians and the need for fostering a more humane society. “It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society” (Lumen Gentium No.40). There is only one holiness but the forms are many.
Devotion must be suited to one’s own staus
All are called to live a devout life. However, the practice of devotion must be suitable to his or her status. “God commanded the plants, at the creation, to bear fruit each according to its kind. Similarly, he commanded Christians, the living plants of the Church, to produce the fruits of devotion according to each one’s ability and occupation. Devotion is to be practiced differently by the workman, the servant, the ruler, the widow, the young girl and the wife. Even more than this, the practice of devotion has to be adapted to the strength, life-situation and duties of each individual. Do you think, Philothea, that it is suitable for a bishop to desire to live the life of a hermit like a Carthusian monk? If people with a family were to want to be like the Capuchins not acquiring any property, if a workman spent a great deal of time in church, like the member of a religious order, and if a religious was always subject to being disturbed in all sorts of ways for the service of his neighbor, like a bishop, would not such a devotion be ridiculous, disorderly and intolerable?” (Introduction to the Devout Life)
Devotion does not spoil anything, but rather it makes everything perfect. If it affects one’s life adversely then it is not genuine devotion. Holiness is not away from the world… but in the world. We need to find it in our life-situations. A quite many Christians reduce holiness to mere external forms of piety, over-exaggerating certain aspects like external and vocal prayer, fasting, at the same time neglecting charity and due respect to their neighbor. According to St. Francis de Sales such people are not really devout, although popularly considered so. Fools shall we become, if we reduce Christian life to traditional structure and rubrics, formulas and worn-out habits verging on superstition.
Integration and Harmony in Pursuit of Holiness
If one aspires to be devout one should integrate prayer and action. St. Francis de Sales cautions every Christian of the danger of dichotomy in living. It is not enough to appear pious and to perform some acts and piety but one has to be truly pious in thoughts and deeds. If a person is really devout he/she should show it not only in praying but also in his/her actions as well. He, who is in the habit of fasting, may falsely believe that because he fasts he is very devout, even though his heart is filled with hatred. Some people will not take a sip of wine or even water, anxious about sobriety, but have no scruples to damage the good name of their neighbours by speaking ill or by false statements. Some others spend hours in the church but when they get back home they fight with their spouses, children and neighbours. For St. Francis de Sales all these are sheer hypocrisy. If one is truly devout one must harmonize prayer with actions. The easiest way to know whether one is holy is to examine critically whether there is disharmony between one’s religious practices and day-to-day living. St. Francis de Sales had an integral and holistic approach to spiritual life. In this approach every aspect of spiritual, social, cultural and human life finds harmony, balance and beauty. Gentleness is balanced by firmness, sense of justice by mercy, prudence with simplicity and so forth. His approach to the members of the other Christian Churches was marked by gentleness, patience and love.
Building a Spirituality on the virtue of humility
God can fill only a humble heart with His gifts. Therefore, humility is one of the foundations of an authentic spirituality. True humility consists in acknowledging the gifts of God and being grateful to Him for them. Trust and humility go hand in hand. It is by practicing humility that we become humble. St. Francis de Sales says: “Do not strive to destroy pride. Make humility strong by practice.”
Sustaining a spiritual life through prayer
It is said: ‘Prayer is the key of the day and the lock of the night’. The focus that St. Francis de Sales gives is not on the definition of prayer because his aim was to help people to grow in God’s love through prayer. For him all the good movements of the will, proper interior disposition and good thoughts are prayers. He says: “In it (prayer) occurs so many interior movements that it is impossible to mention them all, not only because of their quantity, but also because of their nature and quality, which being spiritual, can only be extremely subtle and almost imperceptible to human understanding.” Through prayer we come to know God’s will in our daily life.
St. Francis de Sales was a man who could pray at all times and in all places. One can pray in the prison cells or in the chapel, traveling in a bus or walking in the woods and even when one is engaged in doing some serious work. These prayers need not be formal prayers. In any circumstance one can at least think a holy thought, say ejaculatory prayers, become aware of the all-pervading presence of God or at least do what one does with love.
Nurturing an optimistic attitude in life
An optimist sees the bright side of life and events whereas a pessimist sees the dark side of the same. St. Francis de Sales is known for his optimism. His founds his optimism on the beliefs that: a) human life is a gift of God, a sharing of His goodness; b) humans are the image and likeness of God; c) we are created for eternal happiness; d) Original sin did not totally corrupt human nature; e) the Incarnation and Redemption give greater sense of meaning to our lives; f) God’s supernatural providence takes care of our material and spiritual needs and g) God gives to all people an abundance of means and chance to become perfect. God’s will is always and infinitely good. It is this fact that gives humans enough scope for optimism.
Building up a spiritual life on Little Virtues (Acts)
The little virtues like patience, gentleness and humility are very often neglected by people as just the ordinary. But St. Francis de Sales sees great power in them. They can mould one’s life and make one holier. They also help the building up of religious communities. A kind word spoken, a warm greeting, a little help, a cheerful approach, a patient listening or a gentle look can work miracle in our day to day life. The truth is that we get a lot of opportunities to practice these virtues, while the chances for practicing other so-called great virtues are very rare. One who waits for them, neglecting these little virtues, will meet with disappointment.
“The call to holiness flows from the nature of the human person who is created in the image and likeness of God.” (St. Francis de Sales)
Prayer is the beginning and end of Salesian Spirituality. “Sans fin, sans measure, sans reserve” (i.e., without end, without measure, without reserve) shows the tremendous emphasis that St. Francis de Sales laid on Prayer. He sees prayer as an act of homage to God. The ultimate goal of prayer is union with God and this becomes self-explanatory in his own words when he says: “The chief aim of prayer is uniting of the soul with God. And the union with God is achieved by love and love is furthered by a free prayer from one’s soul.” So, St. Francis de Sales sees the highest task of human person in giving his/her whole personality with all strength to God and letting love bloom in human hearts.
Method of Prayer
For St. Francis de Sales, prayer included every act of a person’s life. For him, his own life was a prayer and prayer started with daybreak and continued until another daybreak. And yet there are certain acts of worship and communion, which stands out as methods of prayer.
Through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, St. Francis de Sales displayed the highest act of prayer. He was an apostle of Mass. The divine Sacrament was his real life. The divine words of Mass he spoke softly, reflectively and prayerfully. During the Mass anybody who saw him were truly moved to devotion. At times his eyes were full of tears. Thus to many people he became the image of the Saviour himself.
Among his acts of devotion and prayer, rosary had a primacy of its own. He loved Virgin Mary. He believed that being with Mary offered everyone the fertile condition to receive mercy. He did commit himself near her everyday. He said the rosary meditatively, slowly and devoutly, lasting about an hour. And this joyful act of prayer sustained him in the summer and winter of his life.
In Salesian system, private prayer takes the first place. He insisted that, one who strives for perfection should dedicate ‘an hour a day’ for meditation and contemplation. His orientation to interior prayer has influenced the Catholic Church since his time. In his youth, he also shared the esteem for textual prayer. But the more closely he studied religious life, so much more, changes began to take place in him. Some people argued that laypersons would not be capable of meditation and contemplation, unlike priests and monks. But Francis was sure and certain that this method of prayer is attainable even for the rawest soul.
It would be wrong to think that St. Francis de Sales underestimated the value of public prayer. On the contrary he wanted even lay people to be present at vespers on Sundays. He desired careful preparation for the office through acts of contrition and prayer to the Holy Ghost. But it is undeniable that his emphasis primarily was on inner prayer. He did believe that, if we cultivate interior prayer, oral prayer could recede.
This is another method of prayer fervently valued and re-discovered by St. Francis de Sales, though St. Augustine had referred to it. According to him, on ejaculatory prayers rests the greater work of perfection. In case of necessity, it can even replace all other prayers. He describes its essence as short but fiery lifting of the heart to God. And through this the soul surrenders itself to God a thousand times a day. He says that we should not bend ourselves with definite words, but move in the direction of love. He appreciates expressions like – ‘I love you’, ‘my all’, etc., as momentary expressions for forceful ejaculatory prayer.
Content of Prayer
First and foremost St. Francis de Sales belonged to God. From the very beginning of his apostolate, he belonged to God and man simultaneously. For him content of prayer included every aspect of his life and everything he did. He would rise at daybreak and rarely did he retire before 11 p.m. All his personal time he spent for study, prayer and meditation. Everything he studied was an important content of his prayer. For him study was prayer and prayer was study. When he prayed he studied and when he studied he prayed.
Scripture was his primary content of prayer. He meditated on Scripture unceasingly. While he was at prayer he used different commentaries and works of persons like St. Thomas, St. Augustine, Jerome, etc. Even Greek and Hebrew commentaries were essential part of his prayer. Therefore, it shall be no surprise that he stated “neither my character nor my talent enable me to preach having consulted to doctors.” Thus, for St. Francis de sales, the content of prayer included everything that he did from early morning until he retired to bed, late in the evening.