St Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is known to Christian history as one of the great spiritual directors, meaning he would help people discern ways of paying attention to God in their own situations. He didn’t just give general advice; he spoke with friends about how they could, in their particular circumstances, walk faithfully on their journey through life toward God.
The great monument of this work of Francis’ are the letters he wrote to various people who sought out his Christian counsel. Often the advice he gave his friends remains very helpful to those of us today who aim to grow and be formed in Christ. This process was one that Francis tended to talk about as “Christian perfection.” Despite that lofty name, Francis reminds us that we are all weak and will fail along the way, but that God is patient. Accordingly, we do well to be patient not only with others’ failings but also with our own. What he called “spiritual perfection” is very similar to Paul’s concept of Christ “formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
In a letter from the spring of 1604, Francis outlines the basic ways that we who live everyday lives with ordinary responsibilities (in other words, he is not giving advice to monks or nuns or people we might think of as living set apart forms of life) will attain this “perfection.”
“The means,” he writes, “is to unite yourself closely to God and to your neighbor, as well as to all that concerns them.”
- Uniting ourselves to God
This is done, Francis says, through (a) the sacraments (he’s writing as a Catholic) and (b) prayer. For those of us who do not routinely use the language of sacraments, the point is that the sacraments are physical signs or means of living out our relationship with God, ways of remembering that God doesn’t deal with us on a purely “spiritual” level but rather with our whole selves, “body and spirit.” We use these means God has given us (the most obvious one will be sharing communion) to physically bring ourselves back before God, humbling ourselves in his presence, receiving his life. In our own day, it might not be silly to point out that simply going to church to share in corporate worship can be a means of uniting ourselves to God.
In terms of prayer, Francis divides this into two categories: meditation and spontaneous prayer. He recommends a short time in the morning or before supper to be spent in meditation. Meditation in the Christian sense means thinking and praying about some truth or reality God has revealed to us in Scripture or in Jesus Christ his Son. “To help yourself pray well, you might prepare beforehand the point on which you are to meditate so that, as you begin your prayer, you have your subject matter ready.” It may not occur to us to prepare ourselves for prayer, but it is a guard against being unfocused. But prayer is always about a real and living relationship we have with God through Christ, so spontaneous prayer throughout the day is not only permissible but should be to us something like breathing or eating, just a natural part of life. Francis also here recommends a half an hour or an hour of spiritual reading each day, “for that could be like a sermon for you”—a consistent way of building our relationship with God.
- Uniting ourselves to Neighbour
Francis mentions a few ways of uniting ourselves to our neighbour. First, “since God wants us to love and cherish others, we must see our neighbor in Him.” Sometimes, however, it’s hard to love our neighbour. Some people we just don’t feel inclined to love and don’t feel any sense of warmth toward. Francis lived in the same world we do, and knew this could be a problem for us. He recommended that if it wasn’t easy for us, we should make it a habit anyway. In time we’ll find that we’ll be more and more disposed to that love. But it’s not done in our own strength; we should pray to God “to grant us love of others, especially of those persons we have no inclination to love.”
Second, we should take time to visit and pray for people who are sick or in hospitals or otherwise in need of our compassion. But even as we do this, we should be careful not to neglect the regular duties to our family or others who are close to us. It was a key point for Francis that our devotion to God should lead us into relationships with people, not away from them. He suggests that our devotion should be rendered “lovable to everyone.” People should see that our devotion to God has made us more loving people to those around us.
Francis understood better than we often do that God is interested in our whole life. He doesn’t just save souls. He cares about real people who exist in whole webs of relationships, and his love is worked out in and through those relationships as well as our more direct interactions with him. Our love of God leads us to embrace rather than withdraw from our neighbour.
Quotations are from the letter of Francis to Madame Brûlart, May 3, 1604, in Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction (The Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press, 1988),