“Frequently, on the pretext of some supposed impossibility, [ordinary Catholics] will not even think of undertaking a devout life. It is their opinion that just as no animal dares to taste the seed of the herb called palma Christi, so no one should aspire to the palm of Christian piety as long as he is living under the pressure of worldly affairs.” Saint Francis De Sales, Introduction to the devout life.
My dear readers, these words were written by Saint Francis back in the 16th century. Are these words not still true in this age, more than 450 years later? Before we point fingers however, let us define what we mean. What is meant by the devout life? In a nutshell, the devout life according to Saint Francis de Sales is defined by this witty and yet very accurate analogy, which makes him so accessible to our theologically deficient 21st century minds. “Ostriches never fly; hens fly in a clumsy fashion, near the ground, and only once in a while, but eagles, doves, and swallows fly aloft, swiftly and frequently. In like manner, sinners in no way fly up towards God, but make their whole course here upon the earth and for the earth. Good people who have not as yet attained to devotion fly towards God by their good works but do so infrequently, slowly, and awkwardly. Devout souls ascend to Him more frequently, promptly and with lofty flights. In short, devotion is simply that spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us or by aid of which we work quickly and lovingly.” I must confess that for most of my life I have been a hen, and the other times an ostrich. However, back to the point of this essay. Why does it matter if we are a hen or an eagle? Is not being a “good person” good enough?
To answer this, we must go to the words of Christ in Matthew 5:48. “Be you therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Christ did not say, “Be you therefore a good person.” Notice also the emphasis Christ puts on this verse. He is commanding His listeners that perfection is not optional, it is essential if they want to be called His followers. The same is true for those who call themselves Christ’s followers today. Christ calls us to strive for perfection every hour of every day. If you look at your life right now, is it perfect? As an example, if I were to spend half the time in prayer and meditation as I spend daily on social media and Netflix, I would be praying as much as the hermits and anchorites of old! This leads to our final question: How do we advance in spiritual perfection through the devout life?
The answer is simple: we advance in spiritual perfection by advancing through the stages of the devout life as taught by the spiritual masters of the Catholic Church. They are called doctors of the Church because they literally are the best and most qualified spiritual masters in our brief history, and their methods have led many, many souls to heaven. Saint Francis de Sales, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Teresa of Avila have all left us with guides on how to advance in divine perfection. Each varies slightly, and this variation is based upon the different audiences to whom these works were addressed. However, they all share in common these five basic introductory steps: Step 1—acquire a good spiritual director/confessor. Step 2—free yourself from mortal sin and its effects. Step 3—Receive the sacraments frequently. Step 4—Spend time in prayer and meditation. Step 5—expect phases of spiritual dryness and spiritual wellness.
I highly encourage you to buy a copy of “Introduction to the devout life” by Saint Francis de Sales, because he wrote his spiritual work exclusively for those who are not masters of theology, like myself. He walks you through each of these steps with ease, and the difference it will make in your spiritual life is the difference between, well, flying like an ostrich and flying like a dove. If anything is capable of salvaging this poor, deluded, passionate soul of mine, it is this work of Saint Francis de Sales. You must learn to fight the spiritual battle in order to become a follower of Christ, and with the help of Christ and the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, and through the guidance of Saint Francis, this battle begins today. For the glory of God and for the salvation of souls. Amen.