Heart First: The Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales

“Since the heart is the source of actions, as the heart is, so they are. … I have wished above all else to engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy, sacred maxim, LIVE JESUS!” — St. Francis de Sales

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St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal by Valentin Metzinger, Wikimedia Commons

From the outset, let me say I am no expert, nor even a novice, in the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. I’ve read just enough to be dangerous now. I was confirmed as a twenty-something husband and father of two, taking the name of St. Francis as the patron saint of journalist and writers. I knew a bit about the man, and almost nothing about his teachings.

Several years later I read probably his most famous book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, which is a practical guide for lay people pursuing holiness, whatever their state or station. I remember it being thorough, simple, solid, and encouraging. Under his direction, sanctity seemed challenging but achievable.

Then a couple years ago, I discovered a book in library at Demontreville while making a silent retreat: Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction. I barely scratched the surface of the lengthy introduction during our down time at the retreat, but I knew I needed to read it. I tracked down a copy on eBay, and over the past few weeks, finally finished the the introduction and began to read the letters themselves. The more I learn about the approach of the “Gentle Doctor” to prayer and holiness, the more I see God’s providence in my choice of patron. Continue reading

All Is Gift

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I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

 

Forty-Third Birthday, Extended and Remixed

I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.

At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.

Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.

So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.

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In the Belly of the Beast

I started a new routine this week, of rising at 4 a.m. to stretch and make coffee, then sitting down to write before the family rises to start the day. Getting up each day has gone well, stretching has been adequate, and coffee is always good. But the last thing I wrote for public consumption was Monday’s post, which in truth I wrote over the weekend.

Three days with no posts. Yesterday I found myself melancholy in mood and frustrated in prayer. I am doing exactly what I set out to do: putting my experience and gifts to work for the church. I have freedom, flexibility, and just enough money. So why, when I am free to write, do I have so little to share?

This morning, I sat down to pray before writing. Once again, my initial thought was that I have nothing to say. But as I prayed, I noticed something that put the fear of God in me—and, providentially, provided me a topic.

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New Opportunity!

It came to pass that on the last day of the eighth month, after many months of prayer and seeking and exactly two months of joblessness (more or less), I finally found a new opportunity to serve. Today I started work as the communications, evangelization, and outreach coordinator for the Church of St. Andrew in Elk River.

It is a half-time position, which means it provides a base of steady income and the freedom and flexibility for me to write and pursue freelance work. But because it’s only half-time, it also requires me to find enough other work to cover our bills.

It is providential in many ways: Continue reading