HOLINESS FOR EVERYONE
St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life
By Elizabeth Ruth Obbard
New City Press, 2016
78 pages, £7.14 (about $8.99)
To order: www.newcity.co.uk
St. Francis de Sales’ 1619 Introduction to the Devout Life is a classic of Catholic spirituality. One of the problems with classics, however, is that they are often more named than read.
That’s why you should get Elizabeth Ruth Obbard’s little book. Obbard takes St. Francis’ Introduction and condenses it to half the size.
You can read 78 pages quickly. You shouldn’t, though.
Francis was ahead of his time: Vatican II spoke of the “universal call to holiness,” emphasizing that becoming a saint was everybody’s business, not just the professional job of priests and religious. But St. Francis de Sales was preaching the universal call to holiness (which is actually grounded in Leviticus 20:26 and Matthew 5:48) back in the Counter-Reformation of the 17th century!
Introduction was written for laypeople. Although he was a bishop, he honed the spirituality we call “Salesian” through interaction with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a widowed laywoman and mother.
Another hallmark of Salesian spirituality is its loving optimism. St. Francis de Sales saw the positive in things. Obbard manages to convey these characteristics of Salesian spirituality well:
“Everyone is called to holiness according to their proper vocation, whatever it may be. It is a mistake to think that holiness is only possible in the religious state. Not at all! In fact, holiness makes every way of life more peaceful, pleasant, faithful and joyful.”
Obbard’s condensation faithfully follows St. Francis’ original, often down to the very examples. She makes a classic spiritual guide extremely accessible to the modern reader in an easy-to-read, understand and apply style.
Like the Introduction, Obbard divides her book into five parts. The first part focuses on getting started in the devout or spiritual life. Then follows a discussion of prayer and the sacraments, emphasizing frequent confession and Communion.
Part three looks at virtues and vices, focusing on the more ordinary holy ones like gentleness, patience, modesty and humility (“they may not be the rarest and greatest of virtues, but they are certainly the most universally necessary”), virtues in great demand in America today.
The next part talks about temptation, offering practical advice to counter it. The final section talks about the annual renewal of one’s resolutions, taking stake of one’s spiritual progress, or lack of it, and recommitting oneself, through a practical self-examination of deeds and motives, to do better.
Optimism pervades the effort: “Consider in whose presence you have made your offering: the whole court of heaven with the angels and the saints in attendance. As they rejoiced in your first offering, so now make them joyful that you are renewing it.”
Another nice touch: Obbard’s own pencil sketches illustrate many of the meditations. Strongly recommended — for St. Francis’ Jan. 24 feast day and beyond.