I’ve long been a fan of St. Francis de Sales. He is, after all, the patron saint of writers and journalists – a score for me on both counts. He also is the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, my home diocese.
Now I have a reason to love him even more.
Enter a new book by Father John Burns, Lift Up Your Heart: A 10-Day personal Retreat with St. Francis de Sales. (2017, Ave Maria Press $13.95).
The retreat is based on St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, which Father Burns credits for his profound re-conversion experience. In his own words, he explains it:
With my faith on the periphery, my life slid into tepidity and even boredom despite having attained so much of what I thought I wanted. At first little more than an itch, I eventually found myself haunted by a thirst for something more. I searched for fulfillment in pleasure, popularity, possessions, and whatever else I saw making others apparently happy. I was, in hind sight, half asleep. I was unable to awaken within myself that rich movement of grace that opens the eyes of the heart to the deeper realities of human existence. I was unable to understand the need to turn my heart to its true purpose, it’s Alpha and Omega, the Lord of all things. This turning, conversion, I have learned, typically happens through the assistance of others who truly know the ways of Jesus Christ. In the throes of an unfulfilling existence, I needed the help of a master. I stumbled across a book by St. Francis de Sales, called Introduction to the Devout Life. It literally changed my life.
I daresay this retreat will change yours.
The author admits that this is not an easy retreat to make, but then again anything worth having is worth having worked for. The retreat includes topics that can sometimes be “difficult for the modern mind and heart to engage” such as death, judgment, heaven, and hell as well as angels, demons, the saints and the love of God.
Each day of the retreat begins with a meditation that leads the reader more deeply into self-knowledge and at the same time deeper into the truth of our faith and God’s love. It then suggests a focus for the day’s prayer and concludes with the prayer itself.
The fifth meditation On Death has tackled with wisdom and hope a topic that could be sullen and frightening:
The essential truths of our faith empty this fear, and radically so. The communion to which we are called, indeed for which we are made, is more profound and complete than even anything we could experience here in this life. In our time here, every joy, every love, every communion is simply a foretaste of what is potentially to come. No matter how perfect and joyful it may be, life here is punctuated by sin: even though ‘the just fall seven times, they rise again’ (Prv 24:16). Our communion and love here, certainly blessed and wonderful but incomplete and imperfect, stirs up a greater ardor for that which is to come. Heaven is ultimate, eternal and unbroken communion with God and with the angels and saints. We will consider this later in more detail, but for now we must allow faith, hope, and love to lift us out of the fear of death. Death is simply a passing point, from intermittent communion into, please God, perfect communion.
The prayer focus for the day is encouraging as well:
Embrace the gift of your freedom and gratitude and awareness of the passage of time. Consider the importance of real, faithful relationships. Ask yourself where you cling to material or passing things and where you cling to control. Prayerfully, constantly, consider the inevitable reality of your death. Ask God’s grace in reorienting and reordering your whole life toward charity, love of God and love of neighbor. Ask for the grace to waste not a moment of the time given to you by God before that reality arrives.
That paragraph is followed by this prayer:
Lord God, grant me always the grace to live each and every moment as if it were my last. Help me always to set my gaze upon eternity and to cherish the flow of each earthly moment as one filled with your presence. Help me to see the time allotted to me here and now as a blessed chance to glorify you and to praise you by imitating Christ and living the Gospel. Help me always to live in a state of readiness, knowing neither the day nor the hour. And please, Oh God, grant me the gift of a happy death and a peaceful passing into the fullness of your embrace. Amen.
Lift up Your Heart is amazing, but what I find perhaps even more amazing is that Father Burns wrote it in longhand in a single sitting while in Eucharistic Adoration. Talk about movement of the Spirit!
There is another thing about Father Burn’s book that astonishes me as well. All the proceeds from sales of Lift up Your Heart will be directly donated to St. Francis de Sales Seminary. What a remarkable witness of his love for his vocation and dedication to promotion of the priesthood!
Certainly, this 10-day retreat needs to go on your Lenten reading list. Granted, it spans just 10 days, but it’s packed with spiritual gems that will last all the 40 days of Lent. And far beyond.