Summary of Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness by Fr. Thomas Dailey

Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness by Fr. Thomas Dailey, Sophia Institute Press, 2015. 

PART 1: SALESIAN SPIRITUALITY

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), “an exemplary witness of Christian humanism” in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, presents “the devout life” as an everyday approach to holiness that enables us to “be who we are and be that well” (6).

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“The seminal insight of the Salesian tradition remains as relevant today as it was in the saint’s time – namely, that a life of devotion is a universal human calling, that holiness is possible in all walks of life, that a meaningful and fulfilling existence awaits all those who live well” (13).

In this book that I’m summarizing by Fr. Thomas Dailey, he provides a fantastic commentary on St. Francis de Sales’ Spiritual Directory, a “practical guidebook for holiness,” according to 3 principles:

First, growing in holiness happens by sanctifying the ordinary duties of life – right now!

“Let us be firmly resolved to serve God with our whole heart and life. Beyond that, let us have no care about tomorrow. Let us think only of living today well, and when tomorrow comes, it also will be today and we can think of it then” (St. Francis de Sales, letter CXC, to Mademoiselle de Solufour, July 22, 1603).

Second, growing in holiness happens by small yet continual steps forward – baby steps!

“I don’t mean that we shouldn’t head in the direction of perfection, but that we mustn’t try to get there in a day, for such a desire would upset us, and for no purpose. In order to journey steadily, we must apply ourselves to doing well the stretch of road immediately before us on the first day of the journey, and not waste time wanting to do the last lap of the way while we still have to make it through the first” (St. Francis de Sales, Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 97).

Third, growing in holiness happens most effectively when it moves from “inside out” (33) – interior transformation!

“I cannot approve the methods of those who try to reform a man by beginning with outward things, such as his bearing, dress, or hair. On the contrary, it seems to me that we ought to begin inside him… Since the heart is the source of our actions… In short, whoever wins a man’s heart has won the whole man” (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction, p.172).

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PART 2: OUR DAILY ROUTINE

Aspirations

In order to sanctify the ordinary events of daily life, St. Francis suggests making use of a variety of prayerful aspirations while carrying out each of our daily actions.

Aspirations are biblical or other verbal expressions that convey short, ardent movements of the heart toward God. The purpose of these prayers is to remind us of God’s loving presence, even in worldly matters, and to arouse affection for God in all things” (43).

St. Francis considered it absolutely essential to exercise holy thoughts as often as possible throughout the day.

“Aspire then frequently to God, Philothea, by short but ardent dartings of your heart; admire his beauty, invoke his assistance; cast yourself in spirit at the foot of the cross; adore his goodness; converse with Him frequently on the business of your salvation; give your soul to Him a thousand times a day; contemplate his clemency and his sweetness; stretch out your hand to Him as a little child does to his father, that He may conduct you; place Him in your bosom like a delicious nosegay; plant him in your soul like a standard; and move your heart a thousand times to enkindle and excite within you a passionate and tender affection for your Divine Spouse. The making of ejaculatory prayer was strongly recommended by the great St. Augustin to the devout Lady Proba. Our spirit. Philothea, by habituating itself thus privately to the company and familiarity of God, will be altogether perfumed with his perfections. Now, there is no difficulty in this exercise, as it is not incompatible with our occupations, without any inconvenience whatever, since, in these spiritual and interior aspirations, we only take short diversions, which, instead of preventing, rather assist us in the pursuit of what we are seeking. The pilgrim, though he may stop to take a little wine to strengthen his heart and cool his mouth, does not delay his journey by so doing, but rather acquires strength to finish it with more ease and expedition, resting only that he may afterwards proceed with greater speed” (Introduction, 66-67).

On Rising: Starting Your Day Right

“First of all on awakening, we are to direct our minds completely to God by some holy thought such as the following: Sleep is the image of death and awakening that of the resurrection” (St. Francis de Sales, Spiritual Directory).

Get into the habit of seeing the new day as a gift from God – a mini-resurrection!

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After this first aspiration, St. Francis recommends making quick and brief acts of adoration, thanksgiving, offering, petition, intercession, and other customary prayers – anything that will help us to sanctify the morning by cultivating a heart attuned to the divine gift of the day.

Even when we get dressed, we can sanctify this activity and remind ourselves of the goal of life:

“As we begin to dress, we will make the Sign of the Cross and say: Cover me, Lord, with the cloak of innocence and the robe of love. My God, do not let me appear before you stripped of good works” (St. Francis de Sales).

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On the Day’s Preparation: Looking to be Holy

St. Francis’s morning exercise, which he told us never to omit, is both eminently practical (to help us to do well those things that we have to do anyhow) and decidedly spiritual (to see all the events of our day as expressions of God’s will for us).

Step 1 – Ask: “We will invoke the help of God… [and] ask Him to make us worthy to spend the day with Him without offending Him.”

Step 2 – Look ahead: We prayerfully think “of all that could happen during the course of the day. Thus, with the grace of Our Lord, we will wisely and prudently anticipate occasions which could take us by surprise.”

Step 3 – Plan of Action: “We will carefully plan and seek out the best means to avoid any faults. We will also arrange in an orderly fashion what, in our opinion, is proper for us to do.” The better we can foresee problematic situations we are likely to face at some point in the day, the better we can prepare to avoid vice and to practice virtue in the specific situation that awaits us.

Step 4 – Resolution: “We will make a firm resolution to obey the will of God, especially during the present day.” We need to go beyond nice ideas or hopeful wishes into concrete and firm resolutions.

Step 5 Entrustment: “We will entrust ourselves and all our concerns into the hands of God’s eternal goodness and ask him to consider us as always so commended.” Now that we have done all that we can do at this point (prepare and resolve), we confidently entrust ourselves and the entire day to God’s loving providence.

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On the Direction of Intention: The Key to Spiritual Perfection

St. Francis’ “direction of intention” is “the Salesian key to [sanctifying our activities and thus] unlocking the devout life” (67) and is the heart of Salesian asceticism.

“If we wish to thrive and advance in the way of our Lord, we should, at the beginning of our actions, both exterior and interior, ask for his grace and offer to his divine Goodness all the good we will do. In this way we will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering we will encounter as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and Savior… By following the advice of St. Paul the Apostle (cf. 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17), everything we do will be done in God’s name to please him alone.”

Simply put, before we do anything, we should pause and make an intentional threefold prayer:

Step 1: Ask. We ask for God’s grace: This spiritual plea gives us a “sacramental” view of the world by reorienting our thinking (and thus our acting) away from our self-centeredness (thus confessing our inadequacy) and towards God-centeredness (thus confessing His supremacy).

Step 2: Offer. We offer to God the action we are about to do: This spiritual offering gives us a “liturgical” view of the world by providing spiritual value to all that we do.

Step 3: Accept. We promise to accept whatever will happen in the process: This spiritual abandonment gives us a “providential” view of the world by believing that “all that we do (successfully or not) and all that happens to us (happily or not) pertains to a divine design” (74).

“Even actions that fulfill basic human needs – such as drinking, eating, and resting – can be made pleasing to God by our humbly asking for God’s grace, generously offering what is good about them to God, and trustingly accepting whatever happens as a result” (75).

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On Meals: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

St. Francis sees the ordinary task of eating as an opportunity to live extraordinarily, to live well in three ways:

1: Love God and love others.

“We should not go merely to eat, but to obey God and to take part in shared experience of community with one another.”

2: Grow in the virtue of self-control.

“If we tend to be too particular or too eager in eating, we should, upon entering the place, make a firm resolution and invoke the grace and help of Our Lord to courageously exercise self-control. Let the one who is too particular consider the gall offered to Our Lord at the height of his bitterest sufferings. Let the one who is too eager think of the abstinence and strict fasts of the Fathers of the desert and of so many other saints who so effectively mortified their appetite.”

In regards to fasting, St. Francis recommends a moderate and practical approach based on that principle “that steady, moderate sobriety is preferable to periods of violent abstinence, interpersed with periods of great self-indulgence.” In doing so, he aims at interior conversion as paramount.

3: Practice self-denial and non-denial.

“We should never leave the table without having denied ourselves in some way. Nevertheless, we ought to eat without hesitation or objection any food given us for our well-being. With a spirit of indifference we are to accept from the hand of the Lord what we like as well as what we do not like, be it food or anything else.”

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On Work: And Taking Spiritual Repose

In order for work to become an opportunity to “live well”, St. Francis de Sales recommends that we acknowledge God’s presence, make a direction of intention, and ask for the grace to sanctify this time of labour.

“On entering the place of work, we should place ourselves in the presence of God, asking for his grace to make use of this time in accordance with the holy purpose for which it was instituted… “When we begin our work we should say interiorly: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9-10). O my God, make me worthy to accomplish your holy will.”

In order to continually sanctify our work, St. Francis recommends taking advantage of any periods of silence:

“Always remember… to retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others. This mental solitude cannot be violated by the many people who surround you since they are not standing around your heart but only around your body. Your heart remains alone in the presence of God… Indeed, our tasks are seldom so important so as to keep us from withdrawing our hearts from them from time to time in order to retire into this divine solitude.”

Next, St. Francis recommends that we engage in “imaginative considerations“, that is, to imagine the reality of what we believe – that God is with us right now! He said that this has “an estimable efficacy to enlighten the mind and move the will” – motivating us to live well right now while we work. Think about it, we are likely to speak differently if we picture Jesus standing beside us during a conversation.

Finally, St. Francis counsels us to practice “spiritual time management“, that is, acknowledging the truth that we draw closer to death with each passing hour. This is ultimately aimed at setting us free to live well during the time we have.

“At each hour of the day, let us regret hours wasted and recall that we will have to give an account of this hour and all the moments of our life. Let us remember that we are approaching eternity, that hours are centuries to the damned, that we are running toward death, and that perhaps our last hour may soon be at hand… After such thoughts, we should make devout aspirations that God be merciful to us at that last hour. This will certainly happen for those who have been very faithful in doing this. By this means we will grow and progress daily from virtue to virtue, even to the perfection of divine love.”

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On Leisure: Interacting with Others

St. Francis de Sales saw leisure time as not only humanly valuable (providing necessary relaxation) but also another great opportunity to live well.

“We ought not think that there is little virtue is recreating properly. We should not, therefore, undertake this time merely out of habit, or as a matter of form, but with preparation and devotion.”

In order to capitalize on leisure, we should have a time of preparation by redirecting our intention:

“When we recreate, we will ask Our Lord for the grace to say and do only what contributes to his glory.”

Cultivating holy friendships:

St. Francis saw that cultivating holy friendships, relationships that exchange what is good for both persons (knowledge, virtue, charity, devotion, etc) was also necessary for living well:

“It will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God. How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish one another in this world as we shall do eternally in the next!”

General advice about conversations:

“Just as we should converse in a spirit of simplicity and openness, so, too, should we take pleasure in speaking often of good and holy topics.”

St. Francis said that we should always welcome the opportunity to speak about holy things, yet always with reverence and humility and never with outward show or in a thoughtless manner.

“If we be inclined to speak too much about ourselves or are subject to other faults like this, let us, in beginning a conversation, briefly recall this imperfection and resolve to be on guard against it. To this end, we should implore the grace of the Holy Spirit and the help of our guardian angel.”

St. Francis warns us against three common tendencies in leisurely conversations: indecency, immodesty, and impudence. In addition, we must always avoid rash judgment, especially because it can lead to the extreme of slander, which is the “true plague of society.” Instead, we should leave the judgment to God, consider their words and actions in the most favourable light, cast doubt on any accusations you hear of others, show compassion for others, change the subject of conversation, tell of some good deed if you can, and remember that there but the grace of God go I.

Overall, we divinize our leisurely conversations by exercises 3 virtues that are essential to the devout life: truth (speak honestly), simplicity (say what you mean and mean what you say), and gentleness.

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The Examen: Reviewing our Daily Progress

Another great way to grow in holiness is through the examen prayer, which is a simple and spiritual review of the day.

“In this way, the popular aphorisms of classical humanism (such as “know thyself” and “the unexamined life is not worth living”) encounter the humility of Salesian spirituality, to yield nothing else than the honest recognition of all aspects of our life – both positive (graces) and negative (faults) – before God, who is the source of our existence” (107-8).

St. Francis recommends that we ask God to know our faults clearly, give thanks for all His benefits, review our actions, words, and thoughts in relation to God’s will, ask the Lord for pardon for our faults, and conclude with a specific resolution going forward.

“Ultimately, the key to this examination of conscience is not so much to make a detailed moral analysis of the content of our actions, words, and thoughts. Rather, the Salesian emphasis remains on the person in relation to God. How has what we did or said or thought this day been a response to God’s ever-present grace and inspiration? How have those thoughts and words and deeds contributed to, or detracted from, the good life we are called to live? And, most importantly, how might we grow and improve in those areas tomorrow?” (112)

Particular Examination of Conscience

In addition to a general examen, St. Francis recommends a particular examen aimed at growing in a specific virtue.

“In addition to this examination common to all, we may make a particular one. This concerns the practice of a special virtue most useful to us and directly opposed to those imperfections toward which we feel ourselves more inclined.”

Immediate Examination of Conscience

In addition to these examens, St. Francis counsels us to an immediate examen in order to give us the best opportunity to grow in both self-awareness (knowing our motives) and in God’s mercy (humbly admitting our faults as soon as possible).

“To make this [night] examination easier, it will be helpful for us when we commit some fault during the day to examine ourselves right away, consider briefly our motive, humble ourselves before God and make a mental note of this fault in order to include it in the examination that evening.”

If we find faults

St. Francis counsels us to see our faults as opportunities for growth: to calmly admit our faults, to replace our trust in God, and to begin again with more fervent resolutions.

If we find no faults

“If in our examination we find no faults, let us humble ourselves profoundly before God and thank him, admitting nevertheless that we have committed some faults about which we have neither recollection nor awareness.”

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On Retiring: Practicing Detachment

St. Francis de Sales even sees bedtime as an opportunity for spiritual growth, as “a way to practice abandonment to the divine goodness of God’s providence” (117). He counsels us to be spiritually attentive during this time through 2 vivid images:

1st – “In bed, we ought to remember that Our Lord and some saints used to sleep on the cold ground, and how much we are obliged to love and serve Him, since His gentle goodness provides for our slightest comforts in such a fatherly way.” Goal = gratitude.

2nd – “Lying there, we should picture to ourselves that one day we will be like this in the grave and ask God to assist us at the hour of death. Let us act as if we were seeing Our Lord with our own eyes, for he really sees us in this action as well as in any other.” Goal = abandonment.

Waking up during the night can even be spiritually profitable

“If we awaken during the night, we will stir up our heart immediately with these words: At midnight someone shouted: The groom is here! Come out and greet him” (Mt 25:6).” In addition to this, we can reflect on the darkness around us to intercede for sinners.

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PART 3: SACRED MOMENTS

In addition to sanctifying the ordinary events of life, St. Francis de Sales also counsels us to take advantage of specifically religious activities that make it possible to encounter God in a more direct way.

Prayer: Communing with the Divine

Out of all the various forms of prayer, St. Francis strongly encourages meditation, that is, an “inspired imagining” and prayerful attentiveness of the mind and heart to God’s presence.

Although method is secondary, St. Francis does provide the following tips:

First, become aware of God’s presence: St. Francis recommends that we become intentionally aware of God’s presence by one of four means: (1) Recall that God is everywhere; (2) Recall that God is present within us; (3) Consider Christ’s gaze from heaven; (4) Picture Christ near you.

Second, invoke God’s help. Have confidence that God will speak to you.

Third, imagine. Use your imagination to focus on a particular place or action or scene in which God acts. This is most easily accomplished by carefully reading a biblical story and picturing ourselves as being present in it. Engage your senses. Enter into the event.

Fourth, consideration. We allow the Spirit to guide us from thought to feeling to action. Consider what is going on, who is involved, what you hear, what you think, etc.

Fifth, affection. Consideration is intended to excite in us a sense of the holy, an affection in our hearts that inspires us in a sacred way.

Sixth, resolution. This final step is essential to Salesian spirituality. You must decide to act in a specific way that aligns your life with the divine mystery about which you have just prayed. Ultimately, what is key is that we stir the affections that lead to carrying out concrete resolutions. To ensure we carry out our resolution, St. Francis recommends that we make frequent aspirations throughout the day and also gather together a spiritual bouquet from your meditation, in which we can recall and reactivate the affections by which we commune with God.

“From all this, as I have already advised, gather a little nosegay of devotion; for as those who walk in a beautiful garden do not willingly depart from it without gathering a few flowers to smell during the whole day, even so ought we, when our spirit has entertained itself by meditating on some mystery, to select one, two, or three of those points which we most relish, and which are most proper for our advancement, in order to think frequently on them, and to smell them, as it were, spiritually during the course of the day. This is to be done in the same place where we have been meditating, or whilst walking in solitude for some time after” (Introduction, 56).

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Living the “Little Virtues”

Since Salesian spirituality focuses on sanctifying the ordinary things of life, it rightly emphasizes the practice of the “little virtues”, that is, those virtues that align with our daily routines and tasks and situations. In particular, St. Francis recommends that we practice:

Humility: We honestly embrace what is true about ourselves in both our positive and negative realities as we stand in relation to God.

Gentleness: We accept what is true about others. Gentleness is the social counterpart and the logical consequence to humility since it invites us to be honest about, and accepting of, others. The more we embrace the truth that we are not imperfect, the less we will expect or demand that others be perfect toward us.

Simplicity: We present ourselves and others in an honest and truthful light. Simplicity combines humility and gentleness as “an approach to ourselves, to others, and to life in general that is forthright, plain dealing, and otherwise free from pretense” (150).

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Confession and the Grace of Reconciliation

St. Francis de Sales sees Confession as a direct opportunity to experience divine compassion since its salutary power “renders a man infinitely more honorable than sin renders him blamable.”

In order to prepare well for this sacred moment, St. Francis first recommends:

“In the spirit of deep humility at the feet of our crucified Lord, we will ask for the grace and light of the Holy Spirit to discern our faults well.”

With the excitement of our affections, we add a cognitional preparation in order to see our sins from God’s perspective.

“We should recall everything we have found in our daily examinations since our previous confession and consider for a moment if there is anything else.”

“After this, let us humbly ask Our lord for pardon and for the grace to correct ourselves. For this purpose we will make a firm resolution, especially concerning the more important things we have noticed.”

Next we will respond with an effective renunciation and an affective sorrow.

“We will renounce our faults and attempt to stir up true sorrow for them, however slight they may be, because it is always too great an evil to have been displeasing to the sovereign goodness of our Savior who is so merciful to us each day.”

Finally, we make one more final preparatory step as a way to remind us that imperfection accompanies us throughout this life.

“Having noticed our current faults, we should add something from the past which is clearly sinful and make an act of contrition for all these together.”

Now we can approach confession:

“Then we will go humbly to our confessor honoring God and the sacred priesthood in the person of the priest. We ought to look upon him in confession as an angel whom God sends to reconcile us to his divine goodness.”

The priest serves an “angelic” role in Confession. Just as angels communicate divine messages from God, so the priest conveys divine mercy in human words that we are able to hear and understand.

While confessing our sins, St. Francis recommends:

“Let us be brief and clear in our confession. Let us never confess out of routine or scrupulosity, but rather out of devotion and attention as in an action of great importance and value… Do not make mere pointless accusations as many do in a routine way, such as: I have not loved God as much as I should… The reason is that when you say such things you say nothing definite to help your confessor know your state of conscience. Every saint in heaven and every man on earth might say the same thing if they went to confession.”

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Mass and the Grace of Encounter

St. Francis de Sales considered Mass to be the most important of all sacred moments and Holy Communion to be the greatest means of growing in the devout life.

“[The Mass is] the sun of all spiritual exercises – the most holy, sacred, and supremely sovereign sacrament and sacrifice of the Mass, centre of the Christian religion, heart of devotion, and soul of piety, the ineffable mystery that comprises within itself the deepest depths of divine charity, the mystery in which God really gives himself and gloriously communicates his graces and favours to us” (Introduction, 92).

St. Francis’ approach to Mass is eminently practical by way of considerations, affections, and resolutions. He calls us to engage our minds and hearts through fully conscious and active participation.

All of our physical actions should be accompanied by spiritual aspirations.We should continually place ourselves in God’s presence. We should always intend the words we say rightly and fully. We should listen attentively in the Liturgy of the Word and prayerfully appropriate the Gospel message.

“At the Gospel, we will rise promptly to give witness to the fact that we are ready to walk in the way of its precepts, saying interiorly: Jesus Christ was made obedient to death, even to death on the cross (Phil 2:8)

Throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we should unite ourselves to the priest in his action and words. As we prepare for Communion, St. Francis recommends:

“To prepare ourselves better for this union, it would be good in our prayer and recollection to raise our thoughts somewhat to Our Lord in this sacrament. We should stir up in our soul a holy reverence and spiritual joy that we should be so blessed as to receive our gentle Saviour. Then we ought to renew our decision to serve Him fervently. When we have received Him, we can reaffirm this decision by a good and holy resolution.”

Once we receive Our Lord, we should stir our hearts to a variety of holy affections, such as:

“Love: My lover belongs to me and I to him; he will rest in my heart; I have found him whom my heart loves. I will not let him go (Song of Songs 2:16; 1:13; 3:4)”. 

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