Tuesday, January 24, 2012

St. Francis de Sales, Your Time Has Come

Whenever I plan for vacation, I make a big deal about what books to take with me. For an upcoming trip to Florida, I’m taking A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s long series of short novels that follows four British schoolmates over much of the 20th century—which I have started twice but not finished. Now, after reading an excerpt in this morning’s office, I am also taking Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life. 

Where reading is concerned, my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach, and I am biting off more than I can likely chew where the Powell is concerned. Katie will want to play tennis, and go to a movie and out for dinner once or twice, and walk on the beach—thus disturbing my ideal vacation routine of R&N&R, read-nap-repeat. But I think I can make enough headway on the 12-volume series that by the time I get home I will feel obliged to finish it. It’s only 3,000 pages.

Introduction to the Devout Life is a whole other kettle of fish. The slender volume of fewer than 300 pages has been glaring at me from my Catholic bookshelf since I bought it at the Carmelite shop at the mall—one of those classics of faith I know I should read but never quite get around to. I notice it eyeing me now and then like the portrait at the top of this post—“Webster … Time is running out, my child.”

Time is running out. I was out walking yesterday and listening—again—to The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, another one of those books I can never seem to finish. I am an equal-opportunity procrastinator where books are concerned—secular or religious, it makes no difference. I have not finished St. Teresa for a different reason than Anthony Powell, however. In her short book on prayer—which likens the human soul to the scriptural house of many mansions—I can never get past the second room, with all those snakes and vipers hissing at my heels. I used to imagine I could be a contemplative, or at least a failed, frustrated monk, but for me the inner life of contemplative prayer remains terra incognita. It is all I can do not to fall asleep at daily Eucharistic Adoration, which conflicts with one of my favorite nap slots, 3:30-4:30 pm.

But St. Francis promises better for the under-achieving Catholic. He all but laughs at the layperson who imagines himself a monk. Each plant, he writes, was meant by its Creator “to bring forth fruit each according to its kind.” So, likewise, the Catholic: “Devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince…”

Finding the proper balance in my life between work time and devotional time is a steady challenge. When I first converted, nearly four years ago, I went nuts. Where Catholicism was concerned, I wanted to do it all: daily Mass, daily Adoration, sing in the choir, serve at the altar, teach religious ed, say the Daily Office from the four-volume breviary, and so on. My friends spent considerable time rolling their eyes.

Now things have settled down, too far maybe. Until I picked it up again last week, I had stopped praying the breviary, for example. It seemed too… extreme. After all, didn’t Benedict say that to be good Catholics we only needed to go to Mass, say a few prayers in the evening—and I can’t remember what the third thing was.

So this morning, I read the wonderful excerpt from St. Francis’s Introduction—and heard again a call to a balanced life if not precisely a devout one:

“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.”

This is the thing. I am not called to be a monk. I am called to be a husband, father, and sometimes writer—especially when “writing for food” makes me a better provider as husband and father. And striking a balance between my lay working life and my solitary prayer life is absolutely necessary. I can’t neglect my working life for another hour of Adoration, or at least I don’t think I should. But neither should I forget the devout life for the everyday. Back and forth, work and pray, read and nap—that is the formula—although of course there is no formula.

The life of a practicing Catholic is a constant balancing act. May St. Francis de Sales hold my hand on the perilous tightrope of my upcoming vacation!

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