Our reflections on St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life now enter the home stretch. The fifth and final part of the Introduction focuses appropriately on "Exercises and Instructions for Renewing the Soul and Confirming it in Devotion."
That is, we have spent the last 21 weeks learning the basics on loving God; how can we ensure that those lessons stay with us?
As he so often does, Francis makes his point by drawing an analogy with the world of nature. "The flesh rests heavily on the soul," he writes, "and constantly drags it downward unless the soul lifts itself up by fervent resolutions, just as birds soon fall to the ground unless they beat their wings again and again to keep themselves in the air."
Don't we all know this? Our seasons of prayer and self-examination blow hot and cold. Our worldly cares, busy-ness and sheer laziness distract us from that which is most important - our devotion to the Trinitarian God.
In fact, this is not unique to the spiritual life. Management guru Stephen Covey urges us to divide our activities into four quadrants - those which are urgent and important; the urgent and unimportant; those not urgent and not important; and those not urgent but important (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
If you do not deal with those that are urgent and important, you will be hung out to dry. Your boss will fire you.
Amazingly, many people devote huge portions of their lives to activities that are not urgent and not important. Those are the birds who forget to flap their wings and fall to the ground.
Covey, however, says a consistent trait of highly effective people is that they devote a significant part of their time to tasks that are not urgent, but important.
In Part Five of his Introduction, Francis de Sales urges us to do just that – take a good chunk of time every year to focus on what is most important, but not urgent.
It has often been recommended that every Christian make an annual spiritual retreat. This is an excellent recommendation. However, Francis wrote his Introduction for lay people and he was savvy enough to know that many lay people are just not able to escape their family and work commitments for an extended period of time.
He divides up this annual time of reflection into three sections and recommends that we carry it out around the time of the Baptism of the Lord in early January. (By a quirk in the liturgical calendar, this feast is not celebrated in 2012.)
In the first section, Francis recommends doing three things. First, you should renounce mortal sin forever. Second, consecrate your whole life - soul, heart, body and all their faculties - to the service of the Lord. Third, resolve that if you commit any evil deed, you will rise up immediately with the help of God's grace.
The second section, Francis suggests that one divide over the course of two to three days, "dedicating as much time to it on each day and night as you conveniently can." However, if it takes more than three days to carry out, it will lose its force.
This section of the reflection period is quite detailed and if you want to implement it, you need to buy or borrow the book. In general, the lover of God who carries out the reflection will focus on his or her responsibilities to God, self and neighbour as well as on how one is affected by his or her passions or desires.
On this last point, one would ask oneself, "What affections have entangled our heart? What passions possess it? How has it especially gone astray?"
This is something much deeper than we typically do in an examination of conscience prior to receiving the sacrament of Penance. There, we are trying to do an inventory of our sins. Here, we are trying to unearth the roots of sin so that we can be rid of those habits and inclinations that lead us to be alienated from God, other people and even ourselves.
The third section of this annual review will take about a week to complete. It is a time of detailed and intense resolution to carry out our good plans. Next week's article will discuss that section.
This examination and renewal of the soul is serious business. Dabblers in "spirituality" will find it onerous. Yet, if we want to (slowly) overcome the tendency of "the flesh" to drag down the soul, we need to engage this or a similar process again and again. It may not seem urgent, but it is surely important.