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Introduction to the Devout Life

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Introduction to the Devout Life

Preface by Father John McCloskey

You hold in your hands a deluxe edition of the Cor Amoris edition published by Tan Books of one of the greatest spiritual books of all time: Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. I write this preface with great joy as a priest and Church historian who years ago put together a “Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan” that thousands of laypeople have used to grow in holiness in the midst of their busy lives. When I am asked to name my favorite spiritual reading book among the hundred or so on my list, I single out Introduction to the Devout Life.

Who was its author? Francis de Sales (1567-1622) came from an aristocratic French family, studied both law and theology in Paris and Padua, and then practiced law with great success. Over time he discerned a priestly vocation, but not without strong anguish and with various personal conversions. His decision to become a priest provoked strong family opposition that he overcame and he was ordained.

He was a key figure in France’s Counter-Reformation, bringing hundreds of thousands of French and Swiss Calvinists back to the Catholic Church at the risk of his own life. He also co-founded (along with one of his spiritual directees, St. Jane Frances de Chantal) an order of nuns, the Order of the Visitation, where his spirituality can be seen lived most intensely up to the present.

After serving as bishop of Geneva, he died on December 28, 1622 and was canonized in 1665. His prolific writings and powerful preaching led the Church to name him the patron saint of authors and journalists (hence my own personal devotion). Readers wishing to know more about his life and works can spend some time with the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia (available online) or search out a sound (probably out of print) biography of his fascinating life.

What makes Introduction to the Devout Life of such continuing and compelling interest? Well, it has been said that the definition of a classic book is one that has never gone out of print. And that is the case with the Introduction. It achieved immediate popularity throughout the European world with those Catholics (and not a few Protestants who read edited versions) thirsting for help in nurturing religious devotion and virtue in the midst of a sinful world.

St. Francis bypassed common practice by directly addressing the layperson who lives in the world. Up to his time, spiritual books were generally written for professed religious or priests, since they were considered to have a higher calling to holiness than the baptized layperson. The Church never denied, of course, that laypeople could be saved, but the general assumption was that canonizable sanctity, except in the case of martyrdom, was unlikely to be within their grasp.

St. Francis, on the other hand, addresses all Christians in any state of life. The book in fact began as a series of letters to an ambassador’s wife seeking to grow in holiness in the midst of her daily duties. The letters are turned in chapters that gradually lead the reader, addressed by St. Francis as Philothea, up the steep incline towards holiness. The means he advises are of course nothing new: prayer, reading of Scripture, frequenting the sacraments, self-denial, etc. However, what is new is the Saint’s concrete advice on how to behave in the midst of an alluring world. What is most attractive to me and most Christlike in the saint is his plentiful use of metaphors drawn from nature—animals, flowers, weather, etc.—that recall Our Lord’s use of parables to proclaim the kingdom.

We could call the book a preached retreat or a year’s worth of practical spiritual advice from a director to his directee. In any case, the advice is given with love and gentleness and great attractiveness, as you will see when you pick it up for your own spiritual reading.

I would like to emphasize the historical achievement of this book. De Sales’ teachings are an important historical step in the rediscovery of the universal call for holiness that was the principal teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This realization that the layperson too is called to be a saint may take some decades before it is fully understood by Catholics and acted upon, but when that takes place, it may work a revolution in the world as great as that of the anonymous first Christians did in their time.

St. Francis de Sales’ trailblazing attentiveness to the spiritual needs and potential of laypeople was succeeded in later centuries by such great spiritual writers and founders as Bl. John Henry Newman of the Oratory and St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei who in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council coupled the universal call to holiness with the universal call to be apostles and evangelizers in everyday life.


 
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