I just completed reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of writers.) This is by all accounts a spiritual classic. Originally written in 1609, it was unique in that it was directed to the laity at a time when most felt serious spiritual work was the domain of priests and religious. He does not profess to be a spiritual master, but rather one on the journey as well, claiming that "the office of teaching serves as a foundation for learning." As a writer on spirituality myself, I can definitely relate to this. I am far from perfect and there is much I struggle with, but as I read and do research and pray and work out my ideas on paper to share with you, I find that I am learning much as well. Many people went to Francis de Sales for spiritual help. This book grew out of his spiritual care for souls.
Of course, 400 years later, some parts of The Introduction to the Devout Life do seem very anachronistic. He refers to practices and medical procedures we consider primitive today. In many ways, however, humanity has not changed. We still experience the same temptations. We still struggle with the same distractions. We still desire to be close to God.
St. Francis de Sales holds believers to a very high standard, a standard which many would no doubt deem unattainable or unrealistic. But Jesus was the first one to set that standard: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." The truth is that none of us are perfect, and de Sales acknowledges that. We will always struggle with venial sin. The point is that we should be trying to be perfect. It is a journey and a struggle, but we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When we stumble, we need to get up and try again.
I will leave you with some thoughts from "Introduction to the Devout Life" for reflection:
The world vilifies holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen faces and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods . . . the Holy Spirit by the mouths of all the saints and our Lord by his own mouth assure us that a devout life is a life that is sweet, happy, and lovable.
The work of purging the soul neither can nor should end except with our life itself. We must no be disturbed at our own imperfections, since for us perfection consists in fighting against them.
You must not only cease to sin but you must also purify your heart of all affection for sin.
Consider that it is strictly true that you stand between heaven and hell and that each of them lies open to receive you according to the choice you make. . . .God desires you to choose heaven.
Do not hurry along and say many things but try to speak from your heart. A single "Our Father" said with feeling has greater value than many said quickly and hurriedly.
In confession you not only receive absolution from the venial sins you confess but also great strength to avoid them in the future, light to see them clearly, and abundant grace to repair whatever damage you have incurred.
Complain as little as possible about the wrongs you suffer. Undoubtedly, a person who complains commits a sin by doing so, since self-love always feels that injuries are worse than they really are.
Love everyone with a deep love based on charity, but form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you.
A friend who would lead us into sin has become our enemy.
Beware of falsely imputing crimes and sins to your neighbor, revealing his secret sins, exaggerating those that are manifest, putting on an evil interpretation on his good works, denying the good that you know belongs to someone, maliciously concealing it or lessening it by words.
As soon as you are conscious of being tempted . . . turn to God and implore his mercy and help.