You know what should be against the law? Having to deal with insomnia while you have a newborn. Last night I woke to feed the baby around 3:30 AM, and she went right back to sleep. I, however, did not. I would describe what went through my head as I lay awake glaring at the ceiling, but Simcha Fisher did it for me. That’s what it was like — complete with distress about rhubarb.
Anyway, after a couple hours of the baby sleeping soundly while I engaged in the downward spiral of “I can’t sleep!” –> “I’m so mad that I can’t sleep!” –> “Now I really can’t sleep because I’m too mad to sleep!”, I finally drifted off. And ten minutes later my three-year-old appeared at my bedside demanding breakfast and a morning cartoon. I got up, shuffled behind her, taking note of everything I hated as we went through the house. I got her a stupid granola bar and some stupid milk, flopped down on the couch, and proceeded to systematically ponder everything that’s bad about my life, followed by some ruminations on all the ways that today would undoubtedly be a terrible day.
Let me just tell you, it’s not the most pleasant way to greet the morning. So I thought that for today’s post I’d do another installment of our year with St. Francis de Sales, this time where he offers four practical tips for how to not be a grouchy troll like me. I think I need to print this one out and tape it to my bathroom mirror, with a large note at the top that says “SHUT UP AND DO THIS:”
St. Francis de Sales’ Four Tips for
Starting Your Day the Right Way
1. Give thanks
Adore God profoundly and thank him for the grace of preserving you during the preceding night, and implore his pardon if you committed any sin during the course of it.
2. Recall the goal
Remember that the present day is given to you in order to gain the future day of eternity, and make a firm purpose to employ the day well for this intention.
3. Make a plan
Anticipate what tasks, transactions, and occasions for serving God you may meet on this day and to what temptations of offending him you will be exposed, whether by anger, vanity or some other irregularity. By a holy resolution prepare yourself to make the best use of the means that will be offered to you to serve God and advance in devotion. On the other hand, carefully prepare to avoid, resist and overcome whatever may be encountered that is opposed to your salvation and God’s glory.
It is not sufficient simply to make this resolution; you must also prepare means of putting it into practice. For example, if I foresee that I will have to discuss some matter with a man who is emotional and prone to anger, I will not only resolve to keep from giving him offense but I will think of pleasant words to prevent his anger or get the assistance of someone who can keep him in good humor. If I foresee an opportunity to visit a sick person I will arrange the time and the comforts and helps I can bring to him. So also for the rest of such things.
4. Ask God for help
This done, humble yourself in the presence of God and acknowledge that by yourself you can do none of the the things you have decided on, whether of avoiding evil or of doing good. As though holding your heart in your hands, offer it along with all your good purposes to his Divine Majesty, beseeching him to take it under his protection and strengthen it so that it may turn out successfully in his service. Do this by such unspoken words as the following or their like: “Lord, here is this wretched heart of mine, which through your goodness has conceived of many good affections. Alas, it is too weak and miserable to do the good that it desires to do unless you impart your heavenly blessing. For the purpose I humbly beg your blessing, O merciful Father, through the merits of the passion of your Son, in whose honor I consecrate this day and all the remaining days of my life.” Invoke our Lady, your guardian angel, and the saints that they may assist you in this effect.
All these spiritual acts must be made briefly and fervently and if possible before leaving your room, so that by means of this exercise, whatever you do throughout the day may be watered by God’s blessing. I beg you never to omit this exercise.
[Subtitles and emphasis mine.]
There you go! Four tips for getting the day off to the best start from a Doctor of the Church. Now, if anyone needs me, I’m going to go see if I can interest my children in the Watch Mommy Take a Nap game.
As part of our year with St. Francis de Sales, I wanted to excerpt the section from Introduction to the Devout Life where he offers four practical tips for putting yourself in God’s presence. This is an extremely important first step of prayer, he explains, since all too often we pray as if God were off in the far distance somewhere. With Lent approaching, I thought this might be a good section to cover since many of us are thinking about how we can improve our prayer lives. (All the text below is directly quoted from the book.)
St. Francis de Sales’ four steps for putting yourself in the presence of God
1. [Cultivate] a lively, attentive realization of God’s absolute presence, that is, that God is in all things and all places. There is no place or thing in this world where he in not truly present…Blind men do not see a prince who is present among them, and therefore do not show him the respect they do after being told of his presence. However, because they do not actually see him they easily forget his presence, and haven forgotten it, they still more easily lose the respect and reverence owed to him. Unfortunately, Philothea, we do not see God who is present with us. Although faith assures us of his presence, because we do not see him with our eyes we often forget about him and behave as if God were far distance from us…This is why before praying we must always arouse our souls to explicit thought and consideration of God’s presence…When you prepare to pray you must say with your whole heart and in your heart, “O my heart, my heart, God is truly here!”
2. Remember that God is not only in the place where you are but also that he is present in a most particular manner in your heart and in the very center of your spirit. He enlivens and animates it by his divine presence, for he is there as the heart of your heart and the spirit of your spirit. Just as the soul is diffused throughout the entire body and is therefore present in every part of the body but resides in a special manner in the heart, so also God is present in all things but always resides in a special manner in our spirit. For this reason David calls him “the God of his heart,” and St. Paul says that “we live, and move, and are in God.” Therefore in consideration of this truth excite in your heart great reverence toward God who is so intimately present in us.
3. Consider how our Savior in his humanity gazes down from heaven on all mankind and particularly on Christians, who are his children, and most especially on those who are at prayer, whose actions and conduct he observes. This is by no means a mere figment of the imagination but the very truth. Although we do not see him, it remains true that from on high he beholds us.
4. The fourth method consists in the use of simple imagination when we represent to ourselves the Savior in his sacred humanity as if he were near us, just as we sometimes imagine a friend to be present and say, “I imagine that I see such a one who is doing this or that,” or “I seem to see him” or something similar. If the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is present, the Christ’s presence is real and not purely imaginary. The species and appearance of bread and like a tapestry behind which our Lord is really present and sees and observes us, although we do not see him in his own form.
Do not use [these techniques] all at once, but only one at a time and that briefly and simply.
I am definitely guilty of praying as if God were “out there” somewhere. I think that putting these suggestions will really help me gain more intimacy with the Lord in my prayer life. I hope it’s the same for you!
For my first post for our year with Francis de Sales, I was drawn to a section at the beginning of Introduction to the Devout Life. Addressing the reader as Philothea, which refers to “a soul in love with God,” he discusses venial, i.e. “small” sins.
We don’t need to freak out about relatively minor sins; if you snicker at an inappropriate joke on television, it’s not the end of the world. However. Francis points out that there is a danger in getting attached to these small sins. If we adopt an attitude of “Aw, that’s not a big deal — in fact, it’s kina fun!” and indulge this kind of behavior repeatedly, the results can be dire. He points out that all sin hurts God, and therefore affection we have for venial sin is therefore an affection for hurting God. Which is not a good thing. He writes:
Venial sins that enter into a devout soul but do not stay there long do it no great damage, but if those same sins remain in the soul because of some affection it has for them, they undoubtedly cause it to lose “the sweetness of its ointment,” that is, holy devotion.
He goes on to use a great analogy. Borrowing from the 16th-century folk wisdom (which may not be scientifically accurate) about the effects of spiders on honey, he says:
Spiders do not kill bees but spoil and corrupt their honey and tangle the honeycombs with their webs so that the bees cannot do their work. This must be understood of times when the spiders stay among them. In like manner, venial sins do not kill the soul but spoil its devotion and so entangle its powers in bad habits. [...]
Philothea, it is not a matter of any great moment to tell a little lie or to fall into some slight irregularity in words, actions, looks, dress, jokes, games, or dances, provided that as soon as these spiritual spiders have entered our conscience we chase them away and banish them, as flies do real spiders. If we let them remain in our hearts, if we permit our desires to retain and multiply them, we shall soon find our honey ruined and the hive that is our conscience corrupted and ruined.
Here’s what I thought was interesting about this: When I’m struggling with a serious sin, I tend to focus on it and nothing else. My other, smaller, sins seem unimportant in comparison, so I basically ignore them. But a lightbulb that went off for me after reading this excerpt. I realized that I’d instituted a vicious cycle that was dragging me down spiritually: by ignoring the small sins in the name of focusing on the bigger ones, I was letting spiders into my honeycomb, so to speak. Though they weren’t bad enough to kill my soul, they were making a huge mess of it, just as I was trying to get spiritually healthy. They were fueling the negative desires that were behind the bigger sins.
As with all of Francis’ advice, it’s aimed at loving God with all your heart. As he pointed out in the first excerpt, to snicker at any sin is to snicker at an insult to God. So when I catch myself giving myself a pass — or even smiling in tacit approval — at some “little” sin, I often think of Francis’ words. If I want to conquer big sins, or even just live the full, rich life that God designed me to live, I’m not going to be able to do it until I banish the “spiders” of my soul.