Charity has no limit; for the Love of God has been poured into our hearts by His spirit dwelling in each one of us, calling us to a life of DEVOTION and inviting us to bloom in the garden where he has planted and directing us to radiate the beauty and spread the fragrance of his Providence. This was the message St. Francis de Sales proclaimed in his time and this is the essence of Salesian spirituality. For some it is a “Spirituality of the Heart”. The salient features of Salesian spirituality are the following:
The Primacy of Love
Saint Francis of Sales has been considered to have effected “a true revolution” in asceticism and spirituality. Before him Saint Jerome, for example, seems to make chastity the basis of his asceticism; Francis of Assisi chooses poverty; Saint Bernard, mortification; Saint Benedict, zeal for the liturgy. Penance was to many older authors what love was to Francis, and penance to Francis had value only in so far as it enables us to grow in charity. Francis insists on interior conversion before undertaking exterior practices.
Salesian spirituality finds its origin in Love. Beginning with Saint Paul, many saints (Saint Augustine, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, …) have based their spirituality on love. Saint Francis of Sales summed up their experiences and added his own. He established a coordinated doctrine, an architecture of spiritual life founded on love. For him, love is not merely an ideal towards which we strive, it is the principle and source of this ideal, and as he is to say in another connection, “in it are contained all virtues”. Love that protects us from evil is also the strength that leads to perfection and to heroism.
To love God who loves us is, for Saint Francis, the goal of perfection and the way that leads to this goal is Love. “All is for love, in love, to love and of love in the holy Church”, he declares in the first pages of his Treatise on Divine Love.’ God who made man in his own image and likeness, wants him, after the example of Christ to find in love the motive and mainspring of all he does.
Rather than practice virtue in order to attain love, Francis insists that it is charity that leads to virtue. To prescribe virtues to a soul without love seems to him like prescribing athletics to one too weak to exercise. He was convinced that love naturally begets virtue and without love all virtue is weak.
This does not mean that the soul renounces the deliberate pursuit of special virtues, nor that it postpones this pursuit. The cultivation of virtues parallels the cultivation of love. “Charity does not come to a soul and there take residence”, said the Saint, “unless it is accompanied by the other virtues’. In this way all the virtues are linked with love, they develop together and they act together. To practice a virtue through love is virtually to practice all the virtues, “He who observes a commandment out of true love of God is ready to observe all the other commandments when the opportunity presents itself.
To this doctrine of love-as-a-source there is a corollary, namely that an act of virtue is, so to speak, of no worth by itself but it draws all its merit from the motive of love which inspired it. In the scale of spiritual values, love determines the value of our acts; and love means conformity with God’s will.
Holiness, then is neither an automatic product of Divine Love infused from the exterior, nor is it a mere end-result of human efforts. It is a combination of God’s free gift and of man’s response in true freedom.
Universal Call to Holiness (devotion) and Personalized Response (Virtue)
The opinion prevalent till the Salesian era was that devotion, in the strict meaning of the word, could be practiced only by specialists and that it was to be sought only in monasteries and the cloister.
For Francis, however, holiness consists in doing what God wants us to do wherever we may be, in the state in which he has placed me and by following the vocation to which he has called me. It follows then, that no change of life is needed and holiness no longer is the exclusive privilege of cloister or desert. He wrote: “It is an error, therefore a heresy, to want to banish a life of holiness from the company of military men, from the workman’s shop… from the home of married people.”
It is one of his principal contributions to the history of spirituality to have restored forever this important idea that holiness is connected with the lowly and loving daily practice of the duties of our state, which naturally is different for each one, and determines a different hierarchy of virtues for each one. As he expressed it: “Every vocation requires the practice of some special virtue. The virtues of a prelate differ from those of a prince or a soldier The virtues of a married woman from those of a widow.”
This means that we must allow life to act on us, that we must submit to circumstances of time, of place, of people through which God’s will is usually made known to us. That an act performed under obedience to God’s will is usually more perfect than an act performed through personal inclination and choice. Therefore, St. Francis de Sales exhorts “ask for nothing and refuse nothing” and concludes “in this practice is to be found our whole perfection.”
However, Salesian detachment should not be equated with fatalism; to do God’s good pleasure is not to cease to will but it is to will as God wills, that is to say, this usually means to will twice because so often we must will what is contrary to our instincts, which, in fact, destroy our true liberty. God’s grace is powerful – not to compel the heart but to allure it; grace is vehement – not to outrage our liberty but to replenish it with love; grace is intensively active but supremely gentle – careful not to override the will; grace exerts influence on us without suppressing our freedom. God leaves the human person free to receive his gift of love and desires that he responds freely to this love.
In laying down the principle that perfection means love, and that love means the accomplishment of the divine will as made known to us through the duties of our state. Saint Francis of Sales advanced directly toward that ideal of Christian humanism, whereby man gives to intellect, heart and body all culture compatible with evangelical morality.
Prayer – means of Union with God and Neighbour
If devotion is true holiness founded on the love of God – charity – the instrument for growing in God’s love and radiating it in our daily lives is through prayer which will enable us to fulfil the duties of our vocation meaningfully to our personal fulfillment and to reach out to our neighbour in response to the Lord’s command, by the growth of virtue and the reduction of vice. The method propounded by St. Francis seeks to link action with contemplation in a mutually reinforcing circle.
While Francis acknowledged the sanctifying power of the divine Office, he considered meditation a complementary exercise to make one receptive to the beautiful ideas of the liturgy.
Accordingly, mental prayer [meditation) occupies a privileged position in Salesian spirituality. The method taught by the saint is as simple as it is practical “The Latin meaning of ‘to meditate’ is ‘to chew’. The only difference is that the word ‘chew’ is used for corporal things and ‘meditate’ for spiritual things. To eat meat, it must be placed in the month, chewed and swallowed; so for spiritual eating the meal that nourishes the soul must be chewed, that is, meditated so that it can be swallowed and changed into one’s self. To meditate well is a very important thing.”
Salesian meditation is composed of four sharply defined parts: an introductory part – placing oneself in the presence of God; an intellectual part, where imagination and memory dwells on the word of God; which leads us to the affective part that disposes us to savour the action of God in us and moves us to form resolutions which will produce acts conformed to the idea or the virtue on which we have meditated. These affections and resolutions are the objectives of mental prayer.
If Saint Francis de Sales considers mental prayer to be the best way to cultivate love, he attaches great value to two other forms of prayer: ejaculatory prayer and vocal prayer.
Ejaculatory prayer is a brief cry of the heart, that prolongs and extends the fruitful influence of the principal prayer over our whole life. He considers these cries as irrigating canals that flow from the mighty river and carry its waters into all our daily activities. The value of Ejaculatory prayer is that it lies within the ordinary person’s reach and constitute not only a supplementary exercise for those who were not able to meditate but also a substitute for those who do not know how to make “the other kind of great prayer.” He emphatically states: ejaculatory prayer can be substituted for the others but the others can never be substituted for it.
While we find trends against the practice of the traditional recitation of the Our father, Hail Mary, etc.. St. Francis considered vocal prayer to be “the usual and necessary prayer of all the faithful”, and remained faithful to the daily recitation of the Rosary.
Regarding Sacramental devotion, specifically the Confession and the reception of Holy Communion St. Francis is considered to be in the vanguard of the movement that brings Christians to these two sources of life. At a time when – owing to the emphasis on man’s corrupt nature was predominant – frequent (leave alone daily) communion was not encouraged. St. Francis De Sales has no hesitation in recommending Holy Communion both to the strong so that they may not become weak, as also to the weak so that they may become strong. But to be efficacious this eucharistic food must be taken with good appetite, that is with attention and with affection.
As to the sacrament of Finance, Francis considers that confession followed by absolution is indeed the cleansing act that effaces the past, but that it is more especially ‘light” and “strength” for the future.
In this way Confession and Communion, vocal prayer and the examination of conscience, like the whole spiritual life must tend to become, according to Saint Francis of Sales, a perpetual interior prayer. The effort of the heart to be united in love to the God of Love must never come to an end.
In conclusion it might be said that two significant elements in salesian spirituality are the following: a struggle against self-love, and secondly, union of our wills with God. The means to come out victorious are penance and love. Francis de Sales emphasizes the primacy of love, without overlooking the need for mortification; penance, however, should be practised from a motive of love. He advocates mortification of the senses, but this should be proceeded by mortification of the mind, the will and the heart. This interior mortification should be sustained and always accompanied by love. The end to be realized is a life of loving, simple, generous, and constant fidelity to the will of God, which is nothing else than our present duty. The model proposed is Christ, whom we must ever keep before our eyes.
Francis de Sales “humanized” virtue, clothing it with charm, making it loved by all. He teaches us to observe the social conventions which he calls one of the charming effects of virtuous living, not to destroy our natural inclinations but to conquer them so that little by little without too much effort, like the dove, if by chance there has not been granted us the strength of the eagle, we may raise ourselves even to heaven itself. What the Saint means by this metaphor is that if we are not called to an extraordinary personal perfection, nevertheless we can attain holiness by sanctifying the actions of everyday life. (cf. Rerum Omnium, Pius XI, 14).
Wholeness is the very heart of Salesian Spirituality, in which there are no polarities between the human and the divine (cf. “I am nothing if I am not human”). According to St. Francis, a peaceful anxiety-free approach to life, simplicity and joy are the outcome of an integrated personality. (Taken from Salesian Spirituality-A Souce Book, by Fr. Noel Rebello msfs)