The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The universal call to holiness

“God commands Christians, the living plants of his Church,
to bring forth the fruits of devotion,
each according to his or her position and vocation.”

St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales

It goes without saying that as monks, we receive many individual prayer requests from a good number of people. Praying for someone is something we are happy to do, and prayer is something we take very seriously. It is at the very heart of our lives.

However, in many cases, the person making such a request of me will follow it up with a remark somewhere along the lines of: "You're closer to God than I am."

I never know how to respond to such a comment, so I usually say nothing. In my heart, however, are two persistent thoughts: "I certainly hope not!" and, "That's funny. I was thinking the same thing about you!"

Each and every one of us--monk or not--has the need for, right to, and obligation of fostering a personal relationship with God rooted in prayer, which is simply conversation with our Creator. We are all called to such a relationship, though we are each called in different ways. My call is as a monk. Yours is as a _______ (fill in the blank). This is the universal call to holiness espoused by the Second Vatican Council. But the concept didn't originate there. It goes back to God's creation of humanity.

Nearly 400 years before Vatican II, St. Francis de Sales, the saint whose name I received upon my first monastic profession, enunciated this vision in a particularly unique and straightforward manner in a book that is still a spiritual classic today: Introduction to the Devout Life. All people, he said, are called to holiness, and can (must) carry out lives of devotion according to each person's individual position and state in life (married, widowed, laborer, businessperson, etc.). 

This universal truth greatly appeals to me, and is one the world needs to rediscover on many levels. In my opinion, the call to holiness is something many of us are simply afraid to claim as our own. This is one of the reasons I was so inclined to take the name Francis de Sales.

I am currently researching my thesis as the final step toward receiving a Masters in Theological Studies degree (God willing) in the spring. A number of people have asked me what I am writing about. Though I don't pretend that everyone is interested in such academic matters (and I certainly don't plan on posting my finished thesis here), I thought I would at least post below the brief project proposal as I submitted it. Yes, the topic is St. Francis de Sales and the universal call to holiness as expressed in his Introduction to the Devout Life, and with a comparison to Vatican II's Lumen Gentium.

Needless to say, I have a lot of reading and writing to do in the next few months. In the process, I hope to learn more about the thought of my patron saint, for whom I possess a great deal of devotion, and with whom I experience a deep connection in so many ways. Although I am quite familar with much of his life (1567-1602) in the French-Swiss border region as a bishop, spiritual director, and writer, and have read many of his works, I am somewhat embarrassed to acknowledge that I've never read Introduction to the Devout Life cover to cover. I am currently addressing that deficiency. In addition, I hope to find in his words a way to re-articulate his vision through my own prayer and work as a monk of Saint Meinrad in the 21st Century. I've certainly read enough of him to know how relevant he is for our age.

So, those are my goals these next few months. Please pray for me. You may be closer to God than I am, you know.

Thesis Proposal

The Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the “universal call to holiness” is an ancient concept, reaching back beyond the budding of Christianity (cf. Lev 11:45; 20:7). It finds its fullest expression in Christ and his Church, which in its entirety, is called to be a sacrament to the world. All God’s people, the lay faithful just as much as clergy and religious, are called by Christ to be holy in the context of their family lives, work, and civic responsibilities, but primarily through who they are—not merely what they do. Like the early Christians, the lay faithful are, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “not called to abandon the world, but to transform it in light of the Kingdom of God.” And they do this by being who they truly are in their everyday lives—People of God.

Unfortunately, through much of the Church’s history this concept has been either distorted or discarded. Today perhaps more than ever, the connection between faith and daily life is under constant threat in our increasingly “fragmented and frenetic society” (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

The lay faithful—indeed all of us—need to rediscover the centrality of Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments and what it means to be holy today, to seek and find the extraordinary through the ordinary, to live as People of God safely borne along the stormy seas of this world.

Nearly 400 years before Vatican II, St. Francis de Sales wrote Introduction to the Devout Life, an “instant best-seller” and popular spiritual guide even today. Writing in the waning shadow of the Middle Ages and in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, de Sales proposed something seemingly revolutionary at the time—a universal call to holiness. At the time he wrote, only clergy and religious were deemed capable or worthy of leading truly holy lives. However, this bishop of Geneva—through Introduction to the Devout Life and his many letters of spiritual direction—recalled the notion that all Christians are called to lives of holiness, and he set about demonstrating how. The New Catholic Encyclopedia calls Introduction to the Devout Life “the first spiritual treatise written specifically for the laity.”

In his preface to the work, de Sales writes: “Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world or have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete retirement. My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances.”

Writing within his own time and circumstances, St. Francis de Sales has something just as important to say to us today about what it means to be holy. His work in many ways prefigures the emphasis that Vatican II and the Church today place on the universal call to holiness. Indeed, Pope Paul VI noted that “no one … more than St. Francis de Sales anticipated the deliberations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council with such a keen and progressive insight” (Sabuadiae Gemma, 1967). It is a message and voice that desperately needs to be heard in this age, in which the separation of faith and daily life is sometimes honored as virtue.

For my Master of Theological Studies degree concluding exercise, I propose writing an analysis of Introduction to the Devout Life in light of Lumen Gentium, and other post-conciliar documents and papal exhortations, addresses, and letters. I propose not to delve so much into the history of the development of the concept of the universal call to holiness, but rather, what St. Francis de Sales specifically has to say about it in this work, and to examine its ramifications for today’s lay faithful. In other words, what spiritual guidance is St. Francis de Sales offering the lay faithful—in his time, and in ours? How does Introduction to the Devout Life, written long before Vatican II, apply to the Church’s renewed emphasis on the “universal call to holiness?”  How does St. Francis de Sales say that all are called to “the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity?”

“All Christians in any state or walk of life
are called to the fullness of Christian life
and to the perfection of charity.”

Lumen Gentium 40

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