Inspiration from St. Francis de Sales for trying times

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Nothing like a good storm – or maybe an earthquake – to focus your attention.

I was heading for the shower on a Monday morning when a huge gust of wind battered the house. Then all went dark, and those consoling, authoritative voices of National Public Radio were silenced. Rats! I hadn’t made my coffee yet.

Out my window, my neighbor in a white terrycloth robe was taking pictures of the swaying trees from her half-open kitchen door. Beyond her, the western sky was ominously dark. It was a “derecho” – a fast-moving windstorm that swept through the Midwest and did millions of dollars of damage.

At our house the storm was quick and harmless, but it took down trees all over town. Our power went on in fifteen minutes. I’d barely taken the hanging baskets down on the porch before the sky turned blue again.
But just as a tsunami warning takes your mind off other worries for a little while, a sudden squall can make you realize how much you take for granted, like NPR and hot coffee.

This week, someone sent me a book called Be Who You Are, The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales in Words and Illuminations. The writer and artist is a Salesian named Brother Mickey McGrath. The book also features short reflections by other Salesians, an order founded in 1859 by St. John Bosco in honor of St. Francis de Sales, who was born in the sixteenth century.

Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and Catholic writers, in part because his writing was his response to the violent times in which he lived. While the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were dividing Europe in bloody warfare, the gentle Francis de Sales determined that the pen was mightier – and more Christian – than the sword, and published pamphlets about the faith which led many people back to Catholicism. Seems like a saint for our violent times.

His classic work is Introduction to the Devout Life.

But trust me, read Be Who You Are first because it will take you half an hour and then you’ll decide to read it again. The illustrations are beautiful and inspiring, turning aphorisms from de Sales into cheerful art. Anyone of them could be used as the text for your morning meditation. And the short reflections add to our understanding of the saint’s spirituality, which centered around his motto: “Live Jesus.”

Some of his sayings we’ve heard often: “God will either shield you from suffering or give you the strength to bear it.” “God is more present to us than we are to ourselves.”

But there are many others: “When you pray, talk to God if you can. If you can’t, just let yourself be seen. Don’t try too hard to do anything else.”

And my personal favorite: “With the exception of sin, anxiety is the worst thing that can happen to a soul.”

Francis de Sales preached mindfulness and living in the present moment. Those terms have become almost cliché now, and yet they’re profound. One suggestion in the book: First thing in the morning, before you make coffee or sit down to meditate, set a timer, close your eyes and center yourself silently in the peace of God for just two minutes. Then begin your day with peace.

The Salesian worldview is, according to this simple book, “one that recognizes the present moment as a privileged place of encounter with God.”

Every day, especially in 2020, brings storms. I’m going to let the wind blow and give those two minutes a try.


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