What Does It Mean to be “Devout”?

Last month I began reading St. Francis De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. Written 400 years ago, it is available in various translations. I am reading the 2015 version published by Ignatius Press (San Francisco) and the Augustine Institute (Greenwood Village, CO). My quotations will be from this edition.

Normally I do not write about a book until I finish it. However, in this case, I am only about two-thirds of the way through the book. It is not a book that you read through in a couple of sittings. It is not meant to be. In fact, it was not originally written to be a book. As St. Francis De Sales tells us in the preface, the content was originally written to guide “a certain soul” (xi) in her seeking “earnestly after a devout life” (xi). It was not written as one work but rather ongoing correspondence. When others learned of the work, they encouraged that it be published for a wide audience. St. Francis De Sales did some editing, adapting it for “the common good of souls” (xi). It remains in the form of correspondence, addressed to a fictitious person.

Written as a series of correspondence, it is not designed to be read like a book. One should read it piece by piece, pausing to reflect upon each chapter. It is suggested to read only one chapter a day.

With this in my mind, along with a busy schedule, it is taking me a while to read the “book.” So, I have decided to begin writing about what is in the beginning of the book without having finished the whole book.

In writing the book, St. Francis De Sales speaks of his role as a bishop to help his people grow in faith. He made this work available for this very purpose. However, he does not profess to be a perfect expert on the devout life. He writes, “One thing more, dear reader. It is too true that I who write about the devout life am not myself devout, but most certainly I am not without the wish to become so, and it is this wish that encourages me to teach you. A notable literary man has said that a good way to learn is to study, a better to listen, and the best to teach. And Saint Augustine, writing to the devout Flora, says, that giving is a claim to receive, and teaching a way to learn” (xiii). This is not to say that if you want to learn, the first thing you should do is get a job teaching. We need to study to establish a foundation. However, we grow in faith by learning to share it with others. Do not be afraid to talk to others about your faith.

So, what does it mean to be devout? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Android App (accessed 11/15/22) defines “devout” as “committed or devoted to religion or to religious duties or exercises.” Are you “devout” are you? How committed are you to living your faith?

St. Francis De Sales speaks of the man who puts great value in fasting while “his heart is full of bitterness” (1). What good is his fasting if he remains bitter? St Francis De Sales continues, speaking of the man who “repeats many prayers daily” but is “angry, irritating, conceited or insulting” (1). If we are to be devout, we need to allow ourselves to be transformed by our faith. As today’s first reading (Tuesday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time Year II) from Revelation says, it is not enough to be lukewarm in our faith. If we are to be faithful, we must strive to be fully transformed by our faith.

St. Francis De Sales then speaks of “love” and “devotion.” We know that Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to “love our neighbor.” St. Francis De Sales speaks of first love and then growing to devotion. This is new to me. He writes, “And therefore we cannot call him who neglects to observe all God’s Commandments either good or devout, because in order to be good, a man must be filled with love, and to be devout, he must further be very ready and apt to performs the deeds of love” (2). I think what he is telling us in the first chapter is that to fully live out our faith, it begins in receiving the love of God and becomes devout when we truly live our faith and share that love with others (see 2-3).

St. Francis De Sales writes in chapter 2, “It is just so, my child, that the world runs down true devotion, painting devote people with gloomy, melancholy aspect, and affirming that religion makes them dismal and unpleasant” (3). We live in a superficial world that focuses on what brings instantaneous pleasure. It fails to look for any depth. He continues, “But the word sees nothing of that inward, heartfelt devotion that makes all these actions pleasant and easy” (3). The world sees the devout as gloomy because in its superficial nature, the world does not see beyond the moment. The devout life involves depth, depth that we can only have with faith in God. Devout people seek “happiness”. However, it is not a superficial human happiness. The devout seek the joy that God offers.

St. Francis De Sales writes, “So devotion is the real spiritual sweetness that takes away all bitterness from mortifications, and prevents consolations from disagreeing with the soul: it cures the poor of sadness, and the rich of resumption; it keeps the oppressed from feeling desolate, and the prosperous from insolence; it averts sadness from the lonely, and dissipation from social life; it is as warmth and refreshing dew in summer; it knows how to abound and how to suffer want” (4). True devotion leads us to change the way we see things, to change our priorities and where we look for happiness.

Some think the devout life is not for everyone, that it “is specially proper to the religious and monastic life” (6). While lived differently in the secular world than in monasteries, the devout life is for everyone. There remains a tendency to think of saints as always being clergy, religious, on in monastic life. Here St. Francis De Sales provides lists of very holy people who were members of the laity. In the Old Testament he speaks of figures like Abraham David, and Job. In the New Testament there is St. Joseph, who raised Jesus as his own son. St. Francis lists saints like Anne, Martha, Louis (6). God invites everyone, including you to the devout life.

Where are we to begin, with “pruning and cutting” (8). In the pages that follow, St. Francis De Sales will speak of purifying our souls. That is where my next article on the Introduction to the Devout Life will begin.


Fr. Jeff

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