Following Doctor’s Orders


Advent is on its way, and that puts us in the mind of two perennial
questions. First, how will we as Catholics prepare for the Nativity
this year? — apart from decorating, that is. Second, what sort of gift
ought I to get for that certain someone or other? Well, I’d like to
propose an answer that speaks to both of these inevitable questions:
Tap into the classics of Catholic spirituality. I’m thinking
specifically of works by three 16th century Doctors of the Church:
Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales, The Dark Night
of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, and The Way of Perfection by
Saint Teresa of Avila. The trilogy, either together or separate, would
make for a great gift and each book will provide any Catholic,
including you, with a practical guide to preparing for Christmas (and
the rest of your life) this year.

The titles themselves may
sound intimidating, but don’t be put off. Each of these masterpieces
has as its aim putting one’s “spiritual house” in order. Although each
Doctor writes his or her own unique prescription, all three books
present a direct and simple spirituality with the common understanding
that we grow in the spiritual life not by adhering to some elaborate
system of prayer or extraordinary acts of penance, but by loving God
through daily prayer, self-denial, and good works. That sounds easy
enough in theory; but, if you’re anything like me, the difficult part
is putting it all into practice.

For a practical moral guide
to the Christian life you can do no better the Introduction to the
Devout Life. Addressed to the fictitious “Philothea” — the layman
living in the midst of the world — De Sales’ guide teaches her, step
by step, how to cultivate the devout life and grow in holiness. By
“devout life” St. Francis means a true and solid piety, which, he
emphasizes, is meant for one and all, not just those living some sort
of monastic existence. “It is an error, it is even a heresy,” he
writes, to hold that piety is incompatible with any state of life. De
Sales also makes it quite clear that authentic piety is not just for
dainty ladies. For men, little else can be as manly as true Christian

The great Doctor lays out five simple steps for the
journey: first, freeing the soul from the inclination to sin, and then
uniting to God by prayer and the sacraments, developing the practice of
virtue, strengthening the soul against temptation and, finally, forming
resolutions to persevere. Throughout all five steps of the process, St.
Francis emphasizes “mortification of the senses,” i.e., penance, which
ought to be of particular interest to us in no small way during the
Advent season; but that penance, the Doctor explains, ought never to be
practiced apart from love.

The Dark Night of the Soul, one of
the best known mystical writings of Counter-Reformation Spain, is the
perfect follow-up to the Introduction, especially since St. John of the
Cross, unlike De Sales, is concerned with the soul that has already
been converted to the service of God. As a rule, the recently converted
soul, St. John emphasizes, is spiritually nurtured and “caressed” by
God in much the same way an infant is nursed by his mother: “As the
child grows bigger, the mother ceases caressing it, and, hiding her
tender love, puts the bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the
child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may
lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more

Like St. John, St.
Teresa of Avila played a decisive role in the authentic reformation of
the Church in the years following the Protestant Reformation. And like
St. John, she too was a Carmelite and a reliable spiritual guide. Her
most accessible masterpiece of mystical spirituality, The Way of
Perfection, as the title suggests, aims at “perfecting” the spiritual
life, specifically through prayer – vocal prayer, mental prayer and
meditation. Although St. Teresa’s long missive addresses her sisters in
the religious life, she dwells on contemplative issues that certainly
have their applications “in the world.” The Great Doctor’s prescription
is divided into three sections. The first describes the requirements
for prayer: fraternal love, detachment from created things, and true
humility. In the next section, she develops these themes, giving them
practical applications, indicating remedies for some lesser temptations
of the Devil. In her description of mortification, for example, Teresa
advises against common grumbling and complaining of slight ailments:
“for sometimes the devil makes us imagine these ills; they go and come;
if you don not give up the habit of speaking of them, and you complain
of everything, unless it were to God, you will never end…Learn to
suffer a little for the love of God, without everybody knowing about
it.” Teresa devotes the balance of The Way of Perfection to an
exploration of the Paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer), calling it the
“perfect” prayer of petition — and, when properly understood, we will
find consolation in it in many ways.

Taken together, these
three Catholic classics provide a treasury of spiritual reading for a
lifetime – the kind of reading that satisfies through the years, the
decades. Fortunately, Baronius Press
recently came out with elegant and affordable paperback editions of
each of these books as a part of their Catholic Classics series, which
includes twenty other titles worthy of adding to every Catholic


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