Bishops are busy men - and St Francis de Sales was no exception. However, he found time to write. And one book that he wrote has been enormously popular, amongst Protestants and Catholics alike. It is called, in the usual English translation of the title, "Introduction to the Devout Life". Unlike some books of spiritual reading, it is aimed at persons in all walks of life, not just those called to a religious vocation (monks, nuns, friars, and sisters).
I read it in the first year or two that I was a Catholic, but did not find it terribly helpful - too flowery, too ... well, too 'religious' perhaps :-)
Recently I decided to try it again and have had a very different experience. Perhaps I have changed in the ten or fifteen years since then.
In particular, after the first introductory paragraphs, he leads the reader in ten meditations:
- ON OUR CREATION
- ON THE END FOR WHICH WE WERE CREATED
- ON THE BENEFITS OF GOD
- ON SIN
- ON DEATH
- ON JUDGMENT
- ON HELL
- ON HEAVEN
- BY WAY OF ELECTION AND CHOICE OF HEAVEN
- BY WAY OF ELECTION, AND CHOICE WHICH THE SOUL MAKES OF A DEVOUT LIFE
Yesterday I read, and meditated upon, number 8 - "On Heaven." I confess that the thought of Heaven has never meant very much to me. The presentations in de Sales's book, like so many attempts to talk about Heaven (including the ones in the Bible), are lovely enough - but, frankly, just not much more than the best of earth:
Consider a fair and clear night, and reflect how delightful it is to behold the sky bespangled with all that multitude and variety of stars; then join this beautiful sight with that of a fine day, so that the brightness of the sun may not prevent the clear view of the stars nor of the moon; and then say boldly that all this beauty put together is nothing when compared with the excellence of the great heavenly paradise.That's from the book, and very lovely it is, and it is, no doubt, true that nothing earthly can compare with the "excellence of the great heavenly paradise." Nothing, indeed, can compare - so the comparison, alas!, fails.
That is the word that came to me. Home.
I'm afraid it falls flat as I write it. At the time - and still when I think about it - I am moved with deep emotion.
The word 'home' has never seemed to mean a great deal to me. No doubt I loved the home my parents made for me - but I do not recall any very serious homesickness when I left it, first for University, and then to get married. I know that Susan's experience and feelings about home are very different from mine - she has told me so often.
And yet - the feeling of homesickness - the German word Sehnsucht for which, interestingly, Yapese has a word (taawreeng), but there is no adequate English translation - that feeling is what I think I am feeling. It is surely what C. S. Lewis meant, misleadingly, I feel, by 'joy' in his spiritual autobiography "Surprised by Joy" It is the inconsolable grief (I think I have the phrase from Lewis) of the lost child, longing to be home.
That will be Heaven - lost no longer.