Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

When St. Francis de Sales Found Me

What is Salesian spirituality?

It’s a life-changing spiritual approach that’s part of the Catholic mystical tradition. It follows the direction of one of the doctors of the faith, St. Francis de Sales.

He’s my patron, my spiritual guide, my guru. And, not coincidently, he’s the patron saint of writers.

He chose me as his daughter (I’ll explain the term sometime soon) as far back as 1982, but I didn’t have anyone to explain to me what or why I was so drawn to the name “Francis.” Throughout my life, little signposts led the way to his teachings, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I encountered Francis de Sales in full, and it changed my life in radical ways.

He’s like water trickling on a rock: gentle to the point where you feel as if his teachings are borderline sappy. How can they be effective when they are so…kind?

But they are. Oh, they are. If you want to change from the inside out, read the teachings of St. Francis de Sales.

January is the month dedicated to St. Francis de Sales. His feast day is January 24. I’ll be sharing throughout this month what Salesian spirituality means to me, what it is, and how it changed my life.

Once upon a time, there was an eighth-grader named Jeanne (that’s me). She had big dreams, this young lady, as she sat in Sister Helen Edwards’ class. She scribbled stories about purple dragons and castles down into a notebook she carried with her and she packed issues of Writers Digest checked out of the public library into her satchel to read after her work was finished.

I had discovered I wanted to be a writer in the 6th or 7th grade. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember where I was, and how I felt.

I’d taken a book out of the library. It was a science fiction story (I love good sci-fi) and a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. Back in the early 1980s, the choose-your-own-adventure stories were very popular.

They worked like this: the first chapter or two of the book is like a typical book. But when you reach the end of the chapter, you are given two choices. Should you go through door number one or two? If you choose one, turn to page X. If you choose two, turn to page Y.

The plot changes depending on your choices.

I remember excitedly reading and then feeling betrayed. The science-fiction elements had all the sophistication of a Saturday morning cartoon. This was classified as a ‘teen’ book and I was about 12 years old. I was furious at the way the author of the story spoke down to the reader as if we were dumb just because we were kids!

In Catholic school, we are pushed into making our Confirmation, one of the seven sacraments, in eighth grade. I had doubts. I wanted to wait to confirm my faith. My parents and the nuns, however, had other plans, and so I was herded along with the crowd of 90 or so kids into the process of confirmation preparation.

As part of our confirmation preparation, we were asked to choose a saint name. At baptism, as infants, we are given our name by our parents. We cannot choose it. Confirmation is the time when we can choose our own name, a name reflective of a saint we feel drawn to, someone to emulate, someone to be.

I was drawn to the name “Francis.” Every time I thought or prayed over the name, “Francis” came up.

But the only St. Francis I knew was Francis of Assisi, and while he’s a wonderful saint, he isn’t mine. I’m not drawn to him.

I chose “Joseph” instead and let it go.

In high school, I had a motto on a piece of paper taped inside my locker next to pictures of big-haired heavy metal stars and my friends. It became the motto I added under my picture in my senior yearbook.

You cannot be anyone but who you are.

Jeanne grunert

Many years later, while reading the letters of St. Francis de Sales, I came across one of his most famous quotes:

Be who you are, and be that well.

St. Francis de sales

Somehow, my spirit already resonated with the saint’s words…he was calling me to be his daughter, but I had yet to listen.

There was a Catholic blogger who wrote about Jennifer Fulweiler’s “Saint Generator.” It’s a fun way to pick a saint to learn about during the upcoming year. In 2009, the blogger said that Francis de Sales was her saint. At the end of the year, she wrote a second post about how he changed her life. She also mentioned that he was the patron saint of writers.

Curious about him, I looked through my husband’s Classics of Western spirituality library. He had a book of the letters of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, the two founders of Salesian spirituality. Intrigued, I began reading.

By the end of the letters, I’d underlined, highlighted, and taken so many notes that the pages were blue and red with ink.

Francis de Sales had finally connected with me…or I had listened to his call…and I had become his spiritual Daughter. Four hundred years after his death, he had won my heart and mind to his approach to living the gospel life.

The two books to read to get to know Francis de Sales are his letters and Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve included a link to the Kindle complete volume of all 15 books he wrote. It’s only $1.99. Best $1.99 you’ll ever spend.

Francis wrote Introduction to the Devout Life around 1600 as an answer to the crying need of the time for the laity to have a way to put into practice the spiritual devotions and exercises available to those studying for the priesthood. While a young man studying law in Paris, Francis came across the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He decided to adapt them to the laity of the time.

It’s hard to imagine but when Francis was alive, from the late 1500s to the early 1600s, people thought that only those who lived in monasteries or convents or who devoted their entire lives to spiritual practice could become saints.

Francis thought differently. Saints, he wrote many times in different ways, aren’t only found in convents and monasteries. They are found in the kitchens, the stables, the shops, the alleys, and the castles of the world. In other words, anyone can become closer to God through daily devotion.

He set about writing a book to help people put into practice what he had taught and preached. That book, The Introduction to the Devout Life, contains short chapters, each a spiritual exercise, to put into practice to draw closer to God.

I read the book and began each exercise. After a month, I felt changed…my heart, renewed. My spiritual life deepened. I developed a new outlook on life.

It is difficult to put into words the changes wrought in my soul after following the great saint’s advice and spiritual teachings codified in a 400-year-old book.

I can, however, tell you that a friend who was Episcopalian asked me for good spiritual reading. I recommended Introduction to the Devout Life. A year after Bob read the book, he and his family converted to Catholicism. A year later, he says he feels the same spiritual charge I do….there is something truly magnetic about this book.

Why, you may wonder, would anyone “need” a book of spiritual exercises or a saint to show them how to be closer to God? Many Protestant friends question the Catholic tradition of saints and following their teachings. What is different about Francis de Sales’ writings and approach that you can’t find in the Bible itself?

Some of us (that would be me) need an interpreter for the Bible. I need someone to take what’s packed in its pages and bring it to my level. It’s the difference to me between reading through a book about cooking and actually cooking the meal myself. I need a recipe to guide me to make the flourless chocolate cake. I can buy the cake, I can read about making the cake, I can enjoy a friend’s version of the cake, but if I’m to bake it myself, I need someone to take the instructions and make them understandable for an amateur cook like me.

Spirituality is like that for me. I need lessons. Show me how to love. Show me how to pray. Show me what it means to fast, to pray, the be meek and humble. Does it mean I have to sell my car and my house and live on the streets? Or be like Mother Theresa and live in the gutter with the lepers? Jesus and his disciples sold all they had and gave it to the poor. Is that what I have to do, too?

Francis explains so much in his books. Throughout the month of January, I will try to write from the heart, as I think Francis would have wanted me to do, and to write about an aspect of Salesian spirituality that speaks to me.

Salesian, by the way, is just the adjective form of his name, Sales.

I hope these ramblings help someone who, like me, yearns to grow deeper in holiness, to love God more fully, but who doesn’t understand how someone in 21st century America can translate everything in Christianity into do-able tasks. I hope that they resonate with you.

And if you want to read the books that changed my life, here they are: