Into the desert with St. Francis de Sales

Lent holds a special opportunity to pursue Christ into the desert and, in uniting more closely with him, to return on the other side with abundant fruits. For those, however, who feel as if they’ve been in the desert for months already, this season can bring a wave of dread.

In C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” the devil writes to his nephew with the guidance that “There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy” (here referring to God). This internal angst, often exacerbated by the expectations of asceticism, often adds an additional weight to dejected shoulders.

St. Francis de Sales expands upon the same sentiment in his “Introduction to the Devout Life”: “If our heart be disturbed and anxious, it loses power to retain such graces as it has, as well as strength to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish (according to an old proverb) in troubled waters.” The devil fights even more ferociously during Lent, leaving the spiritually weary feeling like easy prey. As someone who is prone to this melancholy and has experienced spiritual dryness, I try to take a careful approach to my practices during Lent. The warm-hearted St. Francis de Sales offers guidance to the lay faithful on navigating the above-mentioned sorrow. I’ve adapted them for this season and share them with you in encouragement and solidarity!

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Wear your scapular and kiss it

St. Francis de Sales recommends outward expressions of faith for those experiencing internal sadness; embracing a crucifix or praying aloud puts the heart in a position to practice joy. The scapular offers a constant physical reminder of our Blessed Mother, as well, who is ready to stand firmly beside us in moments of temptation. Bring your mother into the fight, for she has already won victory over the serpent!

Examine yourself nightly and pray for help identifying unhealthy attachments

I think it’s important to remember that our goal in Lent is to foster a deeper relationship with God — not complete a training plan. If a sin is identified the week before Easter, feel confident in flexing your Lenten plans a bit and adding fasting or prayer to help address it. Our bond with God, as with any relationship, is dynamic and nonlinear. A key part of this examination is recognizing the blessings of the day and the good that you have done, in addition to considering any disordered dispositions. A mentor shared with me that sin seems to give us something sensibly, which actually clouds our sight. Let’s invite God into this space during Lent, to help us see with clear eyes and detach.

Engage with the world

“When you feel down, do something for someone else.” My husband told me this offhand one day, when I was feeling particularly melancholic. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Modern society might suggest a self-care day as a remedy, which certainly has its place. I took my husband’s advice and was surprised to find my anxious thoughts melting away.

We must be present to receive God’s graces, and these external acts of generosity allow us to re-engage with reality and charity is illuminative. Making dinner for a neighbor, writing a letter to a friend, serving at a homeless shelter, or even simply complimenting a stranger at the grocery store all offer opportunities to move outside the loneliness of our mind and back into the context of community. In this same spirit, St. Francis de Sales recommends seeking out interactions with spiritually-minded friends, especially when you are actively suffering. We are beautifully designed to be alive and present, within the context of community.

Fast from secular music and replace it with worship or sacred music

My favorite piece of advice from St. Francis de Sales is to “make use of hymns and spiritual songs” as he reminds us that David’s lyre was able to relieve Saul of the evil spirit possessing him. All that is good, true and beautiful ignites within us a desire for its source; music that praises God directs our gaze upward. The underlying theme here makes this insight versatile, too. Surround yourself with good literature, music or art this Lent and you might find yourself seeing, for the first time, the blinding beauty of an emblazoned desert sky.

“Introduction to the Devout Life” holds many, many other suggestions for addressing, embracing and treating this internal sorrow. As we make our way into the desert this Lent, I leave you with words of encouragement from the author himself: “Some people, especially women, fall into the great mistake of imagining that when we offer a dry, distasteful service to God, devoid of all sentiment and emotion, it is unacceptable to His Divine Majesty; whereas, on the contrary, our actions are like roses, which, though they may be more beautiful when fresh, have a sweeter and stronger scent when they are dried. Good works, done with pleasurable interest, are pleasanter to us who think of nothing save our own satisfaction, but when they are done amid dryness and deadness they are more precious in God’s Sight.”

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