- Encountering Anew the Familiar: Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life at 400 Years ed. by Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S.
In the month of July in 2009 the De Sales Oblates held a symposium in Annecy, the episcopal seat and final resting place of Saint Francis de Sales, to mark the publication, four hundred years earlier, of the Introduction to the Devout Life. It was organized by the International Commission for Salesian Studies, whose chairman, Joseph Chorpenning, has now edited the proceedings. These consist of five papers, [End Page 143] to which a further, invited article by Viviane Mellinghoff-Bourgerie has been added. One of the talks at Annecy has not been included, a PowerPoint presentation in which Father Michel Tournade introduced Une monde à aimer, his adaptation of the Introduction for young people. The reader is directed instead to the ICSS website, where the PowerPoint presentation may be viewed. Although the papers in the volume vary in their approach, they share a common purpose, signaled in the title: to revisit a spiritual classic whose teachings have become familiar, and in doing so “to uncover overlooked or neglected aspects” of the work, and perhaps “yield fresh insights.” The book, attractive to the eye, reproduces on its cover and as a frontispiece an engraving by Grégoire Huret (1606–1670) in which Saint Francis is depicted as a writer, seated at his desk with a quill in his hand and absorbed in prayerful thought.
The first paper, by Professor Mellinghoff-Bourgerie, charts the reception of the Introduction over the centuries by studying the history of its printed editions, both in French and in translation. The author shows how the popularity of the work has fluctuated with changes in literary taste and religious sensibility, and she draws attention to the numerous adaptations of the text that have been produced in every period. These have modified the style of the original, and sometimes its teachings and its structure, in order to meet the needs of a wide range of readers: not only Catholics, but Protestants and Anglicans too, and, among Catholics, enclosed religious as well as laypeople. Such adaptations, she observes, have continued to appear in our own time, though now their distance from the original text, happily restored in modern critical editions, is clear. Reflecting on the reasons for this popularity, the author highlights three. First, the Introduction is a subtle and complex book, informed in discreet ways by the thought and style of the saint’s other works: his letters, his apologetic writings, and the Treatise on the Love of God. Second, it is full of shrewd insights into human behavior and Christian spirituality. And third, it is shaped by a “spiritual pedagogy” in which “heart speaks to heart.”
The reasons for the success of the Introduction are discussed further by Wendy Wright in the second paper, which shows how the book may be described accurately as a “spiritual classic,” in each of several definitions of the term. First, it has spoken to readers in different times, places and walks of life. Second, it has proved prophetic of “the truth about our lives”: in its own day it met the needs of previously unaddressed readers, especially laywomen. In modern times, it anticipated and influenced the “universal call to holiness” proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. Third, it reveals to its readers “the mystery of God” by involving them in a dialogue that is transformative. Behind it lies a hidden text, a vision of “a world of hearts” that Saint Francis developed also in his other writings. Finally, it is a “performative text,” whose wisdom is not simply for reading but for ingesting.
The performative aspects of the Introduction are brought to the fore by Lucas Fiorelli in the third paper, which examines the work in the light of the saint’s approach to spiritual direction. The book, Father Fiorelli notes, developed out of his letters of direction...