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St. Francis de Sales’s Guide to Starting Your Day Right
December 18, 2015
In his everyday spirituality, St. Francis de Sales counsels us to begin at the beginning. Making God a part of that first consciousness of the new day starts things out on the right footing. Thus, St Francis’ Spiritual Directoryopens with this exhortation:
First of all on awakening, we are to direct our minds completely to God by some holy thought such as the following: Sleep is the image of death and awakening that of the resurrection.
Not merely as the first among many things to do each day, but first of all the devout person thinks of God, whose graceful action makes awakening possible (with the aid of an alarm clock to make it timely!). That we are alive for another day is the gift each morning brings. Recognizing the source of that gift by directing our mind to do so is the appropriate response to such a gracious gift. It may take some practice, but it will prove beneficial to make this the first thought of the day, instead of awakened.reacting with annoyance or reluctance at having been
Beyond an existential awareness, the practice of directing our minds to God corresponds to and facilitates a positive psychology. Experience shows that the mood with which we begin the day tends to color the entire day. What Francis de Sales understood is that starting the day with God in mind leads to keeping God in mind throughout the day.
We may think of that voice that will ring out on the last day:To fashion that mindfulness of the divine gift of our awakening each day, Francis suggests we adopt biblical images and thoughts. In this, he moves us beyond sound psychology to the adoption of a spiritual or theological understanding of the new day. Although a seemingly benign beginning to the day, the act of getting out of bed represents for St. Francis de Sales the profound reality of the resurrection and that gift of life beyond death to which we are ultimately called. To get into the habit of seeing each day as a mini resurrection is to cultivate a thoroughly Christian attitude toward our earthly existence. Thus, he suggests that when we awake:
O dead, arise and come to judgment. (cf. Eph. 5:14)
Or we may say with Job:
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that on the last day I will rise again. My God, grant that this be to eternal glory; this hope rests in my inmost being. (cf. Job 19:25-26)
At other times we may say with him:
On that day, O God, you will call me, and I will answer you; you will stretch forth your right arm to the work of your hands; you have counted all my steps. (cf. Job 14:15-16)
The Christian attitude with which we greet each morning is founded on faith in the Redemption and our vocation to eternal life. To cultivate this consciousness, we could recall the book of Job, that classic story of the wise man who longs to make sense of human existence amid the innocent suffering of his personal life, and who does so thanks to a divine intervention. Like Job, we can reaffirm faith in the living God and entrust ourselves to the call and care of divine providence. To do so at the beginning of the day creates a bulwark against which the travails we may encounter during the day will hold no sway.
But the tale of Job offers only one example among many possible aspirations. For this reason, the saint says:
We should make these holy aspirations or others which the Holy Spirit may suggest, for we have the freedom to follow his inspirations.
The biblical thoughts St. Francis de Sales suggests are worthwhile words to remember and to recall, with practice, each morning. But, as he cautions here and throughout his spiritual direction, the words matter less than the affections. If we are inspired to think or speak differently by the Holy Spirit, so be it. As long as we somehow direct our mind to the Divine at day’s dawning, we have begun to live today well.
But there’s more with which to start our day.
Praying the Angelus in the Morning
After the Angelus we will make the morning exercise, adoring our Lord from the depths of our being and thanking him for all his benefits. In union with the loving offering that the Savior made of himself to his eternal Father on the tree of the Cross, we will offer him our heart, its affections and resolutions, and our whole being, and beg for his help and blessing. We will greet our Lady and ask for her blessing, as well as that of our guardian angel and holy patrons. If we wish, we may say the Our Father. All this should be done quickly and briefly.
That may seem a lot to do quickly and briefly! But it can be done in the time it takes to shower or to make the morning coffee.
The brevity that the saint counsels here is an indication that, again, the saying of multiple prayers is not the primary emphasis. Rather, he recommends them here as something customary, hence, simple to do. The prayers he mentions — the Angelus, the Hail Mary, the Our Father — refer to the traditional prayers with which we grew up, prayers that are easy to remember and easy to say. Although elsewhere St. Francis de Sales emphasizes the mindfulness that makes prayer effective, here his point is simply to sanctify these early moments of the day by means of thoughts and words already familiar to us. These are the basic elements of the morning exercise that in other spiritual traditions takes on a more definitive and lengthier form with fixed wording.
In Salesian spirituality, the more important point, as always, lies in the cultivation of our heart and soul. Notice the affections the saint calls forth here: adoring, thanking,offering, even begging help and blessing. These shape the posture of the humble believer before the all-powerful God, the God who has power over life and death and who, by divine providence, has willed that this day we be alive. It is not likely that we will think such heady or heavy thoughts in the early hours of the morning, but by following the saint’s suggestions we will attune ourselves to the divine gift that beckons us to begin the day.
In cultivating these affections, he urges us to recall the example of Mary (our Lady), the angels, and the saints (holy patrons), whom we can greet, or call on, with a simple “pray for us.” Again, it does not seem like much, but this simple litany creates the mental reminder that we are not alone in this life, that others who lived well have gone before us, and that help for the day stands nearby.
All of this is intended to turn our morning routine into a sacred one. Routines play a key role in human life. Able to be done without our giving them much thought, they are comfortable, and often comforting, acts. Psychologically, even if not consciously, they represent a way of exercising a modicum of control over the chaos of our surroundings. Our habits lead us to do the same thing over and over again each morning; were we to deviate from this habitual routine, we would probably think something was “off ” or just not right.
So, too, with the routine of praying. The words we use and the actions we perform (e.g., making the Sign of the Cross when seeing a crucifix) constitute rituals. When that routine or ritual becomes a habit — as is intended by the exercise suggested here — it creates a comfort zone in which to steady ourselves before we take on the duties of the day. Hence, even the next step in the morning routine can be made sacred:
As we begin to dress, we will make the Sign of the Cross and say:
Cover me, Lord, with the cloak of innocence and the robe of love. My God, do not let me appear before you stripped of good works.
Here the practicality of Salesian spirituality becomes obvious. Everyone gets dressed! Everyone does so automatically, without even thinking much about it (except to decide what to wear). And everyone does it every day, even when the attire is casual. Why not, then, take this daily routine and turn it into a daily prayer?
By the aspiration suggested here, we seek to “clothe” or cover ourselves with a theological sensibility. What is our Christian mission this day and every day? To live well. To live in conformity with God’s will (innocence). To appear to others in the attire (a regal robe) by which a Christian is recognized and known — namely, love (orcharity), without which we would be stripped of the good works or moral deeds that distinguish human action from that of animals.
Thus clothed with the intention to live the Faith we believe, we are ready to start our day in a grace-filled way. Now it is time to prepare for what is going to happen on this particular day.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Dailey’s Live Today Well which is available from Sophia Institute Press. Fr. Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S. is founder and director of the Salesian Center for Faith and Culture at DeSales University, and also holds the University’s St. Louis Brisson Chair in Salesian Spirituality.
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