Salesian Spirituality
(Saint Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church
Feast Day 24 January)

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Made in God's image and likeness, all of us are called to the same end: union with God (i.e. Salvation).

Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to a perfect life. So wrote Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop and Doctor of the Church, nearly 400 years ago in his spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life. Writing primarily for lay people, Francis stressed that God calls all of us to holiness. Holiness is possible and, because God wills it, He will surely help those who seek to lead holy lives.

Together with his spiritual friend, Saint Jane de Chantal (1572-1641), Francis showed how people in all walks of life can grow in holiness. Their ideas have become known as Salesian Spirituality. Like other schools of Christian spirituality, Salesian Spirituality helps believers to develop a deeper relationship with God through Jesus. Its distinctiveness arises from the particular elements that it emphasizes. This writing -- by no means as exclusive treatment of Salesian Spirituality -- highlights those major elements. We hope that this overview of Salesian Spirituality will encourage readers to explore its richness for themselves.


Salesian Spirituality

from various sources

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Made in God's Image

Made in God's image and likeness, all of us are called to the same end: union with God. Recognizing this, we treat each person with respect, even reverence. In the midst of a violent society -- guns and gangs in the streets, spouse and child abuse in homes, the angry thoughts and words that begin in our own hearts -- Salesian Spirituality calls us to gentleness.

We are gentle, first of all, with ourselves. Francis reminds us not to become upset and discouraged by our failings.  Rather, to pick ourselves up after a fall. He counsels: "Be patient with everyone, but above all with yourself." Gentleness with ourselves leads to gentleness with others. We learn to let go of judgmental attitudes and become more compassionate. The desire for retaliation or revenge -- the source of so much violence in our world -- gives way to forgiveness. We become peacemakers in our homes and in society.

Salesian Spirituality recognizes that each person is unique and unrepeatable. Since each has a different character and different gifts, holiness will be different for each of us. How, then, do I become holy? Quite simply, says Francis de Sales, by doing God's will. He exhorts: "Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly." Recognizing that God's will is found in our vocation or state in life, Salesian Spirituality stresses the importance of carrying out the ordinary duties of our vocation -- a challenge indeed, for today's men and women. Stretched by the demands of family and job, beset by financial concerns, worried about the future, we may want only to run away -- in our imagination, if not in fact. Perhaps we will find God in some less hectic setting! Francis reminds us, however, that God is near to us in the busyness of our vocation. "It is not tranquility which brings God close to our hearts; it is rather the fidelity of our love," he says.

Following God's will calls for ongoing, prayerful discernment. In Salesian thought, discernment often involves a certain balancing. On the one hand, we need a certain openness, or flexibility, to respond when the Holy Spirit calls us to new ways of thinking and acting. On the other hand, perseverance in one's vocation is essential for spiritual growth. Francis reminds us: "Just as a shrub that is often transplanted cannot take root and as a result cannot come to maturity and yield the desired fruit, so that soul and transplants its heart from plan to plan cannot profit or gain proper growth in perfection, since perfection does not consist in beginnings but in accomplishments."


Do All Through Love

Salesian Spirituality challenges us to become holy -- to become saints! Salesian Spirituality is often described as a "spirituality of the heart," the divine and the human heart caught up in passionate love for each other. Love alone motivates and sustains our quest for holiness. "Do all through love, nothing through fear," urges Francis.

But love is hard work. It requires sacrifice and letting go. In an age that over-emphasizes self-actualization and self-fulfillment, Salesian Spirituality points in a different direction. It calls us to interior discipline, to a consistent practice of the "little virtues": patience with aging parents or rebellious teenagers, gentleness and humility with friends and co-workers, and simplicity in our lifestyle. In the quiet of our hearts we learn to turn everything over to God, to die to self, to live totally for Jesus. Salesian thought recognizes that spiritual progress come slowly and, often, at great cost. Yet it also recognizes that in turning our hearts to God, in doing God's will, we find our greatest happiness and fulfillment.


The Present Moment

We only have the present moment, the here and now, in which to respond to God. But focusing on the present can be difficult. We may regret past actions, or fret about an uncertain future. Even positive memories, or daydreams about happy times to come, can distract us from present opportunities. How is God showing Himself to me right now? How can I respond with a loving word or deed? If we are unduly preoccupied with either the past or the future we may miss how God is calling us to be with Him, right now. Instead, Salesian Spirituality invites us to trust in God's providence. Either God will protect us from misfortune; or He will give us the strength to bear it. With confidence we can "cast our cares on God, because He cares for us."


Spiritual Growth Through Relationships

Salesian Spirituality is profoundly relational; it realizes that spiritual progress comes in and through relationships. Within the family, for example, we are challenged to grow daily in the little virtues. As we perform ordinary tasks -- cleaning, cooking, helping with homework, planning a birthday party -- with extraordinary love, we find God. We truly become like Jesus, as we follow His example of generous service.

Personal spirituality grows within the Christian community. As we gather to hear God's word and celebrate His presence, we are energized by the faith and commitment of others. They challenge us to offer our gifts to the community, to move us beyond self-preoccupation to a concern for the common good.

Within this community certain spiritual friendships may develop. Salesian Spirituality values such friendships as a gift from God. Already in love with God, the friends grow in love for each other, and express this love in generous, often creative, service to the community -- indeed, to the world. In their own enduring friendship, Saint Francis and Saint Jane gave us a model of truly fruitful love that touched the lives of countless people. Spiritual friends challenge and support us; they bring out the best in us; they show us the face of God.


Salesian Optimism

When fear and doubt close in on us, Salesian Spirituality points to signs of hope -- yes, even joy. True, sin and its terrible effects have entered the world. But sin is not the final word. God has spoken His final word in Jesus. Jesus offers us the grace to fulfill our human potential; to become lovers of God and neighbor, to grow in holiness -- to become saints! Trusting in God's providence, knowing that God will ultimately turn everything to the good, Salesian Spirituality radiates optimism. Whether in the midst of great trials or great joys our hearts can be at peace, secure in the knowledge that "the same God Who takes care of us today will take care of us tomorrow and always.