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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

When the Walk Becomes Sluggish

November 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Book Club, Vicki Burbach

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An Introduction to the Devout Life (Week 2 of 14)

All the children of Israel actually departed from Egypt, but they did not all depart heartily, wherefore in the desert some of them regretted the flesh, the melons, the leeks, and onions of Egypt (Numb. xi). And so some penitents, though they forsake sin outwardly, do not forsake the love of sin; that is to say, they resolve to sin no more, but it is with reluctance that they abstain from the fatal delights of sin, their hearts renounce it, and seek to depart, but they frequently look longingly behind them, as did Lot’s wife. They abstain from sin as a sick man abstains from dainties, which the physicians tell him will be fatal to him if he eats thereof, he abstains but most unwillingly, he talks about them, and measures how far he may transgress, at least he would fain behold what he desires, and envies those who can indulge in what is forbidden to him. Thus these weak cowardly penitents for a while refrain from sin, but reluctantly – they would fain be able to sin and yet escape condemnation – they have still all the taste for forbidden gratification, and count those happy who enjoy it. – “An Introduction to the Devout Life”, Part 1: Chapter VII, paragraph 1)

When the Walk Becomes Sluggish

I first read this book about ten years ago, and I do not exaggerate when I say that it changed my life. The wisdom of St. Francis de Sales awakened my heart to the existence of a God who deserved my undying devotion. Until then, I had been a Catholic by choice. An intellectual convert who had weighed the evidence and acknowledged that the Catholic Church was the One True Church established by Christ, and worthy of my obedience. I was excited by my knowledge of God but hadn’t yet experienced His love for me. I had no concept of the “devout” life, other than through my contact with certain individuals in whom I’d witnessed a supernatural spark which I began to crave.

An Introduction to the Devout Life opened for me an entirely new world, inspiring me to fall head over heels in love with Christ! I couldn’t get enough time with Him. Suddenly prayer became a powerful presence in my life. Adoration no longer boring, but the fulfillment of a need so deep that I came away feeling refreshed and at peace. My faith was no longer a “duty,” but an absolute joy. I learned, as St. Paul advises, to pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). For every moment I was grateful and, had I been asked to give my life for my Lord, I can say with certainty that I would have been honored. Even my decision to homeschool my children was a direct result of reading this book because I imagined our school time spent learning, loving and living the lives God desired for us, together as a family.

But time has a predictable way of passing, and I’m humbled to share that the springtime of my soul, which had been so lovely, slowly faded into late fall – dark and cool – bearing little of its former beauty.

It all began with what I thought was an inconsequential decision. A few years into my fervor I decided to start waking thirty minutes later and give up my early morning prayer time for some much-needed sleep.  I had assumed I could find time later in the day for prayer (an impossible goal). Shortly thereafter, I decided one Tuesday that we shouldn’t attend Mass because I had too much to do that day. A few days later, after staying up late the night before, I decided that wrestling with five little ones under nine during daily Mass would require too much energy. And so it went. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, my prayer life slowly receded behind all those earthly obligations, frustrations and escapes.

That passionate fire once lit by the Holy Spirit smoldered quietly as I barreled through my days. I was quite certain that something needed to change, but I lacked the will to make the time. It was much easier to avoid that longing by embracing various substitutions for our former relationship. I didn’t do bad things. In fact, I continued to spend my free time teaching my children about God, reading books on theology and watching movies about the saints. I knew all along that I should find time to spend with God, but was trapped among my pressing and “easily accessible” substitutes.

Gradually, my life of “devotion” began to ring hollow. I viewed others who were living more worldly lifestyles with jealousy. While we struggled financially because we’d renounced debt, friends and family members whom we knew to have lesser incomes or who had chosen to have two incomes and fewer kids, seemed to live lavishly, purchasing new cars, taking annual vacations and frequently eating out. I had friends who weren’t struggling to take five young children to Mass every Sunday morning (much less every morning), who had never tried to fit confession into Saturday schedules filled with kids’ activities and entertainment. They didn’t seem concerned about what their children were watching, what kind of games they were playing or to what music they listened on their iPods (which, by the way, also had unlimited internet access). Yet their children seemed to be doing great. Somewhere along the line, living for Christ became HARD. With great sadness, I’ll even admit that as I watched my neighbors with envy, the decision I’d made to homeschool my children even became for me a great weight that I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry.

Mind you, I’m not implying that any of these examples is objectively related to a Christian lifestyle; but, for me, there was a direct relationship because my husband and I had made these sacrifices willingly as a result of our love for Christ. Slowly, but surely, I began to feel like a martyr, sluggishly making my way through life, viewing my days as a series of endless chores rather than the acts of love they had been at one time. I began to live like one wearing shackles, rather than one who is free.

Where had I gone wrong? It may seem obvious, but it took me a while to realize that my troubles began when I turned my eyes from Christ. Like Peter, who took his eyes off our Lord and began to waver as he caught sight of the wind (Matt 14:22-23), I glanced away and began to waiver as well.

I’ve realized that devotion is not merely a matter of walking the walk. Without much-needed grace gained through prayer and the sacraments, I will lack the will necessary to train my eyes on Christ. As a result, it’s only a matter of time before my eyes begin to wander.

Mother Mary Loyola addresses waning passion in her book, First Communion. I can attest to her assertions:

The devil has no chance with the fervent. So he tries to cool their fervour by getting them to be careless about prayer and the sacraments. This done, the way is open to him and he begins to attack them by all sorts of temptations. We are not ignorant of his plans, and as to be forewarned is to be forearmed, we must lay this up in our memory for our whole lifetime – that all falls from fervour begin by a neglect of prayer. A more useful piece of knowledge we could scarcely have. – First Communion, p. 229

Epilogue:  Thankfully, I have since reestablished my prayer life and am so grateful that God is ever faithful, despite my many shortcomings.  I just wanted to take this opportunity to address a problem that, at some time or another, plagues many Christians in their walk with Christ.

 

Reading Assignment:

Week 2 Part 1: Chapter 12-2

 

Discussion Questions:

1. Is St. Francis de Sales speaking to you in the above passage? Do you ever find yourself looking over your shoulder, retaining a secret affection for sin (and/or as in my example – a more worldly life)?

2. Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!

 

Read more: Previous Book Club Posts
For More Information on the Book Club:  http://spiritualdirection.com/csd-book-club

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About Vicki Burbach

Vicki Burbach is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children ages four to sixteen years who relishes the calm inspiration of spiritual reading amidst the roller coaster of life. A passionate convert to the Faith, Vicki is an avid reader who started the SpiritualDirection.com book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written. She is author of the new book How to Read Your Way to Heaven - A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. You can also find her at pelicansbreast.com

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  • Jim

    Good morning Vicki!
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can identify very closely with it from beginning to end. We are a former homeschooling family who now has our four children in Catholic schools – my wife physically burned out after seven years of too little sleep, among other things we don’t need to go into here.

    I find the quote from Chapter 7 that you chose most interesting because it struck me too. Like the Israelites, Christians can retain stubborn attachments to worldly pleasures even as we seek to advance in holiness.

    Please let me share some random thoughts:
    1. The Israelites lived in Goshen until the Exodus. Goshen belonged to Egypt and so was in abundance in the worldly sense while being opposed to God and His plan. The Israelites were enslaved by their own sensual appetites just as surely as they were enslaved by Pharoah.

    2. Yet Goshen was the land of God’s people and so it remained free from some of the plagues. For example, Goshen was not subject to the darkness that enveloped Egypt. Goshen represents for me the sweetness of the first days of the Christian life, spiritual infancy. Here consolations are many and expectations of suffering are few.

    3. In order to reach our home in the heavenly Promised Land, each of us must leave Goshen and trek through the desert. Here we will be purged of our attachment to not only sin but every created thing that distracts us from our real treasure, life in Jesus Christ. Like the Israelites, I catch myself grumbling and questioning God, forgetting the miracles that He used to save me time and again.

    4. Of all the Israelites who left Goshen, only two actually entered the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb. All the rest perished in the desert, even Moses himself. This for me foretells that few Christians reach perfection in this life. Most of us will need further purification after death before entering our heavenly Promised Land.

    5. Some never left Goshen at all but chose to remain behind. Those Christians who remain in the Goshen of spiritual infancy are in grave danger of being lulled into spiritual lukewarmness. Or worse, losing their identity as part of God’s People and choosing to become fully Egyptian (like secularized Christians): “What do I need the Church for? I have everything I want right here!”

    • Vicki

      Jim, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! #5 was particularly helpful for me. The thought of remaining in Goshen would be unthinkable to me, and yet, what am I doing when I maintain attachments to various earthly pleasures? Definitely food for thought…

  • In the service of God

    I wanted to reiterate something the pope said recently, that we must constantly ask God to be open to his graces.
    I have this problem all the time, when I simply don’t want to pray. EVERYTHING seems better than praying. It’s like a hill and a valley, constantly up in prayer and down. Does anyone else feel this way, and have a good solution to staying on the fervent side?

    • Vicki

      YES! My desire ebbs and flows. Often I have to go back and take baby steps, and then I realize how valuable that prayer time is. I use the analogy of exercise. One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t pay attention to my feelings. Commitment is about “doing it” whether I feel like it or not. I may not want to exercise (or pray), but I never regret it when I’m done. And the more consistent I am, the easier it becomes. In fact, I even begin to look forward to it. God Bless!

      • LizEst

        That’s prayer muscle! Gotta exercise it! And, when God leads you to deeper prayer, go with it. A good spiritual director greatly helps with the journey into deeper prayer.

    • AK

      Yes. Monthly spiritual direction got me through many obstacles to prayer and then frequent confession and to not be surprised at the battle. I found it helpful to make an act of humility and a silent plea when I start to get distracted: please Lord, let me praise you with attention, reverence, and devotion (similar to a Fr. Hardon preparatory prayer). I also follow a Rule of St. Francis for the laity. Heard a hermit say the indwelling takes great purity but he likened it to a mill that kept turning. That goal (union with God) and a quote: ‘true prayer is surpassing joy’ often spurs me on and just realizing it’s a gift we receive. Prayer is also easier when I’m praying for others and not focused on myself. Peace and perseverance! (follow-up: heard a homily how the first temptation in the desert is to escape our misery, to ask God to turn stones into bread aka to focus on ourselves in prayer…praise the Holy Spirit for that correction)

  • RobinJeanne

    I think many go through the 5 steps forward then 3 steps back. From there I think we grow at a more slower but more firmly planted in the ways of the Lord. I love this book. This will be my 3rd reading.

  • Kelliej

    This book thus far really helped me see my occasional attachment to sin and things of this world. Not as something I am fixated on, but something I turn to when the monotony of my daily life seems so uninteresting. I want to turn back the clock and have the freedoms I had in my younger years and party etc. Upon reading I discovered that we will never know the magnitide of our sins, the effects on others, on our salvation and as well the effects of repentance. So blessed to have the gift of confession.

  • Plevesque

    I have to admit almost every chapter St-Francis seems to remind me of where I still fall short. But this is ok because it is evident that what he’s trying to get at is the rampant false devotion we/I often get into. You can tell that he was well read in the other spiritual writers before composing this. Thank-you Vicki for choosing this book it’s my 3rd time through but already well needed.

    • LSLinda

      I am with you on this one. The more I read, the more I see my failings. I also gain an appreciation of how loving and merciful The Lord is and how He wants us to keep trying.

  • LizEst

    Jordan Aumann, in his book “Spiritual Theology” describes what St. John of the Cross says about this phenomenon: “He begins by describing the sweetness that beginners usually experience in the service of God. They may become strongly attached to the sensible consolations and, without realizing it, make the delight and sweetness they find in the practices of devotion the principal motive for which they practice them.”

    This is what is called spiritual gluttony: loving God for his consolations instead of loving God for himself. Actually, it’s good to go through this because, in God allowing us to fall from our initial fervor, we grow in our love and devotion for him and not for the spiritual sweets he gives us. We are weaned from them, we grow in our faith…and our spiritual life takes another small step towards spiritual maturity.

    Thank you…and God bless you, Vicki! I’ve been there, too!

    • BCannella

      Thank you for this. Although, I am a lifelong Catholic, I would consider myself a beginner in the spiritual life. I think that I am still in this stage of experiencing many consolations and the sweetness of them. I am fearful of falling into spiritual gluttony and the period that will come after this initial fervor. One of my reasons for wanting to participate in this book club right now is to take steps to grow in spiritual maturity, be devoted to our Lord and not to the consolations that He provides.

      • LizEst

        Good for you, BCannella. God bless you on your spiritual journey. We are pleased you are joining us.

  • Robert Kraus

    This was a timely post…I sometimes feel like I’m straddling two camps: my old self, and the new holy self I want to be. I sometimes call them the “dude” and the “monk” for short hand. 🙂 I feel like rather than taking many steps forward and then falling back, I’ve had been hopelessly reluctant to take the steps to begin with.

    I get too analytical, and I spend too much time reading other peoples’ thoughts on prayer methods, recommended readings, etc., rather than taking some halting steps on my own and learning by experience.

    I did like what St. Francis had to say about purifying yourself before you can move ahead in the devout life. May I think too far ahead without doing some basic house-cleaning.

    • Chris Baker

      The dude abides, but the monk adores!

    • Vicki

      I’m in the same boat – So often I want to dive in head first, and then I wonder why my resolutions don’t last. I think your insight about basic house cleaning is key.

  • patyc

    My oldest child is now 20,I had dedicated my life to my 5 boys.And me too had fail into comparing my situation with other moms ; that I assumed they better off since they just had two kids. Now that my baby is 12 years old I have more time to grow spiritually. However reading this book I started to feel somehow uneasy. Am I ready to give myself in total devotion to God? To start detaching myself from earthly desires?
    As the writer says it’s a slowly process;Is this the starting for me? I always though of me as a devoted catholic but now I now it is just a semblance. I have a lot of mix feelings and it seems it will take me time to develop a true Devotion.

    • Vicki

      When I first read this book, I literally had a breakdown into desperate tears – I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it all, and I had to ask myself whether God was “for real” or not? If He was “real” I realized my entire life had to change. I think opening our eyes to reality is an important first step to that spiritual growth we are all seeking. And I’m sure we all have a long way to go – so glad you’re joining us on the journey! God Bless!

  • Lisa Tuckett

    I’m humbled by the many wise words I’ve read here today. I have never read this book but wanted to for many years. We were not blessed with children, so I can only imagine all the work it takes to homeschool, and raise them up in the faith. I so related to your experience of a gradual dimming of fervor by giving up morning prayer time. These first chapters have blessed me by again reminding me to do the work on order to show my love for God. I look forward to the next chapters!

  • DianeVa

    Thank you Vicki for getting me back into this book which I also read about 10 yrs ago. I have just found a spiritual director and am anxious to be open to God guiding me through this man. Chapter IV spoke to me in that I am earnestly desiring to advance in the spiritual life and I believe he is heaven sent. “Deal with him in all sincerity and faithfulness, and with open heart; manifesting alike your good and your evil…” I have struggled to discern over the years if I am truly doing God’s will. Now I have, hopefully, a faithful friend who will be God’s instrument. This book will be a great addition as I begin with him.
    Any suggestions or advice, I would love to hear your thoughts. Blessing to all.

    • LizEst

      Congratulations on finding a spiritual director. May this be a grace-filled experience for you. May you continue to grow in your faith life.

  • DianeVa

    My copy has a preface by cardinal Archbishop Edward Egan which I believe gave a wonderful overview of how timeless this book is and how beneficial to laypeople. I believe the desire to truly seek out and to live a devout life in this day and time can only be from God. I love the comment “the devout life is the love of God put into action.”

  • Mary G

    Thank you, Vicki! I am so grateful for this community! This is a timely book club selection for me too. Another one on my shelf I have been wanting to read but others took precedence. Ever since the “honeymoon” of my spiritual life, 21 years ago, I have never once stopped going to Mass every Sunday. I even added weekday Mass occasionally, as the situation at home allows. But one day I took ill with a bad cold and slept in that morning and then the next and getting up later than usual gave little time for prayer, and then at night I gradually found that I was “too tired” falling asleep with my Liturgy of the Hours on my lap. One thing I never did give up ….by grace!…was my Rosary… I have been faithful to that throughout. But my fruitful and overflowing prayer life began to wane about three years ago. It goes up and down…..and I have been struggling recently to revive my fervor. I recently signed up for. Holy Hour and that has been an incredible blessing in my life as a whole. And now reading The Devout Life is an accelerant to my little flame. Looking forward to the next post!

    PS another( short) but great book addressing the issue of dryness in prayer life is The Discernment of Spirits” by Fr. Timothy Gallagher .

    Mgw

  • CarieF

    I’m new to posting to the club although I’ve lurked for quite awhile. I, too, see this as a timely selection. I read this book about 6 years ago some time after my conversion but obviously need to read it again…and not just “read” it. There is MUCH in this reading that seemed to speak directly to me. But I will shrink it down to two things: true devotion and contrition — and my sore lacking in both.

    • Vicki

      Welcome, CarieF – so glad to have you join us!!

  • AK

    The general confession recommendation is hard. I trust Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation but also know it’s a priest with his own failings and would rather go to a monk at a remote monastery for something like that. It would be making oneself totally vulnerable and an ego death. Not to be done lightly yet St. Francis doesn’t say much about it. Any thoughts appreciated. I do expect to speak with my spiritual director about it.

  • Monica

    Absolutely, I’m beginning to feel sluggish as the day progresses. A lot that St. Francis points out in these chapters, especially in chapter 5: “we shall never be conquered until we lose either life or courage.” That completely awestruck me, it’s like what says in John’s gospel chapter 15, verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Very powerful indeed, amen <3

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