“St. Francis de Sales was always trying to help the average person, who lives a normal life, figure out how to bring God into everything,” said Father John Burns, author of “Lift Up Your Heart: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Francis de Sales (Ave Maria, $11). “He understands what it’s like to be busy, and yet to be called to a life of faith and devotion.”

Father Burns is a Milwaukee priest, ordained in 2010. He works extensively with the Missionaries of Charity, providing retreats and spiritual direction. He says his book is “for the person who isn’t yet a saint, who’s just getting started.” 

The following is adapted from my conversation with Father Burns about his recent work. 

Kris McGregor: Many people don’t have access to one-on-one spiritual guidance in today’s world. Can we use St. Francis de Sales as a sort of spiritual director in our everyday lives?

Father John Burns: It can be a challenge to find spiritual direction. One, we don’t have as many priests as we used to have. Two, everybody’s needs are a little different, and obligations are a little more scattered. 

But I think a lot of the thirst for spiritual direction that we see in the Church today is really a desire to be guided into deeper holiness, and that’s a desire that can actually be met outside of that one-to-one relationship, if we can’t find a good spiritual director. 

St. Francis de Sales wrote all these beautiful letters to men and women in the world, and when we are looking for that guidance in his works, we can find so much basic, practical advice. We can have him as a spiritual director through his writings.

One of his most unique contributions was how tremendously practical he was, especially his “Introduction to the Devout Life,” which is the basis for my book. 

His work was aimed at the normal person in the world. He wasn’t writing for monks and nuns and those who had given themselves over to a life of contemplation, but for people who were busy, and had a lot of obligations. 

McGregor: What was going on when St. Francis de Sales was living and working in the Church? Do you feel like it’s similar to what’s going on today? 

Father Burns: In the culture at the time was a great spirit of anti-Catholicism, and many had just left their Catholic roots. So as St. Francis de Sales is directing, he’s discovering this real need to help other people understand what it is to be a believer, and to know Jesus, and to actually be Catholic. 

When we accept the guidance of St. Francis de Sales, we’re receiving the guidance of someone who lived in an age where Catholicism wasn’t popular, and we find that today, too. 

McGregor: Can you give us an idea of how St. Francis de Sales guides us in our daily choices? 

Father Burns: St. Francis de Sales talks about making the choice for heaven, and making the choice to live for heaven every day. We need to make that choice, in a deliberate and intentional, understanding way, to live for heaven and to do so each and every day. 

That’s how St. Francis de Sales puts it: I choose heaven. I choose the devout life. I choose holiness each and every day, because now that I’ve considered heaven and hell, death, my own judgment, I realize what’s at stake in every day. 

When I make little choices, if they’re free choices and they’re deliberate, I am either moving toward or away from the good, toward or away from God. 

That little day-to-day battle is much more important and urgent than we tend to think. A lot of times, we leave heaven off on the horizon; we say, “I’m going to die someday, and I’ll get it sorted out before that.” But we know not the day or the hour. We’re called to live in a state of being ready to stand in front of the Lord now. 

That’s what the choice is about. It’s going to be imperfect, we’ll need to seek forgiveness when we fail, but we can’t put this off any longer, because we don’t know when that day is going to be. 

McGregor: He really is very cognizant of the state of lay people, and the fact that they have challenges throughout their days, and the need for us to create the opportunity for that encounter with God. 

Father Burns: He understood that life is really busy, the average day for the average person is packed, it’s full of distraction, and it’s easy to forget the Lord. 

We can’t spend our whole day just in front of the Lord, because we have families, we have jobs, we have parishes, whatever our duties are. So he suggested we find a little time each day where we reflect on the Lord. 

And so, at the beginning of “Introduction to the Devout Life” he lays out 10 meditations that we are supposed to make, one a day for 10 days. Ideally, you would find time at the beginning of each day so that what you meditate on is something you think about throughout the day. 

The meditations include: on our creation, on the end for which we are created, on sin, on death, etc. 

What he always said, at the beginning of each of his meditations, was, “Place yourself in the presence of God, and ask God to inspire you.” 

He said every prayer should begin that way, and whatever we’re doing — even if we’re just sitting up in our bed in the morning — we’ve got a few minutes to just place yourself in God’s presence. Acknowledge the presence of God, and then ask for his inspiration.

So he gives these different ways of doing that, considering the presence of God in all things, or considering God present in your heart, or thinking for a moment about Christ gazing upon you from the heavens, or imagining Christ at your side as you make these prayers — just a little tiny act, a couple seconds, probably, but an act of intentionally realizing you’re in God’s presence, and then asking him for inspiration, and then moving into the topic of your meditation. 

He also addresses distraction in prayer very practically. He says, “Look, we all get distracted. We can’t make a perfect meditation every time. We have to learn how to just patiently keep on placing ourselves in the presence of God and asking for his inspiration.”

There are stories about him that, while he was making his own meditations, he would sometimes struggle with distractions so much, he would just continue to say, “I place myself, Lord, in your presence, and I ask you to inspire me.” 

Sometimes he would have to do that for an entire hour, just repeating that over and over again, because he was so distracted he couldn’t even make his way through the meditation. He spent an hour just trying to stay in the presence of God and asking for God’s inspiration. 

So when we know a great saint struggled with meditation and prayer, it’s a little bit of consolation for the rest of us, who all struggle with meditation and prayer.


Click here to listen to the full interview.

Kris McGregor is the founder of Discerninghearts.com, an online resource for the best in contemporary Catholic spirituality.

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