Proceeding Gently, Yet Courageously into the New Year

This year Well-Read Mom was privileged to work with The Word Among Us to bring back into print Wisdom from the Lives and Letters of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. This was our spiritual read for Advent during Well-Read Mom’s Year of the Family and will continue to be a work of literature that strengthens resolutions to deepen our individual spirituality and sacred friendships well into this new year.

A reflection on the Spirituality of Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal

by Megan Keyser ~ Well-Read Mom

Another year has come and gone, and with the end of the year, we eagerly look forward to the new: renewing promises, setting goals, crafting ambitions. We pledge to improve our health, embark on new projects, or eradicate flaws from our behavior. These aspirations, of course, are often noble and certainly meritorious in many respects, but perhaps, in our New Year’s zeal to transform ourselves into incredibly fit, diligently studious, inexhaustibly patient, and nearly angelic individuals, we lose sight of the truth that lasting perfection is gained through slow, patient, and often, virtually imperceptible change.

Ever since my youth, I have harbored perfectionist tendencies – tendencies that have not only caused me to anguish in my own spiritual growth but also have proved challenging when confronting the messy and unpredictable realities of motherhood. Given my penchant for perfectionism and, in the spiritual realm, a sense of scrupulosity and feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness, the words and inspiration of dear Saint Francis de Sales have proved a balm for my fretful and anxious soul. Known as the “Gentle Doctor,” Saint Francis de Sales possessed the rare and priceless ability to communicate vital truths with profound gentleness. To the worried, to the overwhelmed, to the emotionally or spiritually exhausted, the honeyed eloquence of de Sales has a vivifying effect, buoying his readers against the spiritual assaults that frequently demoralize our efforts toward a deeper and more devoted relationship with Christ.  It is for these reasons that I have long felt a kinship with Saint Francis and have appreciated his sweet wisdom, which speaks volumes of truth without a breath of harshness.

Particularly for mothers, the pursuit of spiritual improvement during Advent can be understandably challenging – an acute extension of the common Mary/Martha dilemma unique to the vocation of motherhood – and these struggles persist as we move into the New Year.

With the celebration of Christmas Day, we have officially concluded Advent– the Liturgical Season that not only marks the beginning of the Church year, but also directly precedes the arrival of the new calendar year, complete with all its burgeoning hopes, aspirations, and sometimes, worries or concerns. With so much anticipation surrounding this time, Advent, a spiritual season that, ideally, should be directed toward our interior preparation for the Nativity of Christ, is often eclipsed by the hustle and bustle of the customary demands surrounding the celebration of Christmas (the planning of feasts, festivities, and familial traditions) and the impending arrival of a New Year.

Particularly for mothers, the pursuit of spiritual improvement during Advent can be understandably challenging – an acute extension of the common Mary/Martha dilemma unique to the vocation of motherhood – and these struggles persist as we move into the New Year. In light of these virtually inescapable realities, how wonderful that we have this opportunity to refresh our wearied souls at the wellspring of such esteemed, yet singularly approachable, saints in Wisdom from the Lives and Letters of Saint Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. In a season where mothers are often pushed to the brink of utter exhaustion and harried frenzy, Saint Francis emphasizes a spirit of patient calm. He counsels,

“Be patient with everyone, but especially with yourself,”

Saint Francis de Sales

stressing the importance of extending God’s merciful forgiveness, which Christ exemplified so lovingly through His Mystical Incarnation, not only to our husbands, children, friends, and neighbors but particularly to ourselves when we have fallen short of our spiritual responsibilities and expectations (page 60). De Sales continues to caution against despair or excessive feelings of guilt or remorse, while simultaneously encouraging us to aspire to spiritual zeniths: 

“…Don’t trouble yourself about your imperfections, [yet] always have the courage to lift yourself out of them, ” for “Our imperfections are going to accompany us to the grave. We can’t go anywhere without having our feet on the ground, yet we don’t just lie there, sprawled [in the dust]” (60 & 86).

Saint Francis de Sales

But how can we refrain from a sense of defeat, while concurrently maintaining a desire for spiritual greatness? For Saint Francis and his protégé, Saint Jane, the secret rested in a trusting abandonment to God and a humble assessment of our own utter dependence upon His Goodness in correcting our failings. When tempted to lament our own shortcomings, Saint Jane reminds us rather to simply humble ourselves before Almighty God, recognizing fully our limitations:

“O Lord, this is what I’m capable of. This is my poverty and misery” (87).

Saint Jane de Chantal

However, this candid assessment of our deficiencies should not be confused with a dismissal of our transgressions, but rather, as a truthful acknowledgment of our pressing need to cultivate “humility, selflessness, patience, and watchfulness” (87). In this light, our faults become not insurmountable stumbling blocks, but rather catalysts for authentic self-mastery and increased devotion. As our vision of ourselves as “something special, resolute, and steady” erodes, our appreciation for God’s mercy, power, and love magnifies, and paradoxically, in this state of humility, we garner immense spiritual riches, strength, and power (95). Saint Francis relates,

“The humble man is all the more courageous, the more he realizes that he is powerless; the more he esteems himself worthless, the more daring he becomes, because he puts his whole trust in God who is pleased to exalt his almighty power in our weakness and manifest his mercy in our misery” (91).

Saint Francis de Sales

In a most exquisite and penetrating illustration of sublime humility and its glorious effects, de Sales points to the perfect self-effacement of the Blessed Virgin in acquiescence to the omnipotence of God, a stark humility which ironically disposed her to fulfilling the most significant act ever performed by a mere human being.  As Mary breathed her awe-struck response to God’s request, saying to His messenger, the Archangel Gabriel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word,” Our Lady coupled her lowliness before God with the capacity for immeasurable generosity and subsequent greatness, by offering herself as a most beautiful and holy vessel for sharing our Savior with the world (Luke 1:38). Though she recognized the vast gulf between herself and her Lord, she, like a child, trusted that God would sustain her in every aspect of His Will for her life, and with unfailing confidence, she placed her cares into the Hands of God, saying

“I believe it can and will be done” (89).

So, while I certainly do not wish to discourage my sisters from pursuing lofty goals in this coming year, I would like to offer the gentle reminder that it is not our personal success in achieving those ambitions, however noble they may be, that determines the worthwhileness of the endeavor, but the love, sweetness, and humility inspiring the attempt that is the greatest victory. In fact, if we began simply by viewing the daily opportunities of “ordinary” life as our best means of sanctification (the sleep deprivation, the diapers, the disappointments, the disapproval of the world for embracing an out-of-mode Faith), how many of us would become saints? Saint Francis writes,

“Great works do not always come our way, but in every moment, we may do little ones well – that is with great love…The bees gather honey from the lily, the iris, and the rose, yet they get as much honey from the minute rosemary flowers and thyme. In fact, they draw not only more honey, but even better honey from these, for in these small vessels the honey is more concentrated and better preserved. It is true: in the little works of devotion, love is not only practiced more frequently but usually more humbly as well, and consequently more usefully and productively.” (98-99)

Saint Francis de Sales

As mothers, frequently faced with many of the more onerous vocational tasks and responsibilities, it can be easy to reject the obscurity that often marks our most diligent efforts in caring for our husbands, children, and homes. However, let us take up the challenges God places before us with His Own Divine Hands, before racing off to pursue other “grander” and “more magnificent” pursuits of our own crafting. For as Saint Jane counseled her nuns, if the point of this life is conforming our wills more perfectly to that of the Father, “…what dying to self is there in the things…you have chosen?” (101) And when we consider the “splendid opportunity” motherhood presents “to enable [true growth] in humility, gentleness, patience…it may be that [we] will render greater service to God by [our] efforts to gain this soul [through love] than by everything else [we] have done in [our lives]” (45-46). In 2022, may we renew our efforts to live for Christ, to beautify this world with our devotion and care, and to shed His Light through our own simple actions, but let us do so “Gently…Begin[ing] to live well, according to [our] vocation: sweetly, simply, and humbly…trust[ing] in God” (93). And suddenly, our confidence in God, despite personal weaknesses, disappointments, or miseries, may just blossom into the transformation we desire (88-89).

Megan Keyser
Megan Keyser

Originally hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Megan is a 2006 Hillsdale College graduate with a degree in Classical Studies. These days, Megan thrives on the challenges and joys of her role as a Catholic, stay-at-home mother, who heads a chapter of the Well-Read Mom, dabbles in social commentary and other writing pursuits, and advocates for the pro-life cause. Despite the inevitable chaos of large family life, Megan is thankful for her lively brood and relishes juggling household responsibilities, babies in diapers, and, of course, a good book. She resides in Noblesville, Indiana, with her husband, Marc, an engineer in the energy industry, and their nine children, ages 13 years to 10 months old.

Well-Read Mom

For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom reflects on the theme of family. In Well-Read Mom we desire to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women can return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family. Find out more.

Well-Read Mom