A new book tells us it's in the "mess" of today that we can find opportunities to grow in spiritual perfection "one day at a time."
Live Well Today is one of those wonderfully titled books that gets to the point quickly. And in my case, a book that gets called out from the piles in my office to be attended to because who among us doesn’t truly want to Live Well Today? We maybe didn’t manage it yesterday but we know time is running out. A few weeks into a new year, we’re all the more sensitive to the urgency of this reality. And so I asked the book’s author, Fr. Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., senior ranking faculty member at De Sales University and founder the Salesian Center for Faith and Culture there, to help walk us toward this whole living well business … today.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You begin the book with a quote from St. Francis de Sales: “Let us be firmly resolved to serve God with our whole heart and life. Beyond that, let us have no care about tomorrow. Let us think only of living today week, and when tomorrow comes, it also will be today and we can think of it then.” Is it unsaintly to think about tomorrow?
Fr. Thomas Dailey O.S.F.S.: No, it’s not unsaintly at all. His point is not to have anxious care about it! Can we, should we, plan ahead … sure! But fretting over the future is not only useless but potentially damaging to our peace of soul.
Lopez: But what about finances and practicalities?
Fr. Dailey: Strategizing for life is, indeed, necessary. It’s the worrying about it that, as a spiritual director, he worries about!
Lopez: Is everyone called to “spiritual perfection”? What does that look like in what might just be the mess of today?
Fr. Dailey: Yes, if by “spiritual perfection” one means a life of holiness. The universal call to holiness is just that … universal! But — and this is his hallmark — that call comes in/through the particular state-in-life (vocation) of each person, and is therefore lived out differently for each person. An example (from him): the mother of six children should not think that her holiness means spending time in church every day; rather, she should strive to be a saintly mother. So, it’s precisely in/through the “mess” of today and every day that one finds the opportunities to grow in spiritual perfection. What it “looks like” is living virtuously in the very midst of that mess.
Lopez: Does even American Catholic culture point toward a reality of a universal call to holiness? Beyond going to Mass on Sunday and putting money in the collection, which can sometimes seem like box checking so we know good works are happening?
Fr. Dailey: Our culture (American and all others) still (and sometimes more so) consider religion as a “one thing among many” in life … as if holiness is one more thing on our “to do” list. Typically, religion is a Sunday thing while Monday-Saturday deals with the rest of life. It’s that compartmentalizing that he is trying to correct. It’s more about intentionality than the doing of good works (though actually putting good into practice is necessary, too).
He’s also trying to correct the false idea that holiness is the “business” of the professional religious people (monks, nuns, etc.). It’s really the business of every person, especially the baptized.
Lopez: What’s different about Salesian spirituality? Why can’t we all just be Christian?
Fr. Dailey: What’s different is not a distinction in kind (this vs. that) but a distinctiveness in approach. Then as now, the idea that anyone/everyone can be a saint is kind of revolutionary! Specifically, the Salesian focus is an interior one, with a heavy focus on the heart/relationships, and with an approach to life guided by “little” (less esteemed) virtues of humility and gentleness. It’s what he called a “hidden” approach to spirituality … which, unfortunately, doesn’t have a great marketing angle (“difference”)!
Lopez: Is there really such a thing as a “little virtue”?
Fr. Dailey: Absolutely! The “little” isn’t about ease of doing or lack of importance. It’s about not being flashy, newsworthy, or “big” in the sense of what others see of it. Magnanimity (a large donation) is a “big” virtue; helping someone with her groceries (gentleness) is a “little” one. But even the little things I do, if done with the intention of loving God, are virtuous. And there are a zillion opportunities each day to practice the “little” virtues, while the “big” ones are rare. This is what chapter 12 is all about.
Lopez: De Sales advises gentleness in speech. Is now really a time for gentleness? Is there a danger we steer clear of the truth in some cases because it can be harsh?
Fr. Dailey: Gentleness has to do with what we say and how we say it. “A truth said without charity comes from a charity that is not true!” Truth is challenging, but when it needs to be said, it needs to be said. Still, one does not have to say it harshly … one can be, in his idiom, gentle but firm. Now is more than ever the time for gentle speech … not “soft” speech, but charitable speech.
Lopez: Is there a difference between the imagination in the spiritual advice of de Sales and Ignatius of Loyola?
Fr. Dailey: No, not really. Francis de Sales was Jesuit educated! But I think Francis may have emphasized it even more.
Lopez: How much of de Sales do you see in Pope Francis?
Fr. Dailey: A lot! I mention several connections in the introduction to the book. And now I’m working on a chapter for a new book that compares their vision of preaching.
Lopez: If a reader only walks away from your book with one spiritual pointed to live today, right now, well, what would you pray it be?
Fr. Dailey: That I, too, can lead a good and holy life … if I approach it humbly, gently, and one day at a time.