Advice from a dead man at five o’clock in the morning

I woke up at four o’clock this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. As a the biggest non-morning-person in the world, this was an unusual occurrence.

After an hour I finally just got up — I figured I might as well get something done if I was going to be awake. I walked downstairs, feeling groggy and a little down. I was too tired to be very productive, yet not tired enough to go back to sleep. On top of that, I had a bunch of things I wanted to get done today, and now worried that I wouldn’t have the energy to accomplish them all.

I drifted into my office, flipped on the light, and prepared to sit in front of my computer. But just before I sat down, a book caught my attention. Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction seemed to jump out at me as if it had a spotlight on it. It was weird because I’d never noticed it before. I don’t even know where I got it.

Anyway, Francis de Sales and I go way back (all my posts on how his wisdom has impacted my life are here). As soon as I saw the book I knew that I was meant to pick it up, and that the first page I turned to would have something awesome for me. I don’t know whether that was the Holy Spirit or just the fact that de Sales has never written a paragraph that wasn’t fascinating; either way, it worked. I opened it to a random page, and my eyes immediately fell on this part of a letter that he wrote to one of the women who’d asked him for spiritual advice:

Soon we shall be in eternity and then we shall see how insignificant our worldly preoccupations were and how little it mattered whether some things got done or not; however, right now we rush about as if they were all-important. When we were little children how eagerly we used to gather pieces of broken tile, little sticks, and mud with which to build houses and other tiny buildings, and if someone knocked them over, how heartbroken we were and how we cried! But now we understand that these things really didn’t amount to much. One day it will be like this for us in heaven when we shall see that some of the things we clung to on earth were only childish attachments.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about these little games and trifling details of life, for God wants us to practice on them in this world; but I would like to see us not so strained and frantic in our concern about them. Let’s play our childish games since we are children; but at the same time, let’s not take them too seriously. And if someone wrecks our little houses or projects, let’s not get too upset, because when night falls and we have to go indoors — I’m speaking of our death — all those little houses will be useless; we shall have to go into our Father’s house. Do faithfully all the things you have to do, but be aware that what matters most is your salvation and the fulfillment of that salvation through true devotion.

After I read that passage, I flipped through the book. I was charmed by all the letters, written by both Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal (Francis was Jane’s spiritual director, and she went on to be a spiritual director herself). The letters collected in the book offer wisdom and encouragement for the little concerns of daily life: one shares advice on how to pray during the exhaustion of pregnancy, another with how to respond to unkind behavior by friends. They also discuss deep suffering; three of Jane de Chantal’s children died, and her beloved husband was killed in a tragic accident on the day she gave birth to their last child, when she was only 28.

What struck me as I read through all these letters, however, was the dates: one from 1604. Another from 1610. The one I quoted above was written on May 19, 1608.

In one letter Francis de Sales commented that he was writing these words before dawn. As I sat at my own desk in the pre-dawn stillness, I felt dizzied by the fact that his words that I could relate to so well, that sounded like something straight out of my own life, were written 400 years ago.

His advice in that first excerpt became even more powerful when I considered the four centuries that separated us. It’s one thing for someone who’s currently living to remind you that earthly accomplishments are fleeting; it’s another to read it from someone who lived so long ago, where you can look back across the timeline of world history and see that they were indeed just players, and the story belonged to God all along.

It was illuminating to consider how my own life might look from such a distance. I imagined a journal entry I might write that morning if I were to do a brain dump of all that was on my mind:


April 27, 2010
Woke up earlier than I wanted to. Ugh! Worried that I’ll be super tired all day. Have been feeling a little stressed about getting those screens on our windows fixed. Also, I’m annoyed by a note I received the other day that had some really unkind criticisms of something I wrote — just wait until I set him straight in my reply! Plus, I need to sign my son up for sports, and should probably get the girls some kind of lessons as well. Really wanted to write something today. It’s going to be so annoying if I don’t have time.

It was interesting to imagine that same note, but reading it from a distance of 400 years. I pictured this:


April 27, 1610
Woke up earlier than I wanted to. Ugh! Worried that I’ll be super tired all day. Have been feeling a little stressed about getting those screens on our windows fixed. Also, I’m annoyed by a note I received the other day that had some really unkind criticisms of something I wrote — just wait until I set him straight in my reply! Plus, I need to sign my son up for sports, and should probably get the girls some kind of lessons as well. Really wanted to write something today. It’s going to be so annoying if I don’t have time.

That thought exercise was a real thunder-and-lightning moment for me. It made me want to shout to the woman writing in 1610, “Dude, reprioritize! Don’t put so much energy into trivial stuff!” As Francis de Sales points out, it’s not that those little worries of life don’t matter at all — obviously, we have to attend to the duties in front of us — but that we should always strive to keep them in perspective. In the end, they’re not nearly as important as how much we loved, i.e. how well we served God.

Francis and Jane have both been dead for four centuries. I say “dead” as a shorthand for their departure from earthly life — I believe that they’re very much alive, and still interacting with this world. In fact, it was probably their prayers that guided me to that book this morning. (The saints have certainly made bold moves in my life before, as I recounted here and here). As I read through their letters in the darkness of my office at five o’clock this morning, my mind flashed through all the history that has played out in the hundreds of years since they wrote those words, and I could imagine them whispering to me: Eternity is a whole lot longer than a handful of decades on earth. Prioritize accordingly.

Painting: Pieter de Hooch, “The Bedroom, ” 1658

————————

POSTSCRIPT:

I wouldn’t be giving you the full picture if I didn’t offer this update:

My day ended up being a disaster. Normally I get an hour or so of down time in the afternoons when the kids have nap/quiet time, but today all four of the kids opted for “screaming time” instead. When a bowl full of freshly-chopped cantaloupe got shattered on the kitchen floor, I ended up placing one of those “bad day melodrama” phone calls to my husband, where I screeched a litany of everything that had gone wrong that afternoon, ending by noting through gritted teeth that it was exasperating that I couldn’t finish the one simple thing I’d been working on.

“What was it?” my husband asked.

I paused. “It was, umm, a blog post about how we shouldn’t freak out about small problems.”

So, yeah: easier said than done.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer says

    What a fantastic post. I loved it. So powerful to think how the important lessons never do change. He could have been talking to us today! Keep it all in perspective. Thank you for this wonderful lesson!
    ~Jennifer

  2. Mindyleigh says

    Thank you for posting this. My spiritual director, within our first two meetings, recommended I spend time with "Introduction to the Devout Life." It has made a huge impact on me. I look forward to reading more of his works, but this one should keep me enamored for a long time. (I am attempting to blog about my time with the book as well but sometimes I feel I should just post links to you each time and not bother with the writing part!)

  3. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time says

    You nailed me. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who "gets" the message and still has a bad day… LOL

  4. Nichole@40daysof says

    I've just read this post right now because I've woken up early and can't get back to sleep. Serendipity! I needed to read something like that. I have been way too focused on projects that I want to get done, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything. This sounds like a book I need to have around. Thanks for the "keepin it real" update at the end. ๐Ÿ™‚

    http://40daysof.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/to-make-my-friend-feel-better/

  5. Beth says

    Jen,
    Your son's 5 right? DON'T sign him up for sports yet. If you want to know why, I'll be happy to expand. I learned my lesson with my now 11 yo boy and my husband and I opted NOT to sign up his younger brother for baseball yet. He's a skilled ball player (of everything)-learned it all in the yard and in the neighborhood. There's plenty of time for it-you'll resent being slave to the schedule and decisions and obligations. Great post of Francis and Jane-I think I'll look for the book at my local Catholic bookstore.

    Have a better day,
    Beth

  6. Becca says

    Thank you! I have been feeling extremely sorry for myself since last night about the fact that I have to cancel my plans for Friday (the only plans I had all week) to take my mother in law to have a procedure on her neck. Thank you for reminding me that love is more important than the little things I want to be involved in. I really enjoy your blog, but God really used it today to speak to me.

  7. Delores says

    It is somewhat ironic or "coincidental"… I have just recently started reading the Introduction to the Devout Life. We have had it for a while, but a couple of weeks ago I really sensed that I needed to read this book, that it would be good for me. I always hesitate to say "God spoke to me," but I think this guiding was of His more obvious prompting. I agree — I always get something out of it. I just read the first meditation this morning and your post reminded me of the "nosegay" I am to keep before me this day. I love "coincidences" like this. So while your day may be crazy, at least I am blessed by your early morning readings and postings. Thank you.

  8. Nadja Magdalena says

    I have a quote of St. Francis on my bulletin board, also about allowing nothing to disturb your inner peace. He is a great one for practical advice. Isn't it interesting to think that his fault, against which he had to fight, was a temper? Seems so unlikely for this placid saint!

  9. bearing says

    Dear Jennifer, thank you for the quote from St. Francis! What I love about it is, it's so realistic and balanced. A lot of saints writing about detachment, it seems, insist on us being ethereal and otherworldly and behaving as if the world we live in is of no account at all. But I love how he puts these things in their proper place, remembering that most of us have to live IN the world — they are not useless and of NO account, they are for practicing on — getting ready for our REAL life…

    Beautiful! I've never read St. Francis de Sales — maybe I should, since Jane Frances de Chantal is my daughter's patroness…

  10. Anonymous says

    After the out of control evening that both my daughter and I had over something very minor, I needed to read this post. Thank you. As always, God puts something in my path to make me review my actions and help me pick a better path the next time.

  11. Jenny says

    I would be interested in seeing an excerpt of the section about praying through the exhaustion of pregnancy. I am really struggling with that right now and could use some advice. Maybe a request for quick take Friday. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Roxane B. Salonen says

    Jen, loved this. I had that same realization recently about time and the lessons we are here to learn and how they really don't change through time, it's just that we are the ones living those trials at the moment, and needing the wisdom; sometimes it comes from the voices of the past who are not so different from us than we sometimes think. That is a very cool realization, indeed!

  13. Kim says

    Thanks for this awesome post! One of my favorites (I have lots!) of yours!
    Perfect timing for me today, and I can't wait to get that book.
    –Kim D.

  14. Becca@The Earthling's Handbook says

    Wow, I could almost have written the comment of the other Becca or several other people here. Is it the Holy Spirit calling you to write about this experience when we all need to hear it, or is it just that our world is sadly full of people overloaded by their own misplaced priorities?

    This is just the encouragement I needed as I continue to recover from a 5-day migraine that, if not actually self-triggered, certainly was lengthened and worsened by my various refusals to reprioritize and take proper care of myself. On Monday I reread your article on burnout to remind me that I am not the only person who does this and that there are strategies for pulling out of it. It gave me "permission" for one evening of total bed rest (with prayer) and that's what got me back to normal again.

    I know just what you mean about wisdom from the past. I often feel that a hymn is speaking directly to my innermost needs and then look at when it was written, usually hundreds of years ago! People haven't changed so much. And that reminds me that Jesus was a person, too, and remembers what that's like and understands.

  15. Rebecca says

    A couple things:

    *I second the commenter who said don't sign your son up for sports yet. We have an 8- and 9-year-old girl as well as two toddlers and girl scouts once a week almost puts us over the edge. Thank heavens they don't WANT to do more in terms of extracurriculars.

    *I, too, always seem to have one of those really awful days with the kids' behaviour when I am truly exhausted. It's like they can smell mom's weakness! My sister told me something recently that was really helpful. I was totally spent (lifelong hideous insomnia that had reached a particularly bad point) and she told me, "God often does his most important work with you through your exhaustion." And you know? She's right. That period of especially bad sleep forced me to confront something that has been weighing on me for YEARS, and to take steps to resolving it.

    *You mentioned you have started jogging. Is there any way you can get up early and do it in the morning? I am a lifelong runner and I am SO not a morning person, but I switched to going at 6.15am and OH MY GOODNESS, the rest of my day is so much better. (This will also come in handy in the Texas summertime we know & love so.)

    *Finally (sorry this is so long): Do you have a place you can escape, like a deck, or a balcony, or even the bath, when the kids are screaming/not napping so that you can rest? I go lay out on my deck and it is SO helpful because my almost-3-year-old is a naptime screecher.

  16. Alisa says

    Haha, this is an answer to prayer as this morning I asked God, "What kind of eternal significance is there in my day filled with 9 loads of laundry??"

    So thanks!

  17. TaraS says

    Rebecca – THANK YOU for mentioning the jogging. That's something I really want to do for myself, but totally forgot about. Go figure LOL.

    This was such a good post – a few months ago I read the part of the Bible where Martha wants Jesus to make her sister Mary help her take care Jesus and the rest of the visiting company, and Jesus tells Martha that Mary is the one who has chosen the right path. It struck me at the time as a "Really Important Thing"; one that I should figure out how to apply to my own life, but I have a hard time understanding how to make sense of it. The quote from Francis de Sales certainly helps!

  18. Kris says

    Love this!! My husband is currently deployed in the middle east, so I have too many of those days. Thanks for giving me a new perspective.

  19. Maman A Droit says

    Great post! As a convert myself, I still don't know much about the saints and their writings, and I'm definitely intrigued by St Francis de Sales now. And less stressed about my piles of laundry and dishes. Lol.

  20. Guy says

    Thank you so much for this blog, it's really inspirational — I appreciate you sharing your great gifts of insight and writing in this way.

  21. Catherine says

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one that makes those calls to my husband!!! I thought it was a sure sign I was a spiritual wreck!

  22. Josephene says

    My favourite part of this blog was your husband's question. If the "conversation" went more or less like that (paraphrase: Jen: "Life really sucks right now and all I want is to write a post!" Husband: "What was the post about?"), he sounds pretty great! ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. Christine says

    Well done. Thanks for the last line about blogging….made me laugh. Hang in there with those little stinkers. Play a lot. When times get crazy turn on music and make the kids dance. Works for me.

  24. elizabethe says

    LOL to the postscript.

    I am a freelance writer/stay at home mom and I ALWAYS have days like that. I JUST want to write ONE page before the end of the day. if these kids would just play quietly without breaking something for 15 or 20 MINUTES, I would get it done and then I could focus on them. WHY CAN'T THEY UNDERSTAND that?

    I spend the whole day trying to "distract" them and get the one page written but I never ever get it written and I have a bad day. At some point along the way it occurs to me that the only thing making it a bad day is the fact that I wanted to get that page written. If I didn't have desire to get the page done and everything else was the same, it would have been a totally fine, stress free day (but then, things like melons and bowls falling to the ground don't bother me). Someday I'll learn to just raise the kids and take care of the house all day. I still won't get the writing done, but at least I'll have had a good day.

    And actually, when I do focus on the house and kids, I always wind up with some miraculous free time that I wasn't even planning for.

    =)

  25. Anonymous says

    Wonderful post!

    I have found in my middle age that I wake up frequently between 3 and 4 in the morning. It used to bother me, but in accepting it for what it is, I've found those mornings to be very good. They can be used to pray for my family, pray for wisdom, pray for priests and for Pope Benedict. I've said the invitatory prayers of the liturgy of the hours, sipped coffee, and sometimes surf my favorite blogs, of which yours is surely one…all done in the pre-dawn quiet when the rest of the family and neighborhood are still asleep. As it gets warmer, I may sit outdoors and watch the sunrise. There is treasure to be found in the pre-dawn, and I see you found yours today!

  26. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary says

    Reading about your comment to your husband made me laugh! I'm glad I'm not the only who has to say something out loud before I realize how ridiculous it is.

  27. Marie says

    Wow. Another great post! And I needed to hear this today. I admire you for letting the Holy Spirit lead you to that book. When you are so open like that, you learn so much and all of us (your readers) learn a lot too! So thanks.

  28. Laura says

    Excellent post and very timely for things that I am stressing over in my life right now, which, in reality, won't mean a hill of beans in 400 years…or even 1 year for that matter. I believe the Holy Spirit led me here for a very specific purpose…Thank you!

  29. Potamiaena says

    When they are screaming, how about singing?

    IMHO: No sports for 5 year olds. No ballet either. It's a waste of time and money at this age. Backyards with dad are the way to go.

    There will be lots of time for the activities later. The kids will not have missed out.

    I must get the St. Francis de Sales books! Thanks!

  30. cathy says

    I have a similar collection of letters by St. Francis – and this was one of my favorite entries, too. Ah, the wisdom of the saints are timeless! ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. Laura G says

    Thank you for lovely post. Have been enjoying your blog for a few months, and this one really spoke to me. The Holy Spirit surely woke you to be His messenger to all your blog readers, as well as yourself!
    I'm racing around readying the house for a 1st Communion party in a few days, and this put my efforts into perspective! Thanks..

  32. Anonymous says

    Thank you so much for this post! Your blog is such a blessing to me, and I hope you realize how much God is using you to help others in their faith journey. (I am a recent convert – confirmed Easter 2010).

  33. Laura says

    Those dead people always give the best advice. Thanks for sharing these wise words. Trying to apply them here…

  34. Grace in my Heart says

    I'm currently reading Finding God's Will for You (also by St. Frances de Sales) as I navigate through the pains of infertility and the joy of adoption. It truly is amazing how certain books and passages within them really stick out just when you need them to. Thanks for sharing!

  35. marnie says

    Thank you! I think I'll get away from the computer and go out to play in the rain with my kids. Be a little child like and imagine Papa God's smile.

  36. Marianne Thomas says

    Thanks for this post. I needed the reminder – both to finally order a copy of this book and to look at the "busyness" in my life through a different lens.

  37. Geomama says

    I loved the "Intro to the Devout Life" so much that I set out to find people who lived that kind of spirituality. Check out the Assoc. of St. Francis de Sales at http://www.sfdsassociation.org/
    I'm going through a 2-year "formation" period to become a consecrated "Daughter of St. Francis de Sales" (wish they had a catchier name). It's all about living the devout life in any vocation (I'm the mother of 5). Each person in formation is assigned to a "companion" (a consecrated Daughter) who helps us apply the teachings/virtues to our lives.

  38. Rebecca Vitz Cherico says

    Great Post! I struggle with a LOT of the same things…Piggybacking a bit on what Elizabethe said, the tricky thing for me is recognizing the difference between the trivial (i.e. unimportant things) and the small…There is so much in Catholic spirituality (I think especially of both Mother Teresa and Therese of Lisieux) that focuses deliberately on the small things, but not in the frustrated way that I do most of the time. As a mom, too, it can be hard, because SO MUCH of your time is dealing with small things (many of which are not instinctively interesting to me, anyway). I'm (slowly) finding that the difference is in whether those are small things that have been given to me (my kids being one obvious example) or small things that I am personally fixated on. I'm trying to remember that if I focus on the big picture of what is essential and eternal that I can understand which small things I'm called to focus on–and which I have to let go.

    Much easier said than done for me, though!