In the gospels, when the Sadducees asked Jesus, “What do I have to do to obtain eternal life? Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now in a sense, the second is the easier one to understand, even if at times it seems harder to obey. Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves: we can understand that; we know what it’s like to love another person. But the first and greatest commandment is to love God “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.” If we take it seriously, we may wonder, “How do we do that? What does it mean to love God?” We can’t see God. God isn’t present to us the way our parents or friends are. We show our love for other people by spending time with them, doing things together, if we are really close, giving a hug or a kiss. But how do we love God?
Well, St. Francis de Sales, wrote two books, to answer that question; in them he teaches us how to love God. The first, The Introduction to the Devout Life, is the easier one to read. It was based on letters of advice he had written to friends of his. And in it he tells us that the true love of God means living a devout life and so he shows us how to be devout. The second, The Treatise on the Love of God, is a masterpiece, but It’s long and it can be tough to read. It’s got a lot of really great stuff in it, but a lot of people never get beyond the first couple of chapters.
However, while I strongly recommend reading both the Introduction to the Devout Life as well as The Treatise on the Love of God – believe me, they are worth the effort – nevertheless, you can still practice Salesian Spirituality without reading either. The key is a prayer, or perhaps better a devotional practice, which we in the Salesian family call the Direction of Intention. The Direction of Intention is a prayer which asks God’s grace so we can perform an action with him and for love of him, and in it we offer God all the good that we can accomplish and accept all the difficulty we experience in it.
Actually, as central as the practice of the Direction of Intention, there is no official version. At the annual Salesian Leadership conference, where kids from various Visitation and Oblate schools around the country gather, there is almost a competition about whose version is better. Actually they are actually all fairly similar; they all express the same sentiment. The one I learned goes, “My God grant me the grace to perform this action with you and through love for you. In advance I offer you all the good I may do and I accept all the pain and difficulty I may meet therein.” If you find that too long to remember, something like “Dear Lord help me to do this for you,” works just as well.
In my opinion – and in the opinion of people a lot smarter than me – the Direction of Intention captures in just a few words the essence of what Francis is writing in both the Introduction to the Devout Life and The Treatise in the Love of God. Here’s what I mean. At the beginning of the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis makes it very clear that everyone, not just bishops, priests and nuns, can live a holy and devout life. He writes,
“It is an error, or rather a heresy to wish to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the merchant’s shop, the court of princes, or the home of married people. It is true . . ., that purely contemplative, monastic, and religious devotion cannot be exercised in such states of life. However, besides those three kinds of devotion, there are several others adapted to bring perfection to the those living in the [every day] world.”
The rest of the Introduction to the Devout life is devoted to telling us exactly how to do that, how to live a devout life while being very much in the world.Then in the Treatise, there’s another passage that says much the same thing. There Francis writes,
Once we have placed ourself in God’s presence, we remain there by many other means for as long as we do anything in God or for God either by intellect or by will. For instance, we look at him or at those who speak for him; we speak to him or to someone out of love for him; or we do some work, no matter what it may be, for his honor and in his service. Or again we do none of all this, but remain simply where it pleases him for us to be and because it pleases him that we are there.
“Once we have placed ourself in God’s presence.” Isn’t that what we are doing when we pray “Dear Lord help me to do this for you”? In other words, when we pray the Direction of Intention and mean what we say, we are in fact obeying the first commandment, to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind while we are doing our everyday things:
Not only before you start a task, but when you settle in to watch TV
When you are traveling to work or heading home
When you are going to a movie or a hockey game
When you are stopping at Starbucks or McDonalds
When you go dress up to go out for dinner or order a pizza from Domino’s.
All of those, as long as we acting as God would have us act, can be acts of love for God, and that’s what the Direction of Intention does.
You know, it’s not unusual that someone will come to me in the sacrament of reconciliation and confess that they have not made God the priority in their lives. I think what they mean by that is that yes, they get to Mass on Sunday and maybe they say prayers now and then, but the greater part of their day seems to have little or nothing to do with God. The direction of intention solves that problem. By offering all those ordinary things that we do every day to God, by making the decision to do them trusting in him and his abundant love, we are transforming all those ordinary, everyday actions, challenges, successes and failures into acts of love for God. Or to put it in Francis’ words, we taking ordinary things and doing them extraordinarily well.
I first encountered the Direction of Intention when I was in high school – some 55 years ago. For over half a century, it has been an important part of my prayer life. In fact, I think you could say that together with Mass, it is one of the most important parts of my prayer life. It’s the way I love God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind. The Direction of Intention is a gift that Francis de Sales has given us member of the Salesian family and which we joyfully offer to you. If you use it, you can make your whole day, your whole life an act of love for God. And, after all, that’s what God asks of us: to love him with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS