In the twelfth chapter of the second part of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis de Sales provides (amongst many other excellent counsels) a wonderful piece of pastoral advice, detailing the way in which ‘spiritual retirement’ can and should be made part of one’s store of devotional resources. Addressing Philothea, a name which means ‘lover of God’ and which Saint Francis used as a means for directing the counsel he had originally devised for one Madame de Charmoisy to all those who sought to draw closer to God, the great Doctor advises us to develop the habit of making a retreat into the solitude of our hearts. In fostering this habit, and making it something that is second-nature to us, we will thereby always have a place of refuge from the trials and temptations of the world.
During this season of Advent, in which we attempt, through prayer and penance, to nurture a spirit of patient attentiveness, so that we may better hear the voice of God and conform ourselves to His will, Francis’ words here are most relevant. His call for us to make within ourselves a place of retirement and refreshment, where we may hear the Lord’s voice and be strengthened by Him, is good advice at any time of year, and the practice he counsels is one that should ideally be built into one’s everyday life, but it is a particularly useful tool for helping us grow closer to God at Advent, as it provides us with a safe place where we can wait on Him in silence and stillness – the place that Saint Francis calls the ‘holy solitude of the heart’:
‘As birds have nests in the trees to retire to when they need, and the deer thickets and coverts into which to retire and hide themselves and enjoy the cool shade in the heat of summer; even so our hearts, Philothea, ought to choose some place each day, either on Mount Calvary, or in the wounds of our Lord, or in some other place near him, to retreat to at every opportunity, there to refresh and recreate ourselves amid our exterior business; and to take refuge there as in a hiding-place, to seek safety from temptations. Blessed is the soul than can say with truth to our Lord: Be thou my strong habitation, whereunto I may continually resort…for thou art my rock and my fortress (Ps. 71:3); and thou art a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat (Is. 25:14).
Remember then, Philothea, to make occasional retreats into the solitude of your heart, while outwardly engaged in business or conversation. This mental solitude cannot be prevented by the multitude of those who are about you, for they are not about your heart, but about your body: so your heart may remain alone, in the presence of God alone. This was the exercise of King David amid his many occupations, as he testifies by a thousand passages in his psalms, as when he says, I am continually with thee. I have set the Lord always before me. Unto thee lift I mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord (Pss. 73:23; 16:8; 123:1; 25:15). And indeed our occupations are not ordinarily so serious but that we may from time to time withdraw our heart from them, to enter into this divine solitude.
When the father and mother of St Catherine of Sienna had deprived her of every opportunity of place and leisure to pray and meditate, our Lord inspired her to make a little interior oratory within her soul, into which, retiring mentally, she might, amid her exterior affairs, have leisure in this holy solitude of the heart; and whenever the world afterward assaulted her, she received no inconvenience from it, because, as she said, she shut herself up in her interior closet, where she comforted herself with her heavenly spouse. And so she afterwards counselled her spiritual children to make a chamber in their heart, and to dwell there. Withdraw, then, your spirit from time to time into your heart, where, alone you may engage in conversation with God.’
An Introduction to the Devout Life (1988), pp.80-81, Hodder and Stoughton.