In a time when spirituality is often viewed as something trendy or trite, Heart Speaks to Heart, by Wendy Wright, reminds us that the spiritual life is at the very core of human existence. This well documented introduction to the seventeenth-century religious order founded by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal reveals a theology shaped by lived experience, a spirituality formed in the vagaries, challenges and practical needs of daily life.
Among the latest in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series edited by Philip Sheldrake, Wright's book is dense with historical detail, and there is clearly more scholarly work behind it than a survey can adequately convey. This historical depth, revealed in unusually lengthy endnotes for an introductory text, at first conceals the discussion of spirituality that might initially draw the reader to the book. But Wright explains that she includes this information because so little of the order's history is known or studied. Her stated goal is to craft a prologue to the tradition that invites both the general reader and the scholar to investigate "the texts, persons, ideas and institutional life" of the Salesian way. Wright subsequently does a masterful job of surveying the evolution of the order over their three and half centuries of history.
Organized in seven chapters, the book begins with a very brief overview of the Salesian tradition, followed by a chapter each on Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Then Wright follows what she calls the "diffusion of the Salesian spirit" through three particular channels: the Order of the Visitation, the writings both by and about the two founders, (especially Francis's Introduction to the Devout Life), and influential followers such as Vincent de Paul and Margaret Mary Alacoque.
The longest section of the book, Chapter 6, surveys the "Salesian Pentecost," a phrase referring to the nineteenth-century revival of the tradition across Europe and America through new apostolates, such as missionaries and oblates. Among the more familiar figures are St. John Bosco, whose order began in 1859 as a ministry to working-class boys, and Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the American Sisters of Charity and viewed by some as another Jane de Chantal. One of the newest foundations is a monastery in Minneapolis, founded in 1989 by three Visitation sisters who have come to be known as the 'nunz 'n the hood' for their ministry among the urban poor. The study concludes with a brief chapter on the impact of the Salesian tradition on Catholic spirituality as expressed in documents from the Second Vatican Council.
Wright infuses her discussion with frequent references to the central tenet of Salesian spirituality – love as the "beginning, end and means of the entire Christian life." Her title comes from the writings of Francis that emphasize the need for human hearts to be fully open to the love of God. In Chapter 2, a more developed discussion of the Salesian theology, Wright reminds the reader that this is not a sentimental spirituality, for Francis understood "heart" in the Biblical sense as the core or center of one's being. We are called through the model of Jesus to give our lives to God through love for others in a radical and on-going transformation of the self.
Most striking about the Salesian practice of spirituality is the variety of communal arrangements, especially the congregations of women established by Jane de Chantal. The most popular communities of her day were not conducive to the circumstances of women whose marital status, health or age precluded them from traditional religious life. Herself a widow raising four young children, Jane knew well the kinds of demands women faced in caring for family and friends. Thus, she and Francis created a flexible enclosure for women under a moderate rule, allowing them to come and go as needed to attend to family business.
Though I found myself wanting more on the contemporary Salesian communities such as the 'nunz 'n the hood,' this would have required a much longer book which would not be suitable for this series. Heart Speaks to Heart accomplishes its goal by offering the reader an initiation into the distinctiveness of Salesian spirituality grounded in its historical context. I would likely use this book in a course on the history of Christian spirituality for the very reason Wright wrote it: it is a little known tradition that reflects another "face" of spirituality, different from the more familiar traditions of the Benedictines, Augustinians or Franciscans. It includes a good bibliography of English language sources (necessary for most undergraduates) and detailed notes that offer numerous paths for research.