|Introduction to a Devout Life
by Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
[Almost all who have hitherto treated of devotion have had] in view the instruction of persons wholly retired from the world, or have taught a kind of devotion leading to this absolute retirement; whereas my intention is to instruct such as live in towns, in families, or at court, and who by their condition are obliged to lead, as to the exterior, a life in society; who frequently, under imaginary pretense of impossibility, will not so much as think of undertaking a devout life, believing that as no beast dares taste , the seed of the herb <Palma Christi>, so no man ought to aspire to the palm of Christian piety as long as he lives in the bustle of temporal affairs. Now to such I shall prove that as the mother pearl lives in the sea without receiving a drop of salt water, and as towards the Chelidonian islands springs of fresh water may be found in the midst of the sea, and as the firefly passes through flames without burning its wings, so a vigorous and resolute soul may live in the world without being infected by any of its humors, may discover sweet springs of piety amidst its salt waters, and fly amongst the flames of earthly concupiscences without burning the wings of the holy desires of a devout life....
. . . There are some virtues of such general utility as not only to require an exercise of themselves apart but also to communicate their qualities to the practice of other virtues. Occasions are seldom presented for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, and magnificence, but meekness, temperance, modesty, and humility are virtues wherewith all the actions of our life should be tempered. It is true there are other virtues more agreeable, but the use of these is more necessary. Sugar is more agreeable than salt but the use of salt is more necessary and general. Therefore we must constantly have a good store of these general virtues in readiness, since we stand in need of them almost continually....
Among the virtues unconnected with our particular duty we must prefer the excellent to the glittering and showy. Comets appear greater than stars and apparently occupy a greater space, whereas in reality they can neither in magnitude nor quality be compared to the stars; for as they only seem great because they are nearer and appear in a grosser manner than the stars, so there are certain virtues, which, on account of their proximity become more noticeable, or, to use the expression, more material, that are highly esteemed and always preferred by the vulgar. Hence it is that so many prefer corporal alms before spiritual, the hair-shirt, fasting, going barefoot, using the discipline, and other such corporal mortifications before meekness, mildness, modesty, and other mortifications of the heart. Choose then, Philothea, the best virtues, not the most esteemed; the most noble, not the most apparent; those that are actually the best, not those that are the most ostensible or shining....
. . . There are certain things which many esteem as virtues which in reality are not; I mean ecstasies or raptures, insensibilities, impassibilities, deific unions, elevations, transformations, and similar perfections, treated of in certain books, which promise to elevate the soul to a contemplation purely intellectual, to an essential application of the spirit, and a supernatural life. But observe well, Philothea, these perfections are not virtues but rather the recompense of virtues, or small specimens of the happiness of the life to come, which God sometimes presents to men to make them enraptured with the whole piece which is only to be found in heaven.
But we must not aspire to these favors, since they are by no means necessary to the serving and loving of God which should be our only pretension, neither are they such as can be obtained by labor and industry, since they are rather experiences than actions, which we may indeed receive, but cannot produce in ourselves. . . . Let us leave these super-eminent favors to elevated souls; we merit not so high a rank in the service of God; we shall be too happy to serve Him in his kitchen or to be his domestics in much lower station. If he should hereafter think proper to admit us into his cabinet or privy council, it will be through the excess of his bountiful goodness. Yea, Philothea, the King of Glory does not recompense his servants according to the dignity of the offices they hold, but according to the measure of the love and humility with which they exercise them. Saul, seeking the asses of his father, found the kingdom of Israel.
One of the best exercises of meekness we can perform is that the object of which is within ourselves, in never fretting at our own imperfections; for though reason requires that we should be sorry when we commit any fault, yet we must refrain from that bitter, gloomy, spiteful, and passionate displeasure for which many are greatly to blame who, being overcome by anger, are angry for having been angry and vexed to see themselves vexed; for by this means they keep their heart perpetually steeped in passion, and though it seems as if the second anger destroyed the first, it serves nevertheless to open a passage for fresh anger on the first occasion that shall present itself. Besides, this anger and vexation against ourselves tend to pride and flow from no other source than self-love, which is troubled and disquieted to see itself imperfect. We must be displeased at our faults but in a peaceable, settled, and firm manner; for as a judge punishes malefactors much more justly when he is guided in his decisions by reason and proceeds with the spirit of tranquillity than when he acts with violence and passion . . . so we correct ourselves much better by a calm and steady repentance than by one that is harsh, turbulent, and passionate; for repentance exercised with violence proceeds not according to the quality of our faults but according to our inclinations....
If, for example, I had formed a strong resolution not to yield to the sin of vanity, and yet had fallen into it, I would not reprove my heart after this manner: 'Art thou not wretched and abominable that after so many resolutions hast suffered thyself to be thus carried away by vanity? Die with shame; lift up no more thine eyes to heaven, blind, impudent traitor as thou art, a rebel to thy God!' but I would correct it thus, rationally saying, by way of compassion: 'Alas, my poor heart, behold we are fallen into the pit we had so firmly resolved to avoid. Well, let us rise again and quit it forever; let us call on the mercy of God and hope that it will assist us to be more constant for the time to come; and let us enter again the path of humility. Let us be encouraged, let us from this day be more on our guard. God will help us; we shall do better.' . . .
However, if anyone should find his heart not sufficiently moved with this mild manner of reprehension, he may use one more sharp and severe to excite it to deeper confusion provided that he afterward closes up all grief and anger with a sweet and consoling confidence in God....
Raise up your heart then again whenever it falls, but fairly and softly, humbling yourself before God through the knowledge of your own misery but without being surprised at your fall, for it is no wonder that weakness should be weak or misery wretched; detest, nevertheless, with all your power the offense God has received through you and return to the way of virtue, which you had forsaken, with great courage and confidence in his mercy.
. . . Undertake then all your affairs with a calm and peaceable mind, and endeavor to despatch them in order, one after another-for if you make an effort to do them all at once or in disorder, your spirit will be so overcharged and depressed that it will probably sink under the burden without effecting anything.
In all your affairs rely wholly on divine Providence, through which alone you must look for success; labor, nevertheless, quietly on your part to cooperate with its designs, and then you may be assured, if you trust as you ought in God; the success which shall come to you shall be always that which is the most profitable for you, whether it appear good or bad according to your private judgment. Imitate little children who, as they with one hand hold fast by their father, and with the other gather strawberries or blackberries along the hedges; so you, gathering and handling the goods of this world with one hand, must with the other always hold fast the hand of your heavenly Father, turning yourself towards him from time to time to see if your actions or occupations be pleasing to him; but above all things take heed that you never leave his protecting hand nor think to gather more, for should he forsake you, you will not be able to go a step further without falling to the ground.
My meaning is, Philothea, that amidst those ordinary affairs and occupations that require not so earnest an attention, you should look more on God than on them; and when they are of such importance as to require your whole attention, that then also you should look from time to time towards God, like mariners, who, to arrive at the port to which they are bound, look more up towards heaven than down on the sea on which they sail. Thus will God work with you, in you, and for you, and your labor will be followed by consolation.
(Introduction to the Devout Life, New York, n.d.)
1. Henry IV, King of Navarre, after ten years of struggle and conflict, had asserted his sovereignty over all France. He had been educated as a Protestant, but later, as he faced the problem of re-uniting his war-torn country establishing himself firmly on the throne, he professed conversion to Catholicism.
2. For a letter from St. Vincent de Paul to Pope Alexander recommending the canonization of Francis de Sales, see below Saint Vincent de Paul, p. 425.
3. In preparing for publication this series of letters, originally written for the instruction of Madame de Chamoisy, Francis substituted for her name the Greek Philothea, "lover of God."
4. St. Francis lists here certain mystic states to which previous saints had attained
5. I Kings ix, 3-20.
Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop, Doctor of the Church. Celebration of Feast Day is January 29.
Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.
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