St. Francis de Sales and lay spirituality

St. Francis de Sales is the Apostle of Cheerfulness and Hope. “His words are full of holy optimism, and so replete with common sense that no one can read them without encouragement, and without experiencing some portion of that divine love and hope which are characteristic of this most amiable Saint.” Golden Counsels of Saint Francis de Sales (1948).

I was given a little booklet on this Saint when I was at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia (I was in the second or third graduating class, 1970). The school was staffed by the Oblates of Francis de Sales. I received much from these Oblates and owe them a great debt of gratitude. They deeply embodied the kindness  and humanism of their founder. I shall never forget various Oblates in class reciting Shakespeare with playful wit (Fr. Dean), or reading the Bible with booming voice (Fr. Mellon), or sharing a passage from Faulkner, Eliot or Blake with careful diction (Fr. Norman). And countless more, who taught mathematics, biology, chemistry also with great joy and aplomb. They were extraordinarily generous and thoughtful men who served the Church so well during those forty years from the founding of the high school to their withdrawal in 2008, due to lack of vocations, I presume.

I was often drawn to this saying of the Saint in the front of the little book of counsels: “Be Patient with every one, but above with yourself. I mean, do not be disturbed because of your imperfections; always rise bravely from a fall. I am glad that daily you make a new beginning. There is no better means of progress in the spiritual life than to be continually beginning afresh, and never to think we have done enough.”

He is celebrated, of course, as the great advocate of lay holiness and lay apostolate, especially with his book Introduction to the Devout Life, which still ought to be read by every lay Catholic. Pope John Paul II mentions him specifically in Christifideles Laici (On the laity):

We can conclude by reading a beautiful passage taken from St. Francis de Sales, who promoted lay spirituality so well.  In speaking of “devotion” that is Christian perfection or “life according to the Spirit,” he presents in a simple yet insightful way the vocation of all Christians to holiness while emphasizing the specific form with which individual Christians fulfill it: “In creation God commanded the plants to bring forth their fruits, each one after its kind. So does he command all Christians who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each according to his character and vocation. Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the workman, the servant, the prince, the widow, the maiden and the married woman. Not only this, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, the employment, and the duties of each one in particular . . . . It is an error, or rather a heresy, to try to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the shop of the mechanic, the court of princes, or the home of married folk. It is true, Philothea, that a purely contemplative, monastic and religious devotion cannot be exercised in such ways of life. But besides these three kinds of devotion, there are several others adapted to bring to perfection those who live in the secular state.”

For the gentle saint, what a strong statement — “it is an error, or rather a heresy, to try to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the shop of the mechanic, the court of princes, or the home of married folk.” The Fathers at Vatican II said that the split between faith and life is one of the gravest errors of our day; for many, the error stems from a lack of knowledge of the faith or a lack of awareness of positive models for sanctification of the everyday. I suppose that St. Francis de Sales would say it is a heresy if it stems from the doctrine or teaching that faith is irrelevant to everyday life, or more commonly, that the secular world by definition must exclude faith or the secular world is too corrupt to be transformed.

In his Letter to the Church in America, Pope John Paul II challenged us this way  – “On a continent marked by competition and aggressiveness, unbridled consumerism and corruption, lay people are called to embody deeply evangelical values such as mercy, forgiveness, honesty, transparency of heart and patience in difficult situations. What is expected from the laity is a great creative effort in activities and works demonstrating a life in harmony with the Gospel.” Ecclesia in America #44

The counsels of Francis de Sales are appropriate for developing just such  evangelical values. Consider some of his “Little Virtues” and “Maxims.”

“The good humored putting up with small acts of selfishness and injustice from others.”

“An agreeable manner of answering those who speak disagreeably with us.”

“Charity is ascending humility; and humility is descending charity.”

“There is nothing small in the service of God.”

So Pope John Paul II affirms this spirituality in Christifideles Laici when he continues the passage after quoting St Francis de Sales:

Along the same line the Second Vatican Council states: “This lay spirituality should take its particular character from the circumstances of one’s state in life (married and family life, celibacy, widowhood), from one’s state of health and from one’s professional and social activity. All should not cease to develop earnestly the qualities and talents bestowed on them in accord with these conditions of life and should make use of the gifts which they have received from the Holy Spirit.” What has been said about the spiritual vocation can also be said– and to a certain degree with greater reason– of the infinite number of ways through which all members of the Church are employed as laborers in the vineyard of the Lord, building up the Mystical Body of Christ. Indeed, as a person with a truly unique life story, each is called by name to make a special contribution to the coming of the Kingdom of God. No talent, no matter how small, is to be. hidden or left unused (cf. Mt 25:24-27).

The Oblates of Francis de Sales embody that spirit. I am thankful to have learned from them..

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