Learning Love from St Francis de Sales

St Francis de Sales, photo by Lawrence Lew, OP (Flickr Lawrence OP)

In 2002 Blessed John Paul II, in a letter to Bishop Yves Boivineau, said the following of St Francis de Sales:

“A man of great goodness and kindness, who knew how to express God’s mercy and patience to those who came to speak with him, he taught an exacting but serene spirituality based on love, for loving God “is the sovereign happiness of the soul for this life and for eternity”. With great simplicity he formed each person in contemplative prayer: “You must prostrate yourself before God and remain there at his feet: he will certainly understand by this humble attitude that you are his and that you want his help even before you can speak about it”  He was concerned to lead souls to the heights of perfection, in his concern to unify the person around the heart of existence: a life of intimacy with the Lord, through which the human being can receive perfection and become better  He was desirous of enabling each person to return to Christ and to set out anew from Christ to lead a good life, for God has given each one the government of his faculties, which he must rightly place under the direction of the will.” 

Francis de Sales was very practical, and thorough, in his teaching about living a holy life. In Introduction to the Devout Life, he puts before us the virtue of  meekness. How hard meekness is; how telling anger is. He explains the difference between humility and meekness thusly: “Humility makes our lives acceptable to God, meekness makes us acceptable to men.” He then famously uses figures of nature to indicate the spiritual virtues: “Balm, as I said before, sinking to the bottom of all liquids, is a figure of humility; and oil, floating as it does to the top, is a figure of gentleness and cheerfulness, rising above all things, and excelling all things, the very flower of Love, which, so says S. Bernard, comes to perfection when it is not merely patient, but gentle and cheerful.”

Yet Francis de Sales warns how difficult it is to possess these virtues truly, especially when provoked or really tested. “Give heed,” he says, “that you keep this mystic chrism of gentleness and humility in your heart, for it is a favourite device of the Enemy to make people content with a fair outside semblance of these graces, not examining their inner hearts, and so fancying themselves to be gentle and humble while they are far otherwise.” He brings his teaching home with a penetrating look in the human heart with practical advice for improvement.

If, when stung by slander or ill-nature, we wax proud and swell with anger, it is a proof that our gentleness and humility are unreal, and mere artificial show. When the Patriarch Joseph sent his brethren back from Egypt to his father’s house, he only gave them one counsel, “See that ye fall not out by the way.” And so, my child, say I to you. This miserable life is but the road to a blessed life; do not let us fall out by the way one with another; let us go on with the company of our brethren gently, peacefully, and kindly. Most emphatically I say it, If possible, fall out with no one, and on no pretext whatever suffer your heart to admit anger and passion. S. James says, plainly and unreservedly, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” . . .

Depend upon it, it is better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control anger lawfully; and if through weakness and frailty one is overtaken by it, it is far better to put it away forcibly than to parley with it; for give anger ever so little way, and it will become master, like the serpent, who easily works in its body wherever it can once introduce its head. . . .

Moreover, when there is nothing to stir your wrath, lay up a store of meekness and kindliness, speaking and acting in things great and small as gently as possible. Remember that the Bride of the Canticles is described as not merely dropping honey, and milk also, from her lips, but as having it “under her tongue;” that is to say, in her heart. So we must not only speak gently to our neighbour, but we must be filled, heart and soul, with gentleness; and we must not merely seek the sweetness of aromatic honey in courtesy and suavity with strangers, but also the sweetness of milk among those of our own household and our neighbours; a sweetness terribly lacking to some who are as angels abroad and devils at home!

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