In a Few Words: The Writing of St. Francis de Sales
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was born with an impressive intellect. Much more than that, he was born with a strong faith and an ardent desire to serve God. Both of these led him to become the bishop of Geneva. As a doctor of the church, his works have been read all over the world and have guided many. He gave spiritual direction to St. Jane Frances de Chantal and would write letters of wisdom and guidance to those ardently seeking to join closer to Christ.
His expression with the written word, his ability in writing analogically, concisely, and inspiringly, led him to be named patron saint of Catholic writers, Catholic journalists, and the press. He wrote with a great sense of mercy, while never diluting the truths of the faith. His Introduction to the Devout Life is likely his most-read work. However, great insight can be gained from his other sermons and letters. With this in mind, below are some quotes from this Doctor of the Church for reflection.
“God did not bring you into the world because he had any need of you, useless as you are; but solely that he might show forth his goodness in you, giving you his grace and glory. And to this end he gave you understanding that you might know him, memory that you might think of him, a will that you might love him, imagination that you might realize his mercies, sight that you might behold the marvels of his works, speech that you might praise him, and so on with all your other faculties.”1
This quote, at first glance, may sting. It stings because it challenges us to ponder what is really the center of our universe. Is it ourselves? Is it something else that distracts us from God? The part which says “useless as you are” can be a hard phrase to overcome.
Our world often speaks of things and people in how “useful” they are. In the eyes of the world, this can be seen in how much money one makes a year. How intelligent someone is. How successful, beautiful, etc. There are days when we buy into this lie that our existence depends of how “useful” we are in the eyes of the world.
After I reflected more on this quote I felt a burden being lifted off of my shoulders. As long as we are spending our days giving glory to God, with whatever state of life we may find ourselves, and work with His grace, we are fulfilling the deepest desire of our hearts for we are doing what we were made for.
How we participate in giving glory to God will vary. We were given different abilities to carry this out, and the opportunities are inexhaustible. All of the rest that we associate as benchmarks for our “success” or “usefulness” are superficial and passing. The ability to “realize his mercies” and “behold the marvels of his works” are authentic examples of His love.
“There is no fear that a perception of what he has given you will puff you up, so long as you keep steadily in mind that whatever is good in you is not of yourself.”2
St. Francis de Sales spent a good deal of his writings discussing true humility and how much this virtue thwarts Satan’s plans. When I read the above quote taken from St. Francis de Sales’ commentary on Interior Humility I was reminded of a friend and a conversation we had recently shared.
A friend of mine had been promoted in his job, had just started dating a faithful young woman, and overall seemed to be doing well both spiritually and in the eyes of the world. I was rejoicing with my friend amidst all of this and yet, there was a sense of disquiet in his soul. In so many words, it seemed that he was waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” That this couldn’t last and that he shouldn’t get too excited about the blessings God had given him. He should have an air of caution around himself because things could change at any moment.
St. Francis de Sales believed that in developing our humility, it was good to dwell on the graces which God has given us. He said that “Of a truth, nothing so tends to humble us before the mercy of God as the multitude of his gifts for us; just as nothing so tends to humble us before his justice as the multitude of our misdeeds.”
It is important for us to reflect on the graces and blessings he has given us, granted we remember that His gifts come to us out of His love for us. We rejoice in his blessings out of gratitude and accept these gifts both as they come and as they may go.
“Are not the gardeners of a prince more diligent in cultivating and beautifying the royal gardens than if they were their own?”3
This quote comes from a section on “How to exercise real poverty although actually rich.” In it, St. Francis de Sales challenges us to not put the same amount of effort as men of the world into their possessions. He challenges us to not focus on self-love but on love of the true King.
We have scripture to show us what happens when we cultivate our world out of self-love. In Genesis 11, Noah’s descendants build the tower of Babel to make a name for themselves. They wished to show their own prowess, separate from God. We know that, in the end, God does not allow the tower to reach its completion. The result was the world was thrown into chaos by the confusion of language.
St. Francis de Sales distinguishes those who act out of self-love and those who do not. Those who act out self-love are filled with anxiety and restlessness. Whereas, even if one does work in worldly things out of love for God, they are filled with peace and trust.
"And it is not hypocritical if one’s deeds fail to match one’s words. Good gracious! . . . I no more believe I am perfect because I talk about perfection than I should believe myself Italian because I speak Italian. However, I do believe that I am acquainted with the language of perfection; I have learned it in conversation with those who spoke it.”4
What a gift this quote is for all of us! (Especially to a Catholic blogger) How I wish I would have found this quote sooner to give me more courage to speak the Gospel.
To truly speak any language properly one must look at how the native speakers use it. They are the true authority since through them we see how the language is given meaning in daily life. It is there that the language is truly alive. One can study, learn, and speak Latin, for example, but we have lost this ability to learn from any native speakers, those who have it as their “mother tongue.”
The Church is given the task to protect the language of perfection. Through our baptism, we are adopted into this language of perfection. Even though our actions may not match what we say, the language of perfection nevertheless must be spoken. It must be read. It must be written. If not, we run the risk of diluting our native tongue, or forgetting it altogether.
1St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press-Lighthouse Catholic Media, 2015), 15.
4Felicitas Corrigan, O.S.B., The Saints Humanly Speaking (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 2000), 237-238.