For many more years than I care to remember I have been meaning to read ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ by St Francis de Sales. I have occasionally dipped into it, but have never actually read it through. My New Year resolution is to remedy this, for it was written for the lay person to help them live their lives ‘in the world but not of the world’, and I certainly need to avail myself of this spiritual help.
Saint Francis de Sales
The book is divided into five main sections:- ‘Devotion’, ‘Prayer and the Sacraments’, ‘the Practice of Virtue’, ‘Overcoming Temptation’, and ‘Renewal and Preservation of Devotion’, each of which is divided into numerous sub-sections. Whilst the book is designed with the sections in the above order, which has a certain sensible continuity, each part can nevertheless stand on its own merits. This post will deal with St Francis de Sales’ advice on ‘Overcoming Temptations - Worldly Wisdom and Courage in Devotion’
As soon as worldly people see you bent upon the devout life they will shower you with mockery and detraction. The more malicious will attribute your change to hypocrisy and insincerity, saying you have turned to God only because the world has disappointed you. Your friends will raise countless objections which they consider wise and charitable, saying that it will only make you morose and unbearable; that it will discredit you in the eyes of the world; that you will grow old before your time; that your domestic affairs will suffer; that those who live in the world must live accordingly and that you can get to heaven without all these mysteries and so on. All this is but stupid and empty babbling, Philothea. They are interested neither in your health nor in your affairs. “If you belonged to the world,” says Our Lord, “the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world that the world hates you.” We have seen men and women spend, not only the whole night, but several nights in succession, playing cards or chess. Is there anything more dull, miserable and absurd than this? And yet it does not disturb worldly people in the least; but if we spend an hour in meditation or are noticed getting up in the morning earlier than usual to go to Holy Communion, they send for a doctor at once to cure us of melancholy and jaundice! They can spend thirty nights in dancing without experiencing any ill effects but if they have to spend one Christmas night in watching they are full of coughs and complaints the next day. It is quite obvious that the world is an unjust judge; gracious and forbearing with its own children, but harsh and rigorous with the children of God.
Only the worldly stand well with the world; we can never satisfy its caprices. When John came, he would neither eat nor drink, and they said of him that he was possessed. When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank with them, and of him they said: Here is a glutton; he loves wine.
The worldly will be scandalized, Philothea, if we condescend to laugh, play or dance in their company, but if we refuse they will call us melancholy hypocrites. If we dress well they will attribute it to a bad motive; if we dress simply, they will attribute it to meanness. They will call our joy dissipation, our self-denial sadness, their jaundiced gaze never satisfied. They will magnify our imperfections into sins, count our venial sins as mortal and our sins of frailty as sins of malice.
Charity is kind, they are spiteful; charity never thinks evil, they always do; and if they cannot find fault with our actions, they censure our intentions. It does not matter to the wolf whether the sheep are black or white, whether they have horns or not, he will devour them if he can. The worldly are against us whatever we do; if we are in the confessional for a long time, they will express surprise that we have so much to confess; if we are only in there for a short time they will say that we have not confessed everything. They will watch us carefully; one word of anger and they will say that we have an ungovernable temper; if we show prudence in our affairs they will say we are avaricious; if we are gentle they will call us foolish, while as for them, their anger is courage, their avarice economy, their over-familiarity honest fun; spiders always spoil the honeycomb. We must ignore such blindness, Philothea; let them cry out like owls trying to disturb the birds of day as much as they like while we go serenely on our way, unwavering in our resolves; our very perseverance will convince them that we have dedicated ourselves to God and embraced a devout life. Comets are almost as bright as planets, but being only transitory they soon disappear, whereas planets shine constantly. In the same way , hypocrisy is hard to distinguish from true virtue externally; the test lies in the fact that hypocrisy is inconstant and vanishes like smoke, whereas true virtue is ever firm and constant. To meet with reproaches and criticisms at the beginning of our spiritual life helps to establish our devotion, for it prevents us from falling into pride and vanity which kill our works as soon as they come to birth, as the midwives of Egypt killed the male Israelites under Pharaoh. We are crucified to the world and the world should stand crucified to us; it counts us fools; let us count it demented.
Though light is beautiful and lovely it dazzles our eyes if we have been in darkness for any length of time; we are always ill at ease in a strange country no matter how gracious and courteous its inhabitants, until we become familiar with them. It may well happen, Philothea, that having embarked on this new life, your soul may feel ill at ease and that you experience a sense of sadness and discouragement in bidding farewell to the follies and vanities of the world; be patient a little while, it is of no importance, only the discomfort of unfamiliarity; as soon as it has worn off you will experience abundant consolation.
At first you may regret losing the empty glory with which flattering fools rewarded your vanity, but would you exchange it for the eternal glory with which God will in truth reward you? The futile amusements of the past may return to tempt your heart back to them; are you courageous enough to buy them back at the price of eternal happiness? Persevere and certainly your heart will soon be filled with such pleasant and delightful consolations that you will count the pleasures in the world but gall in comparison with their sweetness, and a single day of devotion preferable to a thousand years of worldliness.
Seeing the mountain of Christian perfection towering above you, you may doubt your ability to climb it; but take courage, Philothea. Unformed bees are called nymphs and at this stage are unable to fly for honey to the flowers or hills or mountains, but little by little, feeding on the honey prepared for them, they grow wings and are soon sufficiently strong to fly in search of fresh honey far and wide. True, we are no more than such nymphs in devotion, we cannot fly as we would like to the mountain tops of Christian perfection; nevertheless we are beginning to take shape by feeding on our desires and resolutions; we are beginning to grow wings and so may be confident that one day we shall be able to fly. Meanwhile, we must feed on the abundant honey provided by former spiritual writers, and ask God to give us wings like a dove; that we may be able to fly in this life and reach eternal rest hereafter.From 'Introduction to the Devout Life' by St Francis de Sales