St. Francis de Sales: “Introduction to the Devout Life”

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Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales: Bishop & Doctor of the Church

As a cradle Catholic, I hang my head in shame to admit that I had never before read ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ by St. Francis de Sales until it was recommended to me by a friend (who has himself written a wonderful article on the saint yesterday), and so I duly bought a copy shortly before Christmas. Like all Catholics, I had often read some inspiring random passages quoted in varying Catholic blogs, homilies, etc., but I had never read the whole book. What an amazing catalyst this outstanding book has been to my prayer life… and I haven’t even got halfway through it yet!

In an article in ‘Crisis Magazine’, K. V. Turley describes, far better than I could, his joy when he came across the Introduction at a friend’s house, many years after he had first read it. Mistakenly thinking he had no need to re-read an old book, he peeped into his friend’s copy and was captivated by it once again. As soon as he got home he “retrieved [his] own copy, and with the light burning amidst the gloom, sat long into the night to re-read the classic anew, grateful for its words, yet more grateful still for the saint who created them.”

He describes the book thus:

“It is a short book [my one has 326 pages]. But like all really great ones, it is not a sentence too long, its short themed chapters never outstaying their welcome. I have only ever read it in English, but am reliably informed that the French of de Sales is as graceful as the sentiments expressed therein. Even in translation, and if the book was devoid of any other qualities, it has one quality that is enough to endear it to any reader, namely, charm. It is not the affected charm of certain writers whose mannered attempts at this trait merely mask other aspects of their character. No, this is the real thing, and more besides, for sanctity has its own charm. Of course some saints had character faults, just like the rest of us, but a characteristic common to all of them was something as compellingly attractive as it was indefinable—a certain “something.” Now, we know that the source of that is not of this world—if still recognized by it—nevertheless, the Introduction is essentially this “something” in written form.

The topics tackled are perennial: overcoming our fallen nature, our lusts and angers, our pettiness and pride, our misplaced longings and our wrong headedness. Thus its acumen and application remains relevant, needed today just as much as it was in the seventeenth century, perhaps more so.

It never fails to edify. The style with which it is all knitted together enhances its effect. Of course, as one would expect, there are many, very many, scriptural references. Often unexpectedly used, they are as pertinent as they are, at times, obscure. It makes one wonder if in bygone centuries the average educated individual had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of even the most arcane corners of Holy Writ. How ironic that Introduction and its many Scriptural allusions come two years before the appearance of the King James Bible—with its claims to making Scripture so much more accessible—by which stage de Sales’ work was already an international bestseller, and soon to appear in English.

It is not just from the Bible that de Sales quotes though. The early Church Fathers and Classical sources are liberally laced, gracefully and eloquently, throughout. So too are references to the natural world, both flora and fauna, and especially the world of bees. Some of this has been questioned by later experts in those fields, but for the layman the intricacies of such matters are of little consequence, as, in the end, these illustrations only serve to add greatly to the overall effect which is one of harmony: of ancient and early modern, of peasant and prince, of birds and flowers, of Old and New Testament. Introduction is a world, and an education, in itself. It is even more so when combined with the spiritual wisdom contained in its pages. Suffice it to say, it is a work of genius.

There seems little point in giving examples. There are too many—the whole book is jammed full of quotable passages: pointed and striking, memorable and informative, uplifting and helpful. This is a book of applied asceticism, as spiritual as it is practical. One finds in it a learned teacher who is as compassionate as he is firm, as insightful as he can be wise, as understanding of the predicament of those in the world as he is holy. Like the man himself, the writing is as simple as it is urbane. In light of this, is it any wonder that countless numbers for centuries now have returned time and again to its wisdom, and no doubt in the future shall continue to do so.” (Read the whole article here.)

St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) was born into a noble French family. He enjoyed a privileged education and earned a doctorate in law and theology. He was a well-liked and intelligent man, yet quiet and reserved, having overcome his youthful hot temper by faithful constancy to prayer and penance. But the enemy of our souls, not able to attack him in the common passions, decided to attack him again through a more dangerous and unknown means. He started to feel the constant thought that he was going to be condemned and go to hell forever. The heresy of Predestination, by Calvin (which he had read) preyed on his mind and he was unable to overcome it. He had no appetite and was unable to sleep. The Lord who allowed the temptation gave him a way out. The first remedy found was to tell the Lord:
“O, My God, if by your infinite Justice, I have to go to hell for ever, grant me the grace to love you there. I don’t care if you send me all the tortures possible, but only if it is for me to love you always.” This prayer brought back some peace to his soul. However the definitive remedy against this temptation, to never bother him again, was to enter the Church of St. Stephen in Paris and kneeling before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary pray the famous St. Bernard prayer, the ‘Memorare’, and then consecrate himself to the Virgin Mary. He later became a priest, though his father had a lucrative career and an advantageous marriage prepared for his eldest son. As a priest St. Francis became a prolific writer and preacher, and at the age of 35 was made bishop of a Calvinist stronghold in Geneva, Switzerland, at the height of the Protestant revolt against the Church. Through his gentleness and preaching skill he returned many heretics to the true faith with simple and clear explanations of Catholic doctrine. He also used sign language to convert the deaf. His last word was the name of “Jesus.” While the people around him kneeled to pray the Litanies for the agonising, St. Francis de Sales expired sweetly on December 28th, 1622 on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. He was 55 years old and had been bishop for 21 years.
 St. Francis de Sales is a Doctor of the Church known especially for his writings on spiritual direction. He is the patron of teachers, the deaf, the Catholic press, confessors, educators, and authors.

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