You may have heard the expression: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” You can thank St Francis de Sales for that one. He also lived it.
“It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman…. It has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world. ” -St Francis de Sales
“Because some have committed spiritual homicide, we should not commit spiritual suicide.” -St Francis De Sales, 1621
Francis de Sales (French: Saint François de Sales) (August 21, 1567 – December 28, 1622) was Bishop of Geneva. He is known also for his writings on the topic of spiritual direction and spiritual formation, particularly the Introduction to the Devout Life, along with his Treatise on the Love of God. His writings on the perfections of the Heart of Mary as the model of love for God influenced St Jean Eudes to develop the devotion to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Born in France in 1567, Francis was a patient man. Francis de Sales took seriously the words of Christ, “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart.” As he said himself, it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”
Born in the castle of Château de Thorens to a well-placed Savoyard family, the eldest of twelve children born to François de Boisy and Françoise de Sionnz. His parents intended that Francis become a soldier, then a lawyer, enter politics, and carry on the family line and power. He studied at La Roche and Annecy in France, taught by Jesuits. Attended the Collège de Clermont in Paris, France at age 12.
Francis knew for thirteen years that he had a vocation to the priesthood before he mentioned it to his family. When his father said that he wanted Francis to be a soldier and sent him to Paris to study, Francis said nothing. Then when he went to Padua to get a doctorate in law, he still kept quiet, but he studied theology and practiced mental prayer while getting into swordfights and going to parties.
In his early teens, Francis began to believe in pre-destination, a heresy, and was so afraid that he was preemptorily condemned to Hell that he became ill and eventually was confined to bed. However, in January 1587 at the Church of Saint Stephen, he overcame the crisis.
Francis came to the conclusion that whatever God had in store for him was good, because “God is love”, as Scripture attests. This faithful devotion to the God of love not only expelled his doubts, but also influenced the rest of his life and his teachings. His way of teaching Catholic spirituality is often referred to as the Way of Divine Love, or the Devout Life, taken from a book he wrote of a similar name: Introduction to the Devout Life.
Studied law and theology at the University of Padua, Italy, and earned a doctorate in both fields. He returned home, and found a position as Senate advocate. Even when his bishop told him if he wanted to be a priest that he thought that he would have a miter waiting for him someday, Francis uttered not a word. Why did Francis wait so long? Throughout his life he waited for God’s will to be clear. He never wanted to push his wishes on God.
God finally made God’s will clear to Francis while he was riding. Francis fell from his horse three times. Every time he fell the sword came out of the scabbard. Every time it came out the sword and scabbard came to rest on the ground in the shape of the cross. And then, Francis, without knowing about it, was appointed provost of his diocese, second in rank to the bishop.
It was at this point that he received a message telling him to “Leave all and follow Me.” He took this as a call to the priesthood, a move his family fiercely opposed, especially when he refused a marriage that had been arranged for him. However, he pursued a devoted prayer life, and his gentle ways won over the family.
Perhaps he was wise to wait, for he wasn’t a natural pastor. His biggest concern on being ordained that he had to have his lovely curly gold hair cut off. And his preaching left the listeners thinking he was making fun of him. Others reported to the bishop that this noble-turned- priest was conceited and controlling.
Then Francis had a bad idea — at least that’s what everyone else thought. This was during the time of the Protestant reformation and just over the mountains from where Francis lived was Switzerland — Calvinist territory. Francis decided that he should lead an expedition to convert the 60,000 Calvinists back to Catholicism. But by the time he left his expedition consisted of himself and his cousin. His father refused to give him any aid for this crazy plan and the diocese was too poor to support him.
For three years, he trudged through the countryside, had doors slammed in his face and rocks thrown at him. In the bitter winters, his feet froze so badly they bled as he tramped through the snow. He slept in haylofts if he could, but once he slept in a tree to avoid wolves. He tied himself to a branch to keep from falling out and was so frozen the next morning he had to be cut down. And after three years, his cousin had left him alone and he had not made one convert.
Francis’ unusual patience kept him working. No one would listen to him, no one would even open their door. So Francis found a way to get under the door. He wrote out his sermons, copied them by hand, and slipped them under the doors. This is the first record we have of religious tracts being used to communicate with people.
The parents wouldn’t come to him out of fear. So Francis went to the children. When the parents saw how kind he was as he played with the children, they began to talk to him.
By the time, Francis left to go home he is said to have converted 40,000-72,000, by some accounts, people back to Catholicism.
In 1593 he was appointed provost of the diocese of Geneva, Switzerland. Preacher, writer and spiritual director in the district of Chablais. His simple, clear explanations of Catholic doctrine, and his gentle way with everyone, brought many back to the Roman Church. He even used sign language in order to bring the message to the deaf, leading to his patronage of deaf people.
In 1602 he was made bishop of the diocese of Geneva, in Calvinist territory. He only set foot in the city of Geneva twice — once when the Pope sent him to try to convert Calvin’s successor, Beza, and another when he traveled through it.
It was in 1604 that Francis took one of the most important steps in his life, the step toward holiness and mystical union with God.
In Dijon that year Francis saw a widow listening closely to his sermon — a woman he had seen already in a dream. Jane de Chantal was a person on her own, as Francis was, but it was only when they became friends that they began to become saints. Jane wanted him to take over her spiritual direction, but, not surprisingly, Francis wanted to wait. “I had to know fully what God Himself wanted. I had to be sure that everything in this should be done as though His hand had done it.” Jane was on a path to mystical union with God and, in directing her, Francis was compelled to follow her and become a mystic himself.
Three years after working with Jane, he finally made up his mind to form a new religious order. But where would they get a convent for their contemplative Visitation nuns? A man came to Francis without knowing of his plans and told him he was thinking of donating a place for use by pious women. In his typical way of not pushing God, Francis said nothing. When the man brought it up again, Francis still kept quiet, telling Jane, “God will be with us if He approves.” Finally the man offered Francis the convent.
Francis was overworked and often ill because of his constant load of preaching, visiting, and instruction — even catechizing a deaf man so he could take first Communion. He believed the first duty of a bishop was spiritual direction and wrote to Jane, “So many have come to me that I might serve them, leaving me no time to think of myself. However, I assure you that I do feel deep-down- within-me, God be praised. For the truth is that this kind of work is infinitely profitable to me.” For him active work did not weaken his spiritual inner peace but strengthened it. He directed most people through letters, which tested his remarkable patience. “I have more than fifty letters to answer. If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same and so I shall go on until I have finished.”
At that time, the way of holiness was only for monks and nuns — not for ordinary people. Francis changed all that by giving spiritual direction to lay people living ordinary lives in the world. But he had proven with his own life that people could grow in holiness while involved in a very active occupation. Why couldn’t others do the same? His most famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, was written for these ordinary people in 1608. Written originally as letters, it became an instant success all over Europe — though some preachers tore it up because he tolerated dancing and jokes!
For Francis, the love of God was like romantic love. He said, “The thoughts of those moved by natural human love are almost completely fastened on the beloved, their hearts are filled with passion for it, and their mouths full of its praises. When it is gone they express their feelings in letters, and can’t pass by a tree without carving the name of their beloved in its bark. Thus too those who love God can never stop thinking about Him, longing for Him, aspiring to Him, and speaking about Him. If they could, they would engrave the name of Jesus on the hearts of all humankind.”
The key to love of God was prayer. “By turning your eyes on God in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with God. Begin all your prayers in the presence of God.”
For busy people of the world, he advised “Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others and talk to God.”
The test of prayer was a person’s actions: “To be an angel in prayer and a beast in one’s relations with people is to go lame on both legs.”
He believed the worst sin was to judge someone or to gossip about them. Even if we say we do it out of love we’re still doing it to look better ourselves. But we should be as gentle and forgiving with ourselves as we should be with others. Francis de Sales tells us: “The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.”
Friend of Saint Vincent de Paul, he turned down a wealthy French bishopric to continue working where God had placed him. As he became older and more ill he said, “I have to drive myself but the more I try the slower I go.” He wanted to be a hermit but he was more in demand than ever. The Pope needed him, then a princess, then Louis XIII. “Now I really feel that I am only attached to the earth by one foot…” He died on December 28, 1622, after giving a nun his last word of advice: “Humility.”
Prayers & reflections by St Francis de Sales
“O love eternal,
my soul needs and chooses you eternally!
Ah, come Holy Spirit,
and inflame our hearts with your love!
To love — or to die!
To die — and to love!
To die to all other love
in order to live in Jesus’ love,
so that we may not die eternally.
But that we may live in your eternal love,
O Savior of our souls,
we eternally sing,
Jesus, I love!
Live, Jesus, whom I love!
Jesus, I love,
Jesus who lives and reigns
forever and ever.
-from Treatise on the Love of God
“Lord, I am Yours,
and I must belong to no one but You.
My soul is Yours,
and must live only by You.
My will is Yours,
and must love only for You.
I must love You as my first cause,
since I am from You.
I must love You as my end and rest,
since I am for You.
I must love You more than my own being,
since my being subsists by You.
I must love You more than myself,
since I am all Yours and all in You.
-from Treatise on the Love of God
“Oh what remorse we shall feel at the end of our lives, when we look back upon the great number of instructions and examples afforded by God and the Saints for our perfection, and so carelessly received by us! If this end were to come to you today, how would you be pleased with the life you have led?”
“We must fear God out of love, not love Him out of fear.”
“To be pleased at correction and reproofs shows that one loves the virtues which are contrary to those faults for which he is corrected and reproved. And, therefore, it is a great sign of advancement in perfection.”
“Two mistakes I find common among spiritual persons. One is that they ordinarily measure their devotion by the consolations and satisfactions which they experience in the way of God, so that if these happen to be wanting, they think they have lost all devotion. No, this is no more than a sensible devotion. True and substantial devotion does not consist in these things, but in having a will resolute, active, ready and constant not to offend God, and to perform all that belongs to His service. The other mistake is that if it ever happens to them to do anything with repugnance and weariness, they believe they have no merit in it. On the other hand, there is then far greater merit; so that a single ounce of good done thus by a sheer spiritual effort, amidst darkness and dullness and without interest, is worth more than a hundred pounds done with great facility and sweetness, since the former requires a stronger and purer love. And how great so ever may be the aridities and repugnance of the sensible part of our soul, we ought never to lose courage, but pursue our way as travelers treat the barking of dogs.”
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“Our greatest fault is that we wish to serve God in our way, not in His way- according to our will, not according to His will. When He wishes us to be sick, we wish to be well; when He desires us to serve Him by sufferings, we desire to serve Him by works; when He wishes us to exercise charity, we wish to exercise humility; when He seeks from us resignation, we wish for devotion, a spirit of prayer or some other virtue. And this is not because the things we desire may be more pleasing to Him, but because they are more to our taste. This is certainly the greatest obstacle we can raise to our own perfection, for it is beyond doubt that if we were to wish to be Saints according to our own will, we shall never be so at all. To be truly a Saint, it is necessary to be one according to the will of God.”
“All the science of the Saints is included in these two things: To do, and to suffer. And whoever had done these two things best, has made himself most saintly.”
“The greatest fault among those who have a good will is that they wish to be something they cannot be, and do not wish to be what they necessarily must be. They conceive desires to do great things for which, perhaps, no opportunity may ever come to them, and meantime neglect the small which the Lord puts into their hands. There are a thousand little acts of virtue, such as bearing with the importunities and imperfections of our neighbors, not resenting an unpleasant word or a trifling injury, restraining an emotion of anger, mortifying some little affection, some ill-regulated desire to speak or listen, excusing indiscretion, or yielding to another in trifles. These things are to be done by all; why not practice them. The occasions for great gains come but rarely, but of little gains many can be made each day; and by managing these little gains with judgment, there are some who grow rich. Oh, how holy and rich in merits we should make ourselves, if we but knew how to profit by the opportunities which our vocation supplies to us! Yes, yes, let us apply ourselves to follow well the path which is close before us, and to do well on the first opportunity, without occupying ourselves with thoughts of the last, and thus we shall make good progress. “
“To be perfect in one’s vocation is nothing else than to perform the duties and offices to which one is obliged, solely for the honor and love of God, referring to His glory. Whoever works in this manner may be called perfect in his state, a man according to the heart and will of God.”
“A servant of God signifies one who has a great charity towards his neighbor and an inviolable resolution to follow in everything the Divine Will; who bears with his own deficiencies, and patiently supports the imperfections of others.”
“The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: He is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.”
“Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections, but instantly set about remedying them.”
“Consider all the past as nothing, and say, like David: Now I begin to love my God.”
“It should be our principal business to conquer ourselves and, from day to day, to go on increasing in strength and perfection. Above all, however, it is necessary for us to strive to conquer our little temptations, such as fits of anger, suspicions, jealousies, envy, deceitfulness, vanity, attachments, and evil thoughts. For in this way we shall acquire strength to subdue greater ones.”
“There is nothing which edifies others so much as charity and kindness, by which, as by the oil in our lamp, the flame of good example is kept alive.”
“As often as you can during the day, recall your mind to the presence of God…Remember frequently to retire into the solitude of your heart, even while you are externally occupied in business or society. This mental solitude need not be hindered even though many people may be around you, for they surround your body not your heart, which should remain alone in the presence of God. As David said, “My eyes are ever looking at the Lord.” We are rarely so taken up in our exchanges with others as to be unable from time to time to move our hearts into solitude with God.”
“As soon as worldly people see that you wish to follow a devout life they aim a thousand darts of mockery and even detraction at you. The most malicious of them will slander your conversion as hypocrisy, bigotry, and trickery. They will say that the world has turned against you and being rebuffed by it you have turned to God. Your friends will raise a host of objections which they consider very prudent and charitable. They will tell you that you will become depressed, lose your reputation in the world, be unbearable, and grow old before your time, and that your affairs at home will suffer. You must live in the world like one in the world. They will say that you can save your soul without going to such extremes, and a thousand similar trivialities. Philothea, all this is mere foolish, empty babbling. These people aren’t interested in your health or welfare. “If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you,” says the Savior. We have seen gentlemen and ladies spend the whole night, even many nights one after another, playing chess or cards. Is there any concentration more absurd, gloomy, or depressing than this last? Yet worldly people don’t say a word and the players’ friends don’t bother their heads about it. If we spend an hour in meditation or get up a little earlier than usual in the morning to prepare for Holy Communion, everyone runs for a doctor to cure us of hypochondria and jaundice. People can pass thirty nights in dancing and no one complains about it, but if they watch through a single Christmas night they cough and claim their stomach is upset the next morning. Does anyone fail to see that the world is an unjust judge, gracious and well disposed to its own children but harsh and rigorous towards the children of God? We can never please the world unless we lose ourselves together with it. It is so demanding that it can’t be satisfied. “John came neither eating nor drinking,” says the Savior, and you say, “He has a devil.” “The Son of man came eating and drinking” and you say that he is “a Samaritan.” It is true, Philothea, that if we are ready to laugh, play cards, or dance with the world in order to please it, it will be scandalized at us, and if we don’t, it will accuse us of hypocrisy or melancholy. If we dress well, it will attribute it to some plan we have, and if we neglect our dress, it will accuse of us of being cheap and stingy. Good humor will be called frivolity and mortification sullenness. Thus the world looks at us with an evil eye and we can never please it. It exaggerates our imperfections and claims they are sins, turns our venial sins into mortal sins and changes our sins of weakness into sins of malice. “Charity is kind,” says Saint Paul, but the world on the contrary is evil. “Charity thinks no evil,” but the world always thinks evil and when it can’t condemn our acts it will condemn our intentions. Whether the sheep have horns or not and whether they are white or black, the wolf doesn’t hesitate to eat them if he can. Whatever we do, the world will wage war on us. If we stay a long time in the confessional, it will wonder how we can have so much to say; if we stay only a short time, it will say we haven’t told everything. It will watch all our actions and at a single little angry word it will protest that we can’t get along with anyone. To take care of our own interests will look like avarice, while meekness will look like folly. As for the children of the world, their anger is called being blunt, their avarice economy, their intimate conversations lawful discussions. Spiders always spoil the good work of the bees. Let us give up this blind world, Philothea. Let it cry out at us as long as it pleases, like a cat that cries out to frighten birds in the daytime. Let us be firm in our purposes and unswerving in our resolutions. Perseverance will prove whether we have sincerely sacrificed ourselves to God and dedicated ourselves to a devout life. Comets and planets seem to have just about the same light, but comets are merely fiery masses that pass by and after a while disappear, while planets remain perpetually bright. So also hypocrisy and true virtue have a close resemblance in outward appearance but they can be easily distinguished from one another. Hypocrisy cannot last long but is quickly dissipated like rising smoke, whereas true virtue is always firm and constant. It is no little assistance for a sure start in devotion if we first suffer criticism and calumny because of it. In this way we escape the danger of pride and vanity, which are comparable to the Egyptian midwives whom a cruel Pharaoh had ordered to kill the Israelites’ male children on the very day of their birth. We are crucified to the world and the world must be crucified to us. The world holds us to be fools; let us hold it to be mad.” – Saint Francis de Sales, from Introduction to the Divine Life
“Let us submit ourselves to His guidance and Sovereign direction; let us come to Him that He may forgive us, cleanse us, change us, guide us, and save us. This is the true life of the saints!” -St Francis de Sales
“Go to prayer in faith. Remain there in hope. Go out only by love.” -St Francis de Sales
“See this great Architect of Mercy: He converts our miseries into grace and makes salutary medicine for our souls from the venom of our iniquities.” -St. Francis DeSales
“Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.” -St. Francis de Sales
“Calvary is the mountain on which sacred lovers are formed.” – St. Francis de Sales
“It is wonderful how attractive a gentle, pleasant manner is, and how much it wins hearts.” -St. Francis de Sales
“In prayer we must not seek the consolations of God, but the God of consolations.” -St. Francis de Sales
-The Virgin Appears to St Francis de Sales, by Carlo Marratta, 1691, oil on canvas,
“O Glorious St. Francis de Sales, model of the interior life, and full of zeal for the salvation of souls! Obtain for me the grace to employ all my faculties, not for my own sanctification alone, but for that of my neighbor also; that continually spreading abroad the sweet odor of Jesus Christ by my words and works, I may attain with you the blessedness promised to the merciful: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy;” and that I may one day have a share in the glory which you do enjoy in paradise with the angels and saints, where those who edify and instruct to justice shall shine as stars for all eternity (Dan. xii. 3). Amen.”
“Be at peace.
Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are,
will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it,
God will carry you in His arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same understanding Father who cares for
you today will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
Collect: O God, who for the salvation of souls
willed that the Bishop Saint Francis de Sales
become all things to all,
graciously grant that, following his example,
we may always display the gentleness of your charity
in the service of our neighbor.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.