A few weeks ago during his weekly general audience, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a reflection on an often-overlooked 16th Century bishop and doctor of the Church, who nevertheless has had a profound impact on authentic contemporary spirituality and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
This historic figure happens to be a favorite of mine, since I took his name for my monastic profession. He is, of course, Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the patron saint of writers and the Catholic press. A renowned spiritual director and prolific writer, his most famous work is Introduction to the Devout Life.
Almost 400 years before Vatican II, he was a leading proponent of the universal call to holiness. St. Francis believed wholeheartedly (a rare position at the time) that everyone is called to a life of faith and prayer and holiness, and that such a life can (and must) be lived out concretely and daily within one’s given state—whether as a married couple, a religious, a widow, a single person, a factory worker, etc. His spirituality also emphasized God’s enduring and overwhelming love for all people, which he developed most fully in his masterpiece Treatise on the Love of God.
Although not a monk, much of St. Francis’ spirituality has a distinct Benedictine flavor to it, as has been pointed out in 20th-Century studies by monks of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium. Blessed Columba Marmion, O.S.B., once said of him: “I am convinced that of all the modern mystical authors, St. Francis de Sales has more of the spirit of St. Benedict.”
For these reasons and several others, I have a special affinity for this saint, and although he is not as well-known as someone like St. Francis of Assisi, he has much to offer and teach those interested in the spiritual life today. That is why I have a section of this blog to the right designated “The Wisdom of St. Francis de Sales” in which I share excerpts of his writings. So, when a confrere pointed out to me that the Pope had recently given a reflection on Francis de Sales, I eagerly looked it up and asked the translator (the original address was in Italian) for permission to reprint the entire piece here. Whether you're Catholic or not, the Pope's comments are worth reading and reflection on.
Below, then, is the catechesis given during Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience on March 2, courtesy of ZENIT News Agency (http://www.zenit.org/). Accompanying the text of the Pope’s speech are some photos I took last summer when I had the joyful privilege of visiting Annecy, France, where St. Francis de Sales lived and worked, and is entombed (for more on my 2010 visit to Annecy, click here and here).
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Dieu est le Dieu du coeur humain [God is the God of the human heart] (Treatise on the Love of God, I, XV): In these seemingly simple words we see the essence of a great teacher's spirituality, St. Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church, of whom I would like to speak to you today.
Born in 1567, in a French border region, he was the son of the Lord of Boisy, from an ancient and noble family of Savoy. Living across the span of two centuries, the 16th and 17th, he brought together the best of the teachings and cultural conquests of the century that was ending, joining a heritage of humanism with mysticism's longing for the absolute. His formation was quite complete: He did his higher studies in Paris, dedicating himself to theology as well, and at the University of Padua, he studied jurisprudence as his father wished, finishing brilliantly with a degree in utroque iure, canon law and civil law.
The 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating reality of the love of God: to love him without asking anything in return and to trust in his divine love; not to ask any longer what God will do with me: I will simply love him, regardless of what he does or does not give me. Thus he found peace, and the question of predestination -- which was being discussed at that time -- was resolved, because he no longer sought what he could have from God; he simply loved him, abandoned himself to his goodness. And this would be the secret of his life, which would shine in his principal work, Treatise on the Love of God.
Overcoming his father's resistance, Francis followed the Lord's call and on Dec. 18, 1593, was ordained a priest. In 1602 he became bishop of Geneva, at a time when the city was the stronghold of Calvinism, so much so that the episcopal see was "in exile" in Annecy. As pastor of a poor and tormented diocese, in a mountainous landscape in which he knew well both its harshness and beauty, he wrote: "I found [God] full of sweetness and gentleness among our highest and roughest mountains, where many simple souls loved and adored him in all truth and sincerity; and deer and chamois ran here and there among the frightening frost to proclaim his praises" (Letter to the Mother of Chantal, October 1606, in Oeuvres, Mackey publishers, T. XIII, o. 223).
And yet the influence of his life and of his teaching on the Europe of that time and of the following centuries was immense. He was an apostle, preacher, writer, man of action and prayer; committed to carrying out the ideals of the Council of Trent; involved in controversy and dialogue with Protestants, experiencing more and more the efficacy of personal relationships and of charity, beyond a necessary theological confrontation. He was charged with diplomatic missions at the European level, and with social tasks of mediation and reconciliation.
However, above all, St. Francis de Sales was a guide of souls: from his meeting with a young woman, Mrs. de Charmoisy, he got the idea to write one of the most well-read books in the modern age, Introduction to the Devout Life. From his profound spiritual communion with an exceptional personality, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a new religious family was born, the Order of the Visitation, characterized -- as the saint wished -- by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility, in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well: "... I want my Daughters -- he wrote -- to have no ideal other than that of glorifying [Our Lord] with their humility" (Letter to Monsignor de Marquemond, June 1615).
He died in 1622, at 55 years of age, after an existence marked by the harshness of the times and apostolic toil.
His appearance had something of the majesty of the landscape in which he lived, also preserving simplicity and naturalness. The old words and the images with which he expressed himself surprisingly sound like a native and familiar language to people's ears even today.
To Philotea, the fictional recipient of his Introduction to the Devout Life (1607), Francis de Sales addressed an invitation that might have seemed at the time revolutionary. It is the invitation to belong completely to God, living his presence in the world and the tasks of one's state in fullness.
"My intention is to instruct those who live in the city, in the conjugal state, in the courts [...]" (Preface to Introduction to the Devout Life). The document with which Pope Leo XIII, more than two centuries later, would proclaim him doctor of the Church insisted on this extension of the call to perfection, to sanctity. He wrote there: "[true piety] has penetrated to the throne of the king, in the tents of army heads, in the praetorium of judges, in offices, in shops and even in shepherds' huts [...]" (Brief Dives in misericordia, Nov. 16, 1877).
Thus was born the appeal to the laity, that care to consecrate temporal things and sanctify the every day, on which the Second Vatican Council and the spirituality of our time insist.
He spoke of the ideal of a reconciled humanity, harmony between action in the world and prayer, between the secular state and the pursuit of perfection, with the help of God's grace, which permeates the human and, without destroying it, purifies it, raising it to the divine heights. To Theotimus, the adult, spiritually mature Christian to whom he would address a few years later his Treatise on the Love of God (1616), St. Francis de Sales gives a more complex lesson. It supposes at the beginning a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: man's "reason," in fact the "reasonable soul," was seen as a harmonious structure, a temple articulated in more spaces around a center, which, together with the great mystics, he called the "summit," the "point" of the spirit, or the depths of the soul.
It is the point in which reason, having passed through all its degrees, "closes its eyes" and knowledge becomes altogether one with love (cf. Book I, Chapter XII). The fact that love, in its theological, divine dimension is the reason for being of all things, in an ascending ladder that does not seem to know fractures or abysses, St. Francis de Sales resumed in a famous phrase: "Man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is man's perfection; love is the perfection of the spirit, and charity is the perfection of love" (ibid., Book X, Chapter I).
In an epoch of intense mystical flowering, the Treatise on the Love of God was a true and proper summa, as well as a fascinating literary work. His description of the itinerary toward God starts from the recognition of the "natural inclination" (ibid., Book I, Chapter XVI) inscribed in man's heart to love God above all things, despite being a sinner.
Following the model of sacred Scripture, St. Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man by developing a whole series of images of interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, spouse and friend; he has maternal and nursing characteristics. He is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, that is of true liberty: "because love does not force or have slaves, but reduces everything under its obedience with such a delicious force that, if nothing is as strong as love, nothing is as lovable as his force" (Book I, Chapter VI).
We find in our saint's Treatise a profound meditation on the human will and the description of its flowing, passing, dying, to live (cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter XIII) in complete abandonment not only to the will of God, but to what pleases him, to his bon plaisir, to his approval (cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter I). At the summit of union with God, in addition to the raptures of contemplative ecstasies, is placed the reappearance of concrete charity, which is attentive to all the needs of others and which he calls "ecstasies of life and works" (Ibid., Book VII, chapter VI).
Reading the book on the love of God and even more so the many letters of direction and of spiritual friendship, one perceives what an expert St. Francis de Sales was on the human heart. To St. Jane of Chantal, he wrote: "[...] Here is the general rule of our obedience, written in capital letters: DO ALL THROUGH LOVE, NOTHING THROUGH CONSTRAINT; LOVE OBEDIENCE MORE THAN YOU FEAR DISOBEDIENCE. I want you to have the spirit of liberty, not the kind that excludes obedience -- this is freedom of the flesh -- but the liberty that excludes constraint, anxiety and scruples" (Letter of Oct. 14, 1604).
Not for nothing, at the origin of many paths of pedagogy and spirituality of our time we rediscover the stamp of this teacher, without whom there would be no St. John Bosco or the heroic "little way" of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks liberty, even with violence and disturbance, the timelines of this great teacher of spirituality and peace should not be missed, a teacher who gave to his disciples the "spirit of liberty," the true one, as the culmination of his fascinating and complete teaching on the reality of love. St. Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his accessible style, with words that at times have the touch of poetry, he reminds that man bears inscribed in his deepest self nostalgia for God and that only in him is found his true joy and most complete fulfillment.
Translation by ZENIT: www.zenit.org
Reprinted with permission.