Saint Francis de Sales: The Little Virtues

One of the many things I love about Saint Francis de Sales is his intimate writing style. Everything I have read by him seems so laced with genuine affection and the desire to edify as well as comfort, that I feel as if he is ministering to me directly. This is pre-eminently the case in his Introduction to the Devout Life, which was written as a series of personal spiritual counsels for a young woman seeking to deepen her devotion. I have also found great wisdom (and again, great comfort) in his letters, many of which are written to female religious, such as Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. In the letter below, he urges Saint Jane to seek the way of the ‘little virtues’ (a persistent theme of his teaching):

Let us make our way by the lowly valleys of the little and humble virtues; there we shall see roses amid thorns, charity shining forth amid inward and outward afflictions; the lilies of purity, the violets of mortification…

…Above all I love these three little virtues: sweetness of heart, poverty of spirit, and simplicity of life; and those homely good works of visiting the sick, serving the poor, consoling the afflicted and the like. But all these things ought to be done with true liberty of spirit and tranquilly, not with eagerness. No, indeed, our arms are not yet long enough to reach the cedars of Lebanon, so let us be satisfied with the hyssop of the valleys.

Letter CCCVIII in St. Francis de Sales in His Letters (1933), p.77, Sands & Co.

Saint Francis uses his characteristic references to the book of nature and the intimate style that I mentioned earlier, to give the impression that these ‘little’ virtues are not only things to be loved and embraced, but are almost a straightforward matter. This of course, as anyone who has tried to live out this path consistently will testify, is not the case at all – to have true sweetness (or meekness) of heart, poverty of spirit and a genuinely simple approach to life is a difficult thing. There are many obstacles to living this way, both in the world and in our own natures. However, Saint Francis makes them sound so attractive, so comforting, that what could sound arduous and dispiriting as described by another writer becomes enlivening and uplifting when it comes from his pen. His love of the virtuous and devout life comes through so strongly that we cannot help loving it as well.

Another key piece of wisdom in the letter above is his advice to do these things with ‘true liberty of spirit and tranquilly, not with eagerness’. He recognises that to rush into the devout life with all guns blazing (so to speak) will inevitably lead to fatigue, disappointment, and ultimately resentment of the path being pursued. In a letter to Madame de la Flechere, Saint Francis repeats this advice, and puts it in the context of our dependence on divine grace for all our spiritual efforts:

Lose no opportunity, however passing it may be, for the practise of meekness of heart toward others. Put no trust in yourself for the success of your undertaking, but only in the help God gives you; believing in His care repose in it, knowing that He will do what is best for you, provided you apply yourself diligently but gently to whatever is the work in hand. I say thus, because I would have you gentle in your activity. Diligence that is violent in its application is hurtful to the heart and to the business; it is not diligence, but over-eagerness and trouble.

Letter CDLV, ibid, p.97.

            Francis trusted absolutely and unequivocally in the fact that God is limitless love, always seeking our good, and so when he suggests to Madame de la Flechere that she put no trust in herself but ‘only in the help God gives you’, he is not advocating a rejection of individual talents in favour of slavish obedience, but the placing of oneself in a wider perspective: ‘believing in His care repose in it, knowing that He will do what is best for you’. It is only by reposing in the love of God and trusting in His good will that we can progress in the spiritual life, where growth takes place slowly and patience is paramount. This is why Saint Francis urges his correspondents to apply themselves ‘diligently but gently to whatever is the work in hand’ – an overbearing or overly intense approach to virtue is indeed ‘hurtful to the heart’, as it results in spiritual burnout and can ultimately be detrimental to faith.

This connects to another aspect of Saint Francis de Sales’ teaching that I have found particularly instructive – the idea that all our attempts to rest in our own strengths and efforts, rather than in the love of God and trust in His grace, end in disappointment because they are rooted in pride. To believe that one can make swift progress in the spiritual life by rushing forth and busying about is prideful and when one (inevitably) comes up short or run out of steam, wounded pride will lead to despair. Also, when one is feeling upset with oneself for sliding into sinful behaviour, an overly passionate or gloomy response is also found to be rooted in pride as it stems from a disappointment with our efforts – instead Saint Francis (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter IX) advocates a calm and steady repentance based on humility before God’s forgiveness.

So, I think the great gifts of Saint Francis de Sales are two-fold. Firstly, he was blessed with a warm and intimate writing style that clearly stems from an open-hearted nature eager to share the love of God that he had grown to trust in so deeply. Secondly, he recognised that the enriching life of virtue and devotion that he experienced and advocated could only be lived in a spirit of true humility, which itself can only be found in that absolute trust in God’s loving nature that he had. When I first started to read Saint Francis, I found myself charmed and encouraged by his warmth; now, I also find myself humbled by the purity of his love of God, and paradoxically, uplifted in that humility, if only momentarily. Francis was able to live his life in this state of joyous humility, and it is in this spirit alone that the ‘little’ virtues can be pursued. Thank God for saints such as Saint Francis, who were and are able to open up this path to us, and to encourage us to deepen our trust in God, who is Love.

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