The Word Among Us

Easter 2009 Issue

Why I Love St. Francis de Sales

He Makes the Spiritual Life Seem Do-able.

By: Patricia Mitchell

Why I Love St. Francis de Sales: He Makes the Spiritual Life Seem Do-able. by Patricia Mitchell

I was in my early thirties when the Holy Spirit inspired me to have a regular morning prayer time.

There were only two problems: my two little ones! They were very early risers, so my best-laid plans for a quiet time were often thwarted. My husband left early for work, and there I was, with two babies who needed their mother. How was I going to grow closer to God without some quality time to spend with him? Every morning was an exercise in frustration.

Someone came into my life at that time—just the right person to help me through my dilemma. And he wasn’t my contemporary, although he was surely my brother in Christ. A friend lent me a copy of the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. I had never heard of the saint or the book. But as I read it, I was amazed that a French bishop who lived four hundred years ago could have so much to teach me—and could do it in such a gentle, loving way.

I learned from Francis that my vocation was to be a wife and mother, and that I needed to attend to the responsibilities that my vocation entailed. It wasn’t that God didn’t want me to pray. Rather, I had to learn that my prayer didn’t mean much if it wasn’t reflected in loving actions and obedience to God. Also, I needed to calm down and look patiently for time to spend with the Lord—without getting anxious if it wasn’t long enough or quiet enough.

That’s why I love Francis de Sales. He shows us that we can draw close to God through the daily events and responsibilities of our lives, not in spite of them. He also reminds us that in every moment, and most especially in the present moment, God provides us with endless opportunities to practice those little virtues that make our heart like his.

The “Gentleman Saint.” Francis was born in 1567 in Savoy, surrounded by the beauty of the French Alps and Lake Geneva. The eldest of thirteen children, he studied in Paris and then earned a law degree from the University of Padua while studying theology on his own. He felt called to the priesthood, but his father wanted him to become a diplomat. However, when Francis was offered the second top position in his diocese, just under the bishop of Geneva, his father consented. Francis was ordained in 1592.

For the next four years, Francis did missionary work in the Chablais, a region on the southern end of Lake Geneva. Traveling tirelessly throughout the area, even in the frigid Alpine winter, he worked to bring the Calvinist population back to the Catholic faith they had abandoned.

He wrote persuasive little pamphlets that he left in public places and under doors. He debated with prominent religious leaders and discussed Catholic beliefs with anyone and everyone. Drawn by his courteous and loving manners, as well as his prayer and labors, most of the Chablais residents eventually returned to the Catholic Church.

In 1602, Francis was consecrated bishop of Geneva. Again, he threw himself into the work—preaching, teaching catechism, reforming the training of seminarians, hearing confessions, and meeting personally with nobles and peasants alike. Somehow, he also found time to write twenty or thirty letters of spiritual direction each day. It was these and other writings—including the instantly popular Introduction to the Devout Life—that made Francis famous as a master spiritual guide.

Holiness Is for Everyone. In the seventeenth century, it was unusual—maybe even radical—to tell people who were not in religious life that they, too, could enjoy a deep and intimate relationship with the Lord. But Francis urged laypeople toward this “true devotion,” as he called it. He recommended setting aside a special time of prayer in order to “speak to God and to hear him speak to us through inspirations and the inner stirrings of our heart.”

But Francis also taught that we can stay in touch with God even outside of prayer. While we are busy with work and caring for our families, we can offer all that we do for love of him. Using a typically colorful image, the Introduction says:

Do as little children who with one hand hold fast to the hand of their father and with the other gather strawberries or blackberries along the hedges. In the same manner, while gathering and managing the goods of this world with one hand, hold fast with the other to the hand of your heavenly Father, turning to him from time to time to see if your actions or occupations are pleasing to him.

Writing to a married woman, Francis advised:

Be both Martha and Mary. Diligently carry out your duties, and often recollect yourself and put yourself in spirit at the feet of our Lord. Say, “My Lord, whether I’m rushing around or staying still, I am all yours and you are all mine. You are my first spouse, and whatever I do is for love of you.”

Insight and Foresight. As a keen observer of human nature, Francis saw that people tend to imagine doing great things for God, while missing all the little, everyday ways they can please him. See if any of these sound familiar: “putting up with people’s moods and troublesome behavior, gaining victory over our own moods and passions, renouncing petty preferences, honestly acknowledging our faults, keeping our souls in peace.”

Even though Francis wrote hundreds of years ago, some of his advice seems especially insightful today. For example, he said to “accept the duties which come upon you quietly, and try to fulfill them methodically, one after another.” If you attempt to do everything at once, “you will probably be overwhelmed and accomplish nothing.” You’d think that Francis is addressing our twenty-first century penchant for over-scheduling, multi-tasking, and stressing out about all that we have to do!

Also relevant and especially insightful is Francis’ belief that “apart from sin, anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul.” When our hearts are troubled, he explained, we lose our peace and calm judgment and become more susceptible to temptation. We are like birds caught in nets, fluttering about wildly trying to escape and entangling ourselves even more. As he told someone, “What are you anxious about? All that matters is that [God] is with you, and you with him.” Since I tend to be a worrier, I like to imagine Francis saying those words and reassuring me by his own peaceful, gentle nature that it is possible to be worry free.

Like Jesus, Francis was sometimes criticized for being too kind to sinners. Once, tears streamed down his face while he was hearing a confession, and the penitent woman thought he was weeping over her sins. “Oh no,” he told her, “I am weeping with joy over your resurrection to the life of grace.”

"Live Jesus!” I love Francis not just for his genius in spiritual direction but because he embodied the wisdom he taught. His motto and lifelong aim was: “Live Jesus!” These words, he said, should be engraved on our hearts. Then, “just as this gentle Jesus will live in your heart, he will also live in your conduct and appear in your eyes, in your mouth, in your hands, even in your hair.” Francis himself was the proof: To see him was to see Jesus.

We are fortunate to have a portrait of this man from the personal testimony of his closest friend, another saint named Jane de Chantal. Together, these kindred spirits launched a community of women called the Visitation. The order was radical in its day, because it accepted women who were older, disabled, or widowed, and who would likely have been rejected by other orders.

Jane described Francis as a man who never went more than fifteen minutes without returning his gaze to Jesus. And in spite of demanding pastoral duties, “he never turned anyone away,” she said. “Whatever the time, however important the business that was waiting for him, he hardly ever dismissed anyone who came to see him, nor did he show any signs of weariness or aversion.”

A Friend for Eternal Life. Francis believed that “holy, sacred friendships” focused on the Lord are important, because they provide support for the spiritual journey. And so, I count this saint among my special friends. I hope he will become your friend as well.

He is a cheerleader who tells us that we can be close to the Lord and that our many responsibilities to family, parish, and workplace are not obstacles, but paths to God. He encourages us not to waste time looking back in regret over our past sins or looking too far forward and fretting about the future. He reminds us instead to focus on what’s right in front of us—the very next thing that God is calling us to do.

Along the way, we can practice those little virtues that Francis recommended: patience, forbearance, humility, simplicity, and joy. As these soften our hearts, we will be able to truly “Live Jesus!”

Patricia Mitchell is editorial director of The Word Among Us Press. For further reading: Live Jesus! Wisdom from Saints Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal (The Word Among Us: 1-800-775-9673; ).