The Word Among Us

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Take Your Time—Gentle Guidance from St. Francis de Sales

Take Your Time—Gentle Guidance from St. Francis de Sales

To grow in holiness, remain calm and cast your confidence wholly on God, who alone gives the growth you desire.

Not every Catholic shouted glad hosannas when Francis de Sales was canonized in 1665, forty-three years after his death. The path leading to God that he described was “too easy,” some grumbled. One commentator wrote derisively that he had turned the way to holiness into “a pleasant road” that didn’t require enough sacrifice or hard work.

Of course, the majority opinion about Francis was overwhelmingly positive. Still, the criticism underscores the fact that most seventeenth-century Catholics found it somewhat shocking to think that people in all walks of life, and not just priests and nuns, were called to holiness. Yet Francis de Sales had learned from personal experience that a layperson busy with work, family, and friends could cultivate a deep relationship with God, not despite but through these ordinary life circumstances. After all, Francis had lived almost half of his life by the time he was ordained a priest!

So what better guide than this lawyer-turned- priest-turned-bishop? In the following two selections, the first taken from his Letters of Spiritual Direction and the second from his Spiritual Conferences, de Sales urges us to slow down, be patient, and give God a chance to work in our hearts.

Patience! Patience is the one virtue that gives greatest assurance of our reaching perfection (James 1:4), and while we must have patience with others, we must also have it with ourselves. Those who aspire to the pure love of God need to be more patient with themselves than with others. We have to endure our own imperfections in order to attain perfection; I say “endure patiently” not “love” or “embrace.” Humility is nurtured through such endurance.

In truth, we have to admit that we are weak creatures who scarcely do anything well. . . . Must we, for that reason, be worried, anxious, pressured, distressed? Certainly not. Is it necessary to think up volumes of desires in order to stimulate ourselves to reach this level of perfection? Of course not. All we need to do is express simple wishes that witness to our gratitude.

I can say: “Well, well, so I can’t serve and praise God as fervently as the angels!” But I mustn’t waste time making wishes as if I were going to reach such exquisite perfection in this world, and say: “I want this, I’m going to make every effort to get it, and if I don’t, I’m going to be furious!” I don’t mean that we shouldn’t head in the direction of perfection, but that we mustn’t try to get there in a day. . . .

Our imperfections are going to accompany us to the grave. We can’t go anywhere without having our feet on the ground, yet we don’t just lie there, sprawled in the dust. On the other hand, we mustn’t think we can fly, for we are like little chicks who don’t have wings yet. We die little by little; so our imperfections must die with us, a little each day. Dear imperfections, they force us to acknowledge our misery, give us practice in humility, selflessness, patience, and watchfulness.

Clucking Hens and Spiritual Eagerness. It is certainly a great pity to see people—and there are only too many of them—who, while aiming at perfection, imagine that it consists in a great multitude of desires. They are always eagerly searching for a way to become perfect, now here, now there. They are never contented or tranquil, for as soon as they have formed one desire they try to conceive another. They are like hens, which have no sooner laid an egg than they start busying themselves to lay another, without attempting to sit on the first. . . . If the hen hatches out a brood, she is quite excited and clucks loudly and incessantly. . . .

So too there are people who never cease clucking and bustling over their little ones—that is, over their desires of perfection. They can never find enough people to talk to about them and to ask for suitable and novel measures for reaching it. They waste so much time discussing the perfection they’re aiming at that they forget to practice the principal means of achieving it: to remain calm and cast all their confidence on God, who alone can give the increase to what is sown and planted (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

All our well-being depends on the grace of God, in which we should place all our confidence. And yet, from the over-eagerness to do a great deal that these people display, it would seem that they trust in their own labors and in the quantity of devotional practices which they undertake. . . .

Let us not be at all over eager in our work, for in order to do it well we must apply ourselves to it carefully indeed, but calmly and peacefully. We must not put our trust in our efforts but in God and his grace.

Those anxious searchings of heart about becoming perfect and those attempts to determine whether we’re making progress are not at all pleasing to God. They only serve to satisfy our self-love, that subtle tormentor that grasps at so much but accomplishes almost nothing. One single good work done with a tranquil spirit is worth far more than several done with over eagerness.