“Nothing so much presses man’s heart as love,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, whose feast day we celebrate today, in Treatise on the Love of God. “If a man know that he is beloved, be it by whom it may, he is pressed to love in his turn.”
Last month on the fourth centenary of his death, Pope Francis honored St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the bishop of Geneva after Calvinism had overwhelmed the region, with a spiritually rich apostolic letter. The French bishop devoted his whole life to teaching men and women how to devote themselves to God. As the pope’s letter makes clear, the saint’s spiritual counsel remains as poignant as ever in a world that has forgotten how to love because it has forgotten the God who is love.
The modern world, with its exaltation of the individual and his will as masters of the universe, has difficulty understanding love, which is classically defined as willing the good of another. Yes, people today are still capable of loving, but the way we love is influenced by the culture around us. Too often this leads to a love of others enveloped within a greater love of self—what Aristotle called not love, but friendship of utility. Precipitous drops in the marriage and birth rates across the developed world testify to love frustrated by selfishly imposed limits.
The other problem that this individualist skewing of love generates is the difficulty of allowing oneself to be loved by another. How can a person wrapped up in himself receive another’s love, especially when the prevailing cultural narrative tells us that relationships are really about power and submission? Contemporary man in so many places is alienated from his neighbors and has no real roots in the community where he lives—many now are even remote from their co-workers. Forced to satisfy the natural desire for community and love through the Internet, it is no wonder that so many today are depressed, lonely, and untrusting of others.
To the cry of men and women “looking for love in all the wrong places,” Pope Francis offers St. Francis de Sales to remind us that we can be loved, and we can love, if we open ourselves to God first. And, the pope urges, we can receive and give that love in today’s world:
To live in the midst of the secular city while nurturing the interior life, to combine the desire for perfection with every state of life, and to discover an interior peace that does not separate us from the world but teaches us how to live in it and to appreciate it, but also to maintain a proper detachment from it. That was the aim of Francis de Sales, and it remains a valuable lesson for men and women in our own time.
St. Francis de Sales’ two most famous books, Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God, remain readily available four-hundred years after they first hit the shelves because they speak to the core desire of the human spirit: to find rest in the eternal God that made it. The former book is most apt for today, when so many Catholics over multiple generations have lacked a Catholic culture to help form them in the faith.
“True and living devotion,” St. Francis explains with confidence, “is no other thing than a true love of God.” He adds that devotion is “not any kind of love;” it is the love of charity that “reaches such a degree of perfection that it makes us not only do good, but do so carefully, frequently and readily, then it is called devotion…. In fine, charity and devotion differ no more, the one from the other, than the flame from the fire.”
The devotion, the true love of God that we see radiating from saints like Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Calcutta, and John Paul II, is, first of all, a gift from God. But St. Francis de Sales insists that we ought not marvel at these impressive souls and assume, using false humility as a cover for our sloth, that devotion is not for us. We can prepare our souls to receive God’s gift of love for Him by following the practical advice he gives us.
First, we must purify our souls of sin and of affection toward sin through serious examinations of conscience and sacramental confession. Love of God requires hatred of sin, which is the opposite of God. Second, we must pray—St. Francis recommends ways for us to engage the Mass and the sacraments, the prayers of the Church, spontaneous prayers, and meditation.
These first two activities comprise the foundation of the spiritual life; those who practice the faith regularly exercise both to varying degrees. The third step to developing devotion to God is essential, and often overlooked today by Catholics of all kinds: the development of the virtues, especially “the little virtues” of “patience, meekness, mortification of the heart, humility, obedience, poverty, chastity, consideration for others, bearing with their imperfections, diligence and holy fervor.”
St. Francis sternly warns us not to seek extraordinary graces from God nor the “lofty heights” of virtue that the greatest saints have reached. Rather, we must remember that “the King of glory does not reward his servants according to the dignity of the offices which they exercise, but according to the love and humility with which they exercise them.”
The devout life has pitfalls all around it, and St. Francis, keenly aware of the difficulties of completing the spiritual marathon of life, advises how we ought to resist temptation in all its forms—from sin to despair to the impact of spiritual aridity. When our works of virtue and of the spiritual life “are done in a state of dryness and barrenness, they have a sweeter scent and a greater value before God.”
Lastly, St. Francis counsels that we must realize that, on this side of eternity, we can never profess “‘that you are devout’ but ‘that you wish to be devout.’” We are always on the way, but never at the destination. A devout life keeps us on the road with our compass set to the magnetic north that is Christ. And there is no excuse to not stay on the road: everyone, the saint insists, is capable of mental prayer and of living the virtues in this devout way—“provided that they have good directors, and that they be willing to strive to acquire it as much as it deserves.”
If we in our broken, individualistic world wish to acquire the love that truly satisfies, we must open our hearts to the love that God offers us. Once we accept it, we can walk the path of devotion to the Lord. May the prayer of the priest today over the gifts be our own: “Through this saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord, kindle in our hearts that divine fire of the Holy Spirit with which you wonderfully inflamed the most gentle soul of St. Francis de Sales.”
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