This is the fourth article in my series based on my reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales. Written 400 years ago, it is available in various translations. I am reading the 2015 version published by Ignatius Press (San Francisco) and the Augustine Institute (Greenwood Village, CO) The first article was “What Does It Mean to be Devout?” followed by “Purification in the Devout Life.” The third article was “The Devout Life – Prayer.”
Today, our discussion moves into part 3 of St. Francis De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. Part 3 is on living the virtues as part of the devout life. Here I have to admit the language of virtues is a little hard for me to describe. Virtue is good habits but it is more than that. The online Catholic Culture Dictionary describes virtue as “A good habit that enables a person to act according to right reason enlightened by faith. Also called an operative good habit, it makes its possessor a good person and his or her actions also good. (Etym. Latin virtus, virility, strength of character, manliness.) (accessed 12/6/22 online at catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=37122). In faith, what is good is determined by God. The opposite of virtue is “vice.” The online Catholic Culture Dictionary describes “vice” as “A bad moral habit. Technically a vice is the strong tendency to a gravely sinful act acquired through frequent repetition of the same act. Qualities that characterize a vice are spontaneity, ease, and satisfaction in doing what is morally wrong. (Etym. Latin vitium, any sort of defect.) (accessed 12/6/22 online at https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=37094).
Pride may lead us to desire virtues that make us look good. St. Francis De Sales writes, “We do not very often come across opportunities for exercising strength, magnanimity, or magnificence; but gentleness, temperance, modesty, and humility are graces that ought to color everything we do” (69). We do well to begin with the virtues we most often need.
St. Francis De Sales continues, “In practicing any virtue, it is well to choose that which is most according to our duty, rather than most according to our taste” (70). While we should strive to live all the virtues, each individual’s place in life can require different virtues (70). We also need to be concerned more with our interior needs than exterior appearances. Here St. Francis De Sales writes, “Thus the common run of men ordinarily value temporal almsgiving more than spiritual; and think more of fasting, exterior discipline and bodily mortification than of meekness, cheerfulness, modesty, and other interior mortifications, which nevertheless are far better” (70). Here I think of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that we hear on Ash Wednesday, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (see Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
How we do develop the virtues within us? Practice. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Cassian relates how a certain devout maiden once besought Saint Athanasius to help her in cultivating the grace of patience; and he gave her a poor widow as companion, who was cross, irritable, and altogether intolerable, and whose perpetual fretfulness gave the pious lady abundant opportunity of practicing gentleness and patience” (71). I don’t think we need to go looking for “trouble” but it is our struggles that we open ourselves to God’s help.
How are we to determine what virtues we need to develop? St. Francis De Sales says that we should look at our vices (bad habits) and ask what the opposing virtue is. That is the virtue we need to develop (72). He goes on to discuss how when one is first developing virtue in the devout life, we look in broad terms at our behaviors but as we develop in the devout life, we look more at the little things. Here we caution against scrupulosity. Rather, we are talking about awareness of our vices. When we start out we can’t see the little things. We start with the most obvious and only later can see and work on the little things (72-73).
We do this not for our own honor. We do it because it is right (see St. Francis De Sales, 74). It is not easy. As St. Francis De Sales begins to discuss specific virtues, he begins with “patience.” He writes, ‘ “For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised” (Heb 10:36), says Saint Paul; and the Savior said, “By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk 21:19)”. ‘ It is not easy to endure. We don’t have to do it alone. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
St. Francis calls to not complain. He writes, “If it is necessary to complain to someone, either as seeking a remedy for your injury, or in order to soothe your mind, let it be to some calm, gentle spirit, greatly filled with the love of God; for otherwise, instead of relieving your heart, your confidants will only provoke it to still greater disturbance; instead of taking out the thorn that pricks you, they will drive it further into your foot” (77). We complain not to gain pity but for help in dealing with our problems as God calls us to.
There are those who attend to their appearance out of pride. They seek vainglory. They seek status in earthly things like “noble birth, favor of great men, popular applause” (St. Francis De Sales, 79). What really matters is our status in following Christ. A mule is a mule where it carries the goods of a prince or a simple shepherd (St. Francis De Sales, 81). Now, there is nothing wrong with a good reputation. However, we do good not for the reputation but because it is good (see St. Francis De Sales, 87-88). In my recent homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, I contrasted the boasting of the Pharisee to that of Paul.
St. Francis De Sales points us to the humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary (81-82). Her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Mary is not committing the sin of pride. Why? Because she is giving the credit to God for making her great.
We must not pretend to be great. We become great by imitating Jesus and the saints. We imitate them not to look good. We imitate them to actually become like them. Our imitation of the saints is not to glorify them. It is to follow their example of being like Jesus (St. Francis De Sales (82). In Isaiah 7:10-14, King Ahaz is offered a sign from the Lord. He appears to profess trust in God in refusing the sign. What is really going on is he wants to things his way. His way won’t work. When the Lord offers a sign or help, the humble person willingly accepts it.
The Lord is ready to do go things in you. Are you ready to let him?