This is the fifth 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.”. The fourth article was “St. Francis De Sales on Virtues.”
As I continue to reflect on St. Francis De Sales’ discussion of the virtues in the Introduction to the Devout Life, we come to “gentleness.” He writes, “Humility makes our lives acceptable to God, meekness makes us acceptable to men” (90. He uses meekness and gentleness interchangeably at this point.) He reminds us that virtue is not just a matter of our external actions. It involves what we are internally. He writes, “for it is a favorite device of the Enemy to make people content with a fair outside semblance of these graces, not examining their inner hearts, and so fancying themselves to be gentle and humble while they are far otherwise. And this is easily perceived, because, in spite of their ostentatious gentleness and humility, they are stirred up with pride and anger by the smallest wrong or contradiction” (90). To truly be gentle, it needs be at the core of who we are.
Why should we be gentle? It brings peace not just to ourselves but to others. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Nothing so stills the elephant when enraged as the sight of a lamb” (91). Responding with hatred and anger will not calm a situation. Responding with gentleness can. St. Francis De Sales asks which is better received, a king arriving with his armies or for a peaceful visit from the king without the army (91, cf. 93 with regards to anger and gentleness as a parent)?
St. Francis De Sales writes, “Depend upon it, it is better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control anger lawfully; and if through weakness and frailty one is overtaken by it, it is far better to put it away forcibly than to parley with it; for give anger ever so little way, and it will become master” (91). If we are always working to control our anger, sooner or latter we may fail. If we have no anger, peace always has a place in our heart. That peace then can sustain us in moments where we may have acted angrily in the past. To truly let go of the anger, we must be gentle with ourselves as well as with others (St. Francis De Sales, 93). We must let go of all anger.
We are at our best when gentleness prevails. St. Francis De Sales writes, “The rivers that flow gently through our plains bear barges of rich merchandise, and the gracious rains that fall softly on the land fertilize it to bear the fruits of the earth; but when the rivers swell into torrents, they hinder commerce and devastate the country, and violet storms and tempest do the like. No work done with impetuosity and excitement was ever well done” (95). Some may think they thrive in challenge. We are at our best when peace reigns in our hearts.
St. Francis next turns to the virtue of obedience. He defines obedience as “a consecration of the heart, chastity of the body, and poverty of all worldly goods to the love and service of God” (96). All true obedience is to the Lord yet the Lord leads us through other people. Thus, we are called to be obedient to those who hold authority as long as what they ask of us does not go against God’s Will. This is true for church leaders as it is for civil leaders (97). St. Francis De Sales even calls us to “yield to your equals, giving way to their opinions where nothing wrong is involved” (97). We must let go of selfishness to be obedient. It is not about getting our own way.
St. Francis De Sales then offers us instruction on poverty. Poverty is not simply a lack of material things. It isn’t so much about the things as our attachment to the things. He writes, “and so you may possess riches without being poisoned by them, so long as they are in your house or purse only, and not in your heart” (101). When they enter our heart, we become attached to them. In becoming attached to them, we become obedient to them in stead of God.