This is the ninth 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.” The fifth article was “More on the Virtues From St. Francis De Sales.” The sixth article was “St. Francis De Sales on Friendship, Fasting, and Modesty.“ The seventh article was “St. Francis De Sales on How Words Matter.” The eighth article was “St. Francis De Sales on Recreation.“
Today we come to chapters 38-41 where St. Francis De Sales discusses marriage and widows. He presents three effects of marriage . He writes, “The first effect of this love is the indissoluble union of your hearts. If you glue together two pieces of wood, provided that the glue be strong, their union will be so close that the stick will break more easily in any other part than where it is joined” (147, my emphasis). For many today the indissolubility of marriage is forgotten or ignored. When they are no longer “interested” in the relationship, it is over. Some people never get married. Where is the commitment? As to the glue that can hold man and woman together in marriage, we find in the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage). When a man and woman choose to make their marriage vows before God, God bestows the needed grace upon them. It does not mean the marriage will be easy. It does mean that God is with them.
St. Francis De Sales continues, “The second effect of this love should be an inviolable fidelity to one another. In olden times finger rings were customarily graven as seals” (148). He goes on to speak of the exchange of rings as a sign of the commitment they have made. Today the rings can be a sign to the couple of their commitment to one another. The rings can also be a sign to others of the couple’s commitment. Thus, the rings are not just a novelty. They are a sign of the couple’s covenant. The world needs signs of covenant and commitment. The world needs signs of “inviolable fidelity to one another.” Marriage is not something one ends when it is no longer appealing. It involves commitment. The couple may struggle in their relationship but, with God’s grace, they do not give up. In this way, the couple’s covenant of marriage serves as a sign of God’s covenant with us. We struggle to uphold our part but God does not give up on us. (Here is a good place to remind readers that what I write is not simply what St. Francis De Sales wrote. My writing begins with what St. Francis De Sales writes but adds to it. Neither does it include everything he says. If you want the latter, you can read the book in its entirety.)
Returning to St. Francis De Sales own words, he writes, “The third end of marriage is the birth and bringing up of children” (148). Catholics traditionally had large families. Genesis 1:28 says, “be fruitful and multiply.” This was taken to say a couple should have as many children as able. Today, a couple entering into the Sacrament of Marriage is called to be open to the birth and upbringing of children, God willing. However, they are not expected to have as many children as possible. Paragraph 2367 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and following speaking of the openness to children but with reasonable spacing of the children. One must also consider the means by wish the couple does so. The Church prohibits artificial means. Rather, the couple is to do so in “natural family planning”, making use of the natural fertility cycles of the woman. (Natural Family Planning is an extensive topic and beyond the scope of this article – for on Natural Family Planning see https://www.usccb.org/topics/natural-family-planning/natural-family-planning.
Properly understood, the parents are not simply called to give birth to children. They are called to be active in the upbringing of their children. St. Francis De Sales writes, “And when children begin to use their reason, fathers and mothers should take great pains to fill their hearts with the fear of God. This the good Queen Blanche did most earnestly by Saint Louis, her son: witness her oft-repeated words, “My son, I would sooner see you die than guilty of a mortal sin”” (150). Paragraph 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that parents have the responsibility for the education of their children (cf. my article “Helping Our Children be Disciples”). The Church has a vital role to play in educating child in the faith but it starts with the parents.
St. Francis De Sales goes on to say, “Saint Paul assigns the charge of the household to the woman; and consequently some hold that the devotion of the family depends more upon the wife than the husband, who is more frequently absent, and has less influence in the house. Certainly King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs, refers all prosperity to the care and industry of that virtuous woman he describes” (151, cf. Proverbs 31). One must be quite surprised to hear St. Francis De Sales say that St. Paul gives charge of the household to the woman. That’s because we think of what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands.” First, please read the whole passage (Ephesians 5:21-30). Next, please take a look at 1 Timothy 5:14 where Paul identifies the woman as the manger of the home. As to the father’s role, this does not mean that he has no responsibility. In fact, surveys today indicate that one of the most important factor in determining if a child will keep going to church is if the father goes. The father must set an example.
St. Francis De Sales also points to 1 Corinthians 7:14 where Paul speaks of marriage between a Catholic and an unbeliever. Today such couples often may simply ignore the difference in faith. Sadly, some will cease to practice their faith to not be in conflict over the difference of faith. Paul sees it as an opportunity for the Catholic spouse to lead their unbelieving spouse to holiness.
Before discussing widows, St. Francis De Sales speaks of how a wedding couple celebrates their wedding anniversary. He encourages the couple to include in their anniversary, confession and Communion, as well as inviting God once again into their marriage. God doesn’t just want to be part of the wedding day. God wants to be part of the marriage every day.
Now, a brief word on what St. Francis De Sales says about widows before I conclude today. He points us to 1 Timothy 5 where Paul provides rules for widows. In general terms a widow is a woman whose husband has died. Paul uses the term “widow” in a more technical sense. From this, in turn, St. Francis De Sales speaks of a vocation of widowhood. It isn’t just the woman whose husband has died. It is a woman who has already raised children. With the children beginning their own families, the “widow” dedicates herself to a life of chastity and prayer. She does not simply expect others to provide for her needs while she sits idle. She gives her life to God in chastity and prayer (see St. Francis De Sales, 153-156). Younger widows are to care for their children and remarry when appropriate.
This concludes my writing for today. I hope it has been thought provoking for you. Soon I will write one or two more articles to conclude this series inspired by my reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life.