This is the tenth and final 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.“ The ninth article was “St Francis De Sales on Marriage and Widows.”
St. Francis De Sales began his Introduction to the Devout Life with a discussion of purification and confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (see my first two articles in this series – “What Does It Mean to be Devout?” followed by “Purification in the Devout Life). In this final article we reflect on what St. Francis De Sales discusses in Part IV, battling temptation.
In chapter two of part IV, St. Francis De Sales offers an analogy of the bees who start out as “mere grubs” who can’t even fly yet. With time they grow and can fly. He then writes, “Now we are yet but as grubs in devotion, unable to fly at will, and attain the desired aim of Christian perfection; but if we begin to take shape through our desires and resolutions, our wings will gradually grow, and we hope one day to become spiritual bees, able to fly” (161). No matter where we are at in our efforts to live the devout life, temptation is present. How do we face temptation?
First, we must realize that just because we are tempted does not mean we have sinned. St. Francis De Sales speaks of how temptation comes to use in three steps. First, temptation is put before us. Then, is the evaluation of whether we find what the temptation offers “pleasing or displeasing to the soul” (161). Then, in the third step, we make a choice to consent to the temptation or to reject it.
St. Francis De Sales writes, “If we should undergo the temptation to every sin whatsoever during our whole life, that would not damage us in the sight of God’s majesty; provided we took no pleasure in it, and did not consent to it” (162). Temptation only becomes sin when we consent or find pleasure in thinking about the temptation. He continues, “But how long soever the temptation may persist, it cannot harm us so long as it is unwelcome to us” (162). God is pleased when we reject temptation. We don’t have to resist it alone. God will help us. God will give us strength to help us resist temptation. When we seek the devout life, God shows to us a better way than sin. God is referred to as our strength a dozen times in just the Book of Psalms alone. Trust in him.
When does temptation become sin? St. Francis De Sales writes, “When it is possible to avoid the pleasure arising out of temptation, it is always a sin to accept it, in proportion to the pleasure we take, and the amount of consent given” (166). First, I would like to note that he says “when it is possible to avoid…” If we are forced to commit an act of grave matter, it is not a sin because we have not consented (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1857). We must also realize that while we might choose not to engage in the sin temptating us, if we take pleasure in thinking about it “there is always a certain amount of sin, according to the degree to which we have lingered over it, and the kind of pleasure we have taken in it” (St. Francis De Sales, 167). Likewise, we must ask ourselves if we voluntarily exposed ourselves to the temptation. As we pray in an Act of Contrition, we must avoid whatever leads us to sin.
St. Francis De Sales writes, “do not fix your eyes of temptation, especially when it is strong, your courage may be shaken. Divert your mind with any right and healthy occupation, for if that takes possession and fills your thoughts, it will drive away temptation and evil imaginations” (168). When a tempting thought comes into our head, we must not give it too much attention. We need to immediately hand it over to God and direct our thoughts to some good. It is not always easy. When I find myself confronted with temptation, I say the Prayer to St. Michael and one Our Father to ask for strength from God and assistance from St. Michael who, through God’s strength, led the battle that cast out Satan from Heaven (see Revelation 12).
When we think about resisting temptation we might think of big temptations. St. Francis De Sales reminds us, “still there is perhaps more absolute profit to our souls in resisting little ones” (169). Why? Because there are more of them. He continues, “A man or a woman can easily keep from adultery, but it is less easy to abstain from all words and glances that are disloyal. While it is easy to keep from stealing another man’s goods, but often to difficult to resist coveting them…” (169). We must not take pleasure in thinking of tempting thoughts for as Jesus says, “But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). I find these words of Jesus difficult. We see and hear things that tempt us. The question for us is to do we allow ourselves to dwell on such thoughts. Hand it over to God.
We must not dwell on tempting thoughts. St. Francis De Sales writes, “do no more than simply remove them, not fighting with them, or arguing, but simply doing that which is precisely contrary to their suggestions, and specially making act of the love of God” (170). When we actually sin, we do well to examine what led us to sin so that we can avoid it in the future. When temptation comes before us, we must not dwell on it. We must not think we can fight it ourselves. Hand it over to God. Too much thinking gives the temptation more time to wear us down.
I don’t know about you but I find myself troubled by what I see in the world, immorality, war, violence…and this makes me anxious. The anxiety keeps me from knowing God’s peace in my heart. In turn this makes it harder to resist temptations. St. Francis De Sales writes, “This unresting anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to the soul, sin only excepted” (172). We cannot ignore what is going on in the world but when we find ourselves troubled by what goes on in the world, we ask for the grace to let go of it, simply asking God to guide us to do our part in the world. It is not the job of any single one of us to save the world. Jesus is the savior of the world, not me. We just need to do our part, allowing the Spirit to lead us (easier said than done). (For more on this see St. Francis De Sales, 174-175).
It can be especially difficult when we find ourselves in a dry time of prayer. We find it difficult to know what God asks of this. St. Francis De Sales writes of this dryness in chapter 14 of part IV (181-184). These are times that we need to rely on our trust in God remembering who He has helped us in the past. When you wonder if God cares, look at a Crucifix.
God’s love for us is infinite. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Remember, “the Evil One seeks to use our troubles to our discouragement, so as turn us back to sensual pleasures, and to make us a weariness to ourselves and others, in order to injure true devotion” (St. Francis De Sales, 187).
This concludes my series reflecting on St. Francis De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. I hope it has helped you in your efforts to live the devout life. Having just pointed us to Jesus’ love for us on the Cross, I would like to conclude with this slide of a quote from St. Mother Teresa that I concluded Part I of my current series, The Greatest Gift: The Eucharist“ with.