A Noble Mind
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was “a burning and shining lamp” (Jn 5:35) for the Catholic Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, but in his teaching our own era finds just what it needs, too. His Introduction to the Devout Life is a handbook for how to put the love of God first in our lives and how to make prayer be the source of our illumination and interior peace. Yet it also explains the work that charity requires of us: to respond generously to God’s grace that our actions may be governed by virtue. In the Devout Life, we find a surprising invitation to lay men and women to live according to the evangelical counsels. “Only charity,” he affirmed, “can establish us in perfection, but obedience, chastity, and poverty are the three principal means to attain it. Obedience consecrates our heart, chastity our body, and poverty our possessions to God’s love and service.” If, as St. Augustine affirmed, virtue is “a good quality of the mind by which one lives rightly,” and poverty, chastity, and obedience are the virtues necessary for right living, then our desire to seek and to attain them will give us noble minds able to withstand the troubles of the Twenty-First Century.
Writing for lay men and women living in the world, de Sales taught that the obedience we must live is one that is located within and bounded by the duties of our state in life. “No one,” he insisted, “should desire means of serving God that he now lacks but rather should diligently use those he actually has.” This emphatic statement grew from his experience as a spiritual director; many are the letters in which he reminded his correspondents that to pine for the quiet and pious routines of a consecrated life is no virtue in a lay man or woman. In specifying the obedience proper to the laity, de Sales distinguished between necessary obedience—as to a rightly-constituted superior, either at work or in the political order—and voluntary obedience, the kind of deference we give freely to any number of people. His treatment of that voluntary obedience shows that he considered it to be tightly bound to the requirements of charity. “In order to learn to obey your superiors with ease,” he counseled, “adapt yourself easily to the will of your equals by giving in to their opinion in what is not sinful and by not being contentious or obstinate.” Much as a soldier within his unit or a sister in her religious community, the lay man or woman is to maintain a habitual understanding of himself as a part of a whole and not to think of himself as an independent unit. Francis de Sales’s teaching on obedience is both refreshingly matter-of-fact and as challenging as it could be. “True devotion,” he wrote, “consists in a constant, resolute, prompt, and active will to do whatever we know is pleasing to God.” If our will is confirmed in holy obedience to the duties of our providentially-assigned state in life, then our actions will show forth constancy and decisiveness, and, in a time of trial, we will be resolute.
St. Francis de Sales’s treatment of the virtue of chastity for the laity is one of the most remarkable features of his Devout Life. He considered the subject at length and from several different vantages. And while entirely faithful to the Church’s theological tradition—especially as represented by St. Augustine—he was nothing short of bold in his affirmation that chastity has its proper expression in married life. In his chapter on “The Sanctity of the Marriage Bed,” he offered the essential counsels that married couples need if their God-given gift of sexuality is to serve the life of charity. As in his treatment of obedience, de Sales’s chief concern in his discussion of chastity was our interior rectitude and peace. “Chastity,” he explained, “depends on the heart as its source, but looks to the body as its subject. For this reason, it may be lost both by the body’s external senses and by thoughts and desires within the heart. It is an act of impurity to look at, hear, speak, smell, or touch anything immodest if our heart is entertained thereby and takes pleasure in it.” In accord with this principle, he offered practical counsel for maintaining purity of heart. “Do not associate with immodest persons, especially if they are also loose in speech.” Exercise an extreme care toward “playful friendships” with persons of the opposite sex, because these false friendships “are always evil, foolish, and vain because they lead to and finally end in carnal sin and rob God and a husband or wife of the love and consequently the heart that belong to them.” He went on to discuss several other practices that protect chastity, but the general principle behind his teaching is what may be most helpful to us as a principle for discerning our own true intentions and putting them right: “Good feelings impel us to seek virtue; bad ones to seek feelings themselves.”
As in the case of his teaching about obedience and chastity, St. Francis de Sales’s counsel about poverty focused upon our interior well-being. “Your heart,” he wrote, “must . . . be open to heaven alone and impervious to riches and all other transitory things. Whatever part of them you possess, you must keep your heart free from the slightest affection for them” so that “it remains apart from riches and master over them.” This is the traditional doctrine about the importance of possessing our possessions and not being possessed by them. On this subject, he wrote with the shrewdness of one familiar with the life of status and wealth. “Unfortunately,” he warned, “no one is ready ever to admit that he is avaricious.” Sins and disordered desires with respect to obedience and chastity often enough declare themselves openly; avarice lives in shadow. How do we shed light upon it in the examination of our own hearts? “You are truly avaricious,” de Sales taught, “if you longingly, ardently, anxiously desire to possess goods that you do not have, even though you say that you would not want to acquire them by unjust means. A man shows that he has a fever if he longingly, ardently, and anxiously desires to drink, even though he wants to drink nothing but water.”
What are we to do if our self-examination convinces us that the world is too much with us in this respect? His answer was unequivocal: “we must practice real poverty in the midst of all the goods and riches God has given us.” But how? “Frequently give up some of your property by giving it with a generous heart to the poor.” And again, “Love the poor and love poverty, for it is by such love that you become truly poor.” In view here is once again a certain nobility of mind and of purpose. Such a beautiful purity of intention is not something we are likely to achieve all at once. How, then, do we begin? By taking our self-examination one step further: “There is no one who at some time or other had not felt the lack and want of some convenience . . . . This is to be poor, in effect, with regard to the things we lack. Rejoice on such occasions . . . accept them with a good heart and put up with them cheerfully.” De Sales taught that the challenge of poverty for the lay man and woman is nothing less than the challenge of love. Having observed that it is “a true sign of love to deprive ourselves of something for the sake of the one we love,” the author of the Devout Life then turned to direct address: “What have you given up out of love of God?”
“He who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands” (Is 32:8). These words from the Prophet Isaiah apply to St. Francis de Sales’s teaching on the place of the evangelical counsels in the life of the lay man or woman. The virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience are the proper and necessary supports of the love of God and neighbor. The man or woman strengthened by these virtues is freed from self-love and able to devote him or herself to the disinterested service of others and to the building of God’s kingdom. In these difficult times, we need to strengthen our hearts and ennoble our minds with the holy teaching of St. Francis de Sales.