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Introduction to the Devout Life
By St. Francis de Sales, Allan Ross
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
DESCRIPTION OF TRUE DEVOTION
YOU aspire to devotion, dearest Philothea, because being a Christian, you know that it is a virtue extremely pleasing to the divine Majesty: inasmuch as small faults committed in the beginning of any affair, in the progress thereof grow infinitely greater and in the end become almost irreparable, it is necessary before all things that you should know what the virtue of devotion is; for since there is but one true devotion, and very many which are false and vain, if you know not which is the true, you may very easily be deceived, and waste your time in following some devotion which is false and superstitious.
Aurelius was wont to paint all the faces in his pictures to the air and resemblance of the women whom he loved, and each one paints devotion according to his own passion and fancy. He that is given to fasting holds himself for very devout, if he do but fast, though his heart be full of rancour: and though he dare not moisten his tongue in wine or even in water for fear of transgressing sobriety, yet he scruples not to plunge it in the blood of his neighbour, by detraction and calumny. Another will account himself devout, for reciting a great multitude of prayers every day, although afterwards he gives his tongue full liberty to utter peevish, arrogant and injurious words among his familiars and neighbours. Another will readily draw an alms out of his purse to give it to the poor, but he cannot draw any gentleness out of his heart to forgive his enemies. Another will forgive his enemies, but will not make satisfaction to his creditors, unless forced by the law to do so. And yet all these persons are, in the common estimation, held to be devout, though they are by no means so. The servants of Saul sought for David in his house; but Michol having laid a statue in his bed, and having covered it with David's apparel, made them believe that it was David himself sick and sleeping: even so do many persons cover themselves with certain external actions belonging to holy devotion, and the world believes them to be truly devout and spiritual; whereas in reality they are but statues and phantoms of devotion.
True and living devotion, O Philothea, presupposes the love of God; nay rather it is no other thing than a true love of God; yet not any kind of love; for, in so far as divine love beautifies our souls, and makes us pleasing to his divine Majesty, it is called grace; in so far as it gives us strength to do good, it is called charity; but when it reaches such a degree of perfection, that it makes us not only do good, but do so carefully, frequently and readily, then it is called devotion. Ostriches never fly; fowls fly, but heavily, low down and seldom; but eagles, doves, and swallows fly often, swiftly and on high. In like manner sinners fly not towards God, but make all their courses on the earth and for the things of the earth; good persons, who have not yet reached devotion, fly towards God by their good deeds, but rarely, slowly and heavily; devout persons fly towards God, frequently, readily and on high. In short, devotion is no other thing than a spiritual nimbleness and vivacity, by means of which charity works in us, or we by her, readily and heartily; and as it is the office of charity to make us observe all the commandments of God generally and universally, so it is the office of devotion to make us observe them readily and diligently. Hence it is that he who keeps not all the commandments of God, cannot be esteemed either good or devout, since to be good one must have charity, and to be devout one must have, besides charity, a great alacrity and readiness in carrying out the actions prompted by charity.
And since devotion consists in a certain excelling degree of charity, it not only makes us ready, active and diligent in observing all the commandments of God; but it also prompts us to do readily and heartily as many good works as we can, even though they be not in any sort commanded, but only counselled or inspired. For just as a man but newly recovered from some sickness, walks only so much as is needful, and but slowly and heavily, in like manner the sinner, when newly healed of his iniquity, walks in so far as God commands him, but heavily and slowly, until he attains to devotion; for then like a man in sound health he not only walks, but runs and leaps in the way of God's commandments, and moreover passes onwards and runs in the paths of the heavenly counsels and inspirations. In fine, charity and devotion differ no more, the one from the other, than the flame from the fire; inasmuch as charity, being a spiritual fire, when it breaks out into flame, is called devotion: so that devotion adds nothing to the fire of charity, save the flame which makes charity ready, active and diligent, not only in observing the commandments of God, but in practising the heavenly counsels and inspirations.CHAPTER 2
THE NATURE AND EXCELLENCE OF DEVOTION
THOSE who discouraged the Israelites from going into the promised land, told them that it was a country which devoured its inhabitants; that is to say, that the climate was so unhealthy that it was impossible to live there long, and that the inhabitants were such monsters that they ate up other men like locusts. So the world, my dear Philothea, defames holy devotion as much as ever it can, depicting devout persons with peevish, sad and sullen countenances, and proclaiming that devotion produces tempers which are melancholy and insupportable. But as Josue and Caleb protested that not only was the promised land good and fair to behold, but also that the possession thereof would be sweet and agreeable, so doth the Holy Spirit assure us by the mouth of all the Saints, and our Saviour by his own, that the devout life is a sweet, happy and agreeable life.
The world sees that devout persons fast, pray, and bear injuries patiently, that they serve the sick, give to the poor, watch, bridle their anger, repress and stifle their passions, deprive themselves of sensual pleasures, and do such actions and other kinds of actions which in themselves are hard and rigorous; but the world does not see the interior and cordial devotion which renders all these actions agreeable, sweet and easy. Look at the bees upon the thyme; they find there a very bitter juice, but in sucking it, they convert it into honey, because it belongs to their nature to do so. O worldlings! devout souls find much bitterness, it is true, in their exercises of mortification; but in doing them they convert them into sweetness and delight. The fires, the flames, the wheels, and the swords seemed flowers and perfumes to the martyrs because they were devout. If, then, devotion can give sweetness to the most cruel torments and even to death itself, what will it do for the actions of virtue?
Sugar sweetens unripe fruits, and corrects the rawness and unwholesomeness of those which are fully ripe. Now devotion is the true spiritual sugar which takes away what is bitter in mortification and what may be hurtful in consolidation: it takes away discontent from the poor, and anxiety from the rich, desolation from the oppressed and insolence from the favoured, sadness from the solitary and dissipation from him that is in company. It serves for fire in winter and for dew in summer; it knows how to abound and how to suffer need; it renders equally profitable honour and contempt; it receives pleasure and pain with a heart almost always the same, and fills us with a wonderful delight.
Contemplate the ladder of Jacob, for it is a true picture of the devout life. The two sides between which one ascends, and to which the rungs are fastened, represent prayer which obtains the love of God and the sacraments which confer it; the rungs represent the divers degrees of charity by which one goes from virtue to virtue, either descending by action to the succour and support of one's neighbour, or ascending by contemplation to loving union with God. Now look, I beseech you, at those who are on the ladder; they are men who have angelic hearts, or angels who have human bodies; they are not young, though they seem to be so, because they are full of vigour and spiritual agility; they have wings to fly, and they soar up towards God by holy prayer, but they have also feet to walk with men by a holy and amiable intercourse with them; their faces are beautiful and cheerful, because they receive all things with sweetness and delight; their legs, their arms, and their heads are uncovered, because their thoughts, their affections, and their actions have no other design or motive than to please God. The rest of their body is covered, but with a beautiful and light robe, because they do indeed make use of this world and of worldly things, but in a fashion which is altogether pure and sincere, since they only take but sparingly that which is requisite for their condition of life. Such are the devout.
Believe me, dear Philothea, devotion is the sweetest of all things and the queen of virtues, because it is the perfection of charity. If charity be a milk, devotion is its cream; if it be a plant, devotion is its flower; if it be a precious stone, devotion is its lustre; if it be a precious balm, devotion is its perfume, yea the odour of sweetness which comforts men and makes the angels rejoice.CHAPTER 3
THAT DEVOTION IS SUITED TO ALL VOCATIONS AND PROFESSIONS
IN the creation God commanded the plants to bring forth their fruit, each after its kind: even so he commands Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his kind and vocation. Devotion ought to be practised differently by the gentleman, by the artisan, by the servant, by the prince, by the widow, by the daughter, by the wife; and not only so, but the practice of devotion must be accommodated to the strength, to the affairs, and to the duties of each one individually. I ask you, Philothea, would it be proper for a bishop to wish to be solitary like the Carthusians? And if the married were to have no wish to lay by more than the Capuchins, and the artisan were to be in church all day like the religious, and the religious were to be always exposed to all sorts of interruptions for the service of his neighbour like the bishop, would not such devotion be ridiculous, disorderly and intolerable? Nevertheless, this fault is very common; and the world which cannot or will not distinguish between true devotion and the indiscretion of those who imagine themselves to be devout, murmurs and blames devotion which is not responsible for these disorders.
No, Philothea, devotion when it is true never spoils anything, but rather perfects all things, and when it becomes inconsistent with the lawful vocation of anyone, it is without doubt false. "The bee," says Aristotle, "sucks its honey from the flowers without injuring them," and leaves them as whole and as fresh as it found them; but true devotion does even better, for not only does it not spoil any sort of calling or employment, but on the contrary it adorns and beautifies them. Precious stones of all kinds when steeped in honey become more brilliant thereby, each one according to its colour, so every one becomes more agreeable in his vocation by joining it with devotion. The care of a family is rendered peaceable thereby, the love of the husband and of the wife more sincere, the service of the prince more faithful, and every kind of occupation more pleasant and agreeable.
It is an error, nay rather a heresy to wish to banish the devout life from the army, from the workshop, from the courts of princes, from the households of married folk. It is true, Philothea, that devotion of a kind which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious cannot be practised in these callings; but besides these three kinds of devotion, there are also many others, which are suitable for leading to perfection those whose lives are spent in secular avocations. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Job, Tobias, Sara, Rebecca and Judith bear witness thereof for the Old Testament; and as for the New, St. Joseph, Lydia and St Crispin were perfectly devout in their workshops; St Anne, St Martha, St Monica, Aquila, Priscilla, in their households; Cornelius, St Sebastian, St Maurice, in the army; Constantine, Helen, St Louis, Blessed Amadeus, St Edward, on their thrones. It has even happened that many have lost perfection in solitude, which notwithstanding is so favourable to perfection, and have preserved it amidst the multitude, which seems so little favourable to perfection. Lot, says St Gregory, who was so chaste in the city, defiled himself in solitude. Wherever we are, we may and ought to aspire to the perfect life.CHAPTER 4
OF THE NECESSITY OF A GUIDE, IN ORDER TO ENTER ON THE PATH OF DEVOTION AND MAKE PROGRESS THEREIN
THE young Tobias, when commanded to go to Rages, said: "I have no knowledge of the way." "Go then," replied his father, "and seek out some man to guide thee." I say the same to you, my Philothea. Do you wish in good earnest to set out on the way to devotion? Seek out some good man to guide and conduct you; it is the admonition of admonitions. Although you may search, says the devout Avila, "you will never find out the will of God so assuredly, as by the way of this humble obedience, so much recommended and practised by all the devout men of old."
The blessed Mother Teresa, seeing that Madame Catherine of Cardona practised great penances, wished to imitate her in this, against the advice of her confessor, who forbade her to do so, and whom she was tempted to disobey in this respect; but God said to her: "My daughter, thou art following a good and safe way. Seest thou the penance which she practises? But I make more account of thy obedience." And therefore she conceived so great an esteem for this virtue, that besides the obedience which she owed to her superiors she made a special vow to an excellent man, binding herself to follow his direction and guidance, by which she was wonderfully consoled; as many good souls have done both before and since her time, who in order to subject themselves more perfectly to God, have submitted their will to that of his servants; a practice which St Catherine of Siena commends very highly in her Dialogues. The devout princess St Elizabeth submitted herself with an entire obedience to the learned Master Conrad; and here is one of the counsels which the great St Louis gave to his son just before his death: "Confess frequently, choose a suitable confessor who is a wise man, and who can teach you safely" to do such things as are necessary.
A faithful friend, says the Scripture, is a strong defence, and he that hath found him hath found a treasure. A faithful friend is the medicine of life and of immortality: and they that fear the Lord shall find him. These divine words have reference principally, as you see, to immortality, for which it is necessary above all things to have this faithful friend, who may guide our actions by his advice and counsels, and by this means preserve us from the snares and deceits of the evil one; he will be to us a treasure of wisdom in our afflictions, in our sorrows, and in our falls; he will serve us as a medicine to ease and console our hearts in our spiritual maladies; he will keep us from evil, and will make our good better; and should some infirmity befall us, he will prevent it from being fatal, for he will lift us up from it.
But who shall find this friend? The wise man tells us: they that fear the Lord; that is to say, the humble, who earnestly desire their spiritual progress. Since it is of such great importance, Philothea, that you should go with a good guide on this holy journey of devotion, pray to God with great earnestness, to provide you with one who may be according to his heart, and have no doubt; for even though he should have to send an Angel from heaven, as he did to the young Tobias, he will give you one that is good and faithful.
And indeed, this guide ought always to be an Angel in your eyes: that is to say when you have found him, do not look upon him as a mere man, nor trust in him as such, nor in his human knowledge, but in God, who will favour you and speak to you by means of this man, putting into his heart and into his mouth whatsoever shall be requisite for your happiness, so that you ought to listen to him as to an Angel, who comes down from heaven to conduct you thither. Treat with him with an open heart, in all sincerity and fidelity, manifesting clearly to him your good and your evil without feint or dissimulation: and by this means your good will be examined and rendered more secure, and your evil will be corrected and remedied; you will be eased and strengthened thereby in your afflictions, moderated and regulated in your consolations. Have the greatest confidence in him, mingled with a holy reverence, yet so that the reverence diminish not your confidence, nor your confidence hinder in any way your reverence; confide in him with the respect of a daughter for her father and respect him with the confidence of a son in his mother: in a word, this friendship must be strong and sweet, altogether holy, sacred, divine, and spiritual.
Excerpted from Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, Allan Ross. Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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