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The History of Religious Life
Great Saints and Their Spiritual Contribution
St. Frances de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Fr. Hardon: The Spirituality of St. Frances de Sales.

The written sources are fairly well exhausted in the lineup that I give there. Notice the number of letters that he wrote.  Two thousand letters of St. Frances de Sales we still have in existence.

What is the significance of St. Frances de Sales?  May I first ask, whether, we talk about the spirituality of St. Frances de Sales, we are talking about Salesian spirituality.

Sister: [Her comment or question is inaudible.]

Father Hardon: No.

What does Salesian spirituality mean?  The spirituality of whom?

Sister: St. John Bosco.

Fr. Hardon: Well now, you are absolutely right.  But what saint founded the Salesians?  St. John Bosco.  Okay.  Both the men and the women.

First of all, Frances de Sales built on St. Ignatius, notably of course, his spiritual exercises and Ignatius stress on human liberty. He found out and he was the one who has ever since has been saying and is one of those passages in the Introduction to the Devout Life that the real difference between saints and would be saints.  There are those who are saints voluntarily cooperated with God’s grace. The has beens, pardon me, the would have beens are those who had the grace but did not cooperate.

Second, his spirituality is a product first of all, of the bishop who was moreover very active in the Episcopal ministry.  He was especially effective in converting many Protestants to the Church.  Figures seem sometimes exaggerated but the biographers keep repeating in the neighborhood of 70,000 converts. 

As a bishop he was extraordinarily active in the Episcopal ministry particularly in convincing those many Protestants that God loved them. Because you will recall somewhere along the line, we touched on this either in this class or the other one, that in Calvin’s vision of God, and Calvin is the great father and god you might say of classic Protestantism, God for all eternity foresaw whom he would predestine for Heaven and whom he would condemn to Hell; but where Calvin parted with historic Catholicism was to claim that God not only foresaw but foreordained.

And thirdly, that God foreordained some for Heaven and others to Hell irrespective of their conduct.  In other words, it is not that those who would go to Hell would go because God foresaw that they would abuse the graces but rather that for His own glory He wanted some to vindicate His Justice and some to vindicate His Mercy.   That’s Calvin. De Sales was brought up in that mentality, combined with the Swiss and French mentality, goes very strong in the direction of Calvinism.  In France, as you know, they became the Huguenots. At any rate it’s all very well, we are now talking as Catholics, it’s all very well, to say that God predestined some people for Heaven and others to Hell.  If I can subjectively convince myself that while I am one of those that God has predestined for Heaven, that’s great.  Then I am happy on earth and I am going to be happy after death.   The trouble is that not everybody, well, is all that convinced.

De Sales was not convinced at all.  He was convinced, if he had any conviction that he was on the, I should have put this but if I place it this way, it is on the left side.  De Sales, therefore, in his own life was discouraged.  He was despondent and he saw that this kind of pedestinarianism makes for discouragement and finally despair because, and this is not an unimportant feature of his spirituality, the essence of Hope is not only trusting in God’s Goodness or His Grace, it is also trusting that I have the freedom and the will power to shape my destiny. Does that make sense? That’s why, by the way, he wrote his famous treatise On the Love of God. There are two great books in Christian hagiography on the love of God; Bernard and de Sales.  Now de Sales wrote the way he did on God’s love in order to make sure that no one would despair. Not despair either in conjuring up a God who would have the demonic gall of condemning some people irrespective of their merits to Hell.  But also of a God who so loves man, and this is de Sales through and through, who so loves man that He gave man the freedom by which he is to love God in return.  Because the love of God, and this is de Sales, the love of God is not only God’s love for us, it is also our voluntary and free and deliberate and responsive love of God.

Number Three. The Spirit of St. Frances de Sales can be said to be synthesized or capsulized in The Order of theVisitation. I commend to your reading if you haven’t done it something about the origins of the Visitation Order.  I know it quite well. I may have mentioned somewhere along the line after I entered the Order, my mother wanted to become a Byzantine nun.  I did tell you that I wrote a letter of recommendation which didn’t work. The Visitation Order is an Order, therefore, they take solemn vows.  Frances had hoped that the Visitations would be the breakthrough among women’s religious communities that would engage in the active apostolate outside the community as religious. He did not succeed.  But his ideas and his spirit opened up for Vincent de Paul that we will take next.

It is also interesting to note that officially the Church considers Frances de Sales the founder of the Byzantine nuns.  Now no doubt Frances wrote The Rule but it’s also a tribute to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, in other words, her humility.  As a matter of fact, he did not have all that much contact with her.  He was a busy person; not too often did he see her, and the correspondence was not that frequent, which says something, as you know, one of the great stories of spiritual direction in the history of the Church: Frances de Sales counseling Jane de Chantel.

Aware of a divided Christendom, Frances de Sales like Ignatius, represents a spirituality in modern times.  Because whatever else is true of the Christian world since the 16th century, it is a divided Christian world and that consequently, we should be concerned and part of our apostolic zeal should be towards converting as we still may say falling back to full communion with the Church, which is more theologically accurate.  Those who are Christians, but not Catholics, I don’t hesitate saying and I mean it, the quality of every community founded since the 16th century should include a concern for our separated brethren.

In many ways, for example this community, you are mainly Catholics, right – the girls here but not only – am I correct? Now there are all kinds of prudence and concern, all I am saying is our concern is not only for those who are Catholic but also for those who both Christian, are not as we say, of the household of the Catholic faith.

He is the Heavenly Patron so declared by the Church of the Catholic Press.  He was a first rate pamphleteer.  This is about a century or a little more after the discovery of print.  He saw the Protestants using the printed word to weaken and even destroy the faith of believers.  He wrote extensively, desired to combine contemplation in the active apostolate for women. He referred to that before.  He did, however, get a number of concessions but he never got the full concession of having women be religious and yet engage in the act of external apostolate.  He made the rule for the Byzantandines, though strongly contemplative, remarkably, if I can use the word, easy.  About easy, I don’t mean it was child’s play but unlike Teresa he did not stress in the pursuit of contemplation mortification, penance, solitude, silence.  He stressed, rather affectivity, the intention that I have with which I do whatever I do. He is a great apostle of doing things out of love for God.  And you will grow in the contemplative spirit provided you keep telling God you are doing this out of love for Him and of course mean it.

How to Reach Perfection for the Laity

Finally, de Sales as the author of the great classic on How to Reach Perfection for the Laity. This is of course the introduction to The Devout Life.  We can all profit from the book but its immediate purpose is to assist the laity.  At this point, I would like to just mention in passing that I touched on before, but de Sales gives me the occasion for saying more about it.  As religious, we are not to be satisfied with engaging in apostolic work which may be in some either corporal or spiritual work of mercy and as it were keep our spirituality to ourselves; no, we have apostolic obligation to communicate the charism of our institute to others.  Such things as third orders or oblates or lay associates is part of the history of the Church’s sanctification.  And when we were following the Institute on Religious Life according to the norms that the Holy See was giving us, they could not made it plainer.  In my hours of conversations with the officials in Rome, that we want to have involved in the Institute not only religious but also the laity, the faithful. Because over the centuries the great, well, authors of the spiritualities we’ve even so far seen and the several more we still have to see. Where indeed are the founders or in this case re-formers, re-founders if you wish, of religious institutes?  But they made sure that their spirit affected other people.  And I don’t hesitate saying this least I don’t have the time, and I likely won’t have the time to talk about this when we come to modern spiritual life, by that time it will be April and May and that is the end of that.

I think a large part of our problem in religious active institutes like we belong to is due to the fact that we have expanded our apostolic work, good work, that needs to be done; and in the process, we have had to involve an increasingly large number of the laity.  I just happened to check on one occasion, the faculty at Marquette University in Milwaukee so I could quote the figure; I counted them.  There were 100 Jesuits on the faculty, administration and teachers.  There were 1100 lay staff, administration, and teachers.  On that proportion, I think you know what I am driving at. That proportion I think can be fairly duplicated in many, if not most other institutes; but my dear friends, therein lies not merely a problem but a crisis.  Either those with whom our religious work or with whom religious associate or who in many ways portray and present the apostolate we are engaged in to the public as witnesses of what we are suppose to be. Either we take some means, and we must take the means, this is no easy thing, to help those people acquire some of our spirit or we are going to harm and I don’t hesitate to say even destroy our communities.  And the more the state demands all kind of degrees and academic training and skills and certification and licensing, the more people work with us and we with them. We are as human as everybody else; I am afraid that many religious spend most their working hours in the company of others who are not religious and less still members of their own community and among their own.  Do you agree?  And we better know what we are doing. As I have more than once sometimes in long reports to the Holy See pointed out when they asked “What happened?”  At any rate, de Sales in many ways gives the answer.  We are to sanctify the laity and not merely as it were use them and hire them to do a job.  We go to a quarter of, don’t we?  Let me start the features we can finish this up in two weeks hence.

First Feature - Divine Love

Let me just mention one and that will be plenty. Divine Love is the primary goal of sanctity.  Yet as, if you’ve read the Treatise on Divine Love by St. Frances, it is by now you must know, for St. Frances divine love was essentially that deeply interior affection that the loving soul has which he called devotion.  Devotion is deeply personal, sincere, committed love.  As a consequence, de Sales as you reread his Introduction to the Devout Life he talks very little comparatively speaking of the kinds of penance and mortification and the heavenly structure even monastic discipline that we have come to associate with other forms of spirituality.  I don’t really know why, but my own explanation of this is this.  I believe that Francis de Sales came at that period in human, especially Western history, while the neat classification of society, the kind of orderly organized systematic life that people used to live was disappearing.  He was entering an age of disorder, of confusion, of unpredictability.  And he was chosen by God to give us a spirituality that can cope with the disorder of modern society.   Am I clear in what I am trying to point out?  That we can be sanctified without being all that programmatic, all that organized, all that structured, all that monastically do this at this time and do something else at another time. Now don’t misunderstand me, de Sales was organized.  Don’t you think it’s good to hear this? That, but of course, this is Ignatian that I am so deeply in love with God that whatever I do including riding, I come back to the New York subways, I can be growing in sanctity because the God that I love is with me and what is best of all, I am with Him.

Second Feature - Acts of Divine Love

The second of the eight features we are looking at necessarily, briefly, are the acts of divine love are the primary means to sanctity. Behind this feature is a profound principle of theology.  Other things being equal, any given act which I perform, a good act, is that much more pleasing to God as it is performed from a higher and purer motive.  Motivation elevates every action.  There are as we say three determinants of the morality or, in this case, the spirituality of an action:  what I do, how I do it, and why. De Sales’ great contribution to the history of Christian spirituality is to bring out the importance of the why.  That no matter what I am doing, the more my motive for doing whatever it is, is the love of God, I am growing in holiness because I have as we say sanctified, elevated what I am doing.

Third Feature - Methodical Mental Prayer

We know he was methodical from his writings, even his conferences.   We have parts to it and subordinate parts to the major parts.  His Treatise on the Love of God and his Introduction to the Devout Life is systematized.

There are three reasons I would say for this.  First of all, his own natural temperament – he was a methodical person and consequently you would expect his spirituality to reveal a certain amount of to use a word Methodism; which by the way is why John Wesley was called a Methodist.  He was so methodical.  We don’t use the word to apply to Catholic people like Frances de Sales, but I should say that they have much in common: Wesley and de Sales. First then his temperament.

Secondly, his profession – he had been as you know a lawyer.  And a lawyer may lack other virtues but if he’s ever going to win a case, he better be logical, so he was logical, organized, methodical.

And thirdly, he was a disciple of St. Ignatius. And after I read it ten times, I thought to myself, I guess we all figure that St. Ignatius was very systematic, very methodical, well, he was.  In any case, de Sales being a disciple of Ignatius and a product of the spiritual exercises, he was structured in so far as we can speak of Ignatius spirituality as being structured.

The value of methodical mental prayer for de Sales was one that he stressed, especially in counseling other people.  The value of method is it tends to create habits.  If you have certain things that you do at a certain time – you do it at nine o’clock today, you do it at nine o’clock tomorrow.  What’s today?  Saturday.  Tomorrow is Sunday.  You do it at nine o’clock on Monday. By Tuesday if you don’t do it at nine o’clock, you’ll feel guilty. So method or system tends to induce habit.  In fact all psychologists of habit tell you if you want to develop a habit presumably a good one, organize your doing it – certain things done in a certain sequence and at a certain time in a certain way.  I’ve got into the habit for example, of writing.  When I write for, well, for publication, I have found that my most effective (I was going to say weapon) my most effective instrument is not a typewriter, least of all a lead pencil, even a ball point. It must be a pen and must have jet black ink. Then my thoughts flow.  We get into habits and consequently the more systematic a person can be in planning his spiritual life the more likely that spiritual life will become habitual, makes sense. Certain things you do on Tuesday, certain things you do on Wednesday at 7:30.  Does that make sense?  At any rate de Sales discovered the value of system or of method in the inducing of sound spiritual habits.

Fourth Feature - Simplicity of Prayer

Now he was himself a very learned man.  Nevertheless, he simplified his prayer and this is perhaps one of the distinctive features of the prayer of St. Frances de Sales as he practiced it and preached it is it concentrates on the person of Christ.  He was no St. Dominic. He was certainly not a Thomas Aquinas.  Now he could be as you noticed, if you read some of his writing, he could be could be quite profound and theological, but it is rather

the person of the Savior in this sense he had a lot in common with St. Francis of Assisi.  The spiritual life is centered on Christ and for Frances the prayer was mainly to Christ or meditation about Christ.

Fifth Feature - Liturgical Prayer

Fifth, liturgical prayer, no great discovery but he emphasized it gives structure to the spiritual life because the liturgy itself is structured. Christmas comes around always on the 25th of December.  Imagine having Christmas coming on the 11th   of December or the 4th of July just to spoil everything.  What would we do on the 4th of July?  There is a cycle.  There are seasons. Within the seasons there are certain days.  We are now in the season of Lent.  And consequently, and this is great wisdom, any religious community that ignores the liturgical cycle is endangering its spiritual life.  Now this is not to say that for Frances it was the same kind of structure that say the monastic communities had, remember the Divine Office and so on and everything centering literally around that Divine Office.  Although, when he finally came to found the Visitation sisters or nuns as they prefer to be called, though he himself as you remember wanted them to be more active in the apostolate, he finally under suasion of, well, of his own Metropolitan Bishop.  He was a very obedient man, though a bishop he had a Metropolitan, whom he could have ignored but he didn’t.  The Metropolitan insisted that the women’s community or that’s what is was that he was founding be monastic as far as possible. So that liturgy became so structured in the Visitation community that it became the center of that community.  But even in his Introduction to the Devout Life notice the stress on the Mass, on the Feasts of the Church and so on.   All I can tell you is that if we start re-thinking our – even our prayer life concentrating seeing during Lent on certain mysteries of Christ’s life, in the Easter season certain other mysteries, on Sundays certain other attributes either of God or mysteries of Christ.  It will do something to your spiritual life, which Frances felt was essential for sound religious living.

Sixth Feature - Eucharist and Penance

Sixth, the Eucharist and Penance are as we call them sacraments of preservation. Remember, he is writing in the 17th century, before the advent of our present frequent communion.  In any case, he required both of his penitents and gave very lenient permissions for his day to receiving communion often.  What are the two sacraments of Eucharistic preservation;  Eucharist and Penance.  What do they preserve?  Penance preserves from sin.  The Eucharist preserves in grace.  In the two, grace and sin, are perfect contraries.  So much so that in theology we say we can describe the state of sin is the absence of grace or the presence of grace as the removal of sin.  There are then two basic elements to the spiritual life.  One is to be rid of sin the other is to grow in grace.  These two sacraments take care of each. Penance to have us, first of all, have our sins forgiven, to cope with the sins – sinful tendency which we have a, well, we have an urge to commit certain sins.   Penance gradually overcomes our natural concupiscence and gives us that self-mastering which except for the sacrament we would not achieve.  And the Eucharist, receiving as faith tells us the Author of Grace, preserves this grace in our souls.

Seventh Feature - Optimism

Seven, Frances de Sales was a strong optimist. He had himself been very pessimistic, deeply affected by the Calvinism of his day, but his optimism was born of grace. Meaning what?  Meaning that, although he came on one occasion in his life to the point of despair but though he despaired of his own lack of virtue and his own inability to do what he should, his trust that God’s grace would save him made him an extraordinary gentle, kind, peaceful, understanding and for our purpose, optimistic person who is not that by nature at all.  If you have any pessimistic streaks in you, if you tend to moods or despondency, you might read more of St. Frances de Sales, because grace can change you.

Eighth Feature - Growth in Perfection as Growth in Devotion

Finally, growth in perfection as growth in devotion. We saw earlier first of all that every title of his book and the French title is exactly what the English translation is Introduction to the Devout Life. You might almost say that Frances de Sales coined the expression – devotion.  Devotion for him is as it should be for us too as votum. You notice the centerpiece of devotion is the same as the Latin word for vow. What’s vow in Latin?  Votum.   What is votum?  That which is willed.  That’s what a votum is; that which is willed; chosen and willed.  And consequently, Frances placed great stress on wanting to become holy, wanting to become a saint. Did you come across that passage in the Introduction to the Devout Life? It scares you. When he was asked why there are not more saints, all kinds of reasons that people give, he gives only one reason.  Now of course there are saints and Saints.  Saints, well, with a small ‘s’; saints with a bigger ‘S’ and great big Saints.

Now the size of our sanctity will depend on the amount of grace but in essence, in essence, perfection means, in the Latin word perficere means, to finish, to complete.  Who then has reached Christian perfection?  The one who is as far as God is concerned, finished, completed; that’s as far as she’s going. What? Am I making sense?  In other words, for some of us – now look – all of us have a lot farther to go than I am afraid most of are going.  Have no fears that any of us are going to be, you might say, pygmies or midgets and I wish I got more grace so I could become a bigger saint.  Have no fears, you’ve got plenty to work on with the grace you’ve got.  The point is the perfection is the fulfillment of that sanctity which God has in store for me.  I read once, I hope the author is wrong, he speculated that people live as long as God knows they need to live to reach their degree of sanctity.  It’s not too encouraging, especially when you see holy people die young.  Then you wonder how much longer do I have to live having done such a poor job so far.  In any case for de Sales the grace is up to God.  Don’t worry how much grace you’ve got, whether you’ve got enough.  Go to the sacraments, do your prayer, you’ll get the grace. Ah, but my dear friends in Christ, de Sales would tell us, the secret is this votum.  Are we clear?  It’s how much we cooperate that’s what devotion means.  It is loving God by giving Him my will.  And the more completely and totally I give Him my will, the more holy I will become. Although it is by now not just one heroic act of the will and then we relax and go into supernatural hibernation.  I’ve made my act of the will for the year.  No, no, this is an on-going enterprise.   So much then for growth in perfection as growth in devotion.  We shall become as perfect as we want to be.   God wants all of us to be holy.  Have no fears that you won’t become say a St. Teresa of Avila.  Have no envy.  Don’t worry that others are getting more graces.  You look to yours.  Use yours. Use that will.

Now some typical statements. Contemplation is a loving, simple and constant attention of the mind to divine things.  Notice what de Sales is saying, we pray contemplatively when, of course, using our wills but if I can use the expression, we stop thinking and we start looking. Whereby thinking I mean reasoning and some of us are great reasoners and our faculty of ratiocination as it’s called has been sharpened to a razor’s edge. But in the presence of God, there’s some reasoning we’ve got to use.  For example, I’ve got to reason myself into why I should be praying.  Well, all right, do it.  But once you’ve got something that you believe in, look at it and this is where Christ comes in.  This ‘looking at’ is not a speculative kind of reflection.  It is rather looking at a scene, at a word of Christ, at some episode in the Gospels and just staying there.  Contemplation is staying put in the presence of God.

Second, to despise any at Christian perfection is a great sin.  That deserves to be memorized. We assume of course that people have the vocation.  Now in one sense every Christian has the vocation.  But there are some who obviously have the vocation and thus are religious.  It is then good moral theology as I have been telling people and spiritual directors and priests, tell the people a religious who does not strive after perfection and has really given up is in the state of grave sin. And here you don’t coast; this striving means effort.

Third, man is the perfection of the universe; spirit is the perfection of man; love the perfection of spirit; charity the perfection of love.  Only de Sales could coin that compound sentence.  What is he really saying?  He is saying put together the last word and the first word of that sentence and you have the key.  Man’s highest function before God is to love.  This is why God made the world. God made the world in order to be loved by His creatures.   And why as we teach that given all the logic of God’s creative work, He could not have stopped at the irrational, inanimate and therefore unloving creation.  Puppies and cats don’t love, they may cuddle. You can do all kinds of things and oh, one of the – the ads in the New York subways are something.  One that I just noticed, in fact, on the way to the airport yesterday, showing a puppy and a cat, sweet looking things and the caption above: “We need a haven of love.”  A haven of love? “If you wish to give either permanent or temporary lodging to strayed beasts,” – by the way this is my commentary on the ad – “please call…” They had several numbers.  The same city that gave abortion to the nation. The city where a single abortion mill I am told by women who stand outside, average from one to two hundred and fifty abortions a day. Only man can love and what de Sales is saying, God made the world in order to be loved and it is up to us to fulfill His divine purpose of creation.

Fourth. The death and passion of our Lord is the sweetest and most compelling motive that can animate our hearts in this mortal life.   Only a mystic can say that and mean it.  Because as he knew and we’re learning, if you want to love God the way we’re suppose to with that devotion, that willingness that God expects of us, we’ll have to pay, we’ll have to suffer, we’ll have to endure pain.  To do anything you need motivation and the harder it is the higher must be the motivation.  To sit down to a good meal you hardly need motivation.  All you need is one look at the dish.  You don’t even have to think.  But as the action becomes more demanding, as it’s harder, you need higher and deeper motivation.  And the highest and deepest motivation we can have for suffering is the realization that God became man in order to suffer for us.  Humility is the recognition that we are absolutely nothingness and it keeps us constant in this estimation of ourselves.  Again, only a Francis of Assisi or Frances de Sales could say that we are absolutely nothing because everything we naturally think about ourselves suggest that we are something.  In any case, the more humble we are the more surely, and this is Frances de Sales, we have a chance of becoming holy.  The only danger in the spiritual life and the more you work at other virtues, the more you’ve got to look to your humility.

And finally, speaking to the Visitation Community, the peculiar spirit of the Visitation is the spirit of profound humility towards God and of great gentleness with our neighbor.  Ah, how wise Frances was.  You remember that passage in the Gospels where Christ tells us to learn from Him.  How does that go?  ‘Learn of me for I am meek or gentle and humble of heart.’  Meekness being gentleness.   Those two virtues go together; they are inseparable.  Humility and gentleness.  Only humble people are gentle.  Proud people are always, memorize the adverb, they are always harsh. Oh they may be sweet externally but there is a coldness, there’s a sharpness, there is a thoughtlessness about pride for the best of reasons because what is pride except preoccupation with self.  I notice what Frances does, he distinguishes these two virtues profoundly by saying that humility belongs to our relationship towards God and gentleness to our relationship with our neighbor.  So the more genuinely humble I am before God, the more gentle I’ll be in dealing with others.  And of all people both in his own life and in his teachings who could teach this it was he, Frances de Sales, who was masculine to the last hormone in his body, nothing effeminate about de Sales – strong, firm, constant.  The only mistake that people can make is to suppose that gentleness means softness – just the opposite.  Only strong people can be gentle because among my definitions of gentleness, it is power restrained by love.  Some people seem to be gentle but they are sentimental.  It takes a person who you know could crush you, I don’t mean physically, but say intellectually, who allows you to make mistakes and doesn’t laugh at your mistakes.  It takes a person of strong virtue who can see weakness around him and not consider that he or she is better than somebody else.  In any case, so much for de Sales.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
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