Heart First: The Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales

“Since the heart is the source of actions, as the heart is, so they are. … I have wished above all else to engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy, sacred maxim, LIVE JESUS!” — St. Francis de Sales

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St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal by Valentin Metzinger, Wikimedia Commons

From the outset, let me say I am no expert, nor even a novice, in the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. I’ve read just enough to be dangerous now. I was confirmed as a twenty-something husband and father of two, taking the name of St. Francis as the patron saint of journalists and writers. I knew a bit about the man, and almost nothing about his teachings.

Several years later I read probably his most famous book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, which is a practical guide for lay people pursuing holiness, whatever their state or station. I remember it being thorough, simple, solid, and encouraging. Under his direction, sanctity seemed challenging but achievable.

Then a couple years ago, I discovered a book in the library at Demontreville while making a silent retreat: Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction. I barely scratched the surface of the lengthy introduction during our down time at the retreat, but I knew I needed to read it. I tracked down a copy on eBay, and over the past few weeks, finally finished the the introduction and began to read the letters themselves. The more I learn about the approach of the “Gentle Doctor” to prayer and holiness, the more I see God’s providence in my choice of patron.

The book I’m reading lays out out six themes common to Salesian spirituality as develop by St. Francis de Sales and practiced by St. Jane Frances de Chantal and the religious community she founded, the Visitation sisters.

  • Christian humanism. Salesian spirituality is optimistic, affirming the innate dignity of the human person and God’s lavish love, mercy, and desire for communion with the creature He made in His image.

“See the divine lover at the gate. He does not simply knock once. He continues to knock. He calls the soul: come, arise my beloved, hurry! And he puts his hand on the lock to see whether he can open it. … In short, this divine Savior forgets nothing to show that his mercies are above all his works, his mercy is greater than his judgement, that his redemption is copious, his love is infinite and, as the Apostle says, he is rich in mercy and so he desires that all should be saved and none perish.” — St. Francis de Sales

  • God’s will be done. St. Francis de Sales believed that we are created to know and love God and do His will—but also that God’s will is manifested in two ways: His signified will to be done by us, and the will of His good pleasure, His providence shown in our circumstances. Both require loving submission, grace and holy indifference, knowing, “[A]ll things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
  • Holiness here, in the world. St. Francis believed that holiness and sainthood is possible for every man and woman regardless of career, role, or station. Indeed, his spirituality was rooted in relationships with family and friends; in daily work and activities, pleasures and sorrows; in finding God in the moment and loving God in one’s neighbor.

“Let us all belong to God…in the midst of so much busyness brought on by the diversity of worldly things. Where could we better witness to our fidelity than in the midst of things going wrong?”– St. Francis de Sales

  • Free to love. As a younger man, St. Francis had a crisis of faith around the question of predestination–whether he was already doomed to die and be damned. He came to believe that our complete liberty to choose and act is essential to us being truly made in God’s image, and that God never violates that freedom. Humanity’s free will may be the source of sin and evil in the world, but it is also what enables us to love as God loves, purely and without attachment or reserve.
  • Heart-first and hidden. St. Francis de Sales focuses on the heart as the source and object of conversion–and unlike other spiritualities, which often employed strict rules of appearance, fasting, and penance, Salesian spirituality focused on poverty of spirit and mortifications hidden in the heart. Our pursuit of holiness should not take us from our duties, but should be central to who we are and manifest itself visibly as the fruits of a deep interior conversion.
  • Little things mean a lot. Centuries before St. Therese’s Little Way and Mother Teresa’s oft-quoted wisdom, St. Jane de Chantal is credited with writing, “We cannot always offer God great things, but at each instant we can offer him little things with great love.” Among the little things touted by St. Francis are little virtues: gentleness of heart, humility, simplicity.

“Humble mildness is the virtue of virtues which Our Lord has recommended to us, and therefore we ought to practice it everywhere and always. Evil is to be shunned, but peaceably. Good is to be done, but with suavity. Take this for your rule: Do what you see can be done with charity, and what cannot be done without disturbance, leave undone.” — St. Francis de Sales

I continue to read and learn more about my patron, and to pray for his and St. Jane’s intercession in my life. His human approach to holiness, centered on God’s love and desire for us, and rooted in our individual circumstances, speaks to my heart in a way that’s beyond coincidence.

Of course, how all this relates and leads to the Sacred Heart remains to be seen…

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Featured image at the top of the post: Detail of Peinture Eveque 03184 saint François de Sales en extase (Painting Eveque 03184 Saint Francis de Sales in ecstasy), Louis François Félix Musnier, 1700s, photographed by G. Garitan, 7 August 2016, own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Heart First: The Spirituality of St. Francis de Sales

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  7. Thank you for a beautiful and brief meditation on Saint Francis de Sales. This great saint has captivated me ever since I learned of him a few short years ago. And now my son is studying Introduction to The Devout Life. And I must confess I am captivated by the lessons in that book. I would wish that it could be promulgated from every diocese in the world. I say this because at 57 years old, I had only heard of the book when I was in my 40s. And having gone through my formative years of catholic education without Saint Francis De Sales is tragic indeed.


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