Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, and it is perhaps only too fitting that it should come on the heels of such controversy surrounding our government and our Church. I say “too fitting” because St. Francis provides us with exquisite lessons from which we can learn to address this dire moment. The first of them, of course, is trust.
In his book introducing us to the devout life, to the life pursuant of holiness, St. Francis wrote:
Should you, my child, ever be attacked by this evil spirit of sadness, make use of the following remedies. ‘Is any among you afflicted?’ says Saint James, ‘let him pray.’ Prayer is a sovereign remedy, it lifts the mind to God, Who is our only Joy and Consolation. But when you pray let your words and affections, whether interior or exterior, all tend to love and trust in God. ‘O God of Mercy, most Loving Lord, Sweet Savior, Lord of my heart, my Joy, my Hope, my Beloved, my Bridegroom.’
The temptation to despair and presume the end of all that is right and good in our nation is an easy trap to fall into. It is a common tool of the enemy to make us fearful and to behave rashly. It can, indeed, send us running into the metaphorical arms of ideologues in the other extreme. Remember to trust in the Lord, and not in the policy wonks convinced of this or that system. There are no systems. There is only the love of the Master for all of us.
St. Francis of course understood this as he trusted God to convert the souls of Chablais. The year was 1594 and the inroads of Protestantism had torn apart the people just south of Lake Geneva. Citizens left the Church in droves. Of the few who remained Catholic, “about twenty scattered individuals” we’re told, fear of violence kept them hidden. Francis, of course, volunteered to go. All were convinced this was martyrdom… and it nearly was.
Assassins were sent after him. They succeeded in capturing him, but never managed to get around to killing him. Once an angry crowd yelled at him, insulted him, and beat him.
Still, St. Francis never despaired, and what’s more he never reviled his Calvinist brethren, the very same who sent assassins after him, and who spoke so poorly about him. He preached day in and day out for many months to no avail. All the while, his father was writing him to tell him to give up and to save himself. Still, he trusted.
This trust, and this constancy in love for neighbor bore great fruit. After about four years, it could be said that Chablais was once again a Catholic province. The secret? Trust. Love. St. Francis wrote:
I have always said that whoever preaches with love is preaching effectively against the heretics, even though he does not say a single controversial word against them.
And of course there is this great dictum from this Doctor of the Church:
The measure of love, is to love without measure.
But surely, some have argued, this is fine for a priest, for a bishop. We lay people have to live in the real world, with real economics and real political ramifications; we cannot possibly be expected to follow such an example as St. Francis’. But this is the great lesson of the Introduction to the Devout Life.
It is an error, nay more, a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Of course a purely contemplative devotion, such as is specially proper to the religious and monastic life, cannot be practiced in these outer vocations, but there are various other kinds of devotion well-suited to lead those whose calling is secular, along the paths of perfection. The Old Testament furnishes us examples in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Job, Tobias, Sarah, Rebecca and Judith; and in the New Testament we read of St. Joseph, Lydia and Crispus, who led a perfectly devout life in their trades:–we have Saint Anne, Martha, Saint Monica, Aquila and Priscilla, as examples of household devotion, Cornelius, Saint Sebastian, and Saint Maurice among soldiers;–Constantine, Saint Helena, Saint Louis, the Blessed Amadaeus, and Saint Edward on the throne. And we even find instances of some who fell away in solitude,– usually so helpful to perfection,–some who had led a higher life in the world, which seems so antagonistic to it. Saint Gregory dwells on how Lot, who had kept himself pure in the city, fell in his mountain solitude. Be sure that wheresoever our lot is cast we may and must aim at the perfect life.
Well before the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement towards the universal call to holiness, we have here St. Francis de Sales telling us that it is a heresy to think that the average lay person cannot reach “the perfect life” in the very vocation in which they find themselves. Notice, that it is not that the prince or the soldier or the mechanic finds their perfection outside of their day-to-day lives. It is not the case that they must spend hours upon their knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Rather, they discover their perfection in the king’s court, in the guardroom and in the workshop.
Friends, as we face this most blatant attack on us from the Obama administration, let us remember to trust, to love, and to remember that it will ultimately NOT be some alternative form of government that saves the day. The remedy to Barack Obama is not the Republican Party, or the Tea Party, or the Constitution Party or any party. It is not Mitt, Newt, Rick or Ron. It is not a political remedy we seek here. Rather, it is the realization that we are sinners in need of a savior who has already so wonderfully revealed His mercy that we can do nothing else but to respond with a joyous yes.
So let us watch our tone. I say that to myself as much as to any reader here. St. Francis de Sales wrote once:
If there were anything more excellent than meekness, God would certainly have taught it us; and yet there is nothing to which He so earnestly exhorts all, as to be ‘meek and humble of heart.’ Why would you hinder me from obeying the command of my Lord? Can we really be better advised in these matters than God Himself?
Despite regular consternation on the part of his friends and his flock, St. Francis de Sales did not lump all his interlocutors into any category before it was their time. He did not try people by the court of public opinion or through innuendo. He strove always to assume the best, even if this did make him seem meek.
Of course meekness doesn’t mean apathy. St. Francis, after all, traveled to Chablais, and preached the truth of the Gospel with passion and care. He did not shirk from the “fight,” but rather entered into the lion’s den in order to love the people of that province back into the faith they had abandoned. Action is necessary. But as a lovely reader commented yesterday, let us remember that action does not just include calling your Senator or your Representative. Action, for those who believe “in thing visible and invisible,” means prayer and fasting and good old fashion spiritual warfare.
I would be remiss, then, if I did not mention the two great tools for such warfare, the tools which St. Francis de Sales used so regularly. The first: obedience. The second: the rosary. His devotion to our Lady was an early one, and a constant one. Let us remember her great example of meekness and obedience as she witnessed the worst crime in all of human history, the murder of God.
Let me close with this, as he grew up, St. Francis de Sales had a picture of St. Francis of Assisi in his room. The picture was of the Italian povorello preaching to the birds. I like to imagine the young de Sales, peering up to this picture, in his bed, hands behind his head as the daylight faltered or perhaps as dappled light began to slip through his window in the early morning. What lessons did he learn from that image do you suppose? I say it was simple: Preach. Love. Trust. God will do the rest.
Happy Feast of St. Francis de Sales everyone…and remember: when you pray “let your words and affections tend to love and trust in God.”