In all your affairs, rely wholly on God’s providence, through which alone you must look for success. Nevertheless, strive quietly on your part to cooperate with its designs…. Imitate little children who with one hand hold fast to their father while with the other they gather strawberries or blackberries from the hedges. — St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, III.10
François (Francis) de Sales (d. 28 December 1622) was not always so ready to grasp the Father’s hand. This “doctor of charity,” whose name has become almost synonymous with douceur (“gentleness” or “sweetness”), knew what it meant to feel abandoned by God. Born in 1567 to an aristocratic family of the Duchy of Savoy, Francis was sent to top-notch schools in Annecy, Paris, and Padua. During studies in Paris in the 1580s, he encountered theological discussions of predestination that sent him into a spiritual tailspin. The Council of Trent’s “Decree on Justification” had merely mentioned “the mystery of predestination” in passing, leaving room for diverse schools of thought on its role in the Christian life. Because many early Protestants—especially followers of John Calvin—made predestination a key part of their theology, late sixteenth-century Catholic theologians hotly debated the proper way to include predestination in the Catholic view of grace and salvation. As the young Francis de Sales delved into these matters, he convinced himself that he was unavoidably predestined to hell. This spiritual crucible lasted for about two months, at the end of which he was moved to place himself completely in God’s hands. Nearly lost in despair, he turned and accepted God’s love. Having overcome this crisis of faith, the saint became a faithful student of trust in God. Moreover, he became a prophet of the gentle God, a sure guide to countless souls who would learn from him how to trust.
St. Francis de Sales bequeathed this spiritual guidance to future generations above all in his masterpieces, the Introduction to the Devout Life, the Treatise on the Love of God, and the Spiritual Conferences. As Francis was growing in renown in the Church, first as a priest and then as the bishop-in-exile of Geneva, many sought him out as a spiritual director. Advice to individuals eventually formed the basis of his most famous work, the Introduction to the Devout Life, the pages of which are filled with douceur. He includes chapters, for example, on being gentle toward oneself, on overcoming anxieties, on the need for good friendships, and on not treating temptations as sins. Little consoling phrases pepper the text: “we must not fret over our own imperfections”; “let us be of good heart”; “God will help us; we will do better”; “[have] great courage and confidence in his mercy”; “do not be solicitous and worried”; “you will receive countless blessings”; “by means of the continued practice of prayer, the sacraments, and confidence in God, … we will live a healthful and happy life.”
Because the Introduction quickly became a spiritual bestseller and has remained so in subsequent centuries, it has served as a buffer against the rigorism that sometimes find its way into Christian pastoral care and spiritual practice. Loosely defined, rigorism is the tendency to downplay God’s mercy and the power of God’s grace to overcome our sins. This tendency has often been more of a mood or a modus operandi than a formal set of doctrines. Christ’s rebukes toward the Pharisees were in part a preventative measure against rigorism, since fervently religious persons would be tempted to it throughout the history of the Church.
Soon after the time of St. Francis de Sales, dormant rigorism burst onto the scene once more, rocking the Church in seventeenth-century France, especially (but not exclusively) in the form of the Jansenist movement. French rigorists especially set their sights on the administration of the sacraments. They argued that good confessions were few, and rigorist priests often denied absolution to those whose confessions did not meet very strict standards. Consequently, rigorists considered few to be worthy to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis. Francis’s own contrary tendencies are evident in his advocacy of frequent—even daily—Communion. Had Francis’s writings not come to be so widely read and celebrated in France, rigorism would very likely have overcome more priests, religious, and laity than it did.
In our own seemingly lax age, Francis’s Salesian way can serve as an antidote to the subtle rigorism that still creeps into Catholic spiritual practice. To illustrate this, we can look at the example of vocational discernment, of making major life choices such as entering marriage, religious vows, or the priesthood. In our day, faithful young Catholics can find plenty of confusing and anxiety-inducing advice about following God’s call. Well-meaning priests, perhaps too concerned with recruitment, warn young people of lifelong unhappiness—and perhaps eternal unhappiness—for those who fail to figure out God’s will. God has a plan, and young people are out of luck if they miss the memo. Discernment then becomes a drawn-out process of discovering the secret knowledge that God supposedly wants them to have but refuses to give them. Such tendencies in vocational discernment advice developed amid the rigorism of later seventeenth-century France and have remained with us ever since.
St. Francis de Sales sets out a much simpler way, a “brief method for knowing God’s will,” in book eight of his Treatise on the Love of God. Before making a choice of vocation, one ought to do three things: pray, deliberate, and take counsel: “After having asked the light of the Holy Spirit and applied your mind to understanding and seeking his good pleasure, take counsel with your spiritual director and perhaps with two or three other spiritual persons.” What is left then is to make a resolution and hold to it without wavering. He explicitly warns against excessively long discernment and against “seeking to find the will of God by force of examination and by subtlety of discourse.” Consulting too many counselors could also hinder this brief method, as he wryly noted in one of his Spiritual Conferences: “One does not need an examination by ten or twelve doctors [of theology] to see if the inspiration is good or bad.” Following God’s call is not a code to be cracked, but a choice to be made.
In Francis’s view, endlessly discerning revealed an underlying distrust in God, as if God were playing a game and trying to trip us up. Instead, the gentle bishop asks us to trust that God will provide all the means we need to choose well and all the graces we need to rightly live out our choice. In that same spiritual conference, Francis defines “the good vocation” as “nothing other than a firm and constant will, which the person called possesses, to wish to serve God in the manner and place in which his divine Majesty calls her.” He distinguishes “sensible constancy” (which was not necessary) from constancy in “the highest part of the spirit,” a consistent choice to pursue the goods inherent in the calling, allowing for vicissitudes in one’s feelings and inclinations. He even argues that a vocational choice made in bad faith—for example, one motivated by greed or coerced by parents—could become a good vocation, if a person cultivated a persistent will to live his state of life well. In sum, St. Francis de Sales teaches that vocational discernment is a variation on the dictum “love God and do what you will.”
This is just one example of the liberating character of Salesian confidence in God, and Francis applies similar principles to the lesser decisions of daily life. Whereas the rigorists of the seventeenth century saw only dangers and temptations at every turn, Francis had learned as a young man that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). At the root of the entire Salesian legacy—the writings, the Visitation Order, the religious congregations founded on Salesian principles during the nineteenth century—is St. Francis de Sales’ trusting faith in God. We would do well to heed his example and his gentle exhortation to be little children, holding the Father’s hand as we gather the fruit that comes before us.