Someone asked me the other day which saint to turn to when one is struck by a migraine. Since I’ve never had one, I didn’t know. So, I suggested we do a Google search so that we’d both know. Turns out there are two intercessory experts, Gemma Galgani and Teresa of Avila, both of whom were frequently beset with severe, even crippling headaches.
But then I thought of another saint, one whose example of courage—“grace under pressure” is how Hemingway once put it—makes him the perfect, if unofficial, patron for all who suffer from afflictions of the head. And while he may never have suffered this particular malady himself, it scarcely matters in light of the story I’m about to tell.
It’s about Francis de Sales, the saintly bishop of Geneva, who, as he lay dying in the last hours of his life, knowing that the end was near, asked for the Last Rites; they were duly administered but without benefit of Viaticum owing to the unsettled state of his stomach. He was given a rosary instead, which, at his request, was wrapped around his wrist. He lasted through the night. On the following day, his doctors, having gathered around the sick bed to confer, agreed that extreme measures would be necessary in order to save his life. What did they have in mind? Repeated applications of a red-hot poker to the temple was their considered recommendation. Was that, one wonders, what the medical experts back then would have called “following the science”?
It didn’t work, of course, despite having inflicted it three times and leaving poor Francis in a state of excruciating torment. Concerning which, by the way, he did not utter a single word of complaint; instead, he repeated over and over the sacred words of Jesus and Mary. Shortly thereafter, the Litany of the Saints was recited and, while invoking the Holy Innocents, whose feast fell on that day, Francis breathed his last. It was December 28, 1622.
Can you think of a more inspiring example of patient endurance while suffering afflictions of the head?
Or the heart, for that matter, which brings me to the most difficult and demanding test of all in the life of Francis de Sales. It took place in late December of 1584 when Francis, a young student at the Sorbonne, found himself surrounded by learned professors whose minds had been infected by Calvinist theology. The net effect of their teaching drove the young Francis to the brink of despair, so entirely persuaded was he that hellfire awaited him on the other side of death. In a word, God had predestined him from all eternity to a state of everlasting damnation. And there wasn’t a blessed thing he could do to avert the dreaded certainty of the sentence. “Damned if you do,” as they say, “damned if you don’t.”
Thus, fixated upon a fate that would separate him forever from the sight of God, from a love on which he had come more and more to depend, Francis could only cry out in anguish, reaching again and again for the words of the Psalmist: “Save me, O my God, because the waters have engulfed my soul!” He knows himself to be at the very end of his rope, feeling the noose as it tightens itself more and more around his neck. “I, miserable as I am,” he records in his notes, “should I then be deprived of the grace of him who has made me taste so suavely of his gentleness, and who has shown himself so lovable to me?”
The tension is unbearable, leaving him no resolution whatsoever. Save only this, which he frames in the following heart-felt words: “Whatever it is to be, Lord,” he begs, “at least let me love you in this life if I am unable to love you in eternity.” And then, as if to ratchet up the request, he adds: “If, because my merits demand it, I must be cursed among the accursed who will not see your most sweet face, grant me, at least, not to be among those who will curse your holy name.”
In other words, if he cannot have paradise in the company of God and His angels and saints, and must ineluctably fall into a state of perdition amid the lost souls who languish forever without hope, at least allow the poor man not to despise and detest his God and Judge. It is an absolutely astonishing petition to make to Someone whom you have already convinced yourself is determined to cast you out into the darkness. But there is more to it than dumb resignation. It is, in fact, an act of total abandonment to God, telling Him that whatever eternal decree has been imposed, even were it to send him straight into hell, he will never join with those whose hatred and rejection of God has become their fixed and defining state.
And so, while there appeared to be no way out, no exit at all from the predicament young Francis found himself in, he nevertheless would steel himself to live on the terms God had set, refusing to give way to hatred and revolt. Like the ancient figure of Job, who cries out to God, “Even if you kill me, I will have hope in you,” Francis will persist with all his heart in a state of steadfast love of Jesus and Our Lady, determined to unceasingly cry out for a mercy he knows he does not deserve and deeply fears he will never receive.
But he is mistaken. Deliverance will most certainly come, and when it does it will effect a complete cure. And so one day, weeks after the crisis had first struck, he wanders into one of the churches in Paris where he would often stop on his way home from the University. It is the Dominican Church of Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, in one of whose side chapels there is a painting called the Black Virgin, before which he kneels in prayer. And seeing the text of the Memorare, he recites it “through to the end.” And at once, all temptation to despair falls clean away, his soul wholly and permanently restored.
Yes, by all means, invoke the blessed Francis, whom the Church raised to the altar in 1665, later declaring him to be the Doctor of Love. But do so knowing that for all that he was made physically to suffer at the end, the sheer anguish of soul he was made to endure at the beginning was yet worse. And in the triumph of his hope, may we find the consolation of knowing that we, too, are among the chosen of God.