Dear St. Francis de Sales: Advice from a Doctor of the Church

Before St. Francis de Sales came along, plenty had been written about devotion and the spiritual life, but most of it was written for priests, religious, and hermits. By God’s grace, St. Francis recognized a need for the laity to have practical spiritual guides to holiness in their own vocation, and he set the tides turning in the world of spiritual writing.

Amid his many pastoral duties, St. Francis spent countless hours writing individual letters of spiritual direction—over 20,000 of them. Some were published in book form, most notably within the spiritual classic An Introduction to the Devout Life. This Doctor of the Church showed the laity that sanctity is not relegated to convents, abbeys, and hermitages, but can be sought in villages, shops, and homes.

Not only did St. Francis’ advice reach the people of his own era, but it has inspired countless souls around the world ever since he wrote it down, and it continues to guide readers even today. He lived 400 years ago, but his counsel can still help us.

In fact, if you transplant the wisdom from his prolific letters of advice into our culture, he would make an excellent 21st-century advice columnist.

A few imagined letters, answered with advice taken from An Introduction to the Devout Life, will demonstrate what I mean. (The following questions are invented; the answers are based on his writings; and all italics are direct quotes of St. Francis.)

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

I have spent years perfecting the virtue of humility. I always choose the lowest place for myself, and I know that I am a miserable wretch unworthy of God’s grace. My wife, on the other hand, is vain, and it bothers me. How can I help her to be humble?

Signed,

Insignificant

Dear Insignificant,

It sounds as if you are making a show of being humble. If you were truly humble, you would prefer another person to call you a sorry and worthless man rather than to say so yourself.

In comparing yourself to your wife and accusing her of lacking this virtue, you reveal your pride. Strive to see your wife’s good intentions and not her failings, to love her with a tender, heartfelt love, and to keep your own humility hidden.

“True humility does not make a show of itself and hardly speaks in a humble way. It not only wants to conceal all other virtues but most of all it wants to conceal itself.”

 Dear St. Francis de Sales,

I love God, but I often get angry with others. When I catch myself getting angry, I try to turn the anger full-force back toward myself, but it doesn’t help. What should I do?

Signed,

Enraged

Dear Enraged,

When you feel angry, first of all, call for God’s help. But it is very important that you say this prayer calmly and not wrathfully. Trying to restrain your anger violently might stir up even more trouble in your heart. Rather, you must combat anger with peace. Pray for help as peacefully as you are able.

Then, make an act of meekness toward the person you were angry with. Meekness is the antidote for anger.

“We must repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness…. Speak all your words and do all your actions, whether little or great, in the mildest way you can.”

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

I want to be holy, but I am a total failure. After I have committed a sin, I get so disappointed and mad at myself that I can hardly think about anything else. I’m never going to be a saint, am I?

Signed,

Hopeless

Dear Hopeless,

What would you say to a friend who had sinned? Would you tell him to wallow in misery, or to get up, brush off, and press on? You must be as gentle with yourself as you would be with others.

It is self-love that is disturbed when it sees its own imperfections. Do not yield to the vanity of punishing yourself unreasonably for your faults. Rebuke your heart mildly and calmly, with compassion, correcting it in this way:

“Alas, my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the pit we were so firmly resolved to avoid! Well, we must get up again and leave it forever. We must call on God’s mercy and hope that it will help us to be steadier in the days to come. Let us start out again on the way of humility. Let us be of good heart and from this day be more on guard. God will help us; we will do better.”

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

Our new neighbor showed up embarrassingly intoxicated to a party we recently hosted. My husband is telling our teenagers that he is just a fun-loving guy who’s the life of the party. I want nothing more to do with this drunkard, ever, but my husband says the guy did nothing wrong. Who is right?

Signed,

Drunk’s Neighbor

Dear Neighbor,

Neither of you is right.

Your husband should not be condoning your neighbor’s behavior; your children must be told the truth about virtue and vice.

On the other hand, you should not call a man a drunkard for one occasion of drunkenness, lest you commit the sin of slander. Nor should you write him off as a detestable sinner because of his offense, for how do you know he has not already repented?

Condemning vice requires great caution, so that you neither slander your neighbor nor endanger your own soul with rash judgement.

“We can never say that a man is wicked without exposing ourselves to the danger of telling a lie. If we must say something it is only that he did such and such a bad deed, that he lived a bad life at such a time, or that he does ill at present. We must never draw conclusions from yesterday to today, nor from today to yesterday, and still less to tomorrow. ….We must be especially careful when condemning a vice to spare as far as possible the person in whom it is found.”

 Dear St. Francis,

I have been sick for years. I keep praying that God will make me well so that I can go out and serve Him by becoming a missionary overseas, but He doesn’t answer. I’ve run out of patience. Why won’t He let me do His work?

Signed,

Bedridden

Dear Bedridden,

The problem is that you desire different work than God has in mind for you. The work that He wants you to do is always possible. Right now, it seems that He does not want you to “go out and serve Him,” but to serve Him from where you already are.

If you seek to cultivate virtues such as patience, resignation, and meekness under suffering, then you can be sure that you are accepting His will for your life and not seeking your own will or striving after your own idea of holiness.

“No one should desire means of serving God that he now lacks but rather should diligently use those he actually has. …The enemy often supplies us with great desire for absent things that we will never encounter in order to divert our minds from present things, from which, small as they may be, we might obtain great profit.”

 

These letters are only a small sample of the timeless guidance this great Church Doctor imparts to us across the centuries. On his feast day, January 24, and always, may St. Francis de Sales—patron of Sophia Institute and Catholic Exchange—pray for us all to attain the wisdom and grace to become saints in our time.

 

Maura Roan McKeegan

By

Maura Roan McKeegan lives in Steubenville, Ohio, with her husband, Shaun, and their four children. She is the author of the children’s picture books Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016), and The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014), which are the first two books in a series introducing children to biblical typology. Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, Crisis, Guideposts, Franciscan Way, Lay Witness, and My Daily Visitor.

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  • Joe the house painter

    Hey Maura, Great Job! That was simple, direct, profound, and addressed to our human condition, as Francis intended.

  • Right on the spot. Beautiful.

  • Joe the house painter

    Hey Maura,
    Have you got the title of a good book by de Sales?

  • Maura Roan McKeegan

    Thank you for your kind words, Joe! “Introduction to the Devout Life” is wonderful. All of the topics in this article were drawn from the third section in the book, which includes many points about practicing virtue. Also, I haven’t read it yet, but Sophia Institute Press (which runs Catholic Exchange) has a book called “Thy Will Be Done! Letters of St. Francis de Sales.” God bless you!

  • Paradox

    I wish I could write like that!
    In any case, several of these were spot on about my life. I’ll have to buy Introduction to the Devout Life sometime!

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