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

Four centuries ago, St. Francis de Sales spent countless hours writing thousands of letters of advice to people from all walks of life—nuns and priests; husbands and wives; young and old; single and discerning; saintly and struggling. The advice he gave to the faithful in his own time reaches across the centuries to us in our time, reminding us that although cultures change, the pursuit of holiness is timeless.

To honor his feast day two years ago, I wrote an article imagining what we might read if this patron saint of writers were a modern-day advice columnist. This year, to again honor St. Francis’ feast day, January 24, I am adding a few more imagined letters to this fictional exchange.

The letters in the previous article were based on Introduction to the Devout Life; this time, they are based on Thy Will Be Done! As before, the questions are invented; the answers are based on his writings; and the italics are direct quotes of St. Francis de Sales.

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

I long for nothing more than to be virtuous. I’ve made a list of every virtue I can think of, and I keep the list in my pocket so that I can frequently check it and discern whether I’m making progress. But no matter how hard I try, I keep falling short. I’m dedicating all my time and energy to pursuing these virtues, yet still I fail. How will I ever reach heaven if I cannot obtain all of these virtues?

 

Signed,

Not Virtuous Yet

Dear Not Virtuous,

You are focusing too much on specific virtues and not enough on the will of God. What if it is God’s will for you to suffer your imperfections, so that you may learn that you can do nothing without Him? It is self-love that drives you to attempt perfection in this manner, and it causes you to turn your thoughts inward to yourself rather than outward to God and neighbor. If you bind yourself to humility and charity alone, then the other virtues will flow naturally from these.

“Love nothing too much, not even virtues, which are lost sometimes by passing the bounds of moderation. …The exercise of virtues does not require that we should ever keep actually attentive to all. …Humility and charity are the mainstays; all the others are attached to them. We need only to keep ourselves well in these two virtues: one the lowest, the other the highest, since the preservation of the whole edifice depends on the foundation and the roof.”

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

I am constantly beset by temptations. I have tried hard to stay pure of heart, mind, body, and soul; and yet these temptations keep assailing me. I fight them, but they only seem to get stronger. They leave me no peace. I must be a terrible sinner to be under such attack. How can I escape these temptations?

Sincerely,

Tempted

Dear Tempted,

Courage, child! It is not your sinfulness but your faithfulness that arouses the enemy to attack you with temptations. If you had already let him in, he would not be trying to knock down your door. Here is what you must do: Instead of fighting the temptations, pay them as little attention as possible. When they arise, simply go about your business, and do not let your soul be disquieted. As long as you will to love Jesus, you need not fear temptations. Do not let the temptations vex you; have patience, and eventually they will subside. Meanwhile, the pain and suffering you endure are holy tribulations that will refine you as gold for heaven.

“It is a good sign when the Devil makes so much noise and tempest round about the will; it is a sign that he is not within. …Trust me; do not fear these temptations. …Pass on, and do not occupy yourself with them….”

Dear Saint Francis de Sales,

I love God, but I am terrified of losing heaven by some act of negligence or by making a grievous mistake. It is difficult to think of anything else but this fear. In fact, I cannot feel my love for God; I feel only fear. But I want to love God rightly; does that count for something?

Sincerely,

Terrified

Dear Terrified,

Your will to love God rightly counts for everything. Yes, you are weak, and so am I, poor creatures that we are! God only knows how much we need His grace. But do not be afraid of your weakness, child. Only take care not to rely on your own strength, but on God’s, to supply what you lack. Distrust yourself and put all your trust in God alone, and you need not fear. As long as you will to love Him, that is enough.

“Since you desire to be entirely God’s, why do you fear your weakness, in which you are not to put any trust? Do you not hope in God? …I beseech you…to quell all the objections that arise in your mind. You need make no other answer to them save that you desire to be faithful on all occasions, and that you hope God will make you so.”

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

Every day, I reserve an hour after breakfast as my prayer time. Two days ago, just as I started to pray, my husband asked me to take him to work because he had a flat tire. Then, yesterday, no sooner had I sat down to pray than my elderly neighbor knocked on my door asking me to borrow an egg—but I think what she really wanted was someone to talk to. I tried not to show how frustrated I was at their interruptions, but I can’t let things go on this way. How will I ever become holier if my prayer time is continually interrupted?

Signed,

Frustrated in prayer

Dear Frustrated,

When you set aside a time for prayer, remember not to be so strict in keeping it that you fail to recognize the call of charity when it comes. Leave all to the will of God. Tell Him of your desire to give this time to Him, and do all you can to keep it; but if He sends you an interruption, receive it with peace. You desire this prayer time, but perhaps He wills to send you something of His choosing instead—an opportunity for you to make a sacrifice of your intended prayer time in the name of charity. If you accept this change of plans in the name of God, you show that you are not attached to your spiritual exercises but resigned to the will of God. You can love your prayer time while still remaining detached from it.

 “If you interrupt a soul that is attached to the exercise of meditation, you will see it leave with annoyance, worried and surprised. A soul that has true liberty will leave its exercise with an equal countenance, and a heart gracious toward the importunate person who has inconvenienced her. For it is all one to her whether she serves God by meditating or serves Him by bearing with her neighbor; both are the will of God, but the bearing with her neighbor is necessary at that time.”

 

Dear St. Francis de Sales,

When my prayer time is over, I feel peaceful at home, but then as soon as a little thing goes wrong in the household, I find myself getting upset and impatient. Why is it so hard to keep the peace that I felt during prayer? I can’t stand myself when I’m like this.

Sincerely,

Impatient

Dear Impatient,

How we all wish our daily duties could be as pleasant and peaceful as the consolations we receive in prayer! But when we go from the peace of prayer into the difficulties of our vocations, our souls can stumble in the jolt. Be as gentle with everyone as you can—but also remember to be gentle with yourself. If you stumble, do not wallow in misery but brush off and get back up again, resolving to try harder for Our Lord next time. Invoke the Holy Spirit to give you gentleness in all circumstances, not only in prayer but in your home as you care for your loved ones.

“Have patience with everyone, but chiefly with yourself; I mean to say, do not trouble yourself about your imperfections, and always have the courage to lift yourself out of them.”

image: Nheyob [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Maura Roan McKeegan

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Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus; and Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Magazine, Guideposts, and Lay Witness. You can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan@gmail.com.

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