As a Catholic editor, I have a responsibility to do my best to help our readers understand Church teachings and develop their spiritual lives. Nevertheless, in writing these reflections on St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, at times I feel like a hypocrite.
In the articles published to date, I have described Francis’s presentation of how a devout person ought to pray and receive the sacraments. The regime Francis describes far outstrips my own practice, leaving me to encourage readers to do what I say, not what I do.
While this surely sounds hypocritical, I write these articles because I consider Francis’ advice valuable, even if I am not the budding saint Francis would like me to be. It is valuable to our readers and valuable to me as well in spurring me on to (slightly) greater heights in my own life.
This sense of hypocrisy only intensifies as these articles enter Part Three (of five parts) of Francis’ Introduction. Part Three focuses on instructions for the practice of virtue. Francis gives pointers on how to practise patience, humility, meekness, obedience, chastity, poverty of spirit and other virtues. The words “Physician, heal thyself” come to mind.
The problem is that if only the purest saints could talk about these virtues, they would rarely, if ever, get discussed. Our world does need to hear about these virtues and does need to be encouraged to practise them, even if the person proclaiming their importance is a fallible creature no more upright than anyone else.
With that major proviso, I will proceed by noting that Francis says we ought to focus on developing not spectacular virtues like courage, magnanimity and great generosity. Such virtues can only be exercised on rare occasions.
Sometimes the exercise of virtue boils down to attending another meeting without complaining.
Meekness, temperance, humility and integrity, however, can become part of our daily lives. Further, instead of aiming to nurture the virtues we most desire, we should turn our attention to those most suited to one’s state in life.
As a journalist, for example, I should especially seek to be fair and to listen to different points of view without prejudice. As a father, I should strive to be patient, impartial, wise and fun-loving. Some of these virtues come more easily than others and it is on those that do not come easily that I should focus my efforts.
Moreover, each person is prone to certain vices. One can strive energetically to drive out one’s vices. Francis recommends that instead one practise the virtue contrary to one’s most prevalent vice. That is, if one tends to be arrogant and haughty, one should work hard at being humble.
As a young priest, for example, St. Bernard was rigid and sharp with those under his direction, Francis relates. Bernard was so demanding that he left those in his charge discouraged at the impossibility of ever living a holy life. However, Bernard received a vision in which God urged him not to be so severe and over-zealous. As a result, he successfully worked at becoming more gracious and considerate to others.
Francis says one need not perfect all the virtues. Pick one and make it your life’s work. “By refining one of them all are made more excellent and better polished,” he wrote. “By perfect practice of a single virtue a person can reach the heights in all virtue.”
The first virtue Francis discusses is that of patience. Many years ago, I prayed for God to give me this virtue. The prayer was quickly answered, but not in the way I had anticipated. Within a day or two, numerous events occurred that tested my patience to the limit and past.
God does not often respond to such prayers by working a miracle. Rather, he provides opportunities for us to build our own strength. There is a saying about grace building on nature. In order to build a virtue, nature needs to be stretched and then harnessed. At some point, grace does kick in. But that is God’s timing, not ours.
In Francis’ view, patience means to stop complaining about one’s hard lot in life and to accept even the wrongs you suffer. In developing any virtues, one needs to overcome the inordinate love of oneself. In our self-love, we often feel that the wrongs done to us are worse than they really are.
(None of this, however, is a recommendation that one silently endure serious abuse. The abuser and the abuse need to be confronted.)
In the quest for virtue, too often I wimp out. I would rather life be easy than to have my patience constantly tested. But we are not put in this world to have a soft life. We receive the gift of life so that we might enter eternal life with God. That takes grace, but also effort. To enjoy eternal life, one needs to strive hard to become virtuous.