Rather than consent to a sin against chastity, St. Francis of Assisi built a snow family to impress on himself the implications of renouncing celibacy.

Rather than consent to a sin against chastity, St. Francis of Assisi built a snow family to impress on himself the implications of renouncing celibacy.

November 14, 2011

Perhaps no one in the history of the world has thought about the nature of reality with as much depth and as much breadth as did Aristotle.

Aristotle maintained, for example, that human moral decision-making was motivated not by a sense of obligation and even less by the "weighing" of the potential good and bad consequences of various alternative actions.

For Aristotle, action is about attraction. The human person is attracted by that which is good and every action aims to achieve some good. To be human is to be, at least implicitly, zoned in on the good.

Aristotle lived in ancient Greece before the birth of Christ and so he never developed a viable conception of God. But his notion of the human attraction to the good nevertheless bears a family resemblance to St. Augustine's declaration, "Our hearts are restless, O Lord, and they cannot find rest until they rest in you."

Moreover, Aristotle did not have anything like a Christian conception of temptation. Still, his understanding of the human attraction to the good can help us understand the dynamics of temptation. No matter how ferociously a person is tempted, that attraction to the good is never snuffed out.

For St. Francis de Sales, the fall into iniquity passes through three stages: temptation, delight in the temptation and consent to sin. Temptation is not itself the issue; delight and consent most certainly are. Everyone is tempted; our task, if we are to be devout, is to avoid taking delight and to avoid giving consent.

Francis has a remarkable passage in his Introduction to the Devout Life in which he describes the soul as overwhelmed by temptation, yet still able to refuse to take delight or give in to that temptation:


"Temptation drives the delight which accompanies it deep into the interior part of the soul, covers the entire soul with ashes, and reduces the love of God to a narrow space.

"(The love of God) appears nowhere except in the very centre of the heart and the interior of the soul, and even there it seems scarcely perceptible and is found only with great difficulty. Yet in spite of all the trouble and disorder we feel in both soul and body, it is really there."

Our passions can be so overwhelmed by temptation that we may think that we have no alternative but to give in to it. However, that is not so. The love of the good, the love of God and our hatred of evil is never extinguished, not even by the strongest passions.

The ability of the human will to choose good in the face of strong passions remains. We can never truthfully say, "The devil made me do it." It can be extraordinarily difficult to choose good, but it can be done.

There is a story about another Francis, St. Francis of Assisi, being tempted to sin against chastity. Rather than consent to the temptation, Francis went outside and built himself a snow wife. Realizing that a wife often means children, he then built four snow children. Next, he made two snow servants to help around the house.

At that point, Francis of Assisi told himself that he needed to find work so that he could feed and clothe those dependent on him.

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

By this drama in the snow, he convinced himself that giving in to temptation would mean a different way of life, one full of anxieties and one different than the one to which he was called.

Francis of Assisi had a lively sense of sin because he had a deep sense of what is good and of his personal vocation.


Today, our sense of sin has been dulled in no small part because our yearning for the good has been covered in fog. That yearning can never be destroyed, but the comforts and cares of the world can lead us to pay it little heed.

Francis of Assisi took temptation seriously. Why? Because he never lost sight of the good.

Temptation is not in itself evil. However, if we place ourselves in social environments where we know we are likely to experience temptation, we can be doing wrong. We make ourselves responsible for the temptation that then befalls us.

Francis de Sales said that God allows "violent assaults" and strong temptations only in souls that he wishes to raise to the heights of sanctity. Violent temptations are a call to pursue holiness with greater than average perseverance.

Aristotle thought the goal of human action was to find happiness. But, at least partly because he couldn't see the redemptive power of suffering and temptation, Aristotle could not give a viable account of the meaning of happiness.

The Christian knows there is no lasting happiness in this world. There is, however, the possibility of holiness in the midst of suffering and woe. Resisting temptation is one key to living a holy life. Next week's article will look at some of the ways Francis de Sales recommends for overcoming temptation. And those ways will not involve building snowmen.