Saint Francis de Sales: A Saintly Spiritual Guide for All People in Every State of Life
In the life of Saint Francis de Sales, who has inspired many people over the centuries, we find the quiet urgings of grace, the response to his calling by the Lord, and the experience of his mission unfolding over a long period of time. He saw his ministry as one of inviting people into the experience and knowledge of Christ in a way that they could know God in their daily life – in all the things that make up our ordinary activity, our human condition, our daily living out of life’s joys, sorrows, challenges and glories.
Named a Doctor of the Church in 1877, Saint Francis undertook to bring the gift of spiritual direction into the lives of working lay people. His most famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, was, in fact, written for ordinary people and it reminds us that the transcendent, all-powerful, all-holy God is present in the routine experiences of grace at work in our hearts and in our day-to-day activities.
This book, first published in 1609, remains a spiritual classic. It has been a treasured source of meditation for me since I was fifteen years old, and I continue to keep a copy in the chapel of my residence to this day. In this work, there is almost no aspect of what makes up our waking hours that this saint for ordinary people does not help us examine and utilize in growing closer to the Lord. Saint Francis reminds us that we can hear God at any moment of the day and he is always ready to meet us.
As a young man born to a noble family, however, Francis was plagued with worries over his own salvation, dwelling on his many faults. Then one night, he cried to God in a prayer that would become famous, “No matter what happens, Lord, you who have everything in hand, and whose ways are justice and truth, whatever you have established in my regard… I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy, and I will always repeat your praise” (I Proc. Canon., vol. I, art. 4). Saint Francis gained the confidence that faith is the answer to the challenges of life, and that God’s word and grace can both fill us and make us fruitful instruments of God’s love.
Of all the great spiritual authors, Saint Francis is known for his gentleness, which he conveyed through his work in caring for the poor and through his great love for nature. During one particularly trying time, he took comfort in the glory of creation, telling his friend Jane Frances de Chantal, who would later be declared a saint herself, “I found [God] full of sweetness and gentleness among our highest and roughest mountains, where many simple souls loved and adored him in all truth and sincerity” (Letter of October 21, 1606).
In another one of Francis’ works, Treatise on the Love of God, he wrote, “God is the God of the human heart” (Book I, chapter XV). Francis never failed to emphasize that God knows our whole heart perfectly and our best response to his absolute love for us is to abandon ourselves with utter confidence to him.
Long before the Church focused on what we would call today the spirituality of the laity, Saint Francis de Sales recognized the significance of spiritual direction in the lives of ordinary men and women. Pope Pius IX, who named him a doctor, said that his teaching has inspired true piety in people from every social background (Dives in misericordia Deus, November 16, 1877), and so he can help guide us as well as we live out the call to holiness and intimacy with the God who loves us.