Strong Medicine: Doctor Francis de Sales

Saint Francis de Sales
Nheyob/Wikimedia Commons

Would you rely on medical advice from the 18th century?

Probably not. In the past, medical authorities failed to wash their hands, prescribed opium for headaches, and explained personality differences by shapes of skulls. Though their admirable efforts paved the way for future discoveries, the best adjective for their opinions is obsolete.

Christians, however, prefer the spiritual doctors of the past whose saintly advice has withstood the winds of trend and turmoil.

In his book Introduction to the Devout Life, doctor of the Church Francis de Sales exhorted average Christians to quit thinking of personal sanctity as the exclusive property of monks and to start weaving threads of piety into the fabric of their daily lives. Pope Leo XIII credited de Sales with causing true devotion to gain entrance “to the thrones of kings, the tents of generals, the courts of judges, custom houses, workshops, and even the huts of herdsmen.”

De Sales urged lay people to rip out the seams between spirituality and work of the day – attention should easily flow from prayer to necessary occupations and back: “Devotion does no injury to one's vocation or occupation, but on the contrary adorns and beautifies it.”

And just as the secular work of one’s life is made of concrete practices like brushing teeth or feeding the chickens or checking an inventory, the spiritual life is made not of vague feelings, but of concrete practices, here called devotions: “Charity is a spiritual fire, and when it bursts into flames, it is called devotion….”

The Theological Florist

Though considered the patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales started his famous bestseller with the worst pledge in the history of publishing: the promise to say nothing new. “Assuredly I neither desire, nor ought to write in this book anything but what has been already said by others before me.”

Spend a little time with this claim, and you will discover that it unlocks not only the spiritual life, but the very notion of Tradition.

The key metaphor de Sales used to illustrate his unabashed unoriginality is the bouquet. A florist has no hand in the creation of her flowers – even should she cultivate them from seed, she is not the original force behind the existence of daisies or roses. The flowers already exist in the world, established there by the Creator. The florist arranges the given flowers so that their beauty appears each time anew. Just so, says de Sales the theological florist, “I offer you the same flowers, dear reader….

The Holy Spirit of God disposes and arranges the devout teaching which He imparts through the lips and pen of His servants with such endless variety, that, although the doctrine is ever one and the same, their treatment of it is different, according to the varying minds whence that treatment flows.

Disinheriting Ourselves

Put another way: Spiritual writers who inherit jewels of wisdom might update the settings, but they are not interested in exchanging the gems. Originality is not a goal and obsolescence is not a concern.

Yet modernity and postmodernity share a prejudice against the past and advise us to disinherit ourselves. Tradition, those practices and ideas handed on from one generation to another, must yield to forces such as the scientific method, sanitized rational analysis, relativism, and personal narratives!

In the fifteenth chapter of the second part of the Introduction, de Sales made a strong case for claiming one’s inheritance. He counseled readers to use the devotions created by past generations, and do not presume that innovation is needed. Moreover, do not conflate personal preference with value, and know that public devotion done in community is better than private devotion done alone:

Moreover (let me say it here once for all), there is always more profit and more consolation in the public Offices of the Church than in private acts of devotion, God having willed to give the preference to communion in prayer over all individual action.
And although it may be possible that you can use equally profitable devotions by yourself as in common with others — perhaps even you may like doing so best — nevertheless God is more glorified when we unite with our brethren and neighbors and join our offerings to theirs.

Taking up secondhand devotions is not merely a matter of objective value, but of education. The rosary, the liturgy of the hours, and spiritual writings are full of Scriptures, and they teach us how to pray. Making up devotions from scratch is possible once you have been trained in the beautiful school of prayer that is the Church, but it is a ridiculous venture to undertake without such training. Even the best-trained soul should still have recourse to traditional devotions, for innovation and personalization are ultimately rooted in self-expression and risk self-obsession. It is an act of humility and surrender to give up not only your time but your preference when you devote yourself to the Lord.

True devotion – the kind that engages the whole self with the Way, the Truth, and the Life – binds us closer to God, makes us holier, and allows us to be credible witnesses to Christ. It does not have to be unique or original – it must be of God.

Sed Contra

What if Saint Francis de Sales had it completely wrong? What if devotions are nothing but vain works which contribute not at all to justification and salvation?

For many Protestant Christians, including his contemporaries, de Sales does not deserve the appellation saint, much less doctor; according to them, he damnably advised a self-help program in lieu of trust in Jesus Christ.

In 1689, the Second London Baptist Confession summarized the pessimism about human efforts, devotional or charitable, that underlie this negative view of de Sales:

We cannot, even by our best works, merit pardon of sin or eternal life from God’s hand, due to the huge disproportion between our works and the glory to come, and the infinite distance between us and God. By these works we can neither benefit God nor satisfy him for the debt of our former sins.

This idea traces back to Luther. In his commentary on Galatians, he discounted the possibility of meeting the law’s call to perfection, and so concluded that any attempt to stake hope on one’s ability to meet that call is not only wrong-headed, but blasphemous:

All who say that faith alone in Christ does not justify a person, convert Christ into a minister of sin, a teacher of the Law, and a cruel tyrant who requires the impossible.

For Luther, the only reason that the Father acknowledges any of our pitiful works is that he has chosen to wear Jesus-colored lenses:

Nevertheless, believers are accepted through Christ, and thus their good works are also accepted in him. This acceptance does not mean our good works are completely blameless and irreproachable in God’s sight. Instead, God views them in his Son, and so he is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, even though it is accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections.

Reformers v. Transformers

Would de Sales agree with any of this?

He would agree that all human goodness is only possible due to God’s grace. As is so often the case in Catholic-Protestant arguments, agreement accounts for at least 90% of the conversation, but all the attention goes to the remainder. Here, that 10% is transformation.

Transformation wrought by grace happens as the Holy Spirit enables good works: the grace is not a separate action of God despite or beside the soul, but an action of grace in and upon the soul. God changes us. Saints are made not by a divine legal fiction but through a purifying, transforming work of grace. Tradition calls this transformation by many names: sanctification, deification, theosis, and divinization.

Optimism about God’s ability to make us saints characterizes Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. From the beginning, God made humans in the divine image and likeness, and planned for us to become ever more truly united to and like unto Him. That plan, scuttled for millennia by the fall, was restored in Christ. As Athanasius put it, “God became man so that man could become divine.” Or as John prophesies about heaven, “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

For doctors of the Church like Francis, participation in the divine life of God comes to fullness in the life to come, but it is initiated in the earthly life of the believer. God’s plan is advanced by the major sacrament He instituted which is the Church. The Church is truly the body of Christ and so Christ continues to sanctify us in the context of communion.

Maximus the Confessor explains that Christians who cooperate with divine order can “be called gods by adoption according to grace, because the whole God fills the whole of them with himself and leaves nothing in them empty from his presence.”

Perhaps this is why so many statues of Mary look uncomfortably divine: God wants to do this to all of us, and she is the only human who ever fully said yes.

Transformation unto the divine likeness has a shape and a pattern and a community. Praxis in communion is the heart of the devout life, and it is what Francis de Sales wanted to introduce us to lest we miss our chance to let God truly become our all in all.

Patron of Podcasts?

In 1923, Pope Pius XI declared Francis de Sales the patron saint of writers, but this saint never thought of himself as an author. Writing pamphlets or letters was simply the best way to minister to certain members of his flock. Indeed, de Sales probably deserves to be patron of podcasts as well, given that his great love would have prompted him to invent them if he had had the means.

His work was always about solid communication, and the communication was always about letting God’s grace transform us in the practicalities and musings of our everyday lives. Holiness is not only not out of reach but is the whole point of being alive.

7/14/2022 4:41:44 PM
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  • Kaitlyn Curtin
    About Kaitlyn Curtin 
    Kaitlyn Dudley Curtin holds graduate degrees in Theology and in Education. She writes a monthly column on Patheos, “Strong Medicine: Scripts from the Doctors of the Church.” She keeps up a personal blog and recently contributed a chapter to Teresa Tomeo’s book "Listening for God." She and her school principal husband parent five lovely children in the upstate of South Carolina.