One of the ever-bearing gifts of the Catholic Church is incredible depth of her teaching. Spanning over two thousand years the Church boasts incredible thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas; from Henri Nouwen to Cardinal Newman; from St. Francis of Assisi to, one of my personal favourites, St. Francis de Sales.
Living and writing some 400 years ago, St. Francis de Sales was Bishop of Geneva at a time of crisis for the Christian Church. He stands out for his poignant responses to the early Protestant Reformers as well as his faultless compassion, gentleness, and virtue. His writings, teachings, and sermons established him as a champion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and as a Doctor of the Church—named for his overwhelmingly important contributions to the faith.
And, for our purposes here, it’s his Lenten sermon series that I want to focus on.
St. Francis de Sales, ever the great orator, centers his sermon on the First Sunday of Lent around three concise points: Everyone is tempted, idleness breeds temptation, and faith helps to conquer it.
By unpacking his sermon, some four hundred years later, I believe we can be that much more prepared to meet temptations when they come. And come, says St. Francis, they will indeed.
Everyone is Tempted
St. Francis introduces the first prong of his sermon with a pointed question: Do you think you’re better than our Lord?
His point is poignant, and clear:
If Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days and was tempted by Satan what makes us think we can make it through our own Lenten journey unscathed?
Everyone, says St. Francis, is subjected to temptation if they plan on serving God.
Even more so during Lent.
“It is an infallible truth,” says the saint, “that no one is exempt from temptation when he has truly resolved to serve God.”
We will be tempted. It should be expected. So be prepared.
If temptation strikes, we must rise to meet it.
Here, the great saint writes,
Rise, for mercy’s sake, from your cowardice, and keep clearly before your mind this infallible truth: all must be tempted, all must keep readied for combat in order to win the victory.
Instead of expecting to be tempted and fall or, rather, not to be tempted at all during our Lenten fast we should expect it, and prepare to fight when necessary. Prepare, the saint says, with our eyes clearly fixed on Christ and Him our prize.
For this certainly isn’t something we can do on our own.
Idleness Breeds Temptation
While temptation, perhaps, can’t be avoided, St. Francis de Sales does give us some clues as to how it can be minimized, relegated, and perhaps prevented from getting a stranglehold to begin with.
Too many Christians, says St. Francis, simply try to avoid doing anything wrong by simply not doing anything at all.
But this formula is broken.
St. Francis writes,
Never say: “I do not seek it; I am not doing anything.” That is enough in order to be tempted, for temptation has a tremendous power over us when it finds us idle.
It’s not enough, says the saint, to simply bury your head in the sand to try and avoid doing anything wrong or butting up against temptation. We will all be tempted, he says, and by being busy doing the Lord’s work we can better avoid the tramp of temptation.
By praying, working in service, loving others, worshiping, and striving to find God in everything we do we can avoid becoming idle to the point of opening ourselves up to temptation.
Keep busy, St. Francis says, by doing God’s will.
This is a sure fire formula for minimizing temptation.
Faith Overcomes Temptation
Expect temptation, says the saint, avoid idleness and, finally, take courage.
“The life of the perfect Christian,” says St. Francis, “is a continual penance.”
That is, we should expect temptation, we should expect to have to rely on God’s strength to get us through, and we should keep on going.
Now is not the time to rest, says St. Francis. Now is the time to pray and strive.
It is faith, instead of fear, that overcomes temptation.
As we journey through this Lenten season towards the death and glorious resurrection of our saviour we can rest assured that St. Francis’s imparted wisdom is certainly true. We will be tempted—we should expect no less. But our response to temptation is key.
First, don’t be idle, says the saint, because it’s in the doing nothing that temptation gets a foothold.
Instead, be busy for the Lord. In prayer, fasting, good works, and worship.
And, second, when temptation does come it is our faith which we can rely on to get us through.
Cling tightly to the faith, St. Francis would opine, and trust in the Lord.
He writes again,
Let us fear neither the temptation nor the tempter, for if we make use of the shield of faith and the armor of truth, they will have no power whatsoever over us.
Jesus Christ, who conquered temptation in the wilderness during his forty days, has overcome temptation for us. And, what’s more, he has conquered sin as a whole when he conquered death.
Trust in that.
And know that while we will be tempted this Lent He has overcome.