St. Francis de Sales on My Refrigerator Door

Pat GohnIn my heart, he is Frank, St. Frank. (This differentiates him from one of my other favorites, St. Francis of Assisi.) And Frank—St. Francis de Sales, to be exact—is the patron saint of writers and journalists. So he's one of my go-to saints for the writing life.

Let me tell you about when I first heard his voice—it had nothing to do with writing—and what keeps me coming back to him, still, for counsel in the Christian life.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36, I was a young wife and mother to three children under age 9. To put it mildly, I was a mess over the news. And having a writer's vivid imagination, the kind that often writes the end of the script in my head while the play is still the first act, I was tending toward pessimism. (I have since worked to suspend that habit, learning that God is the superior scriptwriter, and he already knows the end of the story.)

But back then, my pessimist's wild imaginings coupled with a volatile pathology report brought misery. My believer's heart needed a trauma intervention.

God's rescue squad arrived in the form of my loved ones, my church, and a 16th-century saint I had heard about but never took serious note of. Until I read his words:

Do not look forward in fear
to the changes of life;
rather look to them with full hope
as they arise.
God, whose very own you are,
will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it,
God will carry you in His arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering,
Or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace
And put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

St. Frank's words stopped me in my proverbial pessimistic tracks. I was either going to live this life as a trusting believer who happened to have cancer, or I was going to languish in my own pity.

That was fourteen years ago. Those timeless words are still under a refrigerator magnet in my home where I see them every day. That cancer year taught me firsthand that the depth of my own hope must be anchored in the grace of God.

You know, there is a reason why we call them saints: they have successfully navigated the life we are living. They know the heat of the crucible and the purity that is borne of it. We do well to abide their counsel and encouragement, to ask for their remarkable gift of intercession. That's why Frank is one of my patrons.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was a bishop and a writer in the post-Reformation age. A former lawyer, his spiritual verve was legendary, elevating him to Bishop of Geneva at age 35. His most important written works are Introduction to the Devout Life and A Treatise on the Love of God. He was renowned for writing pamphlets resulting in thousands of conversions to the Catholic faith. A prolific letter writer with a kind and gentle manner, he carried on vast faith-filled correspondences.

De Sales is a Doctor of the Universal Church, one of the truly reliable authorities we have on the spiritual life. Not bad credentials, if you ask me.

Francis de Sales, ahead of his time, advocated that the devout life—the Christian life authentically lived—was every Christian's call. Today we call it the "universal call to holiness." Almost 400 years prior to Vatican II, De Sales maintained devotion is possible in every vocation, even within the secular sphere. Holiness is not just for clerics and religious, it is for laypersons as well. In fact, Frank would say, holiness and devotion perfects one's vocation and profession!

In short, devotion is simply that spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us . . .
Charity is a spiritual fire and when it bursts into flames, it is called devotion . . .
Devotion does no injury to one's vocation or occupation, but on the contrary adorns and beautifies it.
(From Introduction to the Devout Life)

Frank, a Doctor of the Laity, wrote the Church's first complete treatise on lay spirituality. His Introduction is a spiritual classic, worthy of review and deliberation by 21st-century men and women. It journeys with a soul from its first desire for a devout life, while charting a course for achieving it. Its pages brim with instructions on prayer and virtue.

For Francis de Sales, it's all about Jesus, to love and live as he did . . . to "Live, Jesus!"

I have wished above all else to engrave and inscribe on your heart this holy and sacred motto: "Live, Jesus!" I am certain that your life, which comes from the heart . . . will . . . produce all its actions—which are its fruits—inscribed and engraved with this sacred word of salvation. As our beloved Jesus lives in your heart, so too he will live in your conduct and he will be revealed by your eyes, mouth, hands, yes even the hair on your head. With St. Paul you can say these holy words, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20)." (From Introduction to the Devout Life)

I think everyone should have a few patron saints worthy of refrigerator space, like extended family members. For me, St. Frank has been a lifestyle coach and a close companion in sickness and in health!

In my post-cancer years, I look with gratitude to this wonderful saint who once spoke a word in season to my yearning, churning heart. And whose hope still points to a way of life that takes the fear out of the unknown, and a faith that is trustworthy everyday.

St. Francis de Sales' feast day is January 24th.

St. Frank, pray for us!

1/20/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Pat Gohn
    Pat Gohn is a Catholic writer, speaker, and the host of the Among Women Podcast and blog. Her book Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood is published by Ave Maria Press.