This wonderful book has always occupied a privileged position: perhaps no guide ever written provides so complete, so balanced and so practical an approach to the spiritual life. Written for the layman surrounded by worldliness, this masterpiece by a great and much loved Doctor of the Church really does what so many similar books fail to do: it teaches the reader – step by simple step – how to grow in holiness.
St. Francis de Sales was born into an old aristocratic family at Thorens, in the Duchy of Savoy, 21 August, 1567. He received a splendid education at the hands of the Jesuits and seemed destined for a distinguished political career. Francis, however, chose to pursue his vocation in the ecclesiastical life, which led to friction with his father. The future saint emerged victorious from this struggle when he was appointed Provost of the Chapter of Geneva by the Bishop of Geneva – whose seat since the Reformation had been at Annecy – in 1593.
St. Francis' success in Geneva was to become the stuff of legend: he dramatically refuted Geneva's handpicked Calvinist apologists in public debate, reconciled multitudes of Protestants to Catholicism, and very nearly converted Theodore Beza, who was known as the "Patriarch of the Reformation." He was also much loved by the populace for his gentleness, wisdom, humility and love of the poor.
In his period as coadjutor to the Bishop of Geneva (1599-1602), he was obliged to spend much time in Paris and formed friendships with Bérulle, and with Henry IV, who valued him so much that he did what he could to keep St. Francis in France. One of the things the king particularly appreciated, and experienced, was the saint's genius at helping men and women living "in the world" to cultivate the spiritual life and to grow in holiness. In 1602, he was consecrated Bishop of Geneva. St. Francis was often to be in France in the following twenty years, being much in demand as a great preacher, and founding, with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin for young girls and widows who felt called to the religious life but were unable to join any of the great orders. Nevertheless, he resolutely refused to accept the prestigious French appointments he was offered, choosing rather to return to Annecy. St. Francis de Sales died at Lyons, 28 December, 1622.
In An Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis addresses "Philothea" – the soul living in the world – introducing her to the paths of devotion, by which he means a true and solid piety. These paths are for everyone, not merely priests and religious. The saint goes on to insist that "it is an error, it is even a heresy", to hold that piety is incompatible with any state of life. The first part of the book is devoted to helping the soul to free itself from all inclination to, or affection for, sin. In the second part, he teaches the soul how to be united to God by prayer and the sacraments. The third is concerned with developing the practice of virtue. The fourth is devoted to strengthening the soul against temptation. Finally, in the fifth part, the spiritual doctor teaches the soul how to form its resolutions and to persevere.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia has the following to say about the characteristics of St. Francis' thought:
There are two elements in the spiritual life: first, a struggle against our lower nature; secondly, union of our wills with God, in other words, penance and love. St. Francis de Sales looks chiefly to love. Not that he neglects penance, which is absolutely necessary, but he wishes it to be practised from a motive of love. He requires mortification of the senses, but he relies first on mortification of the mind, the will, and the heart. This interior mortification he requires to be unceasing and always accompanied by love. The end to be realized is a life of loving, simple, generous, and constant fidelity to the will of God, which is nothing else than our present duty. The model proposed is Christ, whom we must ever keep before our eyes. "You will study His countenance, and perform your actions as He did" (Introduction to the Devout Life, 2nd part, ch. i). The practical means of arriving at this perfection are: remembrance of the presence of God, filial prayer, a right intention in all our actions, and frequent recourse to God by pious and confiding ejaculations and interior aspirations.
As the reader will discover, St. Francis was a master psychologist, with a special gift for teaching practical morality; his writings are characterized by the sublime common sense so dear to Chesterton. He is also the most delightful of companions: the beauty and elegance of his style, the felicity of his illustrations – so often derived from nature, and revealing the eye of a lover of God's creation – have made him a classic of French prose even for secularists. Above all, he is a spiritual genius – after all, it was not for nothing that St. Francis de Sales was made a Doctor of the Church: this book is medicine for the soul.
MY dear Reader, pray read this Preface for thy satisfaction and for mine. The flower-girl Glycera was so skilful in arranging her flowers, that, with the same flowers, she made a great variety of nosegays; so that the painter Pausias, when he strove to emulate her skill, fell short of it, for he was not able to vary the composition of his pictures in so many ways as Glycera was able to vary her nosegays. In like manner the Holy Ghost disposes and arranges the teachings of devotion, which he gives by the tongues and pens of his servants, with so great a variety, that, though the doctrine is always one and the same, yet the discourses in which they deliver it, are very different, according to the divers ways in which they are composed. I am not able indeed, neither do I wish, nor ought I to write in this Introduction anything which has not been already published on the subject by our predecessors; they are the same flowers that I present to thee, my Reader, but the nosegay which I have made of them will be different from theirs, because it is arranged in a different manner.
Those who have treated of devotion have almost all had in mind the instruction of persons very much withdrawn from the society of the world, or at all events they have taught a kind of devotion which leads to this complete withdrawal. My intention is to instruct those who live in towns, in households, at the court, and who, by reason of their circumstances, are obliged to lead an ordinary life in outward show; who very often, under colour of an alleged impossibility, are not willing even to think of undertaking the devout life, because they are of the opinion that, just as no beast dare taste of the herb called palma Christi, so no one ought to aspire to the palm of Christian piety, while living in the midst of the press of worldly occupations. And I show them that, as the mother pearls live in the sea without taking one drop of salt water, and as towards the Chelidonian isles there are springs of perfectly fresh water in the midst of the sea, and as the flies called pirastes fly in the flames without burning their wings, so a vigorous and constant soul can live in the world without receiving any worldly taint, can find springs of sweet piety in the midst of the briny waters of the world, and can fly among the flames of earthly concupiscences without burning the wings of the holy desires of the devout life. It is true that this is not an easy task, and for this reason I should like many to undertake it with more zeal than has been shown up to the present; and therefore, wholly weak though I be, I am endeavouring by means of this book to contribute some help of my own to those who, with a generous heart, are willing to undertake this worthy enterprise.
And yet it is not altogether by my own choice or inclination that this Introduction is published. A soul, full of honour and virtue, having some good while since received from God the grace to aspire to the devout life, requested my assistance in the matter; and I, being in many ways under an obligation to her, and having long before noted in her a singularly good disposition for this design, took great trouble to instruct her carefully, and, having conducted her through all the exercises which were suited to her desire and to her condition of life, I left her some records of them in writing, so that she might have recourse to them according to her need. She subsequently showed them to a great, learned and devout Religious, who, being of the opinion that many others would derive great profit from them, earnestly exhorted me to publish them: and it was an easy matter for him to win my consent, because his friendship had a great influence upon my will, and his judgement had great weight with mine.
Now, that the whole may be more useful and acceptable, I have revised it and reduced it to some sort of order, adding thereto many counsels and instructions proper to my purpose. But I have had to do all this with scarcely any leisure at all; and therefore thou wilt find herein nothing very exhaustively treated, but only a collection of sincere admonitions, which I explain in clear and intelligible words: leastwise I have desired so to do. But as regards elegance of style, I have not given a thought to it, having other things enough to do.
I address my words to Philothea, because, wishing to apply to the common good of many what I had in the first instance written for one only, I address her by that name which is common to all those who wish to be devout; for Philothea means a lover of God.
Therefore, in all this matter having in mind a soul, who, by the desire of devotion, aspires to the love of God, I have divided this Introduction into five parts; in the first of which I endeavour by certain counsels and exercises to change the simple desire of Philothea into a firm resolution (which she makes at the end, after a general confession), by means of a firm protestation, followed by the most Holy Communion, wherein giving herself up to her Saviour, and receiving him, she enters happily into his holy love. That done, to lead her farther on, I show her two great means of uniting herself more and more with his divine Majesty; the one, the use of the Sacraments, by which our good God comes to us; the other, holy prayer, whereby he draws us to himself; and with this I occupy the second part. In the third, I show her, how she ought to exercise herself in divers virtues more especially proper for her advancement, not delaying but to give her certain particular counsels, which she could not easily have got elsewhere, nor have discovered for herself. In the fourth, I make known to her some snares of her enemies, showing her how she may escape them, and go forward. And last of all in the fifth part I make her retire awhile, to refresh herself, to recover breath, and to repair her strength, that she may afterwards more successfully gain ground, and advance in the devout life.
This is a very capricious age, and I foresee clearly that many will say, that it appertains only to Religious and persons of devotion, to direct individual souls along the path of piety; that such a work requires more leisure than a Bishop can well spare, when charged with a diocese so heavy as mine is; that it is too great a distraction to the understanding, which should be employed in affairs of greater importance. But as for me, my dear Reader, I say, with the great St Denis, that it appertains principally to Bishops to lead souls to perfection, since their Order is supreme among men, as is that of the Seraphim among the angels; so that their leisure cannot be better employed than about such business. The ancient Bishops and Fathers of the Church were at least as careful of their charge as we are, yet they failed not for all that to have a care for the individual guidance of many souls who had recourse to their assistance, as appears from their epistles. And herein they imitated the Apostles themselves, who, in the midst of the general harvest of all the world, gathered notwithstanding with a special and particular affection, certain notable ears of corn. Who knows not that Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Onesimus, St Thecla, and Appia were the dear children of the great St Paul, as St Mark and St Petronilla were of St Peter? St Petronilla, I say, who—as Baronius and Gallonio learnedly prove—was not the actual daughter, but only the spiritual child of St Peter. And does not St John, the beloved disciple of our Lord, write one of his canonical epistles to the devout lady named Electa?
It is a labour, I confess, to undertake the direction of individual souls, but one which brings withal much comfort; like the toil of husbandmen in time of harvest and vintage, who are never better pleased, than when busily engaged and fully occupied; it is a labour which recreates the hearts of those who undertake it through the abundance of delight which flows from it, as the cinnamon with its sweet odour comforts those who carry it through Arabia Felix. It is said that the tigress, having recovered one of her cubs—which the huntsman leaves in the way, to occupy her while he carries away the rest of the litter—takes it up, however great it may be, and finds herself not a whit the slower, but rather the swifter in the course which she makes to secure it in her den, natural love lightening her with this very load. How much more willingly then will a fatherly heart take upon him the charge of a soul, which he finds possessed of a desire of holy perfection, carrying such a soul in his bosom, as a mother carries her little child, being never weary of carrying the burden which she loves so entirely. But it must needs be a fatherly heart; and for this reason the Apostles and apostolic men call their disciples not only their children, but with more tender affection their little children.
To conclude, my dear Reader, it is true that I write of the devout life, being myself without devotion, yet not without an earnest desire of attaining thereto, and it is this very desire which has given me courage to instruct thee; for as a great and learned man said, it is a good means to become learned for a man to study hard, a better to have a learned master, and the best of all to teach others. And it often comes to pass, says St Augustine writing to his dearest Florentina, that "the office of distributing to others, serves us as a merit to receive," and the office of teaching becomes a foundation of learning.
Alexander caused the lovely Campaspe, who was so dear to him, to be painted by the hand of the incomparable Apelles; and Apelles, being forced to gaze much upon Campaspe, whilst he was drawing her features in the picture, imprinted the love of her beauty upon his heart, and became so enamoured of her, that Alexander perceiving it and pitying his case, gave her to him in marriage, depriving himself for his sake, of the dearest love he had: "by which," says Pliny, "he showed the greatness of his heart more plainly than he would have done by a very great victory in battle." Now I am of opinion, my Reader, my friend, that it is the will of God, that, being a Bishop, I should paint upon the hearts of others, not only the ordinary virtues but still more the virtue of devotion, which is most amiable and acceptable in his divine sight; and I undertake the office willingly, as well to obey and perform my duty, as for the hope I have that, while engraving this lovely virtue upon the hearts of others, mine own perhaps may become more holily enamoured thereof. And, if ever his divine Majesty perceive my soul sincerely in love with this beautiful virtue, he will bestow her upon me in an everlasting marriage. The fair and chaste Rebecca, watering the camels of Isaac, was destined to be his spouse, and received from him golden earrings and bracelets; so do I promise myself through the boundless goodness of my God, that, whilst I am leading his beloved sheep to the wholesome waters of devotion, he will make my soul his spouse, fastening in my ears the golden words of his holy love, and binding on my arms the strength to practise them well, in which lies the essence of true devotion; which I humbly beseech his heavenly Majesty to bestow upon me, and upon all the children of his Church; to which Church I wish always to submit my writings, my actions, my words, my wishes, and my thoughts.
At Annessy, St. Mary Magdalen's Day, 1609.