Saturday, January 25, 2020

St. Francis de Sales: What does it mean to be holy?

Seminarian Joseph McDaniel, a member of an active family in our parish, is studying with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in the U.S. Since he's spending a term here, I asked him to speak to the parishioners about the order's noble patron on his feast day this week. His short talk was very well received, and with his kind permission I present it here.

He also drew my attention to two  videos on the saint's life and teaching: St. Francis de Sales: A Biography  and To Be a Christian.

What does it mean to be holy? As a bishop and spiritual director,  St. Francis de Sales was asked this question frequently, by people from all walks of life. In his conversations with them, he noticed that oftentimes our imagined idea of what holiness is about can be far removed from the concrete reality of our lives. 

In the first chapter of his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis observed, “everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies. A man given to fasting thinks himself very devout if he fasts, although his heart may be filled with hatred…
Another gladly takes a coin out of his purse and gives it to the poor, but he cannot extract kindness from his heart and forgive his enemies.” (IDL Part I, Ch. 1)

In other words, in our picture of holiness, we like to accent those aspects of the Christian life that we happen to already be good at, while ignoring those that challenge us and call us to conversion.

Furthermore, we often project our vision of holiness far into a very much hypothetical future. We preface our idea of holiness with the words, “if” and “when.”

If my classmates, my coworkers, my siblings, my family members weren’t so demanding, challenging, annoying – if they all got their act together – then I could be holy.

When I get to high school, when I get exactly the kind of job I want, the kind of retirement I want, when I no longer have to run around my life putting out other people’s fires (let’s never mind those fires I started myself…) – then I could spend more time with God and be holy.

In response to our excuses, Francis proposes that holiness is not something we wait for, to be attained when all the stars align and when we eventually win the lottery – holiness is to be found right here and right now.

Holiness, which Francis called devotion, has just one, simple criterion, that of charity:  What is the love of God and love of neighbor asking of me right now, in the unique circumstances of my life?

Francis writes, “God commands Christians, the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion each according to his position and vocation. Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the worker, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl and the married woman. Not only is this true, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person…I ask you, is it fitting for a bishop to want to live a solitary life like a Carthusian [monk]…or for a skilled workman to spend the whole day in church? … No, true devotion does us no harm whatsoever, but instead perfects all things.” (IDL I.3)

In other words, it’s precisely in engaging with the unique, idiosyncratic, aggravating and lovable people and circumstances of our lives that holiness is to be found. In seeing what needs to be done in the here and now, the people that need to be listened to, affirmed, confronted, reconciled with, and doing all of this with love,  not dragging our feet, but as Francis writes, doing so “promptly, actively, diligently” (IDL I.1), offering each of these actions and encounters to God – that’s where and when holiness is to be found.

Having just participated in the Eucharist, which Francis calls the “sun of all spiritual exercises” (IDL II.14), may we ask for God’s grace to perform all of our actions today with him and through love for him, offering to him in advance all the good we shall do and accepting all the difficulty we shall meet, trusting always in the abundance of God’s love. (Spiritual Directory, Article 1)


St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image, 2003).

The Spiritual Directory of St. Francis de Sales,

Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS. Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2015).

No comments:

Post a Comment