Why St. Francis de Sales’s ‘Devout Life’ still resonates today

St. Francis de Sales​ (​​​​​​flickr)

Upon first reading Introduction to the Devout Life, I was won over by a passage on the guidance of souls in which St. Francis de Sales draws in grape harvesters, cinnamon traders, hunters and tigresses—and makes it work. This book has staying power: It has been in print since 1665, and it is easy to see why. Addressed to a friend of St. Francis de Sales who is seeking advice on how to balance her life in the world with a life of prayer, it has an appealingly personal tone. And the writing is a delight.

De Sales’s insistence that a life of prayer “finds its ideal in the ordinary” will appeal to modern readers.

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The contemporary reader will find much practical advice here: If you are a young mother, do not fret because you cannot pray like a nun; find the method that enhances your vocation as a mother. De Sales believed that all people have a call from God and goes so far as to state that to deny that prayer and devotion have a place in “the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, the domestic hearth” is a heresy.

De Sales’s insistence that a life of prayer “finds its ideal in the ordinary” will appeal to modern readers. But we might not be convinced by his reassurance that “God will always provide the leisure and the strength for a life” of devotion and may be uneasy when he reminds us that even as we revel in the flowers of our spiritual life we also need the pruning hook. Even many Christians might resist his statement that “there is always more profit and consolation” in serving the church “than in private acts of devotion.”

While fresh roses may be beautiful, de Sales reminds us that they “have a sweeter and stronger scent when they are dried.”

I suspect that most people would have difficulty with de Sales’s admonition not to stay up too late, lest “we lose the best part of the next day for God’s service” or his suggestion that as we engage in dancing, our spiritual wellbeing will be enhanced if we also remember the souls groaning in Hell and our own death drawing near. But the power of the writing is such that we may well decide that de Sales has a point.

De Sales is especially keen on helping us distinguish true spirituality from false. For example, one who believes he is humble but is easily provoked to anger really lacks humility. But even his suggestion that we be gentle with ourselves comes with a barb. He calls us to recognize the many ways we deceive ourselves, insisting that a pious self-condemnation merely “fosters pride and springs...from self-love.”

De Sales’s easy way of employing images from nature is one of the great pleasures of his book. He warns us that the honey bees make from aconite may look good, but it is poisonous. He suggests that as a fledgling nightingale learns to sing from listening to its elders, so we can learn from the saints. As someone who struggles with acedia, I especially appreciate his perspective on the importance of continuing to pray through a time of spiritual barrenness. While fresh roses may be beautiful, de Sales reminds us that they “have a sweeter and stronger scent when they are dried.” That is a poet speaking.

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