Fr. John C. Reville, S.J. on “An Introduction to Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales
by Fr. John C. Reville, S.J.
The “Introduction a la Vie Devote,” is here offered plus the title of “Philothea,” the name under which the original French of the work was published, by its author, St. Francis de Sales, in 1608.
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The “Philothea” wears well, like all great classics. It is now more than three hundred years old, and though everything has changed around us, the very language in which it was written, the styles, fashions and manners, the politics, the social fabrics of the times, it has still the freshness and vigor of its first youth. For the Saints, who seem to be so cloistered from the world and to look out upon it, as might some holy nun through the iron grille of a Carmelite chapel, with ethereal gaze and as in a waking trance, really understand the world better than the worldling. They unerringly chart its course and accurately take the soundings of its treacherous waters, they plummet it depths far better than those whose bark is tossing on their restlessness. their vision is clearer, their compass is more accurately set. Hence it is that any really great spiritual book has of its nature, on of the first qualities required for a world-classic. It deals in truth and power with the vital questions that affect the lives of men, it enters into the sanctuary of God’s truth into the neglected shrine of inner consciousness and sends the echoes of forgotten principles ringing through the awakened soul.
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The spiritual book, the “Philothea,” now given to our readers is from the pen of one of the greatest men of the seventeenth century in France, and one of the noblest and most lovable Saints in the Church of God.
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If ever there was a priestly soul, it was that of Francis de Sales. His life was stainless. His character was balanced. His intellectual gifts were of a high order, his mental vision clear, his fancy playful, his imagination creative, his learning extensive. His love of God burned like a poetic flame; it was tender and childlike; it was the very breath of his apostolate. With an almost feminine tenderness, he loved all men and because he loved them he wished all to know and to love God. But he was strong. In his strength, he was tolerant of men’s weaknesses, of their peculiarities, their narrow views, their whims, their oddities, their ill-founded judgments, their inconsistencies and their faults, provided only, these did not essentially interfere with their solemn obligations towards God. He taught that a courtier might be faithful attendant on his prince and yet serve God; that a woman might keep her social rank and defer to its reasonable demands and conventions and at the same time preserve the grace of God in her heart.
When he first preached to the mountain villages of the Chablais, his simple popular eloquence, full of parables, homely allusions and illustrations, won all hearts. He spoke to the people and for their needs. They listened to him with rapt attention and heard the “Provost’s” sermons with something like amazement. Never had the mountain folk of the Chablais ever suspected even that they could be spoken to in such homely yet truly priestly and dignified phrase. Conversions from Calvinism became numerous and the name of the young apostle was soon known throught the length and breadth of France.
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The “Philothea” or “Introduction to the Devout Life” is meant for all Christians. St. Francis himself tells us that too many spiritual authors addressed themselves in their writings to priests only, to religious men and women living under a special rule that obliged them to aim at a higher perfection. These authors did not address the vast majority of their brethren who had no other guide but the Gospel. They had cloistered the principles of sanctity and made asceticism a closed book to them. Yet Our Lord had preached that perfection was meant for all men. He had called all to perfection, that perfection at least which they might attain in their various states of life. “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” It is the special merit of the Bishop of Geneva to have opened the too rigidly barred gates of asceticism; to have given asceticism, devotion an open entrance into the court, the camp, the farm-house, the fashionable salon or parlor, the work-shop of the laborer; to have taught with unsurpassed authority, sweetness and charm, that the very height of sanctity and perfection might be attained by any man or woman who, in the fear of God and His Love, fulfills all the duties of the state of life in which his lot has been cast. Int the “Philothea” then, Francis intends to lead the soul living in the world, on the paths of devotion, to true and solid piety. It is an error, a heresy even says the Saint, to hold that piety is incompatible with any state of life. In the first part of the book, the Saint helps the soul to divest itself from all occasion to sin. In the second, he teaches it how to be united to God by prayer and the use of the Sacraments; in the third he drills it in the practice of virtue. He then strengthens it against temptation, and finally teaches it how to form its resolutions and to persevere. The “Introduction” is a masterpiece of psychology, of practical morality, built upon th e solid foundation of the Gospel and the teaching of the Fathers and great ascetical writers.
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John C. Reville, S.J., Introduction to An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, complete and unabridged (Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois 61105, 1994).