In France, one saint whose statue is commonly seen, in many a church, is that of St. Francis de Sales. And he is easy to spot – for his statues carry an elegance and beauty characteristic only to himself.
They depict him wearing finely-adorned clerical dress, usually with a pale lilac or blue mozetta. I feel a real affinity with St. Francis de Sales and would spot him immediately, on entering a church.
And today, in the traditional liturgy, we celebrate the feast of this great Saint who did so much to shape the Tridentine spirituality of the Counter-Reformation Church.
Born in Savoy in 1567, now a part of France, he is known for the incredible work he undertook as Bishop of Geneva to re-establish the faith after canton of French Swizerland succumbed to Calvinism.
All that he did stemmed from his belief that charity is the greatest virtue and from charity everything proceeds.
And now I find myself reading his great work, Treatise on the Love of God. And just as his clothes are elegant and fine, so are his words. They are filled with a beauty and poetry, worthy of that of which he writes – the greatest love affair there ever was, between Almighty God and His creatures.
St. Francis de Sales has a deeply intimate knowledge of this love between God and man, which is surely why Bl. Pius IX gave him the title Doctor of Love.
And not only does his writing exude beauty and elegance, it is also incredibly precise.
From reading it, one would think that the mind of St. Francis de Sales was trained in precision – and it was. For the Saint studied law at Padua, before his journey into the Priesthood.
His analyses of the human person are explained with the most intricate care. The subject matter is deeply understood and expressed with a delicacy and tenderness that surpasses anything I have read before.
St. Francis de Sales truly understands human nature.
And therefore, he understands the human longing for the love of God and everything that hinders and fosters that relationship.
He directs his reader to the idea that whilst God does not need our love, He desires it. He writes:
There is an incomparable correspondence between God and Man, for their reciprocal perfection: not that God can receive any perfection from man, but because as man cannot be perfected but by the divine goodness, so the divine goodness can scarcely so well exercise its perfection outside itself, as upon our humanity: The one has great want and capacity to receive good, the other great abundance and inclination to bestow it. (Treatise on the Love of God pg 55)
The language, which he chooses to describe this relationship, evokes the quality of the relationship itself. It is expressive of the divine love and the reciprocal nature of that love – as between two lovers. It is a language rich in colour and sensuality. Yet, it is always refined:
O God! How happy the soul is who takes pleasure in knowing and fully knowing that God is God, and that his goodness is an infinite goodness! For this heavenly spouse … enters into us and sups with us and we with him. We feed ourselves with his sweetness by the pleasure which we take therein, and satiate our heart in the divine perfections by the delight we take in them. (Treatise on the Love of God pg 199).
Our soul, being made the garden of her spouse, and having from his goodness the apple trees of his delights, renders him the fruit thereof … This so we draw God’s heart into ours, and he spreads in it his precious balm. (Treatise on the Love of God pg 200).
And so whilst St. Francis de Sales has earned title of the Doctor of Love, he is also the Patron Saint of writers.
But this is not a book review. I simply invoke the style in which he writes to reveal his character. For his style and language very much reflect the person he was. A man who said:
If we must fall into some excess, let it be on the side of gentleness.
This ‘gentleman’ through his passionate preaching, whilst Bishop of Geneva, brought sixty thousand people back to the Catholic faith!
And, with his great friend, St Jean de Chantal, he established the order of the Visitation nuns.
Now, St. Francis de Sales wrote these words to St. Jean de Chantal, about the founding of the Visitation order:
I thought, if you agree, that we ought to take as armorial bearings a single heart pierced by two arrows, and set in a crown of thorns.
This plain heart could form the base of a cross inscribed with the sacred names of Jesus and Mary.
For truly, our little Congregation is the work of the hearts of Jesus and Mary. By opening his Sacred Heart, the dying Saviour brought us to birth.
For the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales was permeated by the mystery of the Heart of God. Of this Sacred Heart, he wrote:
Divine love being seated upon our Saviour’s Heart as upon his royal throne, beholds by the cleft of his pierced side all the hearts of the sons of men (Treatise on the Love of God pg 227).
And so it happened that the Doctor of Love founded the very order where God’s Heart would be literally revealed.
For it was within the Visitation order in Paray-le-Monial in France – barely fifty years after St. Francis de Sales died in 1622 – that the Lord of Love Himself, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, would be disclosed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Yet whilst St. Margaret Mary and St. Francis de Sales, director of each of his daughters of the Visitation, never met in the flesh, they certainly met in her visions.
And in one particular vision, she heard him speak these words to all his daughters of the Visitation order:
Esteemed daughters, come and draw from the source of all blessings the waters of salvation …
Let this Sacred Heart be the life that animates us and His love our continual exercise.
This alone can unite us with God, help holy church by prayer and good example, and further the salvation of our neighbour.
With this in view, let us pray in the Heart an through the Heart of Jesus, Which wishes henceforth to make Itself the Mediator between God and man …