CLASSIC CATHOLIC BOOK
An Introduction to the Devout Life
BY ST FRANCIS DE SALES
Ifirst came across St Francis de Sales from reading Graham Greene. Greene liked the imagery that you find in the Introduction to the Devout Life.
St Francis’s use of the concrete image can be startling. For example: “While I speak of a neighbour, my tongue is like a lancet in the hands of a surgeon who wishes to make an incision between nerve and sinew; it must be equally accurate, speaking the precise truth.” St Francis de Sales was Bishop of Geneva in the early 17th century and he is a model of how a great bishop can be also a great teacher.
He wrote this book as a sort of instruction manual in how to live, apparently for a married woman who had been under his care (in the text he addresses “Philothea”).
His idea was to show that devotion to God is compatible with a life in the world. He resembles that kind of priest one sometimes meets, who gives the sense that no human weakness would surprise him.
To illuminate human behaviour, St Francis looks to nature, especially bees. Here, for example, he’s talking about sex – but he makes an analogy with eating: “Strange to say ... though honey is the bees’ true nourishment, it may nevertheless be so harmful as to make them ill, as when they overeat in the spring, as when they get their head and wings covered with it.” Or, for couples to avoid strife, he advises they must never allow themselves to be angry at the same time, for “bees flee a place loud with the clamour of voices and in the same way the Holy Spirit will not remain in a house which echoes with the sound of constant recriminations”.
His writing has a beautiful simplicity that I think of as holy.
Another recurrent image is the effect of sugar on fruit. The Eucharist, St Francis says, preserves the heart from corruption in the same way sugar and honey preserve “soft and corruptible fruits like cherries, apricots and strawberries”.
And his book teaches that transcending the self helps to take away anxiety: “Selflove is violent, over-eager and impetuous so that the care it inspires is full of anxiety, uneasiness and disquiet; the love of God, on the contrary, is gentle, peaceful and calm.”
Andrew M Brown