St Francis de Sales (1567 – 1622), an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, was also a writer – not of plays, but of books and letters that offered words of guidance, encouragement and wisdom in a simple, accessible and lively style on how best to live life well. In the drama of daily life, we are called by God to holiness.
‘When God created the world he commanded each tree to bear fruit after its kind (Gen 1:12); and even so he bids Christians – the living trees of his Church – to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his or her kind and vocation.’
(Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 1, Chapter 3)
St Francis de Sales encouraged lay people to commit to living good and holy lives. He promoted the idea that holiness is the ordinary vocation of all the baptised and not the preserve of a small proportion of the baptised: religious and the clergy. It would take another 350 years for this idea to become a significant text in one of the core documents of Vatican II: The Universal Call to Holiness in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium.
St Francis de Sales frequently points out the dangers of being over enthusiastic and excessive in trying to live a holy life. In one of his letters of spiritual direction he writes,
‘Do not love anything too much, I beg you, not even virtues, which we sometimes lose by our excessive zeal […] Let us be what we are and be that well, in order to bring honour to the Master Craftsman whose handiwork we are. People laughed at the painter who, intending to paint a horse, came up with a perfect bull; the work was handsome enough, but not much credit to the artist who had had other plans and succeeded in this one only by accident. Let us be what God wants us to be, provided we are His and let us not be what we would like to be – contrary to His intention. Even if we were the most perfect creatures under heaven, what good would that do us if we were not as God’s will would have us be?’
What I most appreciate about Salesian spirituality is its profound affirmation that God loves me and that God desires me to be who I am and what I am, and to be that well. My response to this spiritual insight and truth is to be what God wants me to be.
‘When did God begin to love you? When he began to be God and that was never, for God ever was, without beginning and without end. Even so God always loved you from eternity and made ready all the graces and gifts with which he has endowed you. He says by the prophet ‘I have loved you’ (and it is you that he means) ‘with an everlasting love, therefore with loving kindness have I drawn you’ (Jer 31:3). And amid these drawings of God’s love he led you to serve him.’ (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 5, Chapter 14)
To know that I am loved and that I am called to love in return is the first step on the way of holiness, a step along the way that leads to happiness.
The feast day of St Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, is celebrated on the 24th of January.