Letters of St. Francis de Sales on Eternity
LETTER I. (We are journeying to eternity)
Dwell constantly on this thought,—that we are journeying in this world between paradise and hell; that our last step will place us in an eternal home; that we know not which shall be the last; but that in order to make our last step good, we must try to make all the others so, O holy and never-ending eternity! happy are they who, meditate on thee! for what is all we do in this world, be it for few or many years, but what I may call mere children’s play, if it were not that this life forms the passage to eternity.
To secure that, how careful should we be of the time given us here below; how anxious should we be, so to fulfill our respective callings, that they may be the means of helping us to that blessed end!
LETTER II. (To a Gentleman at Court.)
God defend you with His holy arm, and more and more strengthen in you this noble and blessed purpose, which He Himself has inspired, of devoting your whole life to His service. It is right and just that those who live should not live for themselves, but for Him Who died for them. A great mind uplifts its best thoughts, and affections, and energies to that which is infinite and eternal, and thereby learns almost to despise what is ephemeral and fading; and while keeping its eye fixed upon eternity and its exceeding fullness of bliss, overlooks as it were, the little pleasures, or rather, worthless amusements this passing life bestows. In proportion as you know yourself to be in the midst of temptation, strengthen yourself by every means to resist it. Never go out in the morning, till you have in the presence of God, renewed your good resolutions; and in the evening, read, if it be only a dozen lines, of some good book, (or one chapter in the Bible) before you say your prayers, to dissipate any contagion, or thought of evil your mind may have contracted during the events of the day. I would see you live like the celebrated Phoenix of the ancients, amid flames of fire without singeing even your wings. Blessed is any trouble and exertion, (however great it be) which delivers us from everlasting woe! Blessed is the labor whose reward is eternal!
LETTER III. (To a Gentleman of high rank.)
Blessed for ever be God, for the mercy He has shown toward you, in inspiring your soul with such a burning desire to consecrate to the work of eternity, the remainder of your mortal life.
Divine indeed, is that eternity, which illumines our spirits with its own glory and blessedness;—the only real life;—to the attainment of which, we should direct all our efforts in this world, since life which ends not in life eternal, approximates rather to death than to life at all. But as God has so mercifully led you to aspire to an eternity of glory, He has also thereby laid a necessity on you, diligently to practice the suggestions of His Holy Spirit, under pain of being deprived of this blessing and glory; therefore I would entreat you to give every attention to keep what is committed to you, lest you lose your crown. You are doubtless called to a manly, courageous, and invariable course of devotion, to be, as it were, a mirror of the truth of Heavenly love to many, and thereby to repair your own past faults, if ever you have been led away by the vanity of earthly love.
I would earnestly persuade you to communicate more frequently: so that instead of resolving to communicate but twelve times in the year, you would add a thirteenth, then a fourteenth, then a fifteenth, and so on, increasing from month to month. What peace and strength it would bring you; for the oftener your heart received its Saviour, the more perfectly would it become united to Him; and you could do so without any ostentation, without its interfering with your interests, or without the world saying or knowing anything of it. An experience of twenty-five years’ ministering to souls, has taught me the all-powerful virtue of this Blessed Sacrament, in strengthening hearts in goodness, in cleansing them from sin, in comforting them; in a word, in transfiguring them to a
On Prayer and Joy among Difficulties
LETTER IV. (To a Young Lady.)
You must resign yourself entirely into the Hands of God, and after having done all you can on your part to promote the good design you have in view, you must leave the rest to Him; being willing, if after all your efforts He shall not see fit to crown them with success, to sacrifice your own will, and to live contentedly, humbly and devotedly, entirely reconciled, and resigned to His good-will and pleasure which you must equally recognize in the non-consummation of your wishes.
For God sometimes proves our love and courage, by depriving us of things which both seem to us, and are in themselves, very good for our souls; but if He sees us earnest in the pursuit, and yet at the same time resigned and humble under the loss and privation of the object of our desire, He vouchsafes us greater blessings while denying us our wishes, than we should have attained in their fulfillment; for above all things, God loves those who, on all occasions, and under all circumstances, are ready with an honest and simple heart to say, “Thy will be done.”
LETTER V. (Advice concerning Prayer.)
The over-anxiety you feel in prayer, and which is joined to a great desire to find some object which can arrest and content your mind, is quite enough of itself to prevent your finding what you seek. One passes over a thing a hundred times, without finding it when one is seeking it too anxiously. So with the mind,—coldness and indifference, and lassitude is sure to succeed this useless, and vain, and excessive eagerness. I do not know what remedies you could employ, but I think if you would steadily try to check this eagerness, you would gain much, for it is one of the greatest traitors real devotion can encounter. It appears to be kindling us to greater devotion; but in reality it is tending to chill us; it only hurries us on that we may the sooner stumble; therefore we must be on our guard against it on all occasions, and especially in prayer.
And to aid you in this, ever bear in mind that the graces and blessings of prayer spring not from the fountains of earth, but from Heaven; and that with all our efforts, we cannot acquire them for ourselves; we must prepare ourselves humbly, earnestly, carefully, and calmly to receive them; one must as it were, lay one’s heart open before Heaven, and wait for its holy dew to fall upon us; and in prayer ever bear in mind this consideration, that in this act we approach God, and place ourselves in His Presence, for two principal reasons.
The first is, to render to God the homage and honor that we owe to Him; and that, remember, can be done without our speaking to Him, or He to us; for this duty is performed in recognizing Him as our God, and ourselves as His vile creatures, lying prostrate in spirit before Him, waiting His commands.
How many courtiers are there who come a hundred times a day into the presence of the king, not to speak to him, nor to hear him, but simply to be seen by him, and to show by their assiduity that they are his servants. And to present ourselves before God for this end, merely to testify and protest our willingness and devotion to His service, is not only excellent, and pure, and holy, but tends greatly to perfect us.
The second reason for presenting one self before God, is to commune with Him, and to listen to Him speaking to us by His inspirations, and inward movings of our souls: and generally this begets most exquisite delight, because it is an immeasurable blessing to speak to so great a Lord; and when He replies, He spreads a thousand precious balms and ointments, which give great peace and healing to the soul.
Now one of these two blessings can never fail in prayer, if we may speak to our Lord; let us speak, let us praise Him, let us pray to Him, let us listen to Him, if we cannot speak openly to Him because we are surrounded, let us nevertheless raise our hearts to Him. He will see us, and He will accept our silence, let us only remember to keep ourselves as it were, ever before Him, and to feel what an inestimable blessing and honor it is that He permits us to come into His Presence.
As to your fear that your father will not allow you to do what you desire, by the very probation he has prefixed to it, say to God, “Lord, Thou knowest all my desire,” and leave it to Him; He will dispose your father’s heart, and turn it to His glory, and your good. Meantime cherish this good desire, and keep it alive under the ashes of humility and resignation to the will of God.
LETTER VI. (Submission to God’s will in Trials.)
I have heard, the Lord has tried your heart and your firmness; but remember we must in proportion spiritually rouse ourselves and struggle with these waves. And O! blessed be the wind from wheresoever it cometh, if it only drive us for shelter to the right harbor.
These are the conditions with which we ought to give ourselves to God, that He would entirely do His will towards us, and our affairs, and designs, and thwart and defeat us, as He thinks best. O! happy they whom He shall lead in His way, and whom He shall reduce to His good pleasure, be it by tribulation or by consolation! But remember, the real servants of God have always more highly esteemed the road of adversity, as more conformable to their Chief, Who would not secure our salvation and the glory of His Own Name, but by the Cross and shame.
LETTER VII. (To a Young Lady, living in the world.)
You will be often thrown among the children of this world, who, according to their custom will mock at all they see, or think to be in you, contrary to their own miserable ideas; do not waste time by disputing with them, nor show the slightest annoyance at their attacks; but good-temperedly laugh at their laughter, despise their contempt, smile at their remonstrances; and without paying any attention to it at all, go forward joyfully in the service of God ; and in your prayers, commend these poor souls to His mercy. They deserve our pity for not having a better purpose in their conversation than merely laughing at, and trifling with subjects worthy of their highest respect and reverence.
I see you abound in the good things of this world: take care not to fix your heart upon them. Solomon, the wisest of all men, first erred in the satisfaction that he took in the grandeur, and ornaments, and magnificent apparel that were his; forgetting that such things were merely the accidents of his station. Consider that all we have does not really make us any better than others in this world; and that it all is as nothing in the sight of God and His Angels.
Remember to strive especially to do the will of God under those circumstances in which you find the most difficulty; for it is but a little matter to please God in what is pleasing to ourselves: filial affection requires that we should wish to please Him in what is displeasing to ourselves, setting before us what the Well Beloved Son said of Himself, “I come not to do My will, but the will of Him that sent Me,” for you are not called by His Name to do your own will, but the will of Him Who has adopted you to be His child, and heir of His eternal kingdom.
And now, we are about to part without any chance of our meeting again in this world. Let us pray to God earnestly that He will give us grace so to live according to His good pleasure, in this our earthly pilgrimage, that when we arrive in that Heavenly country we may rejoice together that we have known each other here below, and have spoken together of the mysteries of eternity. This ought to be our only pleasure in the love we bear each other in this life, that it all has been for the glory of God’s eternal Majesty, and our own everlasting salvation.
Cultivate that holy cheerfulness which nourishes the strength of the soul and edifies our neighbor. Go on thus in peace, and God be thy Protector, He will ever uphold thee with His Hand, and conduct thee along the path of His Holy will; to Whom be all honor, praise, and glory. Amen.
LETTER IX. (Fidelity and Peace among Distractions.)
I beseech you to pray to our Lord for me; that He would keep me in the path of His will, that I may serve Him with faithfulness and earnestness. I would rather die than not love God; death or love; for life without this love is far worse than death. My God! how happy we should be, if we could love Thee as we ought; Thou, Who hast prepared for us such good things, such rich blessings. Hold fast to this amid all the various trials with which you are surrounded in this present world. How can we better manifest our faithfulness than by being faithful amid distractions. Alas! Solitude has its temptations, and the world has its trials; but through all we must have good courage, because help from Heaven is ever nearest to those who put their whole trust in God, and who earnestly seek His Fatherly help with humility and patience.
Take care that your anxiety does not turn into restlessness and disquietude, embarked as you are upon the waves and amid the winds of many trials; look up constantly to Heaven and say, “O God ! to Thee all my efforts are directed, be Thou my guide and my compass;” and then comfort yourself by thinking that once in port, all your toil and labor in reaching it will be more than repaid, by the blessedness and rest you will enjoy there. He will help us through all these storms if our hearts are set aright, our intentions good, our courage firm, our eye fixed on God, and our whole trust in Him.
Be not distressed, then, at the little vexations and troubles that a multiplicity of domestic affairs bring upon you. No! rather be thankful that, by them, you are called upon to exercise those virtues which our Lord most highly commended. Believe me, real virtue is not nourished by external repose, any more than the best fish are found in the stagnant waters of a marsh.
LETTER X. (Confidence in God.)
You will be indeed happy if amid all the vanities that surround you, you live in yourself to God, Who alone is worthy of being served and followed devotedly; for, by so doing, you will set a good example to others, and gain peace and tranquility in yourself. Leave others to argue the subject of frequent Communion: it is enough for you to feel that your soul constantly needs the refreshing and strengthening of this Holy Sacrament; and if any one wishes you to tell them the reason, you can say that you require constantly to receive this Heavenly meat, because you are very weak, and that without frequent renewal of strength, you feel your mind would easily be dissipated.
Keep your heart in peace, in spite of the difficulties which surround you. Commit to God’s most secret care all your distresses, and firmly believe that He will surely guide you, and your life, and all your affairs.
Do you know what the Arabian shepherds do when it thunders and lightens, and the sky is overcast with clouds? They withdraw under the laurel trees with their flocks and herds. And so, when we see persecutions or contradictions threatening to overwhelm us, we should retire, with all our hopes and affections, under the shelter of the blessed Cross, feeling confident that all will be permitted to work together for good to those that love God.
Above all, keep yourself collected. Guard against over anxiety, place all your trust in the providence of God, and be assured that heaven and earth shall sooner pass away, than God fail in His watchfulness over those that trust Him and strive to obey Him.
Discerning God's Will
Here you find a few short texts from St. Francis de Sales on discernment of the will of God. Much more is available in the popular book Finding God's Will for You, a translation of the writing of St. Francis.
Treatise on the Love of God, Book 8, Chapter 14
S. Basil says that God's will shown to us by his ordinances or commandments, and then there is nothing to deliberate about, since we need simply to do what is ordained; but for the rest we are free to choose what seems good to us, though we are not to do all that is lawful but only what is expedient, and again, to discern rightly what is expedient we should follow the advice of our spiritual father.
But, Theotimus, I warn you about a troublesome temptation which often comes to souls that have a great desire to always do what is most according to God's will. For the enemy at every turn puts them in doubt about whether it is God's will for them to do one thing rather than another; for example, whether it is God's will for them to eat with a friend, or for them not to eat with him, whether they should wear grey or black clothes, whether they should fast Friday or Saturday, whether they should take recreation or abstain from it; and in this they lose much time, and while they occupy themselves and are anxious to discern what is better, they unprofitably lose the time for doing many good things, the doing of which would be far more to God's glory, than this distinguishing between the good and the better, which has taken up their time.
It is not customary to weigh little money, but only valuable pieces: business would be too troublesome and would devour too much time, if we were to weigh pence, halfpence, farthings and half-farthings. So we should not weigh every little action to know whether it is of more value than others. Indeed there is a kind of superstition in trying to make this examination; for why should we puzzle about whether it would be better to hear Mass in one church than in another, to spin than to sew, to give alms to a man rather than a woman? It is not good service to a master to spend as much time in considering what is to be done, as in doing the things which are needful. We are to proportion our attention to the importance of what we undertake. It would be an ill-regulated carefulness to take as much trouble in deliberating about a day's journey as about one of three or four hundred leagues.
The choice of one's vocation, the planning of some matter of great consequence, of some work occupying much time, of some very great expense, the change of home, the choice of companions, and such things, we should seriously considered what is most according to the will of God. But in little daily matters, in which even a mistake is neither of much consequence nor irreparable, what need is there to make a business of them, to scrutinize them, or to importunately ask advice about them? To what end should I put myself out to learn whether God would prefer me to say the Rosary or Our Lady's Office, since there can be no such difference between them, that a great examination need be held; to go to visit the sick in the hospital rather than to Vespers, to go to a sermon rather than to a church where there is an indulgence? Generally there is no such noteworthy importance in the one more than the other that it is needful to make any great deliberation. We must walk in good faith and without minute consideration in such matters, and, as S. Basil says, freely choose what seems to us good, so as not to weary our spirit, lose time, and put ourselves in danger of disquiet, scruples, and superstition. But I mean always where there is no great disproportion between the two works, and where there is no considerable circumstance on one side more than on the other.
And even in matters of consequence we must be very humble, and not think to find God's will by force of examination and subtlety of discourse; but having implored the light of the Holy Spirit, applied our consideration to the seeking of his good-pleasure, taken the counsel of our director, and if appropriate, of two or three other spiritual persons, we must resolve and determine in the name of God, and not afterwards revoke or doubt our choice, but devoutly, peacefully, and firmly pursue and keep to it. And although the difficulties, temptations and the various circumstances which occur in the course of executing our design, might cause us some doubt as to whether we had made a good choice, we must remain firm, and not regard such things, but consider that if we had made another choice we might have been a hundred times worse; to say nothing of our not knowing whether it be God's will that we should be exercised in consolation or desolation, in peace or war. Once the resolution has been holily taken, we must never doubt of the holiness of carrying it out; for unless we fail it cannot fail. To act in another manner is a mark of great self-love, or of childishness, weakness and silliness of spirit.
We must recollect that there is no vocation without its wearinesses, its bitternesses, and its trials; and moreover (except in the case of those who are wholly resigned to the will of God,) each one would willingly change his condition with that of others. Those who are Ministers, would fain be otherwise. They who are married, would they were not. They who are not, would they were. From whence proceeds this general discontentedness, if it be not a certain rebellion against constraint, and an evil spirit in us that makes each one think another’s condition better than his own?
LETTER. (The less self-willed we are, the easier it will be to us to follow God’s will.)
LETTER. (The less self-willed we are, the easier it will be to us to follow God’s will.)
But it is all one; and whosoever is not entirely resigned, but keeps on turning this way and that, never will find peace. When a person has a fever, he finds no place comfortable; he has not remained in one bed a quarter of an hour, before he wishes to be in another. It is not the bed which is in fault, but the fever, which torments him everywhere. And so a person who has not the fever of self-will, is contented everywhere and in all things, provided God be glorified. He cares not in what capacity God employs him, provided he can do therein His Divine will.
But this is not all. We must not only do the will of God, but to be really devout, we must do it cheerfully, nay, joyfully. If I were not a Bishop, perhaps, knowing what I now do, I might wish not to be one. But being one, not only am I obliged to do all that this difficult vocation requires, but I must do it joyfully, and make it agreeable to myself to do it. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “Let every man in the vocation in which he is called, therein abide with God.”1
We cannot bear the crosses of others, but each one must bear his own; and that we may each bear our own, our Lord would that each should renounce himself; that is to say, his own will. “I wish this or that” I should be better here or there.” These are temptations. Our Lord knows best what is best for each one of us; let us do what He wills, and remain where He has placed us.
But you have asked me to give you a few practical rules for your guidance. Besides all I have told you above, you should, First, meditate every day, either in the morning or before dinner or supper, and especially on the Life and Death of our Lord, and you can make use of any book that may assist you. Your meditation should never last above half-an-hour; at the end of each always add a consideration of the obedience which our Lord exercised towards God His Father: for you will see that all He did was done in obedience to the will of God; and considering this will rouse you more earnestly to strive to learn His will yourself. Secondly, before you do or prepare to do any of those duties of your calling which are apt to irritate you, think of the saints of old, who joyfully endured great and grievous things,—some suffering martyrdom, some dishonor in this world; some binding up ulcers and fearful sores; some banishing themselves into the desert; some working among slaves in the galleys: and each and all to do something pleasing in the sight of God. And what are we called upon to do, approaching to such trials as these?
Thirdly, Often think that the real value of whatever we do, is proportioned by the conformity with which we do it to the will of God. If in merely eating or drinking I do it because it is the will of God that I should, I am doing what is more agreeable to Him, than if I were to do what should even cost me my life, without any such Divine intention.
Fourthly, I would advise you often during the day, beseech God that He would inspire you with a real love of your vocation, and that you should say, like St. Paul, when he was converted, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?2 Wouldest Thou that I should serve Thee in the lowest office in Thy house? I will reckon myself here, too blest. Provided that I serve Thee, I care not in what capacity.” And coming more particularly to what is vexing you, say, “Wouldest Thou that I should do such-and-such a thing? Alas! O Lord, though I am not worthy, willingly will I do it:” and by these means you may greatly humble yourself; and oh, what a treasure you will obtain! Far, far greater, doubtless, than you can ever estimate!
Fifthly, I would wish that you should consider how many saints have been in your position of life and vocation, and how they all accommodated themselves to it with great meekness and resignation; as many in the Old Testament as in the New,—Sara, and Rebecca, and Elizabeth, and the holy Anna, and St. Paul, and hundreds of others; and let their example encourage you. We must love what God loves; and if He loves our vocation, let us love it also; and let us not amuse ourselves, by placing ourselves in the position of others. Let us diligently do our business. For each his own cross is not too much. Gently mingle the office of Martha with that of Mary, diligently doing the duties of your calling, often recollecting yourself, and placing yourself in spirit at the foot of the Cross, and saying, “My Lord, whether I run, or whether I stand still, or whatever I do, I am Thine, and Thou art mine. Thou art my first Love, my Spouse, and all that I do, it is for Thee, whatsoever it be.”
Further, every evening examine yourself, and throughout the day constantly raise ejaculatory prayers to God. I recommend, for your reading, the “Spiritual Combat.” Communicate, if possible, every week, and regularly attend the services of the Church on Sundays and Festivals. Remember also what I have often told you,—be just to yourself in the devoted life you are leading; I mean, let others, and especially those of your own family, see its blessed effects in yourself, and be led to honor it accordingly. We must always be careful not to make our devotion annoying to others. What we cannot do without annoyance, especially to those placed over us, we should leave undone: and believe me this spiritual self-denial and privation, so far from being displeasing to God, will be accepted by Him as such, and turn to your own profit. Deny yourself willingly; and in proportion as you are hindered from doing the good you desire, strive so much the more zealously to do what you do not desire. Perhaps it is difficult for you to resign yourself patiently and gladly to these privations, but in doing so, you will gain for yourself real benefit. In all commit your cares and trials, and contradictions, and whatever befalls you to God, comforting yourself in the thought, that He blesses those who are holy, or those who are striving to become so. Keep your heart ready to bear every sort of cross and disappointment with resignation, for the sake of Him Who has borne so much for us: and may He fill thy heart and be thy guide through life!
1 Cor 7:24.
LETTER. (Recognizing God’s Will in our most trifling actions, gives them great value. We mustNever regard the actual value of anything you do, but think only to Whose honor it is done: it is permitted by God’s wisdom; and if it is pleasing to Him, it little matters if it seems despicable in the eyes of others. Strive day by day to become more pure in heart. Now this purity consists in estimating everything, and weighing everything in the balance of the sanctuary, which really is no other than the will of God. Love nothing too passionately, I beseech you, not even virtue, which one overreaches sometimes by passing the limits of moderation. I do not know whether you understand me, but I think you do; I am speaking of your overeager desires and zeal.
love nothing too ardently, not even virtues.)
love nothing too ardently, not even virtues.)
It is not the especial property of roses to be white. Pink or red ones are sweeter and more beautiful; but it is the especial property of the lily. So, in like manner, let us be what we are, and let us, as we live, do the best we can to honor Him Whose workmanship we are.
One would laugh at a painter, who, wishing to draw a horse, should draw a bull; the work in itself might be perfect, but it would do little honor to the skill of the artist, who, intending one design, produced, unintentionally, a very different one. So let us be what God wills, provided that in our calling we are devoted to Him, and not striving to follow out of that calling what He has not appointed as our work; for if we were the most excellent creatures under heaven, what would it profit us, if it were in our own way to the neglect of that appointed us by God?