The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Vive Jésus!

"Just as with all of creation, God commands Christians,
the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits
of devotion, each according to his position and vocation."
St. Francis de Sales

NOTE: Today the Church celebrates the feast day of my patron saint, Francis de Sales, whose name I received at my monastic profession in 2008. To mark the occasion, below is a revised portion of the introduction to my thesis for the master's degree I received last year. The entire thesis, which is far too long (and possibly, tedious!) to post here in its entirety, was titled: "Vive Jésus! Saint Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life and the Universal Call to Holiness."
What does a saint look like? Is it someone we can see through the windows of our eyes? Still more, is it someone we can possibly recognize mirrored in our own souls?

Occasionally, we will hear someone say, “She was a saint,” but we’re more likely to hear, “He was no saint,” or say with a shrug, “I’m not a saint.” Saints, it seems, are extraordinary people who, for the most part, lived long ago and were graced with special divine favors that the majority of us neither possess nor comprehend. We admire and venerate them, but their alabaster perfection is obviously far removed from us. Rather, our sentiments may echo the words of Simon Peter: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

Becoming a saint, it seems, is frightening because it demands the impossible, or at least suggests unimaginable suffering. Perhaps, we bargain, it is sufficient simply to be a “good person,” and even go to church, without the bother of aspiring toward the unrealistic ideal of saintliness.

Underlying this fear is the false belief that “becoming holy is something we painfully accomplish rather than something that Christ rejoices to accomplish in us,” as Mark Plaushin, O.S.F.S., wrote in Homiletic & Pastoral Review in March 2010. While holiness does require human cooperation, it is God who works in us to bestow saintliness (cf. Philippians 2:13; Ephesians 3:20). The servants are summoned to fill the jars with water, but it is Christ who changes the water into wine (cf. John 2:1-11). “Holiness is neither the simple result of human effort nor is it the automatic result of a ‘grace’ from out of the blue,” writes Francois Corrignan for Studies in Salesian Sprituality. “A combination of both is needed: God’s gratuitous gift and free human cooperation with that gift.”

And for this reason, Jesus did not heed Simon Peter’s request to depart from his sinfulness. Instead, he replied, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). Our assurance as baptized Christians is the same: Do not be afraid to strive for holiness, to become saints, because that is what you are, what you are created to be. You have only to realize it. This call to saintliness, to holiness, is nothing other than the perfection of charity (cf. Blessed John Paul II, Christifidelis Laici) to love as God loves.

It is our fundamental vocation, inherent to our very being as children created by God in God’s image. To be fruitful externally, it must first be sown internally—something God does for us. “Love the Lord, your God, will all your heart,” God commands (Deuteronomy 6:5). This “is not too mysterious and remote for you… No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out” (Deuteronomy 30:11,14).

This promise is perfectly fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the true vine, from whom we, as branches, are given life and fruitfulness according to the New Testament image of the vineyard. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

So, we are meant to be saints, to be holy—each and every one of us. Since God, who is love, wills all to be saved (cf. 1Timothy 2:4; 1John 4:16), he sent his Son, who beckons us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Becoming a saint means coming to Jesus and, as he says, learning from him to be gentle and humble of heart like his heart. In doing so, nature is gradually perfected into charity, and typically without spiritual heroics. This charity is to be cultivated and carried out daily, sanctifying the ordinary events, duties, and relationships in whatever one’s state of life.

When we allow the heart of Jesus to speak to our hearts in this way, we learn to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, and we discover that holiness is not too mysterious and remote for us. It is something very near, already in our mouths and hearts. We have only to carry it out, to externalize it, to become what we possess (and possesses us) in our hearts. With the name of Jesus engraved on our hearts, we “allow that name to become one’s own true name, to allow one’s entire self—body, thoughts, affections, actions, decisions, work, devotion—to be animated by the reality of the person known by that name” (Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, (Wendy M. Wright and Joseph F. Power, O.S.F.S.),  Letters of Spiritual Direction).

In other words, becoming a saint means: Vive Jésus!Live Jesus!

“Live Jesus!” was the spiritual maxim of Francis de Sales (1567-1622), a nobleman of Savoy, which was an independent state in the Alpine border region of what is now southeastern France, northwestern Italy, and southwestern Switzerland. From 1602 until his death in 1622, he was the bishop of Geneva, though his episcopal see was located just to the south in Annecy near his hometown of Thorens because Geneva was a Calvinist stronghold. And he is a saint, having been canonized in 1665 by Pope Alexander VII, declared a doctor of the Universal Church in 1877 by Pope Pius IX, and confirmed as patron saint of writers in 1923 by Pope Pius XI.

Long recognized for wisdom that has been termed “inspired common sense” (Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S., “An ‘Every Day’ Approach to Holiness,” Deacon Digest, November 2011), St. Francis de Sales headed his thousands of letters of spiritual direction with the mantra “Vive Jésus!” and he opened and closed his most well-known work, Introduction to the Devout Life, with the same call.

Sanctity, he emphasized time and again in varied ways, is for everyone, and it is not something distinct from day-to-day life, but is lived through each moment and encounter. The message he conveys—one that has been commonly referred to as “the universal call to holiness” since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s—is thoroughly rooted in the Gospel and the tradition of the Church. However, this integral teaching bore repeating in the early 17th Century because the concept had largely been either distorted or discarded. In similar fashion, it bears repeating today.

“Vive Jésus!” was more than a rallying cry for Francis. Rather, it succinctly expresses a profound, Gospel-based, and incarnational theology that was (oddly) countercultural during his time, even within many corners of the Church. Sanctity, he maintained, involves a radical change of heart that gradually transforms one from within, “rather than a change of lifestyle effected from without,” writes scholar Wendy M. Wright in her translation of Introduction to the Devout Life. By taking to heart the Word made Flesh through Jesus’ gift of self, we give flesh to the Word in our daily circumstances by practicing the perfection of charity.

Francis’ pastoral focus as a bishop was on inspiring and directing the individual soul toward the love of God within the particular circumstances of his or her life. One’s interior transformation in Christ is what brings about the Kingdom of God on a universal scale. In other words, we each need to “Live Jesus” first and foremost. His emphasis was always on an interior life lived heart-to-heart with Jesus through our baptismal call, and which then moved outward to be expressed in actions motivated by the love of God (cf. Jordan Aumann, O.P., “St. Francis de Sales: Theologian for the Laity,” Listening, Fall 1991).

In addition, his concern for the soul’s intentional pursuit of holiness was adapted to the particular person he was addressing, “taking into account her or his life responsibilities, temperament, strength, and ability,” Wright notes. His heart-to-heart exhortation to “Live Jesus!” extended even (or especially) to the intimate manner in which he expressed it. No one of his many letters of spiritual direction is identical to another. Francis speaks to each addressee as with a friend. Even his Introduction to the Devout Life and his later, more sophisticated Treatise on the Love of God are addressed, respectively, to feminine and masculine terms for “Lover of God”—Philothea and Theotimus, as if he were writing to a particular person. In all his writings, he conveys sound theology rooted in a prayerful heart and keen intellect, along with consistent firmness. However, he does so in a conversational manner with ease, warmth, and humor. He also exhibits a great deal of psychological insight, compassion, and optimism.

Commentators agree that this personal, heart-to-heart approach was thoroughly authentic to his very being and his pastoral outlook, and is what has endeared him to so many “Philotheas” over the last four centuries. In his 1967 apostolic letter on the 400th anniversary of Francis’ birth, Pope Paul VI gathered together a composite portrait of the saint, noting that he exhibited:

An acute perception of mind, a solid and clear reasoning, a penetrating judgment, an almost incredible good will and kindness, a gentle and lovable suavity of speech and expression, a calm ardor of an ever active spirit, a rare simplicity of manners, a serene and tranquil peace, an ever firm and secure moderation nevertheless not separated from strength.
Like Jesus, Francis de Sales met people where they were, and he lived the incarnational theology that he promoted. He authentically lived Jesus through his particular state in life and day-to-day duties, providing a living example of responding to the universal call to holiness.

No analysis of his writings can ignore his very intimate, Christocentric approach because that is what makes them so powerfully engaging. That is what makes what he says relevant today—he was a human being who became a saint through God working in him. Some of his plans failed. He disappointed his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer and marry well like any self-respecting nobleman (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition). He experienced numerous trials—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not everyone liked or agreed with him. Early in his career when he almost single-handedly converted 70,000 Calvinists in the mountainous Chablais region through sheer determination, ingenious pamphleteering, and the attraction of his personality, he was often ignored, harassed, and threatened (Michael de la Bedoyere, Saintmaker). Attempts were made on his life. His episcopacy burdened him with many duties, and he practically worked himself to death at the relatively young age of 55.

Yet with all this, he was first and foremost concerned with the individual souls entrusted to his care in the Diocese of Geneva—to lead them on the way to sainthood. He was truly the shepherd who sought the one lost sheep out of 100.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d'Annecy in Annecy, France,
where Francis was ordained and presided as bishop.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to read the whole thesis... this excerpt is both beautiful, interesting and educational reading.