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What Does a Saint Say When He Writes You a Letter?

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Madame Marie de Charmoisy had everything. And then she met Francis de Sales …

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable canon of essays, speeches & books that will light a candle in the darkness. It is a canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.

Madame Marie de Charmoisy had everything. Everything. Living a fashionable life in the lush Savoy region of France, she was married to a sharp diplomat, adorned with the finest clothes and jewels and accompanied by the smartest of friends. She had everything. And that’s what she was afraid of.

Let me explain.

It was 1607. Business had taken Madame Charmoisy away from the Court life and to the lakeside French vista of Annecy. And that’s where she met him and was changed forever. No, no … this wasn’t a scandalous affair with a foreign prince or playboy dignitary. This was a conversation with a saint.

All that she possessed, she told him, wasn’t enough. She wanted – she needed – spiritual direction because she hungered for God. And so, Francis de Sales would help. Madame Charmoisy was instructed in prayer, spiritual exercises and how to faithfully live the virtues. But when it came time to return to the extravagance, the pettiness, the sheer temptation of Court life, she was afraid. How could she live a devout life in the midst of the world?

The saint looked at her and reassured,

“Have courage, my child; do not fear that on this account you will fall back. For if you are faithful to God, he will never fail you; even though he has to stop the sun and the moon, he will give you enough time to perform your exercises and all else that you must do.”

And just for good measure, he decided to write to her. One letter became two, two became four. Dozens and dozens of letters poured in, offering much needed spiritual guidance from afar. They provided her an introduction to the devout life in the midst of an often faithless world. The letters were so profound and life-changing for Madame Charmoisy that she helped the saint publish them. Since their original publication more than four hundred years ago, the collection (aptly named Introduction to the Devout Life) has changed the lives of millions. Here is a sampling of just one letter,  “On the Nature and Excellence of Devotion”:

The men who discouraged the Israelites from going into the Promised Land told them that it was a country that “devoured its inhabitants.” In other words, they said that the air was so malignant it was impossible to live there for long and its natives such monsters that they ate men like locusts. It is in this manner… that the world vilifies holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen faces and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods. But just as Joshua and Caleb held both that the Promised Land was good and beautiful and that its possession would be sweet and agreeable so too the Holy Spirit by the mouths of all the saints and our Lord by his own mouth assure us that a devout life is a life that is sweet, happy and lovable.

The world sees devout people as they pray, fast, endure injuries, take care of the sick, give alms to the poor, keep vigils, restrain anger, suppress their passions, give up sensual pleasures, and perform other actions painful and rigorous in themselves and by their very nature. But the world does not see the heartfelt inward devotion that renders all such actions pleasant, sweet, and easy. Look at the bees amid the banks of thyme. They find there a very bitter juice but when they suck it out they change it into honey because they have the ability to do so …

Because the martyrs were devout men and women fire, flame, wheel and sword seemed to be flowers and perfume to them. If devotion can sweeten the most cruel torments and even death itself, what must it do for virtuous actions?

Sugar sweetens green fruit and in ripe fruit corrects whatever is crude and unwholesome. Now devotion is true spiritual sugar for it removes bitterness from mortification and anything harmful from our consolations. From the poor it takes away discontent, care from the rich, grief from the oppressed, pride from the exalted, melancholy from the solitary, and dissipation from those who live in society. It serves with equal benefit as fire in winter and dew in summer. It knows how to use prosperity and how to endure want. It makes honor and contempt alike useful to us. It accepts pleasure and pain with a heart that is nearly always the same and it fills us with a marvelous sweetness.

Consider Jacob’s ladder, for it is a true picture of the devout life. The two sides between which we climb upward and to which the rungs are fastened represent prayer, which calls down God’s love, and the sacraments, which confer it. The rungs are the various degrees of charity by which we advance from virtue to virtue, either descending by deeds of help and support for our neighbor or by contemplation ascending to a loving union with God. I ask you to regard attentively those who are on this ladder. They are either men with angelic hearts or angels in human bodies …

 Believe me … devotion is the delight of delights and queen of the virtues since it is the perfection of charity. If charity is milk, devotion is its cream; if it is a plant, devotion is its blossom; if it is a precious stone, devotion is its luster; if it is a rich ointment, devotion is its odor, yes, the odor of sweetness which comforts men and rejoices angels.

What does a saint say when he writes you a letter?

Something extraordinary.

To read St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life in its entirety, click here.

 

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