The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales

I just had the pleasure of reading The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales by Jean-Pierre Camus.  Whether this Camus is a distant relation of the more famous Albert Camus, I know not.  His style of biography is reminiscent of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  Like Boswell, Camus was a constant companion of St. Francis and recorded his habits with great exactitude.  Their friendship began around the time St. Francis, as Bishop of Geneva, consecrated him Bishop of Belley.  Camus’ remarkable frankness and memory make this a particularly interesting character sketch of the saint.

St. Francis de Sales

For those unfamiliar with the history of St. Francis de Sales, he served in the diocese of Geneva at the beginning of the Counter-Reformation.  In particular, he was a missionary to Chablis and had to deal with the Calvinist heresy there.  Calvinists held the majority in the place, and proprietors would often refuse even to give St. Francis a place to sleep.  With the incredible patience which was his chief virtue, he preached the Faith through public speaking and spreading pamphlets–many of which we have to this day.  Occasionally, while he said Mass, the attendants would get up and leave during the middle of it, and St. Francis would continue the Mass in an empty Church.  His patience and perseverance made him eventually beloved of the people, and Chablis became a mostly Catholic area by the end of his life.

St. Francis describes his method of religious debate as patiently listening to his religious opponents without either showing contempt or superiority and then relating the truth of the Catholic faith without contentiousness.  Here are his own words on the subject, which is one of my favorite passages in the work:

“All the external proofs which can be brought to bear upon our opponents are weak, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in their souls, teaching them to recognize the ways of God. All that has to be done is to propose to them simply the truths of our Faith. To propose these truths is to compel men to accept them, unless, indeed, they resist the Holy Spirit, either through dullness of understanding, or through uncircumcision of the heart. The attaching over much importance to the light of natural reason is a quenching of the Spirit of God. Faith is not an acquired, but an infused virtue; it must be treated with accordingly, and in instructing heretics we must beware of taking to ourselves any part of the glory which belongs to God alone.

 “One of the greatest misfortunes of heretics is that their ministers in their discourses travesty our Faith, representing it as something quite different from what it really is. For example, they pretend that we have no regard for Holy Scripture; that we worship the Pope as God; that we regard the Saints as divinities; that we hold the Blessed Virgin as being more than Jesus Christ; that we pay divine worship to images and pictures; that we believe souls in Purgatory to be suffering the selfsame agony and despair as those in Hell; that we deprive the laity of participation in the Blood of Jesus Christ; that we adore bread in the Eucharist; that we despise the merits of Jesus Christ, attributing our salvation solely to the merit of our good works; that auricular confession is mental torture; and so on, endeavoring by calumnies of this sort to discredit our religion and to render the very thought of it odious to those who are so thoroughly misinformed as to its nature. When, on the contrary, they are made acquainted with our real belief on any of these points, the scales fall from their eyes, and they see that the fascination and cajolery of their preachers has hidden from them the truth as to God’s goodness and the beauty of God’s truth, and has put darkness before them in the place of light.

 “It is true that at first they may shrug their shoulders, and laugh us to scorn; but when they have left us, and, being alone, reflect a little on what we have told them, you will see them flutter back like decoyed birds, saying to us, ‘We should like to hear you speak again about those things which you brought before us the other day.’ Then they fall, some on the right hand, others on the left, and Truth, victorious on all sides, brings them by different paths to know it as it really is.”

Daughters of the Visitation

I don’t know of a more perfect method of preaching the truths of the faith than this, and so I felt compelled to quote it in full.  At any rate, I encourage my dear readers to pick up this work.  St. Francis de Sales is a great personality among the saints and this work does a marvelous job of sketching his personality–and it’s available for free!  Some passages are edifying, some dry, some humorous (like when Camus drilled holes in the walls of St. Francis’ room so that he could observe him therein), but all are brimming with the Spirit of Christ.  I hope that many modern pastors have been influenced by the model offered by St. Francis de Sales.

The Importance of the Holy Spirit

While reading Yvain: the Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes, the more numerous references to the Holy Spirit than to any other person of the Trinity struck me.  As a matter of fact, the author seems to refer to the Holy Ghost 90% of the time when referring to a Person of the Trinity, even a Mass is held “for the honor of the Holy Ghost.”  Modern Christians do not as often ponder the relationship they have to the Holy Ghost as much as the kind we have with the Father or the Son.  Medievals seem more attuned to the role of the Spirit in their lives than moderns.

teutonic-knights

Once when St. Ignatius of Loyola pondered why he prayed to the separate persons of the Trinity since all the prayers went to same God, he received a miraculous understanding that praying to the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit was like playing three beautiful notes which came together in a brilliant harmony.  We ought to recognize the role of each Person of the Trinity in our lives so that we might cultivate a stimulating and beautiful understanding of God.  Nothing higher, more sublime, more beautiful, more virtuous, more noble, or more holy may be thought that God Himself.  When I consider the role of God the Father in my life, I imagine that He works mainly through Providence: leading me away from physical and spiritual harm, providing my daily necessities, and in other ways guiding the course of my life.  God the Son stands the model of the most perfect life, the highest wisdom, and the example of and source of mercy.  Our Crucified Lord gives me the grace to turn away from sin and be made into His image and likeness.  The Holy Spirit I view as the Person inspires us to every good deed and invigorates us with every virtue.

Holy Trinity

We can only live our Christian lives through the indwelling and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  I once read an atheist’s vexation with Christians, because Christians attribute every good deed to God and refuse to take credit themselves.  There is credit in saying yes to God, but we could not even have thought to do any good work without God’s grace.  We can neither fear God nor believe the most basic precepts of the faith without the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them…” (John 6:44).  At the same time, the agency of the Holy Spirit draws men to the Truth.

juanes_avondmaal

Not only does the Holy Spirit act through Christians, in whom the Spirit acts to bring us “to the whole measure and fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), but also in people ignorant of the True Faith.  The gifts of the Holy Spirits are fear of God, piety, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, understanding, and wisdom.  Whenever these are manifested in a human being, I cannot but believe that the Holy Spirit produces these effects.  We can only pray that the Holy Spirit will find the conditions right to add faith to these persons now living outside the fold.

The_Descent_Of_The_Holy_Spirit

If anything has made our relationship with the Holy Spirit less evident in modern times, I would say that it is due to the emphasis on justification over sanctification.  The modern man is so burdened by sin that he feels like he cannot overcome vice, but Jesus Christ must save him from the very mouth of hell.  It is true that we require God’s salvation lest we perish everlastingly, but part of our salvation is to see the divine likeness growing in us every day.  The Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ and under the Providence of the Father accomplishes this without fail in those that seek Him.  Here are a couple of prayers to the Holy Spirit which you might find useful this Lent in considering the action of the Holy Spirit in your life.

St. Augustine’s Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.  Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.  Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.  Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.  Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy.  Amen.

St. Bonaventure’s Prayer for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit

O Lord Jesus,
through You I humbly beg the merciful Father
to send the Holy Spirit of grace,
that He may bestow upon us His sevenfold gifts.
May He send us the gift of WISDOM,
which will make us relish the Tree of Life
that is none other than Yourself;
the gift of UNDERSTANDING,
which will enlighten us;
the gift of COUNSEL,
which will guide us in the way of righteousness;
and the gift of FORTITUDE,
which will give us the strength to vanquish
the enemies of our sanctification and salvation.
May He impart to us the gift of KNOWLEDGE,
which will enable us to discern Your teaching
and distinguish good from evil;
the gift of PIETY,
which will make us enjoy true peace;
and the gift of FEAR,
which will make us shun all iniquity
and avoid all danger of offending Your Majesty.

To the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit
be given all glory and thanksgiving forever.
Amen.

 

The Catena Aurea and the Importance of Authority in Biblical Interpretation

Having read five chapters of commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,  I would like to recommend St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea to my dear readers.  This work was perhaps the best present I received around Christmas, especially since Scripture somehow seems less enlightening of late.  (The fault lies with my own pride.)  The Catena Aurea parses passages of the Gospels with passages from the Church Fathers on the Gospels and doctrine.  The doctors St. Thomas Aquinas draws from most frequently are St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Remigius, and St. Leo the Great–my Confirmation patron.

776px-KellsFol027v4Evang

I mentioned that my perusing of Scripture has not been as penetrating as formerly, which reminds me of how the Bible has been called God’s “Closed Book” while nature is God’s “Open Book.”  This derives from the fact that the meaning of the Scriptures must be revealed by the Holy Spirit.  One might believe that they can gain a literal understanding of the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit; but how often does one hear things like “I stopped believing when I saw that Scripture passages contradicted themselves” or that someone takes a literalistic view of scriptures and does something that Scripture did not intend–such as when Origen castrated himself so that he might enter the kingdom maimed rather than tossed whole into everlasting flames.  The best thing that a Christian can do in order to perceive the true meaning of the Scriptures is to follow the pronouncements of established authority.

niceea-arie-invins

The Christian faith, unlike philosophy, relies on authority.  The great difficulty of Protestantism is that it acknowledges an authoritative work–the Bible, but has no authoritative interpreters.  Once when I boasted to a Lutheran friend of mine that I should have no trouble passing myself off as a Lutheran by merely agreeing with Luther, he countered that I would be discovered right away: a good Lutheran holds points of contention with the founder, and my friend thought the very name “Lutheran” actually misleading.  But, even among Protestants, there are recognized authorities, even if they might be cast off should they conflict with one’s personal interpretation.

Gm_1570 0001

Never thought you’d see a picture of Martin Luther on this site, did you?

Catholics have it easy: the Church councils, the pope speaking ex cathedra, and the bishops acting in concert and in communion with the Pope have infallible interpretative authority.  They are guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they cannot err.  In order of authority, the Doctors of the Church come after this.  These men strove to uphold the truth of Christian doctrine and remain loyal to the Church.  By adhering to authority, they tended to be on the side of the right, though they were occasionally wrong when the Church had not clarified doctrine completely or needed to confess ignorance on certain questions.  Most famously, St. Augustine was unsure whether original sin was placed on newly created souls by God, passed on by the souls of the parents, or derived from the taint of lust during conception.  Now, we know that the first view is correct, but this remained an unsettled question during the time of St. Augustine.  Next in authority come other saints, clergy, theologians, religious teachers, and lastly us ordinary lay people.

carlo-braccesco-four-doctors-of-the-church

That’s right.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me on the bottom of the totem pole as the least reliable interpreters of Scripture and doctrine.  For example, I imprecisely held that baptism removed original sin from the soul.  Rather, it removes original guilt from the soul, i.e. we still suffer from the effects of original sin (concupiscence), but are no longer denied entrance into heaven.  Of course, I knew that concupiscence existed, but I thought that this derived from the fact that we have physical bodies in an imperfect state.  Live and learn!  Unless we subscribe to an authority, especially the most perfect authority of the Church, we ought to always keep in mind that our understanding of Scripture and doctrine might be incorrect.  Humility is God’s favorite virtue, and we should quickly become proud should we believe in our own infallibility.

San Francesco

People joke that Catholics do not read the Bible, but Catholics do read works written by people adept at Scripture and have a pastor interpret the readings of the Mass every Sunday.  This priest himself relies on the Office of Readings, other theological works, and a period of education and training typically lasting from 6 to 12 years.  (Priests called “lifers” go to high school seminary, college seminary, and then theological seminary.)  Even more than Newton, Christian teachers must stand on the shoulders of giants, especially the colossal figures of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Angelico_PeterMartyrSM

Then again, there is a second kind of authority important for the ordinary Christian: the lives of the saints and servants of God.  By looking at how they applied Scripture and doctrine to their lives, we can apply the precepts of Scripture more accurately to our own.  The Golden Legends stands as my favorite collection of saints’ lives, but Butler’s Lives of the Saints probably has a wider following and contains fewer passages requiring one to take a grain of salt.  For more modern examples, the lives of Padre Pio, Mother Theresa, St. Guiseppe Moscati, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati are remarkably edifying.

Feeling the weight of my own ignorance upon me, I shall probably decline from writing spiritual articles for a while.  However, I shall work on expanding my understanding through the clear vision of the Fathers and might write an article with stuff I steal borrow from them.  My the Holy Spirit enlighten the minds of us all!