In Western societies today we find many self-styled spiritual gurus and life coaches who claim to offer solutions to the difficulties of life. These people have many ‘brilliant and clever sayings.’ Despite not understanding what man is, many of them genuinely believe that their guidance and advice is wise and helpful. They are not afraid to take on the roles of life coach and role models for others. Market conditions are favourable to their business plans. The kingdom of God is being forgotten about by human beings so society is becoming more and more disordered. People are desperate for answers. In addition, the advice life coaches offer is often much better and grounded more in common sense than the publicly funded, regulated and ‘professional’ psychological advice and guidance offered by trained psychological professionals. Add a bit of personal charisma, an ability to make rousing motivational speeches, and a solid marketing campaign and you can see why many people make a lucrative career from coaching people and why many people are flocking to them.
But what did people in the West do before these life coaches and gurus became so popular and prevalent? How did people get the answers they needed to the difficult questions in life? How did people know what to aim for and, once identified, how did they know how to go about achieving their goal? Many of the blogs I have written on this website have provided some answers to these questions. This blog highlights one particular spiritual guide whose wisdom and common sense approach far surpassed anything offered by the countless gurus we come across today. This guide is the holy bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales, whose writings still continue to ‘coach’ those who strive for self improvement.
‘Few would deny, however unsatisfactory their own lives, that to be a saint is the supreme expression of human life on earth.’ – Introduction, ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere
Seeing someone live the advice they give helps us to take their advice seriously. If the fruits of the advice are good, we can have even more confidence in it. This is most certainly the case with St. Francis de Sales who lived a holy and devout life while encouraging others, through his example and words, to live this type of life as well. He was known for being a gentle, patient and humble soul who radiated charity. In his life, he converted thousands of people to the Catholic Faith and he was renowned as a great shepherd for the flock under his care. In addition to this, he also left us some remarkable writings including his masterpieces, ‘Treatise on the Love of God’ and ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’. ‘Treatise on the Love of God’ is a theological study/outline of the love of God and about why charity/love of God is essential if one wants to attain perfection. ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ is a practical guide for those navigating through the various difficulties that life brings. The latter was a bestseller of 1608 and it continues to guide souls who desire perfection.
Inspired by another classic spiritual guide, ‘The Spiritual Combat’ by Fr Lorenzo Scupoli, St. Francis, in the ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’, provides practical guidance to those who aspire to live a virtuous and holy life. St. Francis’ writings are inspired by love of God and his own deep love of virtue. He had a deep understanding of charity both intellectually and practically. He knew that man was designed to live a virtuous life and that living this type of life brought its own beautiful fruits: ‘It is virtue which makes the inner and outer man into something beautiful. It makes him wonderfully pleasing to God. It suits man extremely well, because it is man’s proper state. How much consolation, delight, true pleasure it always brings him. Christian virtue sanctifies him, turns him into an angel, makes him a little god, takes him into heaven, even on earth.’ (Quote from St. Francis from ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere). St. Francis desired that man be all that he should and can be and ‘The Introduction to the Devout Life‘ is written with this intention in mind.
‘The Introduction to the Devout Life’ stands as a giant over any of the modern self-help gurus and popular psychology books that are taking up more and more of the media, libraries and bookstores. Unlike, modern psychological theories that are based on false and distorted theories about man, St Francis offers common sense advice and practical guidance based on true understandings of what man is and what the purpose of man’s existence is. While thousands of people flock to the latest motivational talk by the likes of Tony Robbins and waste their money buying the latest ‘actualise yourself’ book by Deepak Chopra, St. Francis de Sales, through his humble endeavours, has left us his writings to truly help people transform their lives if they put the wisdom he imparts into practice.
St Francis is gentle, clear and firm in his advice and ‘The Introduction to the Devout Life’ is full of beautiful vivid metaphors to describe the realities of life. It recognises man’s true calling and it is written to help man be ‘wonderfully pleasing to God’. The bar is high as this is the reality of life. Yet, St. Francis’ writings are grounded in common sense and pertinent advice on how to avoid the various snares that can divert us on the way to perfection. Here are such some example of the pearls of wisdom St. Francis has to offer:
On reputation: ‘Whoever desires to be esteemed by everyone has the esteem of no one, and whoever seeks to obtain it from unworthy people deserves to lose it.’
On how to converse: ‘To speak little’ – so highly recommended by wise men – does not consist in uttering few words, but in not speaking useless words. It is not their quantity but their quality that counts.’
On the ridicule one receives from the world for aspiring to Christian perfection: ‘The world considers us fools, let us consider it mad.’
On anxiety: ‘Birds that are captured in nets and snares become inextricably entangled therein, because they flutter and struggle so much. Therefore, whensoever you urgently desire to be delivered from any evil, or to attain some good thing, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit,—steady your judgment and will, and then go quietly and easily after your object, taking all fitting means to attain thereto. By easily I do not mean carelessly, but without eagerness, disquietude or anxiety; otherwise, so far from bringing about what you wish, you will hinder it, and add more and more to your perplexities.’
Not accepting sadness as the normal state of your soul: ‘The Evil One delights in sadness and melancholy, because they are his own characteristics. He will be in sadness and sorrow through all Eternity, and he would fain have all others the same.’
Advice on overcoming depression:
- Keep occupied: ‘It is well also to occupy yourself in external works, and that with as much variety as may lead us to divert the mind from the subject which oppresses it, and to cheer and kindle it, for depression generally makes us dry and cold’
- Talk to a wise counsellor: ‘Lay bare all the feelings, thoughts and longings which are the result of your depression to your confessor or director, in all humility and faithfulness.’
- Visit good friends: ‘Seek the society of spiritually minded people, and frequent such as far as possible while you are suffering.’
On the causes of spiritual dryness: ‘Those rich with worldly pleasures are unable to enjoy spiritual ones.’
On the need to examine one’s conscience if going through these dry periods: ‘An illness is already half cured when the cause is known.’
On honouring God/doing your duty through hard times: ‘There is no great merit in serving one’s prince in peace and in the midst of courtly delights; true merit, and proof of a true fidelity, lie in serving him during war, trouble and persecutions.’
These are just some of the gems of advice that this great saint has to offer. In our modern times, people are desperate for solutions to the psychological issues they are experiencing. There are all sorts of psychological professionals and professional bodies trying to direct and guide people. Added to this, there are all sorts of people posing as wise men trying to give people answers to their various anxieties and sorrows. Yet, it is a humble and gentle Catholic bishop who lived in the 17th century and his 400-year-old book that offers us one of the best practical guides to true happiness and freedom.
So, let us stop looking for answers to our psychological issues where they will not be found. Let us return to the guidance left with us by those men who have come before us were truly wise. If we are struggling with life issues, rather than turn to those who will only confuse our minds even more, we can easily turn to St Francis de Sales and allow him to gently guide us over the various hurdles we encounter. We can let him be our ‘life coach’ and allow him to help us on our journey to Him who is Life Itself.
St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
Note: There is a free online version of ‘The Introduction to the Devout Life’ here: https://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/devoutlife.pdf and TAN Books provide an excellent version of it here: https://www.tanbooks.com/introduction-to-the-devout-life-4573.html