Just turn on the news or hop on social media and it’s immediately apparent: we live in a rather harsh world.
Perhaps one of the fiercest battles we wage takes place within our own hearts. How easy it is to be merciless with ourselves, especially in light of our mistakes, sins, and shortcomings.
Enter St. Francis de Sales, who once said:
“There is nothing as strong as gentleness; nothing as gentle as real strength.”
If these words sound surprising now (you may be wondering how gentleness relates to strength) they would have been even more surprising at the time they were written.
St. Francis lived in France between the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was a time in which Calvinist teachings on predestination were predominant. This included the belief that mankind was depraved to its very core and that only a certain number of pre-selected people would be saved. This teaching emphasized human sinfulness and a severe God who predestined some people for hell and some for heaven, regardless of personal merit or personal actions.
Sensitive of soul himself, Francis struggled as a young man through a season in which he was tempted to despair of God’s love and of heaven. He believed himself to be among those destined for damnation. Through God’s mercy, he was healed of this turmoil through prayer to Mary and abandonment to God’s loving will.
St. Francis would spend much of his priesthood in Geneva—the geographical “center” of Calvinist doctrine—preaching God’s love and mercy in a culture that emphasized His judgment.
During his lifetime he wrote prolifically: sermons, letters, and the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life.
As you can see from his writing, it is clear that this gentle—and gentlemanly—saint is pursuing the hearts of those he is writing or speaking to. With utter kindness and deep love, he spurs them on in their spiritual lives.
Some of his most consistent advice may seem surprising: he frequently recommends a greater gentleness toward oneself.
Make no mistake, however—this gentleness toward oneself does not mean to back-burner the pursuit of virtue, nor does it mean laziness in the spiritual life.
It means keeping everything—both our perspective of our shortcomings and our virtues—in proportion. It means recognizing sin as sin, yet not allowing ourselves to be surprised by our imperfections. This strong gentleness means leaning more on a God of tenderness and mercy.
Below are a few key themes drawn from St. Francis de Sales’ Letters of Spiritual Direction and Introduction to the Devout Life that can help us treat ourselves—and others—with true gentleness.
1. The pursuit of Christ-like perfection is a journey.
“Perfection” can be a word weighed down with difficult connotations for some of us, especially those of us who struggle with scrupulosity.
But St. Francis de Sales shows that pursuing perfection is not an endless to-do list of pious acts done flawlessly or a fearful self-check for sin. It involves maintaining our interior peace and walking alongside Jesus Christ.
As St. Francis says to one of his spiritual directees,
“I don’t mean that we shouldn’t head in the direction of perfection, but that we mustn’t try to get there in a day, that is, a mortal day, for such a desire would upset us, and for no purpose. In order to journey steadily, we must apply ourselves to doing well the stretch of road immediately before us on the first day of the journey, and not waste time wanting to do the last lap of the way while we still have to make it through the first.”
Instead of making us scrupulous about pleasing God, our efforts toward perfection should be tempered by the fact that “we are weak creatures who scarcely do anything well; but God, who is infinitely kind, is satisfied with our small achievements and is very pleased with the preparation of our hearts” (St. Francis de Sales).
Our first call is to grow in virtue and love. And a first step in this growth is allowing Him to love us.
2. Be patient with yourself.
We all have areas in which we struggle, and St. Francis gets it—mistakes and falls are hard:
“[W]hile we must have patience with others, we must also have it with ourselves…We have to endure our own imperfections in order to attain perfection.”
St. Francis gives a lovely example in his Introduction to the Devout Life about what this patience may look like for a soul:
“Courage, Philothea! When baby bees begin to take form…they cannot as yet fly among the flowers on the mountains and hillsides to gather the nectar…[W]e are still like baby bees in devotion, and we are not able to fly high to the place we want to go—which is none other than the summit of perfection. But as our desires and resolutions begin to form, they will begin to form wings for us, and one day, like spiritual bees, we will fly aloft. Meanwhile, let us feed on the nectar found in works of instruction that devout people from the past have left us.”Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Ch. 2
With these words, St. Francis lovingly reminds us that we need other people on this road to growth in virtue and holiness. We must remember that whether we are nineteen or ninety years old, growth is not made with long, quick strides. Rather it is gradual, and there will be seasons where our spirits struggle with virtue.
Like the little bees in St. Francis’ example, our wings may still be small and unable to carry us. And that’s okay. We can still keep our eyes on the heights, as we grow daily in the spiritual life.
3. Growth in the spiritual life leads us to greater freedom.
St. Francis de Sales says that interior freedom begins with the knowledge that one is loved. And the fruits of this freedom are the following:
“A great inner serenity, a great gentleness and willingness to yield in everything that isn’t sin or an occasion of sin; it’s a flexible disposition, able gracefully to do the virtuous or charitable thing.”
These characteristics even extend to our spiritual practices, St. Francis says; the one who is free is not robbed of peace when they can’t do their prayer routine in the same way each day.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have a routine, but there is room in our routine to deal with interruptions—whether that’s attending to the needs of others or even to ourselves.
St. Francis often advises his spiritual directees to take care of themselves when they are sick, and not to always expect to be able to carry out their spiritual practices in the same way.
St. Francis is also incredibly practical, pointing out to one spiritual directee that she must be gentler with her physical health if she’s to advance spiritually:
“Sleep well…To eat little, work hard, have lots of concerns on our mind, and then refuse to give our body sleep is to try to get too much work out of a poor, emaciated horse without letting him graze.”
When we take care of ourselves physically, we are better able to tend to our spiritual needs, as well as the needs of others.
4. Our faults can lead us to greater reliance on Him.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales calls us beyond the moment of our fall. He knows that it’s easy to get distracted by disappointment in ourselves or excessive harshness toward our faults, but recommends a simpler way: allowing our shortcomings to be a means of returning quickly to Jesus’ arms.
“We must not fret over our own imperfections. Although reason requires that we must be displeased and sorry whenever we commit a fault, we must refrain from bitter, gloomy, spiteful, and emotional displeasure.”Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Ch. 9
Instead of meeting our faults with self-deprecation, we’re called to meet them with calmness:
We must be sorry for our faults, but in a calm, settled, firm way…we correct ourselves much better by calm, steady repentance than by that which is harsh, turbulent, and passionate. Violent repentance does not proceed according to the character of our faults, but according to our inclinations.Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Ch. 9
St. Francis recommends this method for handling our faults:
“When your heart sinks, raise it gently, humbling yourself quietly in God’s presence with the knowledge of your misery…filled with courage and confidence in his mercy, get back on board to resume the voyage to Virtue.”
For some of us, this may feel incredibly difficult to do. Gentleness itself may be a virtue requiring our patience. Luckily, it is God who is guiding our ships, and if we find we cannot raise our hearts, find confidence or courage, He will help us do it.
When we meet ourselves with gentleness, then, we are able to grow in perseverance and strength in the journey that is the spiritual life.
I invite you to sit with the words of St. Francis de Sales. In the midst of a culture steeped in a severe spirituality, he infused his teachings with a healthy dose of self-knowledge: we need to know our sins, but even more, we need to know the God of tenderness and mercy.
As we battle the harshness of our current day, may we allow this image of God to reign in our minds and hearts.