Light and Peace: Instructions for Devout Souls to Dispel Their Doubts
1. A Christian is not obliged to be perfect, but to tend continually towards perfection; that is to say, he must labor unceasingly and with all his strength to increase in virtue. To make no attempt to advance is to go back.
*You see it is a question not of succeeding but of laboring earnestly and sincerely. Success does not depend upon us. God grants that or refuses it or defers it according to what He knows is best for us.
“Let us do three things, my dear daughter, says Saint Francis de Sales: first, have a pure intention to look in all things to the honor and glory of God; second, do the little we can towards this end, according to the advice of our spiritual father; third, leave the care of all the rest to God.
Why should he torment himself who has God for the object of his intentions and does all that he can? Why should he be anxious? What has he to fear? God is not terrible for those whom He loves; He is satisfied with little for He knows well that we have not much to give.”
… “Allow yourself to be governed by God; do not think so much of yourself; make a general and universal resolution to serve God in the best manner you are able and do not waste time in examining and sifting so minutely to find out what that may be.
This is simply an impertinence due to the condition of your acute and precise mind which wishes to tyrannize over your will and to control it by fraud and subtlety…. You know that in general God wishes us to serve Him by loving Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for love of Him; and in particular, to fulfill the duties of our state of life; that is all.
But it must be done in good faith, without deceit or subterfuge, and in the ordinary way of this world, which is not the home of perfection; humanly, too, and according to the limitations of time; to do it in a divine and angelic manner and according to eternity being reserved for a future life.
Do not therefore be so anxious to know whether or not you have attained perfection. This should never be; for were we the most perfect creatures on earth we ought not to dwell upon or glory in it but always consider ourselves imperfect.
Our self-examination must never be for the purpose of discovering if we are imperfect, for this we should never doubt. Hence it follows that we must not be surprised at seeing ourselves imperfect, since we can never be otherwise in this life; nor on that account give way to despondency, for there is no remedy for it.
But, yes; we can correct our faults gently and gradually, for that is the reason they are left in us. We shall be inexcusable if we do not try to amend them, but quite excusable if we are not entirely successful in doing so, for it is not the same with imperfections as with sins.”—Saint Francis de Sales.*
Now the means to be employed in laboring for perfection and in making progress in virtue do not consist in multiplying prayers, fasts and other religious practices. Some good religious who had fasted three times a week during an entire year, thought that in order to satisfy the obligation of advancing more and more in virtue they ought to fast four times a week the following year.
They consulted Saint Francis de Sales on the subject. He laughingly answered them: “If you fast four times a week this year so as to advance in perfection, you will be obliged for the same reason to fast five times the next year, then six, then seven times; and the number of your fasts being always the gauge of the degree of perfection you shall have attained, it will be necessary for you, under pain of advancing no more, thereafter to fast twice a day, then thrice, then four times, and so on.” What Saint Francis de Sales said of fasting is just as applicable to all other devout practices.
3. Instead, then, of continually adding to your religious exercises, study to perfect yourself in the practice of those you already perform, doing them with more love and peace of soul, and with greater purity of intention. Should it happen that you are unable to perform all your usual devotions conveniently, omit a portion of them so that the remainder may be done with greater tranquility.
The spirit of perfection, says Saint Bernard, does not consist in doing great things, but in doing common and ordinary things perfectly. Communia facere, sed non communiter.
*“Most people when they wish to reform, pay much more attention to filling their life with certain difficult and extraordinary actions, than to purifying their intention and opposing their natural inclinations in the ordinary duties of their state.
In this they often deceive themselves, for it would be much better to make less change in the actions and more in the dispositions of the soul which prompt them.
When one is already leading a virtuous and well regulated life it is of far greater consequence, in order to become truly spiritual, to change the interior than the exterior.
God is not satisfied with the motions of the lips, the posture of the body, nor with external ceremonies: What He demands is a will no longer divided between Him and any creature; a will perfectly docile … that wishes unreservedly whatever He wishes and never under any pretext wishes aught that He does not wish.
This will, perfectly simple and entirely devoted to God, you should bear with you into all the circumstances of your life, and everywhere that divine Providence leads you…. Even mere amusements may be transformed into good works, if you enter into them only through a kindly motive and to conform to the order of God.
Happy indeed the heart of her for whom God opens this way of holy simplicity! She walks therein like a little child holding its mother’s hand and allowing her to lead it without any concern as to whither it is going. Content to be free, she is ready to speak or to be silent; when she cannot say edifying things she says common-place things with an equally good grace; she amuses herself by making what Saint Francis de Sales calls joyeusetés, playful little jests, with which she diverts others as well as herself.
You will tell me perhaps that you would prefer to be occupied with something more serious and solid. But God would not prefer it for you, seeing that He chooses what you would not choose, and you know His taste is better than yours: you would find more consolation in solid things for which He has given you a relish, and it is this consolation of which He wishes to deprive you, it is this relish which He wishes to mortify in you, although it may be good and salutary.
The very virtues, as they are practiced by us, need to be purified by the contradictions that God makes them suffer in order to detach them the better from all self will.
When piety is founded on the fundamental principle of God’s holy will, without consulting our own taste, or temperament or the sallies of an excessive zeal, oh! how simple, sweet, amiable, discreet and reliable it is in all its movements!
A pious person lives much as others do, quite unaffectedly and without apparent austerity, in a sociable and genial way; but with a constant subjection to every duty, an unrelenting renunciation of everything that does not enter into God’s designs in her regard, and, finally, with a clear view of God to whom she sacrifices all the irregular inclinations of nature.
This indeed is the adoration in spirit and in truth desired by Jesus Christ, our Lord, and His eternal Father. Without it all the rest is but a religion of ceremonial, and rather the shadow than the reality of Christianity.”—Fénelon.*
4. Apply yourself in a particular manner to become perfect in the fulfillment of the duties of your state of life; for on this all perfection and sanctity are grounded.
When God created the world He commanded the plants to produce fruit, but each one according to its kind: juxta genus suum. In like manner our souls are all obliged to produce fruits of holiness, but each according to its kind; that is to say, according to the position in which God has placed us.
Elias in the desert and David on the throne had not to become holy by a like process; and Joshua amidst the tumult of arms would have sought in vain to sanctify himself by the same means as Samuel in the peaceful retreat of the Temple.
This instruction is addressed to those who being placed in the world would wish to practice there the virtues of the cloister, or whilst residing in palaces would attempt to lead the life of the solitaries of the desert. They bear fruits which are excellent in themselves, no doubt, but not according to their kind, juxta genus suum, and hence they do not fulfill the will of God.
5. Perfection has but one aim and it is the same for all,—to wit, the love of God; but there are divers ways of attaining it. Among the saints themselves we find most striking differences.
Saint Benedict was never seen to laugh, whereas Saint Francis de Sales laughed frequently and was always animated, bright and cheerful.
Saint Hilarion considered it an act of sensuality to change his habit, whilst, on the other hand, Saint Catherine of Sienna was extremely particular about bodily cleanliness which she looked upon as a symbol of purity of soul.
If you consult Saint Jerome you hear only of fear of the terrible judgments of God: read Saint Augustine and you will find only the language of confidence and love.
The minds, dispositions and characters of men are as varied as their physiognomies; grace perfects them little by little but does not change their nature.
Hence in our endeavors to imitate the ways of such or such a saint for whom we feel a particular attraction, we should not condemn those of the others, but say with the Psalmist: Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum. Consult your director as to whom and what may be most suitable for your imitation.