Francis De Sales was born a nobleman in the castle of Sales in 1567. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Francis had a sensitive soul. During his late teens, he went through a spiritual crisis, tormented by temptation and convinced that he was destined for damnation. He finally broke out of it by deciding that regardless of whether he made it to heaven, the right thing to do was still to serve God on earth. His prayer of resignation is a classic: “If I may not love Thee in the other world—for in hell none praise Thee—let me at least spend every moment of my brief life here in loving Thee as much as I can.”
Upon offering up this prayer, the spiritual malaise lifted immediately, but it forever marked Francis’ ministry, making him unusually empathetic toward tormented souls. Though we don’t know the exact nature of Francis’ particular temptation, he did say later that his two greatest battles were with love and hatred, admitting to his friend, Jeanne Chantal, “There is not a soul in the world, I think, who loves more cordially, tenderly, and so to say more amorously than I.” Yet in spite of this temptation, Francis was still able to have meaningful relationships with others—including available women—without falling into sin, because he learned the art of diversion, transforming a worldly passion into the love of God.
In 1588, Francis began studying philosophy and theology at the University of Padua, a well-respected school that was also known for the “worldliness” of its students. Francis responded by taking asceticism to an extreme, nearly killing himself in the process (he was actually administered the last rites). He eventually earned a doctorate in both law and theology. Much to his family’s displeasure (and outright opposition), Francis was ordained a priest in 1591.
His first post was in Geneva and the surrounding areas, the hotbed of Calvinism. Religious disputes in those days were violent and brutal, sometimes even deadly. Francis regularly risked his life to reach the “heretic” Calvinists. He once crawled across an ice-covered bridge; nearly froze to death after climbing a tree in the winter to avoid an attacking pack of wolves; and escaped several attempts on his life by the Calvinists.
Francis was an unusually effective apologist for the Roman Catholic Church; it is said that he personally “reclaimed” 72,000 people to the Catholic faith. Francis testified that “I have never allowed myself to give way to anger or reproach without repenting it; if I have had the happiness of reclaiming heretics, it has been by gentleness. Love is a stronger power over souls.” He later said, much in the same vein, “I like preaching which breathes love of one’s neighbor, rather than indignation against him.” His good work of evangelism was duly noted, and Francis was consecrated Bishop, about ten years after being ordained a priest.
A prolific writer, Francis’ best known work is Introduction to a Devout Life, which was written in 1609. His letters of spiritual direction have been gathered in a contemporary volume called Thy Will Be Done: Letters to Persons in the World. Francis had an unusual gift of writing very practical advice to laypeople; his Introduction is distinct for its time in that Francis sought to encourage laypeople to embrace devotion. At that time, most books on prayer and the spiritual life were written by monks and nuns for monks and nuns. Though Francis sought to encourage the faith of laypeople, he never expected them to have the same type of devotional practices as the religiousÑin fact, he told one mother, who was perhaps overdoing her spiritual exercises to the neglect of her family, that “we must love piety in such a way that it is also lovable to others.” He gently encouraged another woman who wondered whether she had compromised in getting married rather than becoming a nun, “Nothing so impedes our progress in perfection as to be sighing after another way of life.”
After a lifetime of writing insightful books and serving as spiritual director to hundreds if not thousands, Francis died in 1622 and was canonized in 1665 by Pope Alexander VII.