Today is the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists. A bishop of Geneva, Francis died in 1622. He was fond of using flyers and books to convert Calvinists—hence his patronage, though one can imagine him just as easily settling into a post as patron saint of marketing, or patron saint of well-meaning finger-wagging.
Francis’s most enduring work is 1609’s Introduction to the Devout Life, which was written for laypeople—a novel idea at the time. CatholiCity, a repository of “the Finest Catholic CDs, Booklets, and Novels,” calls it “the most popular Catholic ‘self-help’ book of all time,” and when you peruse the table of contents, it’s not hard to see why. There’s plenty of practical wisdom on offer, e.g., “All Evil Inclinations Must Be Purged Away”; “One Word to Maidens”; “Dryness and Spiritual Barrenness”; “How to Exercise Real Poverty, Although Actually Rich”; and, conversely, “How to Possess a Rich Spirit Amid Real Poverty.” Then there’s the meditation on hell, which goes from yogic to despairing at the drop of a mitre:
1. Place yourself in God’s Presence.
2. Humble yourself, and ask His Aid.
3. Picture to yourself a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth.
In fact, hell has a way of rearing its infernal head at awkward moments throughout the Devout Life, perhaps as in life itself. Here’s a bit from “Balls, and Other Lawful But Dangerous Amusements,” which doesn’t mean what you think it does:
Balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement … while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.
Buzzkill, Francis! Not all his advice is so starchy, though. In “We Must Attend to the Business of Life Carefully, But Without Eagerness or Over-Anxiety,” he writes, “Imitate a little child, whom one sees holding tight with one hand to its father, while with the other it gathers strawberries or blackberries from the wayside hedge.” (I do this literally all the time—can’t recommend it highly enough.)
Still, if Francis has really been watching over the Fourth Estate for these many centuries, one imagines he’s pretty disappointed with the profession. After all, journalists and writers are not known for their piety, to put it mildly. Saving Calvinists from perdition no longer moves us to dip our pens. Should you feast to Francis tonight, you might do him a solid and refrain, as he asks of you, from “too much thoughts of meats and platters.” Then he could check off that box, at least, and think to himself, Frank, you old sermonizer, you’ve still got it.
You can read all of Introduction to the Devout Life on CatholiCity, which also offers a FREE JESUS CRUCIFIED LAPEL PIN AND 8X10 ART-HOUSE PRINT to all who donate.