St. Francis de Sales
In a letter to a lady in Paris who had complained of his plain-speaking, Francis de Sales wrote: "I am quite prepared to admit that my letter was not without a certain rustic forthrightness, but need you take offense at this? You know very well the kind of country that produced me: can you expect delicate fruit from a mountain tree, and such a poor tree at that?"
To the end of his life-this letter was written in 1621, the year before he died Francis remained bound up with his homeland, the duchy of Savoy, the mountainous stretch of country placed between France, Switzerland and Italy, predominantly French in affinity but sharing to some extent in the culture of all three. He was born of an ancient noble family on 21 August 1567 at the castle of Thorens near Annecy, the little town on the lake which was the seat of the exiled bishop of Geneva and subject to the court of Piedmont at Turin. it was here that he spent most of his life; he was a "mountain tree," deeply rooted in the land of his origin, and it is -against a background of ordered, stable hierarchy of traditional loyalty to his Church, his sovereign and his people that he must be seen and judged. His charm and gentleness, the aspects of his personality most apparent in his writing and therefore most generally stressed, form an incomplete picture; the vigour and tenacity, the uncompromising realism and common sense which characterize his race may too easily be overlooked.
So too may the lifelong struggle which a man of exceedingly quick and strong reactions had to wage to overcome his naturally choleric temper. In the end the victory of grace was so complete in him that he now lives in the popular imagination as the most gentle of saints. But this judgement is superficial unless it is borne in mind that his was the gentleness of a God-given and yet hard-won integration, continually vitalized by the struggle of opposites which, as he himself says, lasted until the day of his death.
Francis de Sales was the eldest of thirteen children and as the heir to the family name he was destined to a career in the service of the state. He went to school at the Capuchin college at Annecy and when he was fifteen he was sent to study in Paris where he was inscribed in the arts faculty at the Jesuit College of Clermont. For the next six years he led the ordinary life of a student and nobleman of the time. He was accompanied by his own servant and by a strict priest tutor to whom he remained devoted and obedient throughout. He lodged in a hostelry close to the college in the Rue Saint Jacques, and apart from the courses in rhetoric and philosophy which he attended he also had lessons in fencing and dancing and became an accomplished horseman. The college was famous not only for its exemplary moral discipline at a time of great disorder but also for the excellence of its literary and humanistic studies, for the stress laid on outer stylistic form as well as on inner thought content. Through his grounding in Latin and Greek, his training in the art of reasoning and writing according to newly developed principles of philology and criticism, Francis was heir to all that was best in the Renaissance renewal of the University of Paris.
As a writer he owes much to this training. The humanist substitution of a pleasing and conversational method of argument for the formal, rigid statement of the scholastics, of Plato and Cicero as models instead of Aristotle, coloured the whole bent of his mind and had a decisive influence on his prose style which was, in turn, to lay the foundations for the great prose of the classical period in French literature.
As a person coming from a small provincial town Francis gained his first insight into life in a great capital which was both the seat of a powerful government and a centre of culture and learning. He was a welcome visitor in the homes of the nobility among whom his father had connections. Although he was always rather reserved and quiet it appears that he had a great power of attraction and made many friends, for he was prepossessing both in manner and in appearance. He was tall and well built, his dress and general bearing handsome in the style of a nobleman of the period. Hoffbauer's portrait' shows a striking face framed by a high collar and set off by a black velvet cap decorated with a plumed white feather. The features are well shaped and regular, he has a determined mouth, finely marked eyebrows and large grey-blue eyes set wide apart and looking out into the world in a thoughtful and somewhat withdrawn manner. Indeed, there is a look almost as if of suffering in his face, perhaps a reflection of the spiritual crisis he went through in Paris when, for a time, overwork and a confusion of ideas on the matter of predestination made him feel that his soul was doomed to eternal separation from God.
The torment of despair came to a sudden end as he knelt in prayer in Saint-Etienne-des-Gres saying the Memorare before an ancient statue of Mary. This personal experience of temptation on what was one of the chief points at issue in controversy with the Calvinists of Savoy undoubtedly helped to equip him in a special way for his work later on.
In the spring of 1588 he went back to Savoy for the first time in six years and after a holiday at home among the mountains he took the road again with his tutor and servant to go to Italy, to the University of Padua, for his higher legal studies. Three years later he took a brilliant doctorate in law and in the same year, a combination not unusual at the time, a doctorate in theology. Throughout this period Francis had been reading theology over and above his other studies and, as it were, on sufferance, as his father saw no need for this. Knowing what a blow it would be to him Francis had kept his religious vocation a secret from all except his mother. But it had been developing steadily from his boyhood days and he had only continued with his legal studies in a spirit of obedience while his heart was elsewhere. On his return from Padua he managed to enlist his mother's help and gradually accustom Monsieur de Boisy to the idea of his eldest son's ordination to the priesthood. The situation at home improved a little when an influential member of the family, himself a priest, secured for Francis the position of provost to the cathedral chapter of Geneva. This was the first step towards the bishopric, and while it pleased the father, it mortified the son who considered himself completely unfitted for such rapid preferment. After making over to his younger brother his rights of family succession and after a further period of study at home he was ordained. He celebrated his first masson 21 December 1593 at Annecy.
The bishop, himself a man of deep spirituality, recognized his provost's capacity and extraordinary spiritual gifts and did the appointed him the best thing possible for him at this stage: he appointed him to the hardest task his diocese had to offer, that of mission priest in charge of the Chablais. This was the district near the lake of Geneva which had recently been restored to Savoy but had become completely Calvinist during sixty years of alien occupation. Geneva itself whose name the see still bore, was hostile territory and the bishop and his representatives could only go there at the risk of imprisonment or even of life itself. it was a tough assignment for a young and inexperienced priest of twenty-six.
When Francis went there early in 1594, helped for the first few weeks by his priest cousin, there was not a single priest left in the area and only a handful of Catholics who had managed somehow to cling to their faith without the help of the Mass and the sacraments. At first Francis lived in a fortress garrisoned by the Duke of Savoy's soldiers, worked to some extent under their protection under conditions of intolerable hardship and poverty, ridiculed, persecuted, attacked even physically, saying Mass day by day in icy, half-ruined churches, preaching to empty pews.
He persevered almost against hope. By the time he left his post four years later, after a triumphal celebration of the Forty Hours devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the church at Thonon, attended by the Duke and a papal legate, the majority of the inhabitants had returned to the Church. It was a triumph of faith and fortitude but also of practical organizing capacity of a high order backed by expert legal knowledge. This hard apprenticeship brought Francis into contact with the realities of life, giving his spirituality a basis of realism and rock-like strength.
His missionary activity also led to the writing of his first book. He could not reach his people especially the most educated and influential among them, by his preaching, so he set about writing, printing and distributing a series of regular broadsheets on points of Catholic doctrine, covering in time every aspect of the faith. The Meditations on the Church or Controversies (the title under which this work is usually known) are written, as Francis said in the introductory pamphlet by which he launched the series, not in a rich, ornate style but in the language and the manner natural to Savoy. He wrote trenchantly, confidently, neatly rounding off the clear statement of the profoundest truths with all the energy needed for polemics, but always charitably, already showing that secret gift of persuasion which characterizes all his later work and most especially his letters. He had the gift of moving the will without any showy eloquence but by relying on God in a clear and disciplined presentation of what he himself so ardently believed. "When I preach," he confided one day many years later to St. Vincent de Paul, "I feel something happening that I do not understand; I do not find the words as a result of my own efforts but by an impulse from God." The Controversies were not known in Francis' lifetime except by those to whom the leaflets were addressed over a period of years; but when in 1923 Pope Pius XI proclaimed St. Francis de Sales the patron of Catholic writers and journalists, he gave a high place to this work which differs so greatly in content and form though not in purpose, from his later writings. So during the hard years in the Chablais he also served his apprenticeship as a writer. When he was a student he had written brilliant essays and theoretical exercises in controversy, as can be seen from the neat manuscript notebooks which have been preserved; but during the course of his missionary work he was for the first time faced with the practical tussle for the right word and phrase which was to persuade in real earnest and ultimately to save souls.
In 1598 Francis was nominated coadjutor to the See of Geneva, sent to Rome to represent his bishop in a visit to the Pope, and then in 1601 to Paris on a diplomatic mission concerning the restitution of ecclesiastical rights in territory which Savoy had yielded to Henry IV of France. The mission was not an unqualified success but during his six months' stay in the capital Francis gained high favour at court and in the city. He was in constant demand as a preacher and was asked to give the Lenten sermons at the Chapel Royal. "A rare bird, this Monsieur de Geneve," said Henry IV who was famous for his apt summing-up of character, "he is devout and also learned; and not only devout and learned but at the same time a gentleman. A very rare combination." He became personally attached to Francis and tried to induce him to stay in Paris by offering a rich benefice; but though Francis appreciated all that Paris gave him in the course of his visit he was not to be tempted away from the comparative obscurity of his native Savoy. He gained experience, not always pleasant, of the conduct of affairs at the court and in high places, he got to know the devout life of the capital in its best aspect by meeting men and women of deep spirituality like Berulle and Madame Acarie; he was admitted to their counsels on matters such as the introduction of St. Teresa's Carmelites into France and plans for the reforming of monasteries and convents. He was Madame Acarie's confessor for a time, was consulted on matters of conscience by persons at court and had his first experience of directing the souls of the kind of people he was to help later on. His first long letter of direction, to a superior who wanted to know how best to set about reforming her convent, dates from this time. It should perhaps be added that the morals at court reflected in general those of the king which were notoriously bad; and that religious life in communities was at a low ebb, though there was a strong counter movement of enlightened piety afoot, especially among the educated laity. The effect that Francis had on his contemporaries even at this early stage may therefore be called a personal triumph; it laid the foundations for his later work of spiritual direction among those who exerted influence over others, and also served as a long-term preparation for his founding of a new kind of religious order.
The bishop of Geneva died while Francis was on his way home from Paris. After a long retreat at the castle of Thorens, a time of great grace to which he often refers in his letters, he was consecrated bishop on 8 December 1602, the ceremony taking place, at his own wish in the village church where he had been baptized. He settled down quickly at Annecy where he was known and loved by all. He followed a rule which he had drawn up during his retreat, he lived without show but also without ostentatious poverty, he worked hard, gave as much time as he could to prayer, organized meetings and study or retreat days for his clergy. There was no seminary in his diocese and ordinations numbered about twenty a year; but during the twenty years of his tenure of office the average number rose to forty a year, an increase which is to be attributed almost entirely to his personal influence and organizing capacity. The bishop was available to all, "like a fountain", as he himself said, "in the marketplace." He spent hours in the confessional, choosing the box nearest to the entrance door, and he himself took over the children's catechism class which soon was attended, not only by every child in the town, but by most of the devout adults, including his own mother, Madame de Boisy. He considered preaching one of his main responsibilities and wrote a short treatise on it in the shape of a letter to Monseigneur de Bourges, Madame de Chantal's brother. This admirable letter had not dated; it is concise, systematic and informative. It is also most revealing of the principles which guided Francis as a spiritual writer, that is, as one whose chosen instrument was the word, whether spoken or written. "Form, says the Philosopher, gives a thing being and life. Say wonderful things but say them badly and it amounts to nothing; say little and say it well, and it amounts to a great deal. How then ought we to talk when we are preaching? Beware of a lot of "quamquams" and the long periods of pedants, their gestures, expressions, movements, because this is what ruins preaching. Our speech should be unconstrained, noble, generous, straightforward, strong, devout, grave and deliberate. But how are we to achieve this? Quite simply by speaking with feeling and devotion, candidly and trustfully, by really being in love with the doctrine we are teaching and trying to get people to accept. The great art is to be art-less. The kindling power of our words must not come from outward demonstration but from within, not from the mouth but straight from the heart. Try as hard as you like but in the end only the language of the heart can reach another heart, while the sounds of the tongue does not get past your listener's ear." It was by the hidden power of this kind of preaching that Francis reached the heart that was to be most closely linked with his for the rest of his life. In 1604 he was invited to preach the Lenten sermons at Dijon where he stayed with the young archbishop to whom the letter was addressed. His sister had come up from the country to hear the sermons. Jane Frances Fremyot de Chantal was a young widow with four small children and a very difficult father-in-law in whose house she lived in humiliating circumstances. Her husband had been killed by one of the friends in a tragic hunting accident; after his death Jane Frances had given herself up to a life of austere piety under the direction of a confessor whose counsels inspired fear and anxiety rather than peace of mind.
She turned to Francis for help, and following upon another meeting with her later that same year he agreed to undertake her direction. He directed her to sanctity.
In the vividly written contemporary life of Jane Frances by her secretary, Mother Chaugy, we have some record of their annual meetings during the next six years before she came to settle at Annecy and found the first convent of their new order; but the real story of their relationship is told in Francis' letters to her. It was in trying to meet the spiritual need of a personally equal in calibre to his own and whom he loved that Francis found himself as a director, and because of the circumstances, as a letter-writer. During those early years he could still spare time to write letters peacefully. He wrote with care, entering at length into all difficulties, questions and scruples, generously pouring out all his gifts of hear and mind. Letters were highly prized in those days when people had few books and lived in the country remote from all opportunities for spiritual guidance or instruction. Madame de Chantal's friends at Dijon who had also placed themselves under Francis' direction, the Presidente Brulart, and her sister, the Abbess des Puis d'Orbe, had their share of letters at this time. From the beginning he can be seen in action with people of very different character and requirements.
Madame Brulart was the type of young married woman who, having seen the spiritual light, at once felt she wanted to abandon house and home and a somewhat insensitive husband to enter the peace and solitude of Carmel. Her sister was a timid, perpetually discouraged and ailing nun whose desires were excellent but who lacked the grit necessary for really generous self-giving, and for the difficult task of reforming her abbey. Madame de Chantal's brother had got his preferment much too young and he needed practical help, advice and spiritual guidance. Her father, a former president of the parliament of Dijon and an extremely able lawyer, was getting on in years and wanted to learn how to face old age and death. At home in Annecy Francis' young cousin, Madame de Charmoisy, coming from Paris and often returning to court, wanted to know how to combine a really devout inner life with the role she had to play in society and in the world.
Francis, who was himself as yet under forty, faced these varied spiritual claims upon him with calm equanimity, counseling, prudently, advising without a trace of patronage, restraining or encouraging with equal wisdom and love. He referred his readers to books like the Imitation of Christ. the Spiritual Combat and the writings of Teresa of Avila who had not long been beatified, but he could not point to anything which had been written specifically for devout lay people and their problems.
His letters had in some sort to supply this deficiency. Together with essays on circulated among those he directed, the letters formed the basis of his first and most immediately successful work, the Introduction to the Devout Life. It was first published in 1608, carefully revised and then reprinted as often as forty times and translated into English, Italian, Latin, Spanish and German. all within his lifetime. Francis implied in his preface, and it has often been repeated, that the Introduction was based on the letters written to one particular person, later letters to her have been preserved, it can be taken that the Philothea who is addressed throughout this book is really the type of all those who wanted to be devout this side of the cloister. This is a frame of mind which has not gone out of fashion and which accounts for the fact that the book is still a spiritual best-seller. Anyone who is familiar with this work and then turns to the letters cannot fail to identify the particular correspondents that Francis had more especially in mind at any given point of the Introduction, though much of it may also apply to anyone setting out resolutely on the way of devotion.
What was completely new in this book, apart from its whole conception, was the easy and unpontifical tone in which the bishop of Geneva explained the most serious subjects to Philothea. A complete programme of sanctity which in fact made the greatest possible demands on her was unfolded with conversational suppleness and in easily assimilated stages developing logically one out of the other. After an initial dedication to the devout life she was taught how to pray and make the best use of the sacraments. Then the practice of virtues proper to her state was explained to her and she was put on her against the temptations which beset her kind of life. Finally she was exhorted and encouraged to renew her resolutions to love God, and then to go cheerfully on her way. The careful arrangement and inner balance of the subject matter is reflected in the symmetry of the outer form, a series of brief chapters divided into five books, Whereas in the Introduction system prevails, though well disguised by informality, in the letters on which it is based there is the added immediacy which comes of realizing that a known and individual correspondent is being addressed in just the particular tone and terms which the situation requires. In later years when Francis was busier and more exhausted he would often simply refer his correspondents to the Introduction in the course of his letter, though he was always ready to explain personal variations where they were needed. Each Philothea and Philotheus remained an individual to him to the end. Indeed, it is astonishing that he did not repeat himself more often, considering how little, on the face of it, spiritual needs vary; but it is just this extra effort of love guided by imaginative insight of a very high order that distinguishes the letters of artist who was also a saint.
In an indirect way he conjures up the portrait of all his correspondents. After his death Madame de Chantal destroyed all the letters she had written to him and which he had carefully kept and even annotated. The loss of one half of what would have made a unique spiritual correspondence may be considered tragic, but it does not need a very great effort of the imagination to reconstruct the nature and general tenor of her letters from Francis' own. She was ardent, generous and strong, incurred, at the beginning, to rush to extremes, exacting in the demands she made on herself though not on other people, untiring in her love and charity towards those in need, absolutely forthright and fearless in her dealings. She came of a family of distinguished lawyers and though she had little formal education and her spelling was highly erratic, she was a woman of great intelligence, able to express herself concisely and analyse in clear terms a thing as intangible as a spiritual state of mind. Francis himself commended her for this ability. She had charm, wit and was a shrewd judge of character, qualities which need not cause surprise in Madame de Sevigne's grandmother. Ma son, to whom Francis addressed one of his most famous letters, was the father of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal who became perhaps the most famous of all letter-writers.
Madame de Chantal responded wholeheartedly to Francis' direction which changed her inner life completely, freed it, not indeed from great trials which always remained, but from all excess, scruples and anxiety, leaving the way clear for the work of God's grace in her. She had dedicated her state of widowhood to God and wanted to leave the world as soon as her responsibilities to her children would allow
In the same way as Francis had formulated a new type of spirituality of Christian humanism for those who remained in the world, so he created a new kind of religious congregation for Madame de Chantal and others of her kind who had a vocation to the religious life. On 6 June 1610 he founded the first convent of the Visitation of Holy Mary at Annecy with Madame de Chantal. Marie-Jacqueline Favre, Charlotte de Brechard and one lay-sister Jacqueline de Coste, a remarkable peasant woman whom he had met earlier on in the course of his mission work in Geneva. The congregation was contemplative, open to widows as well as to the usual kind of younger postulant but received people who might have been refused by a more austere order for reasons of health. The nuns led a simple, hidden life of prayer, not marked by any extremes of penance and austerity, following what Francis called "the way of simplicity." Until the second foundation was made at Lyons in 1615 the nuns did not take solemn vows, were not enclosed and used to go out to visit the sick. Whereas the Visitation then became entirely contemplative, the idea of nursing the sick, at that time unheard of for nuns who were thought of as strictly enclosed, was taken over by Francis' friend, St. Vincent de Paul, when he founded the Sisters of Charity. Francis had intended the visiting which was strictly limited in time and scope to be a help towards a healthy and balanced contemplative life and subordinate to it: for the main stress of the congregation was always on this. He yielded on this point to the conservatism of the archbishop of Lyons who considered that the presence of unenclosed nuns in his town would lead to scandal and all kinds of difficulties.
Francis was now faced with the task of directing a new institute, a contemplative community, and for the help of those who had left the world to lead a more perfect life of prayer he wrote his Treatise on the Love of God. Although the book only appeared in 1616 the plan of the Treatise had been made and work begun on it before the Introduction was actually published in 1608. There was no break or sudden transition in Francis' writing activity, but the book reflects a considerable change and development in those for whom he was writing and probably also in himself. As he witnessed the mystical life growing in the Visitandines and saw it as it were concretely and objectively outside himself, the things that were going on in his own soul gradually grew ripe for formulation. Francis saw the mystical life as the active love of God unfolding in the soul. He therefore set himself to studying the Scriptures, in the Fathers, in St. Thomas, in the "very learned ignorance," as he called it, of St. Teresa of Avila, in other writers of his own time, but above all in his own soul and in those whom he directed at Annecy-the relationship of love between the human person and God. This led him to examine Christian morals systematically in the light of love increasing in the soul, and to describe the practical effects of growing love on prayer. on human relationships, on daily life. The "mountain-tree" of this unique personality was firmly rooted in its native earth, and in the same way Francis, the theologian, set the structure of his mystical theology firmly upon the basis of ascetical theology, thus producing a synthesis of great originality. Inspired intuition is held in balance by sound, logical thought, resulting in a kind of Summa of divine love. Not that he claimed to have said anything new. All he did, perhaps all that great discoverers in the realm of the spiritual life ever do, was to combine old truths in a new way.
The book was written for Theotime this time, for any soul that is already devout and wants to advance in the love of God. Although the personal form of address is not lacking, one has the impression that the basic literary pattern is no longer that of the letter but that of the more discursive colloquy, the exchange of ideas which took place in the Visitation parlour or in the convent orchard overlooking the lake and the mountains. And here Francis was no longer only the guide and teacher, but the learner together with other learners. Many of the ideas in the Treatise do still find their place in letters and were originally formulated there, but on the whole there is a change of atmosphere in the letters from about 1610 onwards. Regular correspondence with Madame de Chantal had ceased though there was a constant interchange of notes between the bishop's palace and the convent, and there were letters of greater length when she went away to make foundations or when either was ill. Theotime gets fewer letters than Philothea did, and he is asked instead to pick up his copy of the Treatise and to read a chapter of it if his affection for his spiritual father sometimes makes him long to have a letter which seems to be slow in coming. But of course other Philotheas come to take the place of the earlier ones and they are treated with equal love and respect for their uniqueness as personalities only there is greater simplicity, a more insistent emphasis on the one thing needful in which he himself was immersed.
Not that there was ever a clear-cut distinction between the ascetical and the mystical in Francis. For indeed throughout his life the two run side by side and merge into one another, though one kind of emphasis may appear in more prominent at various stages and ages. It is one of the characteristic features of Francis de Sales' spiritual correspondence as a whole that no sharp dividing line exists at any time between one "stage" and another. It is only that a different atmosphere is sensed, a slight shifting of emphasis, often within one and the same letter. It would in any case be mistaken to look for theories of the mystical as such ill letters which were dictated by changing personal and practical requirements.
The counterpart to the Introduction on a different level is rather to be found in the Spiritual Conferences. These have been preserved in transcriptions made by the Visitandines of talks given in answer to specific questions and on special occasions. It remains true that everything Francis said or wrote during these last few years of his life bears the imprint of his own constantly deepening love of God. There is an ever greater simplicity, an intensity of purpose which is reflected in the very rhythm of the sentences he writes as his life draws to a close.
There were still years of toil and suffering to come but his heart remains as it were enclosed at the Visitation, leading the hidden life of prayer which he longed for increasingly is the years went on. The affairs of his diocese remained excessively burdensome and intricate, his relations with his sovereign, a suspicious and unreasonable man, were always difficult. Within his own lifetime Francis supervised, through Madame de Chantal, the foundation of thirteen other Visitation convents in various parts of France. He suffered from continual ill-health, from calumny, from an ever increasing load of business and correspondence. For business letters he employed a secretary, but right to the end every letter of direction and there were times when he wrote fifty or more letters a day of one kind or another was written in his own hand, in his upright beautifully formed italic characters, legible and vital right up to the very last letter of all. In the spring of 1617 and again in the following year, he made new contacts at Grenoble when he preached the Lenten sermons there. Each Philothea of these later days received letters which entered into her problems, little and great, with the same inexhaustible patience as of old, but it was now also possible for the director to harness some of the new-found ardour to furthering the spread of the Visitation. This was an excellent practical object which drew off usefully a good deal of spiritual energy from the first immediate object of its projection, Francis himself.
No one can read his letters without being deeply struck by the untiring (generosity with which he received the affection he inspired and with which he returned it as soon as he saw that anyone sincerely wanted to serve God through the help of his direction. It lay in the nature of things that these people were mostly women, for as he himself said in a letter to Madame de Chantal from Grenoble that same year: "It is the ladies who excel in devotion in this town, for here like everywhere else men leave the cares of the household and the practice of piety to their womenfolk." But the letters to the Duc de Bellegarde, one of the greatest statesmen of his time, are only an instance among many others that Francis' affections went out equally to all. As soon as any person, whatever the difficulties of his or her temperament, is judged to lie in real earnest in the desire to lead a devout life, Francis adopts a new child into the overgrowing household of his heart. A man is forthwith addressed and really becomes mon tres chere fils, a woman ma tres chere fils, while the bishop himself asks to be called without ceremony by the name he held dearest mon pere. As one can see in the autographs the words in ma tres chere are written, as time goes on, in one connected movement of the pen and become a single concept no one could be his child without being very dear to him. Nor is this an empty formula; he means it and he repeats the personal form of address often throughout the letter to the beloved son or daughter vividly present to his mind. He was not afraid of love or of allowing himself to be used as a channel for the love of God.
In November 1618 he went to Paris in the suite of Cardinal Maurice of Savoy who was charged with negotiating the marriage between Christine of France and the Prince of Piedmont. Madame de Chantal also went there to see to the newly founded Visitation convent. He spent practically a whole year in the capital, a time of incessant labour, attending at court, preaching almost daily, receiving visitors and counselling all who called upon his help. His most remarkable friendship at this time was no doubt that with Vincent de Paul to whom he entrusted the direction of the Visitation and of Madame de Chantal after his death, and who became one of the witnesses at the first process of canonization in 1628. "His ardent fervor," said Vincent, "shone through his public preaching as well is his ordinary conversation. When I thought about his words afterwards I admired them so deeply that I felt sure he was the best living portrait of the Son of God on earth. I remember thinking again and again: How good You must be, my dear God, since Monsieur de Geneve who is but Your creature is so wonderfully good and kind." This was the sort of impression he made on people and none seemed able to resist his spell. His letters from Paris reveal a man entirely carried by God's love and united to Him, a man who was making a last great effort in the face of exhaustion to meet an infinite number of demands. From the point of view of his correspondence his most important contact was that with Angelique Arnauld, the young Abbess of Port Royal who placed herself under his direction and enlisted his help in the reform of her convent. She was an extraordinarily gifted woman but tempestuous and self-willed: this is only too evident by implication in the letters which Francis wrote to her. He made a supreme effort of charity to save her from herself, for he loved and admired her and predicted great things for her if only she could learn to let God have His way. He cannot have been wrong in thinking her the kind of person who had it in her to rise to great heights, but the opposite tendencey was also there to balance this and he was well aware of it. Had Francis lives and had she been able to enter the Visitation as she wished, she might never have been deceived by Jansenism.
The cardinal's suite followed the court to Tours and spent some time ther. Francis arrived home towards the end of the year 1620, having once more refused all honours and benefices, even the succession to the see of Paris. He went about his work in Annecy with as much zeal as ever, though the increasing difficulty and with an ever greatter longing to retire, to write at leisure, to fix his mind wholly on God. The next autumn, one crisp September day, he went up into the montains to bless a sanctuary, a hermitage where the holy founder of the Abbey of Talloires had ended his days in solitude. After the ceremony, as Francis stood looking out over the landscape he loved, the fields and valleys of the foothills, the snow-capped mountains beyong the lake, he tole the abbot how he longed to leave the heat and burden of the day to another, to live in a solitude of this kind, "serving God with his rosary and his pen." At the beginning of that year his brother John had been appointed his coadjutor. He had some help from him but he also had the task training a successor, a man of uncertain temper to whom he always showed unalterable good humour.
In the autumn of 1622 Francis joined the court of Savoy for a meeting with the court of France at Avignon and later at Lyons, where Louis XIII conferred with the Prince of Piedmont and Christine. Francis knew when he left Annecy that he would not return. At Lyons, he refused all offers of sumptuous lodgings and chose to stay in the gardner's cottage in the grounds of the Visitation convent a little way out of the town. All the house he could spare from official duties were spent with the nuns and it was there he saw Madame de Chantal for the last time. She had been away from Annecy in Paris and making foundations elsewhere; she had not seen him for three years. She had hoped that they would take as of old of spiritual matters, of her own state of sould and of his; but he saw fit to confine their long conversation entirely to practical administrative affairs concerning the Visitation. As soon as all business was settled he asked her to leave at once for a visit to the convent at Belley which needed her presence. No personal world passed between them, though for the whole of the month that Francis spent at Lyons his cottage was open to all the great and little people who cared to consult him. His last letter, written on Christmas Eve, was and appeal for a poor man who was out of work. To the end the pattern of his life remained the same, one of complete self-abnegation and of perfect self-giving. On 27 December he has a seizure and he died the next day on the Feast of the Holy innocents, at the age of fifty-five. According to his own wish he was buried in the church of the first Visitation convent in Annecy which also become the resting place of Jane Frances de Chantal in 1641.
From St. Francis de Sales: Selected Letters
Translated with and Introduction by Elisabeth Stopp
Published in 1960 by Faber and Faber, 24 Russell Square, London