By St Francis de Sales

Book VI. Of The Exercises Of Holy Love In Prayer.

Ch 4. That Love In This Life Takes Its Origin But Not Its Excellence From The Knowledge Of God.

But which has the more force, I pray you; love, to make us look upon the well-beloved, or the sight to make us love him?

Knowledge, Theotimus, is required for the production of love, for we can never love what we do not know; and according as the attentive knowledge of good is augmented, love is also augmented, provided there is nothing to hinder its activity. Yet it happens often, that knowledge having produced holy love, love does not stay within the limits of the knowledge which is in the understanding, but goes forward and passes very far beyond it; so that in this life we are able to have more love than knowledge of God: whence the great S. Thomas assures us, that oftentimes the most simple women abound in devotion, and are ordinarily more capable of heavenly love than clever and learned men.

The famous Abbot of S. Andrew's at Vercelli, master of S. Antony of Padua, in his commentaries upon S. Denis, often repeats that love penetrates where exterior knowledge cannot reach, and says that many bishops of old, though not very learned, have penetrated the mystery of the Trinity; admiring in this point his scholar S. Antony of Padua, who, without earthly knowledge, had so profound a grasp of mystical theology, that, like another S. John Baptist, one might have called him a burning and a shining light.

The Blessed Brother Giles, one of the first companions of S. Francis, said one day to S. Bonaventure: "O how happy you learned men are, for you understand many things whereby you praise God, but what can we idiots do?" And S. Bonaventure replied: "The grace to be able to love God is sufficient." " Nay, but Father," replied Brother Giles, "can an ignorant man love God as well as a learned?" "Yes," said S. Bonaventure, "and further, a poor simple woman may love God as much as a doctor of divinity." Then Brother Giles cried out in fervour: "O poor simple woman, love thy Saviour, and thou shall be as great as Brother Bonaventure." And upon this he remained for the space of three hours in a rapture.

The will only perceives good by means of the understanding, but having once perceived it she has no more need of the understanding to practise love, for the force of pleasure which she feels, or expects to feel, from union with her object, draws her powerfully to the love and to the desire of enjoying it; so that the knowledge of good gives birth, but not measure, to love; as we see the knowledge of an injury starts anger, which, if not suppressed, almost always becomes greater than the subject, deserves. The passions do not follow the knowledge which moves them, but very often, leaving this quite in the rear, they make towards their object without any measure or limit.

Now this happens still more strongly in holy love, inasmuch as our will is not applied to it by a natural knowledge, but by the light of faith, which assuring us of the infinite goodness that is in God, gives us sufficient cause to love him with all our force. We dig the earth to find gold and silver, employing a present labour for a good which as yet is only hoped for; so that an uncertain knowledge sets us upon a present and certain labour, and as we more discover the vein of the mineral, we search and search more earnestly.

Even a cold scent serves to move the hound to the game, so, dear Theotimus, a knowledge obscure and involved in clouds, like that of faith, most powerfully stirs our affection to love the goodness which it makes us perceive. O how true it is, according to S. Augustine's exclamation, that the unlearned bear away heaven, while many of the wise are swallowed up in hell!

In your opinion, Theotimus, which of the two would love the light more - the one born blind, who might know all the discourses that philosophers make of it and the praises they give it, or the ploughman, who by a clear sight feels and realizes the agreeable splendour of the fair rising sun?

The first has more knowledge of it, but the second more fruition, and that fruition produces a love far more lively and affective than a simple knowledge by reasons; for the experience of good makes it infinitely more agreeable than all the science which can be had of it.

We begin our love by the knowledge which faith gives us of God's goodness, which afterwards we relish and taste by love; love whets our taste and our taste heightens our love, so that, as we see the waves, under the stress of winds, roll against one another and swell up, as if contact forced each to strive to outdo the rest, so the taste of good strengthens our love of it, and increases our relish for it, according to that oracle of the divine Wisdom: They that eat me, shall yet hunger: and they that drink me shall yet thirst.(1)

Which of the two I pray you loved God more, the theologian Occam, held by some to be the most subtle of mortals, or S. Catharine of Genoa, an unlearned woman? He knew God better by science, she by experience; and her experience conducted her deep into seraphic love, while he with his knowledge remained far remote from this excellent perfection.

We extremely love the sciences, even before we fully know them, says S. Thomas, from such confused and general knowledge as we may have of them: in the same way, it is the knowledge of God's goodness which makes our will begin to love, but as soon as it is set going, love increases of itself, by the pleasure which the will takes in being united to this sovereign good. Before children have tasted honey and sugar it is difficult to make them receive them into their mouth; but after they have tasted their sweetness, they love them much more than we wish, and eagerly seek to get them always.

We must admit, however, that the will, attracted by the delectation which it takes in its object, is much more forcibly drawn to unite itself therewith, when the understanding on its side excellently proposes the goodness thereof; for it is then at once both drawn and pushed; pushed by knowledge, drawn by delight: so that knowledge is not of itself contrary, but very useful to devotion, and meeting together they marvellously assist one another; though it often happens through our misery that knowledge hinders the birth of devotion, because knowledge puffeth up and makes us proud, and pride, which is contrary to all virtue, is the total ruin of devotion.

Without doubt, the eminent science of a Cyprian, an Augustine, a Hilary, a Chrysostom, a Basil, a Gregory, a Bonaventure, a Thomas, - has not only much recommended but greatly improved their devotion, as again their devotion has not only raised but eminently perfected their science.

1. Ecclus. xxiv. 29.