"For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?"

Thomas á Kempis

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"Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God."

Thomas á Kempis

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"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"

The Cure D'Ars

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St. Francis de Sales  (1567-1622)
 Bishop, Founder of the Visitation and Doctor of the Church


By St Francis de Sales


The following Treatise presents, at first sight, considerable difficulties. They do not arise from any defect in the Saint's mode of expression, but are inherent in his subject and manner of treatment, "going deep down into the roots" of the Love of God. Thus he speaks in his Preface, and continues: "The first four books, and some chapters of the others might doubtless have been omitted without disadvantage to such souls as seek only the practice of holy love . . . . I have been forced to say many things which will appear more obscure than they are. The depths of science are always somewhat hard to sound."

But he tells us that the state of the minds of his age required this deeper treatment; and whatever may be thought as to the best way of presenting modern religious teaching to an age so ignorant, so shallow and so unthinking as is our own with regard to spiritual truths, there can be no question that this masterpiece of the chief doctor of ascetic theology must not be brought down to our level, but that we must raise ourselves towards it. The necessity of giving some explanation of the sequence of its doctrine, and of the difficulties which occur, must be our chief excuse for daring to place words of ours by the side of this finished work of S. Francis de Sales.

A second reason lies in the fact that the "Treatise on the Love of God" was, with others of his writings, the chief subject of the celebrated controversy between Fenelon and Bossuet. There can be little doubt that this lowered the authority of the work. Not because the mere fact of a discussion seemed to throw over it an air of unsafeness or 
suspicion. Descriptions of the sublime and mysterious operations of the soul under the influence of grace are always capable of being misunderstood, and "wrested" from their proper sense, and no Christian mystic, from S. Paul downwards, has escaped this danger. The shameless abuse of the Saint's authority by the Jansenists left it eventually quite unimpaired. Hence the mistakes of Molinos, Pere Lacombe, Madame Guyon, and even of Fenelon himself would have thrown no permanent discredit on this treatise, if Bossuet had defended it in a proper spirit and with full knowledge and discretion.

Incredible as the fact may seem, it is nevertheless true that neither Fenelon nor Bossuet had properly studied the works in dispute. The former went to them prepossessed. His opinions were already formed, and he merely sought a confirmation of them. He read in a most superficial manner. He precipitately chose out what seemed to suit his purpose, and neglected important statements and obvious interpretations which were inconsistent with it. He even went so far in what must be called a sincere dishonesty of misapprehension, as to insist on clinging to mistakes he had fallen into through using Bailly's Lyons edition of the "Conferences" (1628), which Bossuet had proved to be spurious.

Bossuet, on his side, admits that he had not previously read it properly, he only studied what seemed necessary to answer his opponent, and lacked that high complete knowledge of S. Francis's teaching as a whole which was necessary for taking a proper view of details and parts. Indeed he only then (1695) began those profounder studies of mystic theology which enabled him later to write his treatises on matters which to S. Francis, by the experience of sanctity more even than by the studies of a lifetime, were as familiar as the sights and sounds of home.

Hence it came about that while he easily justified the teaching of the Saint, he not only failed to give the full influence of his genius and authority to unassailably establish its triumphant reputation, but on the contrary he incidentally disparaged it. He says, for instance: "S. Francis is a great saint, and I have always maintained yhat his doctrine which is objected against us is entirely for us as to the matters in question: but we must not therefore make him infallible, and it cannot be forgotten that he has shown more good intention than knowledge on some points."

Fortunately Bossuet mentions these points, and the reader shall see directly Bossuet's entire misapprehension of the Saint's meaning, and meanwhile "it cannot be forgotten" that while Bossuet refused the title "infallible" to S. Francis, for whom no one claims it, he refused it to the successor of S. Peter to whose office it really belongs.

Bossuet says further: "According to the spirit of his time he had perhaps less read the Fathers than the modern Scholastics." Did Bossuet remember that he was speaking of the age of Sirmond, of Bellarmine, of Venerable Canisius, and, we may say, of Petavius? Francis was a master and a leader of his age, and, as is clear from this Treatise alone, was excellently versed both in the Fathers and the Scholastics, if any distinction is to be made between them.

In conclusion, Bossuet presumes to say: "In these places and in some others his theology might be more exact and his principles more sure . . . . one would not follow him in certain condescensions which I will not particularize." In this also it will be shown that Bossuet is most unjust, but for the present we may consider that he neutralizes his own objection, when in the same sentence he says: "As director of souls he is truly sublime." In answer to these attacks, Fenelon gladly changed places with Bossuet, but his hasty defence was not so complete as the charges were unwarranted and presumptuous.(1)

We shall briefly touch upon these controverted points as they occur among the difficulties of the Treatise. Of these difficulties Book I. contains by far the largest proportion, and we will give an abstract of this Book sufficiently complete to prevent the necessity, not indeed of studying it, but, of a too laborious study.(2)

In this first Book the Saint treats in general of the will and its affections, in particular of its chief affection, love, and of the will's natural inclination towards a sovereign love of God.

The first chapter is to show that the unity required for the beauty of that assemblage of perfections called man, lies in this, that all his powers are grouped round the will and subordinated to it. Then (c. 2) it is shown that the will exercises its authority in different ways, according to the different nature of human powers. It governs: (a) exterior movements, at its pleasure, like slaves; (b) the senses and corporal functions, by a certain management, like horses or hawks; (c) the fancy, memory, understanding, by direction and command, like wife and children, who are able to disobey if they choose; (d) the sensual appetite (c. 3), in the same manner as the last-named; it is still less under the will's control, but there is no moral guilt so long as the will refuses to consent to or adopt its wrong desires.

Then are described the twelve movements of this sensual appetite, -- viz., desire, hatred, hope, &c., which are called perturbations or passions. They are all forms of the chief, and, in a sense, the only passion, love. These passions are left in man on purpose to exercise his will. A universal experience, testified to in effect even by those who pretend to deny it, such as the Stoics, proves that these movements are necessary qualities of human nature.

Love being (c. 4) the root of the others their action is good or bad according as the love is rightly or wrongly placed. Nay the very will is bad or good according to its love; and its supremacy does not lie in this that it can reject all love, but in this that it can choose amongst the loves presented to it, by directing the understanding to consider one more favourably or more attentively than another.

In the will, now defined (c. 5) as "the reasonable appetite," there are affections, that is, movements or forms of love, similar to the passions of the sensual appetite. Having different and higher objects they often run counter to the passions, and the reasonable will often forces a soul to remain in circumstances most repugnant to its sensual inclinations.

These affections or tendencies of the will are divided into four classes according to their dignity, that is, the dignity of their objects:

  1. Natural affections, where the word natural is not used in opposition to supernatural (as in this sense the next class would also be natural), but to signify those first and spontaneous affections which by the very natural constitution of our reason arise from the perception of sensible goods. Indeed the word sensible exactly explains his use of the word natural, provided that we carefully remember that he is speaking not of the movements of the merely sensual appetite or concupiscence which are anterior to reason, but of our reasonable and lawful affections for sensible goods. Such are the affections we have for health, food, agreeable society.
  2. Reasonable affections, where it will now easily be understood that the word, which could be applied also to the preceding class, is restricted to those which are par excellence reasonable, that is, the affections which arise in the spiritual part of reason, from the light of nature indeed, but from the higher light of nature - such as the affections for the moral virtues.
  3. Christian affections, which spring from the consideration of truths of the Christian revelation, such as affections for poverty, chastity, heavenly glory.
  4. Divine, or (entirely) supernatural affections which God effects in us, and which tend to dim as known by a light entirely above that of nature. These supernatural affections are primarily three: love for the beautiful in the mysteries of faith, love for the useful in the promises of hope, and love for the sovereign good which is the Divinity.

The essential supremacy of divine love is proved (c. 6), and there follows a wondrous description in four chapters of the nature and qualities of love in general. Divine love or charity is not defined till chapter 13, and is not specifically described till the last chapter of Book II.

There are (c. 7) five points in the process of love:

  1. Natural affinity of the will with good.
  2. Delectation or complacency in it.
  3. A movement, following this complacency, towards union.
  4. Taking the means required for union.
  5. Union itself.(3)

It is in 2 and 3, complacency and movement, that love more properly consists, and most precisely in (3), the movement or outflowing of heart. Complacency has appeared to some to be the really essential point of love, but it is not so, because love is a true passion or affection, that is, a movement. Complacency spreads the wings, love actually flies. When the object loved is present and the lover has but to grasp it, the love is called a love of complacency, because complacency has no sooner produced the movement of love than it ends in a second complacency. When the object is absent, or, like God, not as present as it may become, the tending, advancing, aspiring movement is called a love of desire, that is, the cupidity of what we have not but hope to have.

After certain exquisite distinctions between various kinds of desires, he returns (c. 8) to the correspondence or affinity with good which is the root of love, and which consists not exclusively in resemblance, but in a certain relation between things which makes them apt to union for their mutual perfection.

Finally, coming to union and the means thereto, it is exquisitely proved (c. 9) that love tends to union but (c. 10) to a spiritual union, and that carnal union, instead of being an expression of true love or a help to it, is positively a hindrance, a deviation, a degradation.

The next two chapters (11,12) treat the important distinction between the two parts of the soul, the inferior and the superior. It will clear matters to notice that the Saint means the two parts of the reasonable soul, and that in the first two paragraphs of chapter 11 he simply says that his distinction does not refer to the soul as a mere animating principle, or, again, as the principle of that life which man shares with plants and animals. He speaks of the human soul as such, that is, as having the gift of reason.

Even the inferior part of the soul truly reasons and wills (so that his distinction of inferior and superior is not the distinction between concupiscence and reason), but it is inferior because it only reasons and wills according to data furnished by the senses: the superior part reasons and wills on intellectual and spiritual considerations. But it must be noticed that these considerations are not necessarily supernatural.

The distinction between the inferior and the superior part of the reasonable soul is quite independent of revelation: it rests on the distinction between what we have called the lower light of nature and that higher light which, for instance, heathen philosophers used, when, for love of country or moral virtue, they chose to submit to sensible pain or even to death which their lower reason would direct them to avoid. The existence of this lower reason is clearly shown in Our Blessed Saviour's prayer in the garden. Willing and praying are acts of reason, yet in this case they were acts of a lower reason which Christ permitted to manifest itself, but which had to give way to higher considerations.

Now the inferior part of reason forms by itself one degree of the reason, but the superior part has three degrees; in the lowest of which we reason according to higher natural light, or as the Saint calls it, "human sciences," in the next according to faith, and in the highest we do not properly reason, but, "by a simple view of the understanding, and simple acquiescence,"or assent, "of the will" we correspond with God's action, when he spreads faith, hope and charity in this supreme point of our reasonable soul.

The distinction corresponds exactly with that made in chapter 5, into natural, reasonable, Christian and divine. The Saint there spoke of affections or tendencies, he here speaks of reasonings and willings which are the fulfilment of those tendencies. We may remark here, as an instance of the superficial way in which Fenelon and Bossuet studied this Treatise, that they take a totally different ground of distinction in separating the soul into superior and inferior (viz., sensible perception and intellectual cognition), and yet do not perceive that they are differing from the Saint.(4)

To sum up (cc. 11, 12): in man there are some powers altogether below reason; and reason, which is of course one and simple in itself, has four degrees, according to the rank of the objects presented for its consideration and love, sensible things, spiritual things known by the light of nature, spiritual things known by the revelation of Christ, and spiritual knowledge communicated by the immediate communication of God's light. Between the last and the last but one there is not exactly a difference of rank in the objects, but a difference in clearness of perception and strength of acceptance.

Having finished this subject, which is to some extent a digression, the Saint returns to the consideration of love, and gives (c. 13) its two main divisions,--viz., love of cupidity when we love good for our own sake, and love of benevolence when we love good for its sake--i.e. love of self-interest and disinterested love.

He has already, in chapter 7, sub-divided the love of cupidity into love of benevolence and love of desire, according as the loved good is present or absent, and now he applies the same division and the same ground of division to the love of benevolence. This also is either a love of complacency or a love of desire according as the good is present to or absent from the person we love: we rejoice in the good he already has, we desire him the good he has not.

This double form of the love of benevolence, besides occurring frequently throughout, enters particularly into the structure of Book V., and is. importantly needed for the full understanding of Book VIII. It is necessary here to point out that whereas he has just placed the names complacency and desire under the generic head, benevolence, he afterwards uses the word benevolence, specifically, instead of desire, as if dividing benevolence into complacency, and benevolence proper. This use of the word in the sense of desire agrees with its etymology,--bene-volentia, bien-veuillance, well-wishing.

Cupidity alone is exercised in the inferior reason, but in the superior reason both find place. The love of God for his own sake which is necessary for eternal life belongs exclusively to the supreme degree of the superior reason, but the Saint teaches (as Bossuet has clearly shown against Fenelon) that there is a reasonable, high love of cupidity, that is, a love of God as good to us, even in the highest degree and supreme point of the spirit. This indeed is the precise motive of Christian hope, which must be kept subordinate to disinterested love, but can only be separated from it by abstraction and by a non-permanent act.

The love of benevolence is called friendship when it is mutual. This friendship has degrees. When it is beyond all comparison with other friendships, supereminent, sovereign, it is called charity-the friendship or mutual love of God and man.

The Saint shows (c. 14.) that to employ the word love instead of charity is not against the use of Scripture, and he mentions one reason for his preferring the word love which gives us an important help to the understanding of the Treatise. It is, he says, because he is speaking for the most part not of the habitual charity, or state of friendship between God and the soul in grace, but of actual charity, that is, of the acts of love which at once express and increase the state of charity. Even in the three following books, in which he is speaking of the formation, or progress, or loss, of habitual charity, he is still chiefly concerned with the acts by which this is done.

In the remaining four chapters preparation is made for the account of the communication of grace and charity to the soul. He shows (c. 15) that there is a natural amity of the soul with its God which is the root of love; that thus, by a glorious paradox, God and man need one another for their mutual perfection; that we have (c. 16) a natural inclination to love God above all things; that (c. 17) we cannot fulfil this inclination by natural powers; but (c. 18) that still the inclination is not left in our hearts for nothing, as it makes possible the communication of grace, and is the handle by which grace takes hold of us.

It is chiefly against these three chapters that Bossuet's animadversions are directed. He accuses the Saint of two errors:

  1. in saying (p. 61) that God would give grace to one who did his best by the forces of nature as certainly as he would give a further grace to one who corresponded with a first grace;
  2. of saying (p. 57) that, in the state of original justice our love of God would not be supernatural.

Fenelon misapprehends the Saint's meaning, and gives a very confused, imperfect answer to the two objections. The real answer to the first is that Bossuet is quite outside the question. S. Francis is not speaking of the step by which a man passes from the natural to the supernatural order, but of the process by which his natural inclination to love God above all things ripens into that actual love of him above all things which belongs still to the natural order.(5)

Bossuet falls into a somewhat similar error in his second objection. S. Francis is considering, separately, the natural love of God which those would have who might be in the state of original justice, who would, of course, by the very terms, have supernatural love. Not only is Bossuet's criticism ridiculously irrelevant, but his language, to ears which have heard the Saint declared "Doctor of the Church," sounds almost like impertinence. "What," he says, "would this humble servant of God have done if it had been represented to him that in the state of original justice we should have loved God supernaturally? Would he not have confessed that he was forgetting the most essential condition of that state?" And it is after these mistakes that Bossuet complacently observes: "These opinions rectify themselves in practice when the intention is good;" and "In some points his theology might be more exact and his principles more sure."

Book II. describes the generation of charity, which, being supernatural, must be created in the soul as a new quality. And after two introductory chapters, the remaining twenty are evenly divided between the history of the action of God in bestowing, and the action of man in appropriating this gift.

The two introductory chapters, which seem at first sight somewhat foreign to the subject of the book, are directed to put steadily and unmistakeably before us the truth that when theologians speak of many perfections, many acts, a most various order of decrees and execution, this is only according to the human method of viewing, and that our God is really but one perfection and one act, which is himself.

This truth is developed partly also to introduce a description of the perfections of the God of whose love the Saint is speaking. At the end of the Treatise he refers to these chapters as his chief treatment of the chief motive of love -- the infinite goodness of God in himself.

After this caution and preface, he begins (c. 3) his account of the action of God in the production of charity. He speaks, first, of God's providence in general, including under this title his actual providing or foreseeing, his creating, and his governance. Then (c. 4) he comes to the divine decree to create Christ's Humanity, angels and men for him, inferior creatures for men -- following here the Scotist teaching that Christ would have become man (though of course he would not have died) even if Adam had not sinned.

God decreed to create angels and man in the supernatural state of charity, and, foreseeing that some angels and the whole nature or race of man would fall from this state, God decreed to condemn the former, but to redeem the latter by his Son's death, making the state of redemption a hundred times better than the state of innocence.

God decreed (c. 6) special favours, such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for certain rare creatures who were to come nearest to his Son, and then for men in general an immense abundance and universal showers of grace, an all-illuminating light.

He gives a whole exquisite chapter (c. 8) to show the sincerity and strength of the desire God thus manifests that we should love him, and then comes (c. 9) to the effecting this desire by preventing our hearts with his grace, taking hold of our natural inclination to love him. We can (c. 10) repulse his grace, not because (c. 11) there is anything wanting in God's offer, but (c. 12) as an inevitable consequence of our having free-will; in case we accept it, we begin to mingle our action with God's.

Here we must remark that the Saint is not concerned with the sacramental action of God which creates or re-creates charity in the soul by baptism or penance, still less does he treat the semi-miraculous production of charity by Baptism in souls which have not yet the use of reason, but he speaks of the intellectual and moral process or set of acts by which a soul gifted with the use of reason is conducted from infidelity to faith and charity, he treats of the justification which is made by love even before the actual reception of a Sacrament.

Our first act under divine inspiration is (c. 13) the consenting to those first stirrings of love which God causes in the soul even before it has faith. Then (c. 14) comes the production of faith. This may follow after argument and the acceptance of the fact of miracles, but it is not precisely an effect of these.
Such things make truths of faith extremely credible, but God alone makes them actually believed. And the effect is from God not only in this sense that the extremest effort of natural intelligence could not attain to faith, but also because a moving of the will is required and is contained in the intellectual act of faith itself, what the Saint calls an affectionate sentiment of complacency in the beauty and sweetness of the truth accepted, so that faith is an acquiescence, an assent, an assurance. The Jews saw the force of the argument from Christ's miracles, but they did not assent to the conclusion because they loved it not. Hence faith includes a certain commencement of love in the will, but a love not as yet enough for eternal life.

Then (cc. 15, 16, 17) comes the production of hope, which brings yet closer to charity. As soon as faith shows the divine object of man's affections, there arises a movement of complacency and desiring love. This desire would be a torment to us unless we had an assurance that we might obtain its object. God gives this assurance by his promise, and this promise, while it makes desire stronger, causes at the same time a sense of calm which the Saint calls the "root" of hope.

From it spring two movements or acts of the soul, the one by which she expects from God the promised happiness, and this is really the chief element of hope -- esperer, the other by which she excites herself to do all that is required on her part -- aspirer. This aspiration is the condition but not the positive ground of our esperation (to coin a word). That is to say, we may not expect the fruition of God except in so far as we have a courageous design to do all we can; then, we may infalliby expect it, yet still ever from the pure mercy of God.

Hope, then, is defined "an expecting and aspiring love," or "the loving complacency we take in the expecting and seeking our sovereign good." It is then a distinct advance in love. Faith includes a beginning of love in the movement of the will though its real seat is the intelligence; hope is all love, and its seat is the will. However hope as such is still insufficient, because, however noble, it is a love of cupidity, and not that love of God for his own sake which is necessary for eternal life. By it we love God sovereignly, because we desire him above all other goods, yet our love is not sovereign, because it is not the highest kind of love. The Saint is of course speaking of the action of hope before charity. Hope remains also after charity, existing, as we have said, in the very heights of perfect love, and after charity its acts merit before those of every other virtue.

Then comes the production of penitence or repentance. He distinguishes (c. 18) first, a merely human repentance; secondly, a religious repentance belonging to the merely natural order; thirdly, a supernatural inferior repentance, which (c. 19) is good but insufficient; and fourthly (c. 20), perfect repentance, that is, sorrow for sin arising from the loving consideration of the sovereignly amiable goodness which has been offended thereby. This is not precisely charity, because charity is, precisely, a movement towards union, whereas repentance is, precisely, a movement of separation (from sin); but though it is not precisely charity and therefore has not the sweetness of charity, it has the virtue and uniting property of charity, because the object of its movement of separation from sin is union with God. In practice there is no means, or need, to distinguish, because perfect repentance is always immediately followed or preceded by charity, or else the one is born within the other.

The Saint then reminds us (c. 21) that all this has been done by the loving action of God's grace, which, after awakening our souls and inspiring them to pray has brought them through faith and hope to penitence and perfect love. In conclusion (c. 22) he describes charity.


1. For our authorities and full information on this important controversy we refer our readers to the admirable "Dissertation," by Baudry, in the supplementary volume (ix.) of Migne's edition of the "Works of S. Francis and S. Jane Frances." There is an anonymous dissertation in vol. vi. which bears on the same subject.
2. The following part of our Introduction -- viz., the analysis of Books i., ii., will probably be found more intelligible and useful after reading the Saint's text.
3. This division is the connecting chain of the whole Treatise, and it will be found that each Book treats of one or more of its parts. Thus the three following Books are on point 3, Book v. on point 2, Books vi.-ix. on points 4 and 5 (viz., union by affective and by effective love), x.-xii. on point 3.
4. Certain expressions on p. 50 require explanation. It is there said that in the superior part of the soul there are two degrees of reason--the answer is that the Saint for the moment puts out of consideration the lowest degree of the higher reason, and concerns himself with the two supernatural degrees. And a little lower down he speaks of the action of faith "in the inferior part of the soul," but he really means in the lower one of the two highest degrees.
5. It is true that elsewhere (Book iv. c. v.) S. Francis says, after S. Thomas and S. Francis Xavier, that God is sure to give grace to those who fulfil the natural law, but, since in the state of fallen nature the natural law itself cannot be fully observed without grace, there is already supposed in the hearts of such persons the existence of grace which draws the further grace. This the Saint expressly states (xi. 1).
6. "Four Essays on the Life and Writings of S. Francis de Sales," Essay III. p. 88.