St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, which I have been reading lately, arose out of correspondence he had with a woman who was looking for help in living out the life of a Christian amidst the secular world. If anything, the book has become only more valuable since then, as secular culture is more hostile to Christianity today than it was in the 16th century.
In Book V, Chapter 10, he describes in beautiful, almost poetic terms, the soul’s search for happiness in sin, and in God. I suspect that anyone who has ever searched for lasting happiness apart from God will be able to relate with his description of the insufficiency of that happiness. But Francis’ tone isn’t one of condemning sinners, but of calling them to more — calling them, in fact, to Jesus Christ:
Simon Vouet, Heavenly Charity (c. 1640)
your soul is possessed of a noble will,
capable of loving God,
irresistibly drawn to that love;
your heart is full of generous enthusiasm,
and can no more find rest in any earthly creation,
or in aught [anything] save God,
than the bee can find honey on a dunghill,
or in aught save flowers.
Let your mind boldly review
the wild earthly pleasures
which once filled your heart,
and see whether they did not abound
in uneasiness and doubts,
in painful thoughts and uncomfortable cares,
amid which your troubled heart was miserable.
When the heart of man seeks the creature,
it goes to work eagerly,
expecting to satisfy its cravings;
but directly it obtains what it sought,
it finds a blank,
begins to seek anew;
for God will not suffer our hearts to find any rest,
like the dove going forth from Noah’s ark,
until it returns to God, whence it came.
Surely this is a most striking natural beauty in our heart; why should we constrain it against its will to seek creature love?
St. Augustine describes this same reality, at the beginning of his autobiography, The Confessions, when he prays, “You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”
|Philippe de Champaigne, Saint Augustine (c. 1650)|
And note what Francis and Augustine have in common. Both of them are acknowledging that, all too often, we turn from God in pursuit of some fleeting pleasure that leaves us unsatisfied. But rather than condemning our hearts for their foolishness, these great Saints view this as a sign of the value of our hearts. As Francis says above, our dissatisfaction in anything short of God isn’t a punishment, but “a most striking natural beauty in our heart.” And he wrote this as a reminder of “how noble and excellent a thing your soul is.”
In fact, it’s precisely because our hearts and souls are so valuable that we know two things: (1) that there will be competition for them, from unworthy suitors [sin, and the pleasures of the world]; and (2) that the only suitor worthy of our heart and soul is their Maker, our God. St. Francis’ advice is to remind your soul of its worth:
“You are capable of realising a longing after God, why should you trifle with anything lower? you can live for eternity, why should you stop short in time? One of the sorrows of the prodigal son was, that, when he might have been living in plenty at his father’s table, he had brought himself to share the swine’s husks. My soul, you are made for God, woe be to you if you stop short in anything short of Him!” Lift up your soul with thoughts such as these, convince it that it is eternal, and worthy of eternity; fill it with courage in this pursuit.
Indeed, why would we ever content ourselves with anything less than God? To do so would be to settle for less than our own God-given worth.