One of the hallmarks of de Sales’ spiritual advice is high, challenging standards. Another hallmark is gentleness. He did not divorce the two notions. I had trouble narrowing my focus down to just one quote from this most excellent spiritual writer so here are a few to consider:
Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.
Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections.
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.
These snippets are written alongside mandates for the men and women who call themselves Christians to be exemplary in their moral choices, in the use of their time and talents, and in the practice of virtue. Reading St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual advice is like reading a dissertation on Jesus’ command to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Never does it become too much though, never more than a person can handle. For de Sales makes clear that to seek to be this living image of God also requires a kind realism. Realistically, know yourself. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Your passions. Your hopes. Your temptations. And lovingly, patiently cultivate your unique self.
You know when I have failed the most in living a life that glorifies Christ? When I have tried to ignore who I really am in order to be what I thought I needed to be. Inevitably, in such misguided efforts, I become exhausted and overwhelmed. I give up. I resent the real me for showing up yet again. What a pitiful way to live.
St. Francis de Sales knew better. He took the Lord’s words to heart: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). As yourself. Loving yourself is not a hippie or new age notion. No, it is rooted in the supreme reality of Christianity, that God loves you unconditionally and thus sacrificed Himself to save you. How logical then that I am deserving of love from myself and all others are deserving of love from me.
The standards, the virtues, and all that is encompassed by a God-glorifying life comes about in the day to day manifestation of that love. Love seeks the beloved’s greatest good. This is no less true when we are considering ourselves than when we are considering another person. So, “have patience with all things. But, first of all with yourself.”