St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) was a theologian, mystic, missionary, and spiritual director. He was also a prolific writer and the founder of a religious order. After a privileged upbringing and education in law and theology, he had rejected a lucrative personal and professional life in order to serve God as a priest. When he became Bishop of the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva, Switzerland—a place in which many Catholics had abandoned the True Faith—he converted as many as 70,000 souls.
Though he was accomplished and devoted in so many capacities, he was simply a bishop after Christ’s own heart: a man of action, incomparable zeal, and compassion for his flock. He combined a powerful intellect with an extraordinarily active apostolic life.
St. Francis was known as the “Gentleman Saint” for his spirit of gentleness and courtesy. A gifted writer and preacher, he was named a Doctor of the Church in 1877—particularly for the spiritual direction which his writings provided for lay people. He understood the demands of everyday life and knew how to guide souls to holiness in the midst of it.
Indeed, he had the extraordinary ability—as a highly-educated man—to write about lofty things in a simple, accessible way. His books can be read and enjoyed by the average layperson who've never had the chance to study theology.
I’d like to recommend five books that are filled with the gentle wisdom of this great saint.
1. The Art of Loving God
The Art of Loving God is a selection of conferences written down by the nuns of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. St. Francis de Sales had founded this order in partnership with St. Jane de Chantal and served as its spiritual director until his death. He visited as regularly as he could, and instructed these holy women in the simple virtues of everyday life—virtues that are so important for growing in holiness and flourishing in community. The nuns recorded his conferences and circulated them among the Visitation houses.
This edition has been edited in some places to address the needs of laypersons rather than religious sisters. Each individual conference is ideal for prayer and meditation.
The Art of Loving God is a simple and straightforward way to experience the wisdom and holiness of such a great saint.
2. Roses Among Thorns
Roses Among Thorns contains spiritual counsels culled from thousands of personal letters of St. Francis de Sales. These letters have been assembled into a guide for spiritual progress.
St. Francis kindly and clearly instructs his readers on such topics as how to place ourselves in the presence of God; how busy people ought to pray; how to handle vices, virtues and discernment; how to have charity and patience with your family; and what to do in times of dryness or restlessness.
If you find it challenging to stay focused on your faith while living in a noisy world, this practical book offers advice in a relatively quick-read format.
3. The Sign of the Cross
The Sign of the Cross comes from St. Francis’ courageous efforts to bring Protestants back to the True Faith during the Reformation. It is a powerful explanation and defense that traces the origins of the Sign of the Cross back to the Church Fathers, the Apostles, and Our Lord Himself.
St. Francis’s book helps the reader explore this brief but intensely meaningful “Sign,” which is both an exterior and interior prayer for all Catholics. It is an apologetics lesson, a history lesson, a defense of the faith, and a love letter to the Most Holy Trinity—written by one of the greatest spiritual advisors in the history of Christianity.
4. An Introduction to the Devout Life
An Introduction to the Devout Life reveals Francis’ gifts as a director of souls. It is, perhaps, his best known work.
St. Francis addresses his book to “Philothea,” which means “Lover of God.” That is to say, he writes for each soul devoted to the Lord and the pursuit of holiness. He leads his readers gently through what it means to live a devout life; shows us how to approach God in prayer and the Sacraments; and explains why we should cultivate sixteen particular virtues in order to better please and love God. He also suggests remedies to spiritual difficulties, encouragement for challenges, and meditations to orient us toward a life of truly becoming holy.
This book has rich content, and is best appreciated in small portions for prayer and meditation. I suggest keeping notes in order to reference important sections again and again, for it is—in every sense of the word—a true manual for the devout life.
5. Treatise on the Love of God
Treatise on the Love of God, according to St. Francis de Sales, was originally intended for spiritually-advanced souls. He said that his intention for this work was to “present the birth, progress, decay, operations, properties, advantages, and excellences of divine love.”
St. Francis wrote this treatise after years of direct contact with his brother bishops in Savoy, Rome, Geneva, and throughout France. At the time of its writing he was helping many priests, devout souls, and parishioners—in large cities, small towns, and isolated mountain regions. He had counseled and directed paupers and wealthy princes, and served as the spiritual director for Visitation nuns for six years. During that time, his understanding of holiness crystallized and matured.
This book illustrates that advancement. Written to “Theotimus,” which means “Honoring God,” it is a substantial work that addresses every imaginable topic related to God’s great love for us. It also tells us how we can grow in perfection so that we can strive to love Him as He deserves.
A Legacy of Practical Spirituality
The work of St. Francis de Sales has been remarkably fruitful. He wrote for humble followers of Christ who seek holiness in the context of everyday life—and his straightforward instruction is still relevant for us, almost 500 years later.
Why do his writings have such an impact? Because they are accessible. Why are they forever relevant? Because they encompass two important areas in which we must focus our efforts in order to become holy: the struggle against our lower natures, and the union of our wills to God’s.
Best of all, St. Francis gives readers specific steps toward spiritual growth and union with God’s most holy will. He knew that change, development, and growth manifest themselves over time, in the unique context of each soul and its vocation. That’s why he wrote with wide appeal to both the peasants and the princes of his time.
Yes, the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales is an incredible gift to the Church, to souls, and to generations of the faithful who can now benefit from his timeless wisdom, legacy, and intercession.
What are your struggles with deepening your spiritual life in the midst of a busy schedule?
How do you think St. Francis de Sales can help you in this regard?
Has he already helped you in a powerful way? Share your story with us in the comments below!